Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Packing your bags vs. erecting a firewall

Among the American centre-left, one of the coherent narratives that emerged through the teeth-grinding and wailing after Bush's reelection was "I'm going to move to Canada." For some it seemed to be simply a way of venting frustration, while for others it was probably quite serious, but either way the sentiment was strong enough to cause a backlash, with progressive writers making up lists of the top ten reasons not to do it. I did my part by offering up unsolicited advice from someone who's been there, but mostly I just I found it sad and yet fascinating to watch, in a "boy, am I glad I'm not you" sort of way. What Americans may not realize, though, is that a similar sort of thing is going on right now for Canadian right-wingers. It started after the 2004 federal election when the Liberals managed to win despite the whiff we were already getting of their current scandal, and it only got stronger when the current government managed to survive the May 19th no-confidence vote.

The right-wingers are politically and ideologically my diametric opposites, and yet can't help feeling a sort of affinity for them thorough this--I am, after all, no stranger to political disenfranchisement. It's not an easy thing to be a Canadian right-winger. The closest thing they've got to a fit with their preferred policies--the Conservative party--seems permanently stuck at no higher than 30% in the polls, the same old "scary" memes haunt them no matter how far left they veer, and their archenemies, the Liberals, seem to have a lock on power even through what is arguably the worst corruption scandal in Canadian history. I know just how that sort of thing feels: you want to scream WHY as loudly as you can, or at least shake the other side until they start making sense to you. So despite myself, I find myself nodding and sympathizing when I listen to them, right up until the point where they start talking, not about emigration, but about secession. at which point my evidently still far-too-American brain goes: "what the ... what?"

As with the American liberals, some of them are clearly only seeking a valve for their frustration (see the comments sections here, here, here and here, and things like this post and this Café Press shop), while others sound quite serious indeed. But I find it quite puzzling that both the knee-jerk and the reasoned responses centre not on removing oneself from a less-than-optimal sociopolitical situation, but on removing entire regions. Despite the fact that there's a culturally and geographically similar country nearby that already encompasses many of the conservative values they espouse (and a free trade agreement with that country that makes moving there comparatively easy), I'm not hearing a single angry voice shouting about how they're going to up and move down to Bush country. Not a single acquaintance, not a single blogger, not a single journalist.

See, the much-reviled "love it or leave it" sentiment has always made a certain amount of sense to me. Not in an angry, "how dare you breathe the same air as a True Patriot" sort of sense, but as a calm, reasoned response to social and political disenfranchisement. If you don't love the country you live in, why wouldn'tyou leave it, or at least give it some serious thought? I left, and it was one of the smartest moves I've ever made. Secession as an answer to political disenfranchisement, by contrast, seems like an attempt to use a chainsaw to perform brain surgery. Not only would the end result probably be a series of bloody civil wars, assuming you actually got that far, but it also just seems like it's a ridiculously difficult goal to try to achieve, especially for Canadian right-wingers. Public opinion isn't exactly on their side (even in the region they're proposing should secede), and even if it were, there are all sorts of legal roadblocks that would make actual success extremely difficult if not impossible.

For an armchair anthropologist like me, especially one who's already been through a lot of the thought processes involved in situations like this and come up with a very different solution, this is a fascinating cultural difference. And yet the explanations that immediately leap to mind are cliché-laden and full of holes. While Americans are Rugged Individualists who Remember Their Immigrant Roots, Canadians Think More As a Collective. (I hardly think the independent-minded right-wing Albertans would agree with that characterization.) Americans are Generally More Mobile, and therefore More Willing To Think of Moving as a Solution Than Those Stay-Put Canadians. (While there may be some truth to that, that hardly seems to be an adequate explanation, especially given that Canadians actually tend to travel more to other countries than Americans, not less.) Any pat answers like that are necessarily going to ring false, because getting at the roots of this difference involves teasing out the answers to four questions: one, why don't the Canadian right-wingers talk about emigration; two, why do they talk about separation; three, why don't the American left-wingers consider secession; and four, why do they consider emigration.

I don't think I have a complete handle on it, but I think a lot of the difference lies in the two countries' rather different cultural histories. While the Americans already had their bloody civil war, Canadians haven't "been there, done that," and are therefore possibly less likely to reject secession out of hand. The American left also already had the experience, during the Vietnam War, of fleeing to Canada and being taken in, so there's precedent there. And on the Canadian side of the coin, there's the Quebec model--many westerners, even those who would never support secession, react to the entire "distinct society" concept by saying: "well, but we're a distinct society, too!", and there's a federal party with an awful lot of seats in Parliament based entirely around the notion of Quebec separation. Disenfranchised western right-wingers may see the Quebec separatists' success--not in terms of actually achieving their goals, but at least in terms of using them as a powerful political tool--and think: "Why can't we have some of that, too?" By contrast, historical reasons why Canadians have gone to the U.S. have been economic rather than ideological: along the lines of "nurses get paid more down there, so I'm going to go work there for a while," and since so much of the Canadian identity is tied up in not being American, few would consider it as a permanent move. And in the U.S., while there may be plenty of jokes about Jesusland, there's never been a serious movement for, say, an independent California.

I'm sure there are a lot of factors I'm missing, though, so I'd love to hear from you if you have further thoughts. I am endlessly fascinated by this, and I think I'm only just beginning to understand it.

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