Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The U.S. as the unexamined alternative

It's said that Americans as a whole know nothing outside of their own borders, and having grown up in that country to the south of us, I can't disagree. The U.S. is a remarkably insular country with an equally insular political culture, in which the American way is not just the best way of doing something, it's the only way. Never mind that the Germans or the Spanish or the Swiss may have figured out an innovative way of solving an institutional problem the U.S. has been grappling with for decades--American lawmakers are probably never going to know about it. And in the rare times that they do, they'll marvel at it but never take it seriously as a potential solution for back at home.

Canadians, though, aren't much better. This is because Joe Canadian's world may be slightly expanded from that of the Americans, but it's only expanded enough to include the United States. Ask him about how things work in the U.S., and he can probably muddle through a mostly-correct explanation, but ask him about the education system in Denmark, the health care system in France, or the voting system in New Zealand, and he won't be able to tell you any more than Joe American can. In fact, he would probably be hard-pressed to find these countries on a map. And this only-slightly-expanded insularity affects Canadian political culture as well, since every reform of our institutions is presented as a choice between the traditional Canadian way and the American way. It's better in Canada? Well, then we'd better keep doing it our way lest we end up like the Americans! It's better in the U.S.? Well, by golly, we'd better start doing what they're doing, and as soon as possible!

The definition of 'better' depends on the ideology of the government in power, of course, but the rationale is eerily the same every time. In a Conservative-run Canada, this means proposed reforms like electing the Senate, fixing election dates, and putting Supreme Court appointments before Parliament. But the same reasoning explains the Liberal approach to institutions like health care and higher education, where they look at the U.S., decide they don't want to be like that, and defend the status quo on those grounds. Where are the Canadian parliamentarians championing Australian solutions, or Swedish ones, or Dutch ones? And where are the Canadian voters who are clamouring for those reforms?

I figure that Canadians must have on some level bought into the American "we're the best country in the world" strutting, because they seem to believe that all they have to do to be the best country in the world is prove that they're better than the Americans, and then they're home free. But the sooner people realize that the goal of being better than the U.S. is an unambitious one on a good day, the sooner we can really start finding the best possible ways of addressing the defects in our institutions.


Anonymous said...

Harsh truth.

I'd like to disagree with you, but I really can't.

M@ said...

I agree with you completely when it comes to understanding and continuing to better our domestic policies.

However, it's totally different when it comes to our foreign policy, and that's a big difference. Obviously we don't have the power to swagger around like the USA. But at least we know that there's a whole world of differing opinions out there, and we try to come to grips with that when we're figuring out what we should be doing out there.

It's why we do the peace-keeping, and the USA does the imperial stuff, I'd hazard. And I think John Kerry's "international test" statement in the 04 debates resonated with most Canadians, while the right wing response ("international test!? for US!? For god's sake why? We're the USA!!!") mystified us.

(On the peacekeeping front, I'll add Afghanistan notwithstanding -- and I'm sure that if Canadians had a clearer idea of what we're doing there, more would be against our involvement there too.)

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Yeah, I'm not sure I buy that. My read is that what prevents Canada from swaggering around isn't that we know that "there's a world of differing opinions out there"--do you really think Joe Canadian could name what some of those differing opinions are?--but because it would run counter to Canadian culture to behave that way. Why we do the peace-keeping and the U.S. does the imperial stuff is a cultural difference, and to do things according to the way your culture dictates them, you don't have to look beyond the boundaries of your little world.

It so happens that I prefer Canadian culture on this, as I do on many things. But that doesn't mean Canada is any less insular than the United States.

KevinG said...

Whoa there girl! We only tell the truth 'bout 'mericans in these parts.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Heh. Then you're reading the wrong blog, man. ;-)

KevinG said...