The New Yorker‘s Adam Gopnik has an essay in the forthcoming May 15 issue that looks back at the American revolution and wonders if we’ve hopelessly romanticized it. The revolution, he writes, can be understood as the New World edition of a “much larger political quarrel throughout the British Empire” between radical reformers and “intellectuals and aristocrats” committed to a robust, efficient, and profitable empire. The first gave us the USA; the second gave us Canada.
Gopnik (like myself) has lived in both places. He writes: “Our northern neighbor’s relative lack of violence, its peaceful continuity, its ability to allow double and triple identities and to build a country successfully out of two languages and radically different national pasts: all these Canadian virtues are, counterintuitively, far more the legacy of those eighteenth-century authoritarian reformers than of the radical Whigs.”
And with an eye on our current White House, he goes on to say: “A government based on enthusiasm, rather than on executive expertise, needs many things to be enthusiastic about. Whig radicalism produces charismatic politics—popular politics in a positive sense, and then in a negative one, too. This is the Achilles’ heel of radical Whiggism, and we know that it is its Achilles’ heel because one day it produces an Achilles, and the next a heel.”
Like anything Gopnik writes, “We Could Have Been Canada” deserves to be read. But there’s one point he doesn’t make that I’d like to add. It’s the historical factor whose weight I cannot measure, but whose heft I know.
Canada is Canada not simply because of how it came to be, but where it is. Sharing a transcontinental border with us, Canada is self-consciously not the United States. The more egregiously Americans act, the more reasonable Canadians want to be. I missed the McCarthy era because I was living in Canada then; you’d think so-called Soviet double agents would have been just as single-minded about destroying Canadian democracy from within as American democracy, but Canadians just couldn’t get worked up over the possibility. I think they felt the U.S. had that particular hysteria covered.
It must be like having an older brother who’s a psychopathic genius. On his good days, you feel embarrassed to be so ordinary. On his bad days, you think it’s nice to be sane. We have Trump; they have Trudeau.
I think these are pretty nice days in Canada.
FOOTNOTE: For the past several years I’ve been working part-time for the Reader. Anyone old enough to remember the McCarthy era needs a rest, so I’m cutting back even further. I’ll offer occasional pieces such as this one to the Reader, but at my own request I’m no longer on staff and therefore out from under any formal obligation. In the coming weeks the Reader will be looking for someone new to write daily for the Web on a variety of topics, including on the media, the beat I’ve nominally covered since I joined the paper in 1979.