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Impearls: Canada and Sweden vis-a-vis the United States

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Earthdate 2003-12-04

Canada and Sweden vis-a-vis the United States

Jeff Jarvis, writing in Buzz Machine, has a piece “A non story, overplayed, eh?” concerning news from the New York Times that Canada and the U.S. are different.  As Jeff says:

Robertson Davies, the essential Canadian author, always said that Canada had less in common with American than with Scandinavia and I agreed with him.  The story is thus way overplayed.  But what's most disturbing is that it continues this media meme: Europe v. America, Europe as a touchpoint for social sensibility:  “A more distinctive Canadian identity — one far more in line with European sensibilities — is emerging and generating new frictions with the United States.”  Europe is being presented, even in the pinnacle of American media, as the new norm.

American leftists' concept of Sweden and some other European nations as epitomes of socialist perfection has always mystified and astounded me.  A perfect comeback to this conceit (bringing Canada into the relative mix as well as Sweden) was offered, not by a conservative, or a “capitalist,” but by one of the most respected of American socialists, Michael Harrington, via an interview broadcast shortly after his death, in 1989, on the MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour.  Here's what Harrington had to say (I'll include his whole interview for context; it's not very long): 1

Robert MacNeil:  Finally, tonight, we remember political activist Michael Harrington, who died yesterday; he was 61 years old.  Harrington began his career as a leftist political organizer, author, lecturer, and teacher in the early 50s.  He became co-chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America in 1983.  Among his books was The Other America: Poverty in the United States, published in 1962; it was widely viewed as helping set the scene for the Johnson Administration's War on Poverty.  I spoke with Harrington a year ago, when he was already suffering from the cancer that led to his death.  I asked why he thought socialism had never caught on in the United States.

Michael Harrington:  I think that's very complicated, but to just tick off a number of the reasons:

Number one, we're a presidential country, not a parliamentary country.  In Canada, so much like us, there's a socialist party which in the polls right now is at about 28-29 percent, which has been 20 percent or better for years.  In part that's because in Canada you can vote for your socialist candidate for Parliament, and he or she can then affect the Executive in the Parliament.

Number two:  Because the United States in the period when most European workers were becoming socialist, which was the period roughly from 1880 to 1914, in the United States that was the period in which it was more important that you were Catholic, Protestant or Jewish, white or black, Italian, Irish, etc.  That is to say, our race, our ethnicity, all of those complexities made it difficult to develop a class consciousness when people were much more ethnically and religiously and racially conscious.

Finally, the most complex of all, in my opinion.  There's a sense in which I think America is the most socialist country on the face of the earth right now — which is one of the reasons we don't have a socialist movement.  By that I mean that the United States I think has always been one of the most egalitarian, open, non-deferential societies.  We've never had any real Tories — any real conservatives — in America.  One of the reasons that Canada has a socialist movement is that our Tories went to Canada after the Revolution, and sat around and told the workers that they were human refuse: that they were no good!  And one of the things that generates socialist consciousness is having a bunch of upper-class snobs trying to push people down — we've never had it.  And, I think, in a crazy way — socially — I've always thought that America is really much more socialist than Sweden!

MacNeil:  You have been an influential commentator on the state of America from the time your first book The Other America, dealing with American poverty, was published.  These thirty years later, how do you see the condition of America now?

Harrington:  Oh, I think it's better.  That is to say, I find that the 80s under Reagan were nowhere near as bad as the 50s with Joe McCarthy and the 50s under Eisenhower.  The students have not been totally cowed.  We have not forgotten the poor.  I think the media have done a good job; I think the media have really… everybody knows about homelessness!  You don't need a book about the “invisible poor,” I mean you can't miss the homeless any more.

So, I think that the consciousness of America is in fairly good shape, and the conscience of America is in fairly good shape, that's why I'm optimistic.  I think we have gone through an interregnum, with a President who was enormously popular as an individual, but not as a thinker — if you can call Reagan a thinker in any way, shape, or form.  And I think that now there's a sense that let's get on with it, let's begin to deal with these problems.  We just can't have these people lying out on the streets.  And that means we have to deal with the problem of housing; that means we have to deal with the problem of the working poor.  Many, many of the homeless are working poor people, they're not welfare poor people.

So, I … I happen to be an almost sentimental patriot.  I love this country very, very much.  I think this country has got a very decent heart.  Sometimes its head upsets me, but not its heart.  And I think we're about to enter a period where its head might get halfway as good as its heart.

So, American leftists and socialists, when one of America's best respected socialists declares that from his point of view, “I think America is the most socialist country on the face of the earth right now […]; in a crazy way — socially — I've always thought that America is really much more socialist than Sweden!”, what then does this imply for those European (and Canadian) socialist wonderlands?  As for Canada latching more strongly onto those European models, from Michael Harrington's viewpoint this merely means Canada is getting back to its inegalitarian roots.


1 Robert MacNeil interview with Michael Harrington, PBS MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour, broadcast 1989-08-02.

UPDATE:  2003-12-11 20:30 UT:  Mark Steyn had a reader inquire of him concerning the very same New York Times article that Michael Harrington's words were turned into responding to above.  It's interesting, I think, how Steyn's reply extends and amplifies Harrington's, even though Michael's an American socialist, speaking a decade and a half ago, whereas Mark is a modern-day Canadian conservative. 

Steyn doesn't provide permanent archival links to his articles (tsk tsk), so for context I'll include the full text of his piece, which is called “The Great Divide” (love that title!).

Mark's reader asked him:  “I know what all the manifest differences are [between Canada and the Europeans versus the United States] (the nanny state, PC, foreign policy, etc) but what is really at the heart of this fundamental (and historic) split in the Western world?  I realize that the same split also divides the USA itself in many ways.  If you had to sum it up in a paragraph, what would it be?”

In reply, Steyn wrote:

If you look at it objectively, the two countries are bound to have diverged somewhat and to diverge further.  This continent was originally settled by men and women of similar stock some of whom had a falling out with the Crown, some of whom stayed loyal.  But that aside, the two halves of North America had much in common.  What's happened in the last 40 years is that the Liberal Party reinvented the old Britannic Dominion of Canada as an explicitly un-American project: mere political policies — socialized health care, gun control, peacekeeping — were elevated to indispensable components of Canadian identity, as if they date back to the 18th century rather than the 1960s.

Furthermore, since Quebec separatism established itself as a permanent component in Canadian politics, what old-time Brit military types still call “the senior Dominion” has ceased to be an effective part of the Anglosphere.  Britain and Australia fought alongside the US in Iraq, but Canada, being semi-French, is a semi-detached member of the Anglosphere.  The disproportionate influence of Quebec in Canadian life means that its particular characteristics — post-Christian secularism, pacifism, anti-Americanism — are amplified nationally.  Take Quebec out of the equation, and anglophone Canadians were comparatively supportive of American policy in Iraq.

But even that's changing.  Canadian immigration policy is designed to shore up the Liberals' re-invention of Canada: the principal sources of US immigration (Latin America) and Canadian immigration (the Islamic world, Eastern Europe) widen the differences still further.  During the last three decades, as Americans have become more conservative, Canadians have moved closer to a European Union social democracy that somehow wound up on the wrong continent.

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