Blogs > Cliopatria > A view from up North

Mar 22, 2005 7:52 am

A view from up North

I have been ruminating much lately on the myriad forms of obliviousness that mark American reactions to Canada. On the one hand, Americans, whether the media, government or individuals, pay little attention to news here, and do not seem to look to Canada as an alternate laboratory of social policy. On the other hand, Americans look benignly on Canada as being somehow their own, and not a foreign country at all.

An example of the first tendency I note in the fact that the current student strikes in Quebec have attracted not the least attention south of the border. Since late February, some 230,000 students in Universities and CEGEPS (2-year college-level institutions) have gone out on strike to protest hikes in tuition and the cutting of $103 million in scholarships. This is a level of student activism not seen in North America since the 1960s. For example, the entire student body at my institution, UQAM, is on strike. Other campuses have been hit by one-day solidarity strikes. In early March, students even occupied the office of Quebec’s Minister of education! (In addition to articles I the GLOBE AND MAIL, there is an excellent summary of the situation by an American observer at McGill University here). On the one hand, I feel like I am caught in a time warp or a surreal world when students explain the havoc that will occur if tuition reaches $2000 CAD per semester. On the other hand, an estimated 70 percent of students rely on grants or loans to pay their tuition, and debt levels, while not astronomical by American private university standards, can be substantial. We Americans should watch this situation closely, as the extraordinary cost of college tuition and the absurd debt burden it is causing out young people is a problem that will have to be dealt with sooner or later.

An example of the other kind of obliviousness is the shameless interference of American right-wing groups in Canada’s internal affairs. It will be remembered that during the 1996 campaign the Republicans raised charges about the Democrats taking money from noncitizens, forcing the implementation of a restrictive policy. In the 2004 election, the British newspaper THE GUARDIAN invited Europeans to write to voters in Ohio to express their feelings about the election. This caused thundering editorials from the conservative press about foreign influence and attempts to sway voters. Now reports come that the Knights of Columbus have invested $80,000 to print out postcards that are to be shipped to Canada in order to oppose the same-sex marriage bill now before Parliament, and that the anti-abortion and anti-Gay group Focus on the Family is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in sponsoring copycat groups in Canada. (I recommend the recent MONTREAL GAZETTE article on the subject,which is accessible here).

The extraordinary lengths to which Religious Right groups will go, and the hypocrisy with which they defend American sovereignty while violating that of their neighbors, make me think that old Patrick Buchanan was right that we have entered a cultural war, but one against Christian fundamentalism, and that that it is a foe which respects no national borders.

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Caleb McDaniel - 3/24/2005

I also don't mind being confused with Rob, though it pangs the heart even to imagine that I'm getting ready to move to a t-t position in Ontario.

It seems characteristic not just of Canadians, but almost everyone, to think they know everything about America -- including Americans. There is an essay in the recent Tom Bender collection, _Rethinking American History in a Global Age_, which speaks of an "offshore America" -- an imagined America that insinuates itself into a variety of different national histories. Part of the reason why there is an "offshore America" has to do with the fact that America has always been tied up with notions of itself as a universal nation -- in some ways, we invite other countries to know all about us, so we shouldn't be surprised when they act like know-it-alls.

So ... it is not just Protestant American Christians who think that "America" spills beyond the boundaries of the United States -- that kind of American exceptionalism is held by a large number of Americans and non-Americans alike. (Although the number of non-American American exceptionalists seems to be dwindling ...). On the other hand, American exceptionalism has always been tied up with providential ideas about America's destiny, so it could be that patriotic Christians would be particularly committed to a particular image of "offshore America."

Ralph E. Luker - 3/24/2005

Rob, That's the characteristically smart kind of reading of things that we need from you at Cliopatria. When I taught near the Canadian border, I recall preferring to listen to the Canadian media, thinking that it gave me a perspective on international and North American affairs that I just couldn't get from media in the States. As a political junky, I recall also enjoying watching the telecast of a Progressive Conservative convention when the party was choosing a new leader and comparing it with our national party conventions, which have become increasingly meaningless as political actions. But it's true that we know very little about Canada and ought to know more. That's one reason I was hoping that the higher ed reporter would follow up on Greg's post about the strike. I get some sense of some Canadians' thinking they know all about us from a friend from high school who fled to Toronto from the draft in the Viet Nam era. When we had our 40th re-union in 1998, he returned to the states for the first time in 25 years. He knew that he hated the US and was very articulate about why he hated it. His feelings were complicated and understandable in a lot of ways, since he'd had to leave the US and was barred from returning for many years. And, yet, there was so little empathy in him for those of us who remain and who do work and hope for a better US.

Rob MacDougall - 3/24/2005

Melissa: I’m quite happy to be confused with Caleb. As a general rule of thumb, if the person in question has posted recently, it’s probably not me!

I do hope to have more to say on Canada-U.S. questions when I return to Ontario, especially as my job will entail teaching Canadian students who have elected to major in United States studies. I'm afraid I can't comment on Greg's post about the student strikes in Quebec; I've been consuming essentially the same CanCon-free diet of American media as all my American colleagues for the last ten years.

On the subject of American obliviousness to Canada, I would only say this: it is absolutely true that most Americans know next to nothing about Canada and Canadian affairs. Most Americans, though, (and I am only generalizing from my own experience, of course) are cheerfully quick to admit that ignorance (finding little shame in a trait so ubiquitous), and are eager to be educated, at least until their attention wanders elsewhere. An unfortunate number of Canadians, by contrast, BELIEVE they know everything there is to know about the United States, and cannot be told differently. I have wondered at times which attitude is more admirable.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/23/2005

In my defense, I actually see the problem of naming these movements as a global one, not a particularly American one, encompassing Israeli, Indian, Indonesian, and Iranian movements (and that's just the "I" list!) among others.

Though it might not look it from our normal run of discussions, I do think about things before I post sometimes, and I'm still trying to figure out what, if anything, I can say about the student strike (besides "wow" and "hmmm"), particularly given the moves by my own institution (and the whole state system) to raise in-state tuitions dramatically (50-100% over five years depending on the institution) and the relatively anemic responses thus far from our citizenry and students.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/23/2005

Don't be mortified. We're delighted to have you here.

Melissa Ann Spore - 3/23/2005


Typos and the wrong name! My first HNN post & I'm mortified.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/23/2005

Ms. Spore, I apologize if my comments mis-directed attention away from Canada. In fact, I called Professor Robinson's post to the attention of an important reporter about higher education affairs in hope of it leading to a significant article on the student strike in Quebec, which has had little attention here in the States. One correction to your comment, my colleague, Rob MacDougall -- not Caleb McDaniel, will be resettling in Ontario from Cambridge.

Melissa Ann Spore - 3/23/2005

It's intersting that the comments are directed at one term and its US interpretation.. A fine example of how Canada so quickly drifts away from the consciousness of Americans.

I'm always enlightened by comments from Ralph Luker & Jonathan Dresner, but the silence on the news from Canada interests me more.

Pehaps when Caleb gets settled in Ontario, he and Greg can provoke some discusion of things NOrthern.

That's my cntribution from Saskatchewan.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/22/2005

Some of us in the States would welcome UCC interloping -- _anything_ to get a handle on drug prices. I'm on hormone therapy for prostate cancer and on other medications for colitis which was probably caused by failed radiation therapy that was intended to control the former. Occasionally, I take a look at what the drug company charges for one or the other of the medications. Mostly, I don't look, for fear I'll have a heart attack.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/22/2005

Part of the problem is that, if fundamentalism is truly a Protestant phenomena, there is no generalized term for this flavor of religious coalition.

"Selective social morality literalists" seems about right, but who wants to write that on a regular basis? We do need a term for it, though, becuase it is a dramatic and important phenomenon, including Muslim, Jewish, and Christian "purists" based on selective contemporary readings of biblical texts. Hmm. Puritanism is taken, isn't it? Illiteralism? (combining literalism and illiteracy? not nice, I suppose)

"Religious Right" is just too flabby a term, and the whole right-left thing is such a humpty-dumptyism. We're coming up on a point that the abortion debate still sometimes stumbles on: anti-abortion/pro-life/seamless garment/pro-choice/pro-abortion....

Greg James Robinson - 3/22/2005

Your point about the K of C is well taken, though as the article suggests, it is combined with efforts of Protestant groups (the alliance between right-wing Catholics and Protestants with anti-Catholic backgrounds is still a wonder to me). It is not simply a matter of international Catholic solidarity. In any case, let us consider the converse; conscientious laymen from the United Church of Canada, as part of their mission to support human life, send advisers on speaking tours teaching Americans how to lobby for their states to buy low-cost Canadian drugs. They would be viewed at best as interlopers.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/22/2005

You're doing it, Greg. One of the favorite things and most egregious errors, if I may say so, that some secular historians, particularly of the left, do is to characterize all behavior by religious communities that they are unsympathetic with is to call it "fundamentalist." Christian fundamentalism in the United States, at least, is a very distinct thing. _Primarily_, it is Protestant. That rules the Knights of Columbus out. I suppose that _opus dei_ could be regarded as a sort of Catholic fundamentalism, but it's a very different religious animal from what is rightly regarded as fundamentalism in the United States.
The latter is a 20th century heresy with fairly shallow roots, primarily in 19th century Calvinism. The Knights of Columbus are just doing what conscientious Catholic laymen think they should be doing and, since it is an international order, it isn't clear to me that this needs to be regarded as an imperialist venture from the States that crosses suspiciously over international boundaries. I can understand that you find it offensive. But I don't know that the offense lies either in its being peculiarly fundamentalist or peculiarly of the United States. The Knights are simply promoting official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and they largely get handed down by a Polish primate in the heart of Italy.

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