LIVING AMONG THE POLITELY VIRTUOUS
AS THE ANDREW POTTER SAGA ILLUSTRATES, THERE ARE NO UNIQUE FAILINGS IN CANADA
The saga of Andrew Potter at McGill, who resigned (forcibly?) from the headship of the Institute for the Study of Canada after writing a column that characterized Quebec as “an almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society,” hardly needs more comment. So please excuse these related observations.
The original column in Maclean’s prompted an immediate social media firestorm, and there has been plenty of analysis afterward, the best of which — no surprise! — appeared in these pages.
William Watson reminded us of all the complexities at play: “Modern university types are sensitive and deferential, usually to a fault. Whether rightly or wrongly, whether excessively or not, McGill tries very hard not to give offence. Language, culture, national malaises are, if you’ll forgive mixed metaphors, a minefield of eggshells we have to tiptoe across.”
Prof. Watson has spent more time in university administration (decades) than I, who have spent my entire adult life on the receiving end of administrative decisions as a student and lecturer. My view is that “modern university types” are generally supine and default to pre-emptive capitulation to whoever is most cross with them, always if they have money (benefactors) or control it (government). The idea that the leadership of a university threw its principles overboard in a public controversy struck me as hardly newsworthy, a dog-bites-man story.
But we don’t yet know what happened exactly, and while Professor Watson thinks Potter should have stayed on, Barbara Kay thinks he was right to go.
Andrew Coyne raised a more interesting question, whether a society — a collective — can have vices.
“We are urged at all times to consider Quebec’s uniqueness,” Coyne wrote. “Very well. But if that uniqueness includes unique virtues — perhaps even that sense of social solidarity Potter called into question — it is not impossible that it could also embrace unique vices.”
Exactly five years ago, a new archbishop was appointed for Montreal. A reporter from the Montreal Gazette called me up for her story. She clearly knew nothing about the Catholic Church. Had I told her that Man in His World — the Expo 67 site — was where the archbishop lived, rather than the cathedral of Mary, Queen of the World, she would have happily that I was talking about charity. So the interview ended and she didn’t make much use of my comments.
The exchange reflected the premise at the heart of the Potter controversy. My interviewer assumed that Quebecers have certain characteristics, for example, a looser approach to traditional morality on marriage and family questions. This is automatically taken to be a good thing, and therefore part of the distinctiveness that should be not only accommodated but celebrated, even by institutions that propose a different vision of marriage and family life.
The possibility that a Quebec characteristic or consensus could be questionable, or even lacking some good, or be in need of correction, is not part of the discussion. So when I raised the Statistics Canada report of lower levels of charitable giving, there was literally no further conversation to be had.
While these matters deal with Quebec society, the question is relevant nationwide as questions of identity play an increasing role in our politics. I might say, for example, that immigrant families from India tend, on the whole, to value education more than families who have been in Canada for many generations. That is perfectly acceptable.
Yet were I to observe, even with robust data to back me up, that immigrants from such-and-such country are more prone to criminal behaviour or do poorly in school or sing off-key, it would likely be considered out of bounds. There are collective virtues, but no collective vices. It makes conversation about our common life polite, to be sure, but also one-sided.
For years Garrison Keillor concluded his monologues on Prairie Home Companion by reporting “that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”
Lake Wobegon is a fictional place. But it increasingly looks like Canada, where all groups are above average.