No ex­cep­tion­al­ism please, we’re Cana­dian

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - GLOBE FOCUS | OPINION - MARK KINGWELL Pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy at the Univer­sity of Toronto


Cana­dian ex­cep­tion­al­ism a thing? It’s al­ways been fair com­ment for us to say how this coun­try is not like all the oth­ers, but in the shadow of the Trump pres­i­dency, that whole new era of crazy, there is new en­ergy in this nar­ra­tive of dif­fer­ence. Vet­eran com­men­ta­tors, many of them friends of mine, have di­lated at some length about the unique­ness of the Cana­dian ex­per­i­ment.

Here’s the ba­sic ar­gu­ment. Canada, un­fet­tered by what Michael Ig­nati­eff con­demned as “eth­nic na­tion­al­ism,” has carved out a whole new way of be­ing a coun­try.

It is post­na­tional. Its bank­ing sys­tem is cen­tral­ized and immune from wacky mar­ket fluc­tu­a­tion. Its health-care sys­tem is im­pec­ca­bly pub­lic. And above all, its im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy is tol­er­ant and open-minded, mak­ing for the truly mul­ti­cul­tural polity that pro­vokes the world’s envy.

Now, far be it for me to dis­pute this vi­sion. In fact, it is so fa­mil­iar that some of us have been tout­ing it lo these many long years. Back in 1999, I wrote a book that de­fended Canada’s post­na­tional ad­van­tages and sug­gested we should be proud of our tran­scen­dence of the tired nar­ra­tives of iden­tity based on blood­line or ide­ol­ogy. I wasn’t the only one: Richard Gwyn and John Ral­ston Saul, plus a few other fa­mil­iar names, made their own ver­sions of the ar­gu­ment.

Right now, the ad­vo­cates are slightly younger (and cooler) Cana­dian in­tel­lec­tu­als, such as Stephen Marche (in The Wal­rus) and Charles Fo­ran (in The Guardian). In a coun­try as small as this one, it can be no sur­prise that I count these two men as friends. It hap­pens that I also claim friend­ship with An­drew Pot­ter, a for­mer grad­u­ate stu­dent, who mocked Mr. Fo­ran’s Guardian ar­ti­cle on his Twit­ter feed, even as he is about to con­vene a se­ri­ous con­fer­ence on the topic of ex­cep­tion­al­ism that fea­tures still more friends.

To re­peat: It’s a small coun­try. Maybe that’s the true ex­cep­tion­al­ism in play here? Any­way, sto­ries about how we are unique, paired with push-back replies, feel to me like those pre­dictableas-the-weather Cana­dian weather sto­ries, where writ­ers de­plore the in­abil­ity of once-staunch Cana­di­ans to deal with cold and snow. Were we ever re­ally so ro­bust that -30 C tem­per­a­tures and a bl­iz­zard were just, you know, a lark? I doubt it.

I like­wise doubt the new tales of ex­cep­tion­al­ism, which have the feel­ing of a na­tional theod­icy. You re­mem­ber the idea: Theod­icy is the claim that God’s will is in­evitably work­ing it­self out in this world, never mind all signs to the con­trary. We may con­front vast stretches of mis­ery and suf­fer­ing, but that is all part of the plan! As the re­frain goes, para­phrased from the philoso­pher Leib­niz, ev­ery­thing is for the best in this best of all pos­si­ble worlds!

Af­ter the 1755 Lisbon earth­quake, which dev­as­tated the city and killed thou­sands of in­no­cents, Voltaire was moved to lam­poon this sad, evil idea. His satire Can­dide (1759), a kind of proto-novel, re­mains one of the es­sen­tial texts in the lit­er­a­ture of en­light­en­ment and good sense. The young pro­tag­o­nist, Can­dide, is a devo­tee of the new Leib­nizian phi­los­o­phy; his out­ra­geous mis­for­tunes, bravely borne, even­tu­ally force a change of mind.

Cana­dian ex­cep­tion­al­ism is the new Leib­nizian phi­los­o­phy. The rea­sons for this are in­struc­tive, even if the ar­gu­ment it­self is sus­pect.

We might note, first, that the term it­self is tainted – an­other bor­row­ing from the ex­pan­sive repub­lic to the south. U.S. ex­cep­tion­al­ism is the cov­er­ing-law the- ory that as­sumes the United States, dif­fer­ent from all other coun­tries, can do no wrong and brook no ob­jec­tion. Mr. Trump’s call to “Make Amer­ica Great Again” (#MAGA) is just the most re­cent ex­pres­sion of this per­pet­u­ally self-re­new­ing delu­sion.

Worse, though, is the self-con­grat­u­la­tion con­tained in the po­si­tion. Don’t get me wrong: This is a great coun­try, and I would not choose to live any­where else. But I don’t think we Cana­di­ans have any spe­cial pur­chase on jus­tice, di­ver­sity or fel­low feel­ing. This is not the best of all pos­si­ble coun­tries, as re­cent ar­rivals and in­dige­nous peo­ples will cer­tainly at­test. We are as rife as any­one else in in­tol­er­ance, big­otry and ig­no­rance.

Un­less and un­til we con­front these facts about our po­lit­i­cal life, tales of ex­cep­tional virtue will con­tinue to strike a sour note. Sorry, friends.

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