This past week, two Canadian writers penned breathtaking pieces that insist you stop, read, think, set them aside, then read again in a couple of days, as I did, because they are, if not life-changing, then at least soul-searching.
The subject of both articles is the belief that America’s time has passed. But their lessons remind us that our differences as Canadians go far beyond guns and healthcare and our response to COVID-19.
One author, Adam Gopnik, was raised in Montreal, lives in New York and along with Malcolm Gladwell, makes up The New Yorker’s Canadian ex-pat staff writers. The other is Wade Davis, the National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, author and photographer who came back from Washington in 2016 to teach anthropology at UBC.
Gopnik’s article is about the relationship between goodwill and good health. It asks: “Are places that have high levels of social trust and strong institutions of civil society doing any better than those that haven’t?”
Davis’s article is about the end of the American era. “COVID has reduced to tatters the illusion of American exceptionalism. As American doctors and nurses eagerly awaited emergency airlifts of basic supplies from China, the hinge of history opened on the Asian century.”
Gopnik’s article appeared, naturally, in The New Yorker; Davis’s, not so naturally, in Rolling Stone. What’s a 5,600-word think-piece doing there? Earning 100,000 Facebook shares, trending on Twitter, and still trending No. 1 on the publication’s website, days after posting. Unheard of.
For Gopnik, social capital means “all parts of society that, without being explicitly political, foster bridges of common sympathy and trust.” In other words, block parties and not political parties. While countries with high levels of social capital, like Canada, were hit hard initially by the pandemic (because of our openness), we quickly started to self-restrain. “People who are used to going out a lot stopped when people they trusted told them that doing so was a good way to get sick.”
Gopnik then compares Canada — “renowned as a civil society in every sense” — with America — “an exercise in destroying social trust and replacing it with gangster values.”
This glaring difference isn’t a fluke. It’s not in our blood. Rather, “it is a way of smoothing out, not aggravating group conflict. It is just not possible to make mask-wearing a party issue in Canada; Conservatives and Liberals alike see the sense, and just put the damn things on.”
While Gopnik uses Canadians to illustrate just how social capital has been looted in America, with shockingly lethal results, we need to give ourselves more credit for the boring compromises Canadians ploddingly endure that seem to inflame Americans. It’s no fluke that the theme line of one of Canada’s most successful investment firms is “Boring Works”, or that the winner of the Washington Post’s “Most Boring Headline” contest was “Canadian Initiative Launched.”
While Gopnik’s writing style is nearly invisible, Davis’ is insistently magisterial.
One look at his 59-word opening sentence tells you what lies ahead: “Never in our lives have we experienced such a global phenomenon. For the first time in the history of the world, all of humanity, informed by the unprecedented reach of digital technology, has come together, focussed on the same existential threat, consumed by the same fears and uncertainties, eagerly anticipating the same, as yet unrealized, promises of medical science.”
He, too, points to Canada’s deep pools of social capital as our saving grace.
“The checkout person may not share your level of affluence, but they know that you know that they are getting a living wage because of the unions. And they know that you know that their kids and yours most probably go to the same neighborhood public school. Third, and most essential, they know that you know that if their children get sick, they will get exactly the same level of medical care not only of your children but of those of the prime minister. These three strands woven together become the fabric of Canadian social democracy.”
It takes three minutes to read today’s blog to yourself. It will take 10 times that to read these two brilliant pieces about America by Canadians with a unique view of America informed by our home and native land.
I urge you to take the time to read them, to think what they mean for us, to read them again, and to be thankful we really do believe we’re all in this together – and act accordingly.