The Plague-Ground – Two voices, not in the wilderness, crying.

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.

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17 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – Two voices, not in the wilderness, crying.”

  1. Wendela Roberts

    Absolutely brilliant piece by Wade Davis. I also shared on FB, and the most comments I got were from my American friends who were, for the most part, gobsmacked. An essential read.

  2. I found Wade Davis’s piece to be a tad smug. I am also afraid that Canada is starting to suffer from that trait too. I am not about to give up on the U.S.. Any place that has brought us Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Billie Holliday, Miles Davis and Bob Dylan can’t be written off that quickly.

  3. My favourite line in Wade Davis’ piece? “Living in Canada with our American neighbours is like having an apartment above a meth lab”…brilliant!

  4. I had already read the Wade Davis article and found it first class. I did not think it was smug to point out the major problems that are occurring in the USA and I think that many Canadians are in fact very afraid of what is going on there. They are certainly not complacent. I listened to a webinar put on by The Guardian Weekly a few days ago featuring Eric Holder, Obama’s Attorney General, talking about voter suppression and gerrymandering. Republicans can’t win democratically so they are resorting to these tactics to stay in power. Hungary is no longer a democracy, Poland is heading that way. Will the USA be the next former democracy to morph into a one party state with Trump as the Fuehrer?

  5. Bob, these are both great pieces. Thanks for calling out the Davis one, as I normally do not browse Rolling Stone. There is a (I’m guessing here) young American writer who posts on Medium named Umar Haque. While his writing can be shrill at times, he coined or borrowed a lovely word with which he describes the self-centred and destructive interpretation of liberty in the US as “free-dumb.” And sadly, we saw some of that in Montreal yesterday, so we’re not quite as immune as we’d like to think (although the Twitter storm of negative reaction to the protesters was a balm to the soul).

    1. Free-dumb exactly. The biker rally in South Dakota this weekend is the best example of this. As The Economist said:
      “You may have lost interest in the coronavirus. It has not lost interest in you.”

    2. Adam — I don’t think it’s smug to point out these problems. Nor do I think it’s smug to talk about how Canada is “life-savingly”
      different. My fear is that between now and November 3rd, Trump will indeed steal the election.

    3. Nandini — I agree. And Wade is just so articulate in so many ways that reading his stuff is always a delight of unexpected lines like that.
      Cheers. Bob

    4. Tony — I don’t agree with you. While I haven’t written off America, it will be very hard for it to come back, even when Trump loses in November.
      As for Canadian smugness, I view that as the first vital step to real pride!

  6. The Wade Davis piece is the best I’ve read to date on the death of American ‘exceptionalism’. His historical perspectives are accurate and properly position the US in the realities of today’s world. I’ve lived and worked in the US on two separate occasions and have family members currently living and working there. Davis’ US/Canada comparisons are compelling and while they do not warrant snugness from our side of the border, they do help define both lifestyle differences and the sense that here, we really are all in it together – and happy being so.

    1. Robin — I agree entirely and don’t feel we’re being smug at all to say “We’re different”, to point out and to celebrate those profound differences.

  7. Bob:

    Thanks particularly for the Wade Davis essay. I would not be as quick as Davis to bet against America, but the Americans are not making it easy to hold faith. The whole theme of the Davis piece is that if you can’t count on the US, who can possibly take their place in a world many of us believe in? America has, to repeat an old saw, always come through in the end, but only after trying every alternative. I hope history repeats itself. Current affairs are not looking promising.

    Bob Thomson

  8. Madeline Thompson

    Wonderful post Bob – I’ve read the Davis article, and agree – Rolling Stone! – and it is
    fully rendered and excellent. Will get my hands on the Gopnik one. It is the crash of
    America, we’ve been seeing the decline for longer than we might believe. It can perhaps
    be taken back to the American hubris on the heels of the end of WW II which mushroomed
    for decades before anyone realized it was not about American glory but rather a train
    wreck enroute to a horror story.


    Thank you thank you Bob for pointing out the beyond brilliant Wade Davis article…I get the comments about Canadians being smug..we have become that way especially about universal health care etc. Canada has many still unresolved issues to address….and we have a lot to learn from the mistakes of the “United States” (? ! ) of America.

    1. Anita — And I think Kamala Harris will drive Trump crazy, as would anyone who went to Westmount high School in Montreal
      and whose mother was a researcher at the Jewish General!

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