The Plague-Ground – What you must never tell an American

Thank god for the pandemic. Now, even we Canadians can speak truth to America’s lack of power.

Yet until now, in the way we would not discuss gun control or health care with our American friends, we would also let them get away with saying they are citizens of the greatest nation on earth. Or not saying it. But certainly acting it.

We know America isn’t great, let alone the greatest, and hasn’t been for a long time. It ranks 42nd in life expectancy; 15th in quality of life; very high in obesity, child mortality, cost of higher education. America is Number One in some things — like incarceration (well above Russia), deaths by assault, and of course income inequality.

Where America ranks low is on literacy and numeracy – and decency.

I’m not saying Americans aren’t decent. I’m saying its institutions lack the kind of empathy its people display in overwhelming numbers.

This makes telling our neighbours the truth about their country that much harder. But just as a person bedeviled by delusions can’t function, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

It’s time someone told Americans that what they see in the mirror is different from what the world sees.

This is never easy. Punching through this kind of denial makes intervening on a drug addict child’s play. But who better to do that than us, the loyal lap-dog friend next door, the buddy who’s always been there, never asking much, happy to live in the shadow of our friend’s gigantic dreams?

But now….now, we not only have an opportunity, but a duty to that friend to tell them the truth about themselves. Calling them tonight likely isn’t the best way or time to do this, right in the middle of a crisis that will by next week kill more Americans than died in the Vietnam War.

You also don’t want to do this intervention by phone or Zoom. Wait till the crisis ends and have the conversation when you meet them again, face-to-face. This will give them time to look back on the ruinous war their country fought and largely lost against the pandemic. They need to want to change.

It’s important that you don’t let them blame everything on their President. True, he makes Caligula look like Churchill. But Trump mirrors the virus itself, ruthlessly exploiting the vulnerabilities that bluster alone covered over.

I guess that’s the saddest part of America’s shocking fall.

It’s existed so long on convincing itself it was exceptional that it was able to draw the world into its own delusion. Even if we knew America wasn’t exceptional at all, and let it think it was.

So some of America’s slow sad decline is on us for not calling it out, and not just since February, but for all those years we’ve let America tell us it was the greatest nation on earth.

But given that Canada’s response to the pandemic will likely strengthen us rather than weaken us as a nation, and given that America will be brought low by all this, what better act of friendship can we perform than to help remove the mask that’s disfigured their sense of who they really are?

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52 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – What you must never tell an American”

  1. Couldn’t disagree with you more on your view of the US …….why don’t you focus on China …the cause of the virus . And also take a hard look at the mess that Canada is in before we worry about our neighbours to the south …without their protection we would be an even easier target for the Chinese who have stolen our best technology , our resources and our real estate .
    Lets solve our own problems first before we cast stones on our neighbour …they have their weaknesses but I would rather have them as a neighbour than any other country in the world

    1. Thank you Ian, for your defense of our neighbors! As a dual citizen living in Canada, its possible that I tend to see things a bit more from ‘both sides’ than Mr Ramsay. When he says, “I’m saying its institutions lack the kind of empathy its people display in overwhelming numbers”, we appreciate the compliment to our citizenry, but I would like to offer another explanation: Americans don’t EXPECT their government to be as empathetic as they themselves are. It would be nice, but it’s not seen as ‘necessary’ or the government’s “JOB” to be empathetic. Americans have a long-held belief that it is better left to individuals and states to take care of their people, than central governments. BTW, Canada is as woefully unprepared for this virus in terms of testing, masks, respirators and PPEs as the US is. So much for central government preparedness and empathy!

      1. I would argue that the people who don’t expect (or rather, don’t *want*) their government to be as empathetic as they themselves are, are the people who have much more than the people who *actually* don’t expect their government to be better because they have no historical reason to believe it can be.

        In my experience, most of the people who tout “state’s rights” and the Horatio Alger myth (because it’s *always* been a myth), are the ones who have benefited from more than two centuries of a corrupt system that has only truly served an increasingly diminishing segment of the citizenry.

    2. Ian — At least we can disagree without drawing daggers. Which is another defining quality about America, its corosive ‘either-or’ness. Cheers and thanks for your thoughts. Bob

  2. As right as you may be, I suspect the discussion would be akin to having one on religion. I’ve never heard of anyone successfully being able to convert someone – either for or against. And there aren’t enough of us to do an intervention…

      1. Michele Carroll

        Jennifer , I agree. Canada has chosen a different path with a stronger focus on community. America like Canada is a young country and history I think will reflect a period of decline in global influence and power beginning in the latter part of the 20th century. American institutions and the democratic process are different obviously from Canada. We simply cannot compare. But we have every reason to look inward and continually work to improve our own governance and social outcomes. Many many Americans r are working to make change. I get a thrill from the Daniels clip every time but it’s yesterday’s news. The younger generation will turn the ship around. We can judge but what point is there is intervening? Way outside our sphere of influence.

      2. I was under the impression some were written by you Bob and some, like this one, by Louise. Or is that a template glitch? All are interesting and thoughtful. Thanks for sharing your insight and that of your wise readership.

  3. Brilliant analysis today, and proactively prescriptive. Many of my conversations with our American friends have been couched in careful analysis, In the past, but are now taking a different investigative and ,reflective turn, and an honest assessment of underlying threats to institutions and their efficacy. Now the focus is looking to other countries to see the strengths and patterns.

    1. Madeline Thompson

      Excellent, I’ve seen it before and it is riveting. The only people who can
      cure Americans of this disease of ‘exceptionalism’ belief, are the Americans
      themselves. Thank you for posting it. Bob’s blog is on the right track,
      urge them along to take a good look at themselves. The data is all there
      for the taking. It is a very fractured country at the moment and best they
      turn inward, leave the rest of the world to their own devices for a time.

  4. Cornelia molson

    As always such a thought provoking article. It made me wonder if the Americans I know are divided into two camps, those who already realize all this and those who will never acknowledge it. Don’t think I know many of the latter but it’s hard to tell. I never discuss any of this with my US friends of whom I have many living on the border as I do. The only topic on which everyone agrees is about Mitch McConnell.

    It reminds me of the days of the Quebec referenda. One never dared to discuss the topic because one never knew what side the other person was on even if you had known them for years.

    All that to say, I agree 100% with everything you wrote but wonder if I’ll ever have the nerve to discuss it.

  5. This entry today is so in line with my own thinking that I hesitate calling it brilliant for fear of seeming to only love those who think like I do. My classic love-hate relationship with our neighbour (with a “u”, thank you very much) and friend goes back decades and is a topic that endlessly fascinates me. These blogs are a labour (again, with a “u”) of love and I am really enjoying them each and every day!!

  6. Right on, Bob, as difficult as it is for some to admit it or say it. Incidentally friends in the Theatre and retail tell us that frequently visitors to Stratford from the US have approached them, without provocation usually, to apologize for the state of their country and leadership.

    1. Thanks, Margaret. I too have spoken to life-long American friends about this and, like yours, my conversations didn’t go well.

  7. I agree with you 100% Bob and as a result I would never want to live in the US or even buy a property there. However when I once tried to discuss the topic with an American friend, a close buddy, the conversation did not go well at all. It’s almost impossible to change an American’s mind on this, on gun control and on social programs.

  8. William Mockler

    Dear Mr. Ramsay:

    Thanks for your observations. They are astute. Could we, however, not fall prey to the absolutes of the word “or”- that America is “great” OR “is not great” at the present time and in the past?

    I will digress to tell you that Roger Martin’s book “The Opposable Mind” was luminous for me in illustrating a way of thinking, given that the world is very, very complicated . And that the word ”and” is sorely lacking in application instead of “or”.

    The word “and” instead of “or” has found more common use in Canada and we should be very grateful for that…it kind of defines us, from the very beginning…French AND English, not French or English. Social safety programs AND relatively unbridled capitalism…the list goes on and on…

    George Bush famously said that, regarding the Iraq war- “ You are either with us or against us”. The current president of the US certainly subscribes to this idea, but I believe that most Americans do not. Certainly, Canadians do not. I think the beauty of a real and healthy democracy could be stated “ You can be with us AND against us” so…

    America is not “not great” in so many ways. As our Leonard Cohen once sang in his track “Democracy”- “It’s coming to America first-the cradle of the best AND of the worst”.

    The entire world does not get to live in the magical world of technological and cultural advance without previous and relatively recent entrepreneurs and business people, workers and work ethic that are American “AND” vice-versa…America doesn’t get to be great without the world contribution. Many, many American people are doing great things as we speak. There is general agreement in the world that the current president is not among these people, sowing his particular take on what life in a great democratic republic should be-but he is not America nor is any particular president.

    Like mostly every other democratic nation on earth, including Canada, America is and has been kind AND cruel. America is and has been great AND not great.

    Could we use use the word ”or” less?

    Kind regards, Bill

    1. Bill – I understand the nuances you’re bringing up in ‘either-or’. Unfortuately, in the US, either you’re a Democrat or a Republican. Before 2016, that difference didn’t mean much. Now, sadly, it signals everything. Thanks for taking the time to write. Cheers. Bob

  9. J. Alex Macmillan

    That’s very helpful: Everything I hate about Canadians packed into an efficient article. Snarky, self-righteous, hyperbolic and yet with just a soupçon of timorousness, as befits our perpetual coffee-shop grumbling.

    I love the US. Fully and completely. It’s a place of great achievements and energy. It’s been a paradox since the time of its founding, and continues to bear the scars of civil war and the perpetual gong of the firebell in the night that is racism. It has also created more opportunities, and been more open to the worlds’ people, than ANY nation on earth. It rewards innovation and has fostered some of the greatest minds, culture and stories in history. And yes, even with some 250 years of history, it is still an adolescent country—which perambulates between autarchy and expansion; between serving as a city on a hill and existing as a cloistered, puritanical village; between the energy of youth and the responsibility of adulthood. The whole, however, is greater than the sum of its parts. The United States has, and will be, Canada’s greatest friend and benefactor, and it’s all SO Canadian for us to perpetually criticize the dental work of our gift horse.

  10. Hi Bob, BRAVO for saying what simply needs to be said and certainly reflects my own thoughts. As always, you find the right words. Keep writing and communicating in your brilliant, thoughtful and straightforward style.

    1. Gerlinde Herrmann

      Hi Ute
      Nice to “see” you. I’m on linked in please reach out.

      As always Bob, spot on. Gerlinde Herrmann

  11. Some will be up in arms about this article Bob… people are afraid to call out the Emperor with No Clothes… as it forces us to question our own delusions. Canadians are not all immune from the idea of America Exceptionalism, and we’ve weirdly taken it on in some ways as a feather in our own cap over these last many decades (we are their best friends! we live right next door! they like us and will protect us! we are made stronger by their greatness!). We know better, yes. We trumpet our uniqueness… but it’s a stretch for some to come to terms with the Truth you are telling. Keep telling it.

  12. Bob, your blog today really struck home. Probably like most people who have replied, I have dear friends and relatives who live in the USA and I have been pondering the best way I could begin the discussion with them. Your blog has provided me with the impetus I intend to contact my cousin in San Mateo, California and my other cousin in Waitsfield, Vermont, provide each of them with a copy of what you wrote and listen very carefully to their response. One of them is a Naval Commander who has seen a lot of active duty around the world and is currently teaching Military History at Norwich University – The Military College of Vermont until he retires in June. The other cousin is a retired executive who spent his entire career with Sears, save and except for a five year stint in the US Navy. They are both staunch Democrats, so the discussion should be very interesting.
    Stay tuned!

  13. Thanks, Bob, for this exceptional article. I have a foot in each camp, as I was born and educated in the States, but came to Canada immediately after. So, 20 years in the US and 50 years in Canada means that my love of the maple leaf is strong. I see now what I was totally blind to as a youth. From the daily “I pledge allegiance” to US television maps showing the States as an island, most Americans are incapable of looking in a mirror and seeing what we see. While it wasn’t scientifically taught, many Americans believe that the sun revolves around the earth and the earth is always shown with the US front and centre. I have relatives south of the border, and most of them shake their head at their president, but I’m not sure that their underlying belief systems are that different. I have a bestie girlfriend on the edge of the Mason Dixon line whose political views are at the opposite end of the spectrum yet I love her dearly. Over the many decades, we’ve learned to agree to disagree. We’ve learned that trying to change the other’s views on politics, religion, and social issues is impossible. People cannot hear what they’re not ready or willing to hear. I think she thinks the same about me. Yet, I think we still have to offer the message in as nonjudgmental a way as possible. Judgment implies attack which produces defensiveness which closes the ears. Learning to give feedback without righteousness is a valuable skill for all.

  14. Read your item. Watched and listened intently to Newsroom clip (thank you) and sent it to my kids, spouse and my siblings who choose to live south of the 49th parallel. Just a reminder. If only life was as simple as a sound bite,. I guess what life is currently missing is a good writer.

  15. Interesting but we should look in the mirror first before criticizing Americans! While there is improvements in life expectancy for seniors in Canada because of improvements in cancer and circulatory diseases our young Canadians – especially men aged 20-44 are dying at a faster rate almost completely offsetting any gains in the older age groups. Attributed to opioid crisis perhaps but nothing to be proud of! The long term care of our seniors is nothing to be proud of either (before COVID we had the Whittlauer murders in LTC).

    And I for one am not proud of our gun laws as the Nova Scotia tragedy shows what happens.

    We freely almost give away our water to American owned Nestle’s but don’t have the guts to say no to them!

    I could go on but ….. I think we also need not to be pushed around or bullied by our neighbours but we need to take a critical look at ourselves first!

  16. There is some truth in what you say, Bob. The USA is all about the freedom of the individual and the survival of the fittest. It’s a “dog eat dog” world. Whereas Western European societies reflect much more of a community approach where there are safety nets in place for those who aren’t doing very well. Canada is much closer to the European approach. However the USA has also accomplished a lot on a variety of fronts so I think your piece is rather one sided, and it’s dreaming in technicolor to think that we could actually influence them in any way. I would prefer to sort out the imperfections in our own society before pointing the finger at others. Our health care system is ranked at #30 worldwide according to the WHO and was ranked at #9 out of a list of 11 developed countries in 2017 per Global News. That’s where we should focus our efforts.

  17. Jennifer Laity

    Now Bob, what inspired this rant? Canada has always had an inferiority complex relative to the United States and today’s chest beating only serves to reinforce that this complex continues. As a dual citizen currently living in the U.S., I too am horrified by the abominably ignorant wannabe autocratic in the White House and his gaggle of sycophants. We have been living through 3 1/2 years of torture watching him demean and cheapen what it means to be American. I pray to God and to the good sense of most American voters, that this gang will be gone come November.
    But to package us all up and lump us in the same boat as the current administration is wrong and mean spirited. As a nation of 328 million (more or less) against Canada’s 37 million, of 50 states versus Canada’s 13 provinces and territories, oversimplifies to the point of the ridiculous, the complexities of one country (the US) versus another (Canada). Perhaps you should compare California (population 39 million and the 6th largest economy in the world) with Canada. How would that look?
    Most thinking Americans, as compared with those who voted for Trump, are aware of the weaknesses and failings of our country. We do not pound our chests or wear MAGA hats. We see the anachronisms of the constitution with it’s gun rights and archaic divisions in powers, and we despair. But we soldier on. We pray for a savior who looks something like Obama and we respect and admire our neighbors to the north.

  18. Sometimes the truth hurts, but lies can kill.
    Your words are thoughtful, respectful and meaningful to those who refuse to be persuaded by the opposite.
    Brave words that could not be said nor understood by a coward.
    Together, it is time to make the world great again.

  19. I’m enjoying your plague-ground rants, but one question, Bob. Why is the by-line “Louise Davey”??? Is this a pseudonym? I note you mention Jean in many of your articles, so I know it’s you!

  20. Interesting conversation today Bob. It shows that Canadians are as divided about the way they see Americans as Americans are as divided about the way they see themselves.
    But, as we all acknowledge, these are wildly divisive times around the world. As we will also probably acknowledge, the media – of which you are a member – is used overtly and covertly, to spread misinformation and opinions meant to hasten the divides between nations and members of those nations. So let’s all be aware that we are all being manipulated to a degree. Let’s check the sources of our information and our prejudice. If only we could hope that this pandemic were rained down upon us to help us pull together as global citizens, rather than further split us apart with finger pointing.


    1. My one thought is that it’s still much easier to disagree with someone in Canada, even on things like politics, without drawing swords.
      Calling someone a bloody New Democrat or a white-wine Liberal doesn’t have quite the punch that Republicans and Democrats hit each other with.

    2. Gerald — I’m getting some interesting comments and lots of disagreement. But I know that if I were in the US, I’d be torched.
      I guess that’s one big difference between us and them. Bob

    3. Adam — I don’t think for a second that Canadians can influence America, or even that many Americans. But I do think, when this is all over, a lot of them
      will be looking north to ask: “Why don’t we have universal healthcare?” Sure, it’s flawed, but at least it exists.
      Thanks for connecting. Cheers. Bob

    4. I agree with you, Cheryl, that the issue isn’t Trump, or at least not just him. It’s the underlying belief systems you refer to.
      We were not brought up to believe our national government was out to take away our rights.
      Cheers. Bob

    5. Staunch Democrats? Well, Don, that’s a start I guess…Indeed, it will be an interesting conversation. I’d love to hear how it goes. Bob

  21. Hi Bob, That was an excellent thought provoking article! One of your best and I think this is reflected in the number of comments is has generated. Keep it up!

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