Malcolm GLADWELL vs. Adam GOPNIK
CANADA: NATION OR NOTION?
ON MARCH 30, MACLEAN’S BROUGHT TWO
bestselling authors—both raised in this country, both now living in New York—together to debate the meaning of Canada.
Malcolm Gladwell, author of ‘The Tipping Point’ and ‘Blink,’ insists we’re a nation. Adam Gopnik, whose essay collections include ‘Paris to the Moon’ and ‘Through the Children’s Gate,’ argues Canada is a notion. Their exchange ranged from Lafontaine to Don Cherry, Malaysian farms to Florida trailer parks—who knew the Canadian identity could be so interesting? EDITED BY KATE FILLION
m k jgp "1 Canada is unencumbered and mean (in a good way)
I want to talk about what it means to be small because, after all, it is Canada’s size that’s the occasion for this debate. India does not have “Why India?” debates, America doesn’t have “Why America?" debates—although, to be fair, other countries have “Why America?” debates. Canadians are insecure, we think we’re trivial and marginal, and that’s because of our size. Our size is not in fact the problem.
Our size is the solution. When I gave Adam a one-sentence preview of my argument, he said, “Oh, the small-is-beautiful argument.” What I really want to make is the argument that small is powerful, or— perhaps more accurately—small is useful. Now, this is something that, in a slightly different context, anthropologists and sociologists have thought about a lot. So I thought I would begin by drawing on an example that may seem far-fetched—but trust me, I will circle around and make it make sense—
and that is the incredible success of ethnic Chinese immigrants throughout the world. Some say, “Well, they’re just smarter than the rest of us,” some say that they possess some kind of particular entrepreneurial gene, others say that their mothers are particularly ambitious for their children—which always strikes me as odd because it assumes there are mothers out there who are not ambitious for their children.
But the best of the arguments, I think, is that Chinese immigrants are successful wher-
THE MACLEAN'S DEBATE
MALCOLM GLADWELL: ‘Canada occupies the comic stance relative to the U.S.: we’re allowed to make fun of them, we’re the burr i
n the back of the elephant’
ever they go not because of any traits inherent to being Chinese, but because of the particular position they occupy in the societies they move to. Chinese immigrants are outsiders and minorities, which we normally think of as disadvantages, but are in fact enormous advantages. For example, if you’re trying to succeed with a small business, there is a big advantage to being in an area where you don’t have a lot of friends and family [who] want discounts on the things they buy at your store, a job for their sister-in-law, and on and on, and all of a sudden you’ve got a significant impediment to turning a profit. Clifford Geertz compares Balinese and Chinese businesses in Bali, and points out that in the Balinese business you’ve got endless numbers of workers sitting around, and in the equivalent Chinese immigrant business you’ve got three people: a father, a mother, and a 10-year-old boy.
The other thing that being unencumbered allows you to be is mean. The thing that is most deadly to the success of small businesses is the inability to collect debts, right? Getting people to pay up is profoundly difficult when you are deeply rooted in a community. Some lovely anthropological work looks at Chinese immigrants in Malaysia, and there was one study of a Chinese small businessman who had extended credit to Malaysian farmers. For most of the year the Chinese businessman dressed like a Malaysian, spoke in the quiet, respectful tones of a Malaysian, operated as a Malaysian, until harvest time, when he went out to the fields to collect his debts. All of a sudden he was Chinese, to ensure that he would not be treated like a fellow Malay who might be expected to be more generous on price or credit terms. He was able, in other words, to occupy this identity as the outsider to his benefit.
Now, the third thing about being unencumbered is that, paradoxically, it allows you—forces you—to be connected. Think about the Chinese immigrant [businessman] in a strange land. Who does he know? Other Chinese immigrants in other parts of that country. That allows them access to all kinds of information, favourable terms on shipments, all kinds of things that the businessman whose world is entirely described by a hometown never has. Without having strong local ties you are forced to develop weak regional ties, and that is an enormous advantage.
Put those three things together—being unencumbered, having the ability to be mean, and being forced to be connected—and you have a beautiful illustration of why the Chinese are so successful. I think their position is precisely analogous to the position of Can-
ada on the world stage today. We are the immigrant outsider, but that is an advantage. Why did Canada not go to Iraq, and Britain did? Ideological differences between our government and the Blair government, but on a deeper structural level, Britain was encumbered, they had obligations both historic and contemporary. We didn’t, we’re too small. We had the ability, the opportunity, to evaluate that decision on its own merits.
Or, think about—to change the subject—the question of why there are so many great Canadian comics. Because as a people we are somehow inherently funnier? No, it’s because comedy is about being tough and honest and getting away with it because you’re non-threatening to the dominant group. Canada occupies the comic stance relative to the United States: we’re allowed to make fun of them, because we’re the little burr on the back of the elephant. That allows us to make merry at their expense, and to bring enormous joy to the world.
And then there’s connectedness. You listen to the news in America and you would not think there are any countries outside the borders of the United States, except those presently under occupation by American armies. You come to Canada and you are acutely aware of the fact that Canada is one nation among many. Because we’re small, we are forced to think about others.
Let me give you a beautiful example of what this means in the real world. A couple of years ago Korean Airlines went through a crisis. They began to crash a lot of planes—they were crashing them faster than they could buy them, which is a problem if you’re an airline— and they had not taken the necessary steps to correct this problem. Now, why did they
finally reform? Because the Canadian Aviation Authority went to Seoul and said, “If you don’t clean up your act, we will revoke landing rights in all Canadian cities.” Why didn’t the Americans go? They couldn’t. They’re encumbered, they’ve got tens of thousands of troops in South Korea. For them to go and potentially shut down the national airline would create a diplomatic incident. We can afford to be that mean, tough, honest voice, to say, “No one would accuse us of having any kind of particular special interest at stake here.” And why did Korea listen? Because we have a reputation for being that honest, outside voice, and also—more importantly—because we’re connected, because they genuinely and correctly feared that if Canada said “no more” to Korean Air, then all kinds of other [countries] who respect us would follow.
We could choose to play that kind of role in any number of different areas. We could put together a model environmental policy, a model energy policy, we could do something radical and truly interesting. And if we did that on a regular basis we would play a greatly outsized role in the world. Power is not a function of size—that’s the old rules—it’s a function of freedom, and being small makes us free.
Canada is encumbered and nice (in a good way)
ja ■ : ■If 1 were standing before
í V; ; an audience in my adop-
ted country, the United States, or my beloved second country of France, I hope that I would have the courage and the character to simply denounce nationalism of all kinds, those being two countries that suffer from an excess of that kind of national identity. I hope I might be able to make the case for a pure kind of universalism and a very pure kind of cosmopolitanism, where we would simply assert that the individual and her
rights is much more important than those of any collectivity. But that’s not an argument I want to make in Canada, in part because crazed undue chauvinism and self-praise is not really the problem here, but also because to make that argument would be to deny my connection to this place as a place.
The individual and his or her rights is an abstraction. We belong, in reality, to homes, communities, traditions, places, and without them, in a certain sense, we don’t exist as individuals. This is an idea no one has articulated better than that great Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor: the collective is not merely tribal or vestigial. Without a common identity we cannot have an adequate idea of ourselves as individuals. We cannot help but belong to a family, a town, a city, and—in some abstract but real way—to a country. That country may be simply a countryside, a season, a sport, an accent, a habit of absurd good humour and politeness, the choice of speaking two languages, but it is a country and a kind of horizontal connection to others in a room who know those codes as well.
I live in New York within a cell of that kind of Canadianness. The CBC plays on Internet radio all day and all night, my son has even come to me and asked the fundamental unanswerable question, “Why do Canadians like Don Cherry?”
This place is my home. That is the cell to which I belong no matter how often I am away. What strikes me when I hear my friend Malcolm’s argument is that he has made the best argument for the separation of Quebec that I have ever heard. I grew up hearing, in Quebec, that the best little country in the world can be more successful than a big, encumbered country, that just because you belong to a small, narrowly defined nation doesn’t mean you’re not capable of punching way beyond your weight in the world outside.
Slovenia is a remarkable little country that
has all of the qualities Malcolm is talking about. Canada is not a country that has many of those qualities. It is not a mean, tough, independent and unencumbered country, it is a nice, emollient and thoroughly encumbered country. That is part of its DNA. In Toronto, I see signs in two languages, one of which almost no one in the city speaks or feels compelled to read. Why is that? Because Canadians are mean, tough, economical and unencumbered? No, it is because Canadians are the most encumbered of people. They are encumbered by a history and by a commitment to make that history work in a civic manner. That’s the real essence and significance of Canada.
We can think about nationalism in two ways. There’s a flag-and-fears nationalism that rises out of a sense of a common enemy; we all huddle together under a common flag and get our sense of collectivity from the shared thrill and terror of being under attack and from the common joy of being bound together. That never seems to me to be a true nationalism, it always has to pump itself up yet again with another enemy. Alongside that, there’s a genuine model of what we might call a hope-and-holiday nationalism, rooted in shared hopes that are open to everyone and in a set of secular rituals—holidays in the broadest possible sense—that affirm an openended collective identity.
Canada, from its very beginning, has been a country that can only turn to a nationalism of hopes and holidays to have any hope at all of making sense of its history or its future. From the very first significant handshake between Lafontaine and Baldwin, the idea that what would bind us together was some common, fixed identity, has obviously been impossible. It’s not something you can persuade two very different founding peoples to believe in, to share. So instead you have in Canada, from that beginning in 1842, an idea that the only way we can construct a
country is through some kind of shared, civic, humane ideal that doesn’t draw on some imagined commonality, but draws on common values and what are in many respects very abstract ideas of citizenhood. That, I think, is where and only where Canada begins.
That ideal now looks, at the beginning of this millennium, incredibly potent.
As the world looks around at the beginning of the 21st century and asks, “How can we, in a time of ever-growing ethnic strife, find a model for not merely polite co-existence but an engaged commonality?”, Canada is the place that demonstrates how it’s possible for peoples from fundamentally different backgrounds and histories to come together in a full ideal of citizenship that’s recreated anew with every generation.
It’s the kind of Canadian ideal that’s exemplified by that favourite sign of my own youth, the Notre Dame de Grâce Kosher Delicatessen in Montreal. That sign, that idea of coexistence of fundamentally different types, extends to new immigrant groups who continue to make signs of their own, of exactly the same sort. Michael Adams’ fine sociological study, Unlikely Utopia, shows how those new immigrant groups, far from being isolated, fragmented, at a remove from Canada, actually entirely participate in that Canadian ideal. [In] a Canadian Muslim group, nine out of 10 of whom were born out of Canada, 94 per cent describe themselves as proud or very proud to be Canadian. What do they complain about? The weather. What do they admire? Our traditions of tolerance and civility and the enormous Canadian landscape.
I know this is not an ideal country. I know that positive nationalism of hopes and holidays is not without dangers and enormous
Canada runs the risk of becoming a Florida trailer park of ethnic groups, where everybody plugs into the gas but nobody has any commitment to the trailer park
fragility. Many people say that Canada runs the risk of becoming simply a kind a Florida trailer park of ethnic groups, where everybody plugs into the gas and the water but nobody has any common commitment to the trailer park. But there’s something fundamentally wrong with that analogy, because what defines trailer parks is that the people in them have transient residence. Immigrant groups are not here for the short term, they will stay and raise their children here, and they find themselves drawn into this true Canadian compact, this need to find a way to live with people of fundamentally different backgrounds within a single, successful civility.
I don’t think Canada works because small is beautiful. I think it works because plural is possible. I’m well aware that one of the reasons Canada has such a powerful hopesand-holidays form of nationalism is because it’s constantly having to make itself against the image of Quebec, which often succumbs to a form of flags-and-fears nationalism. I know that there are those in Canada who would want us to remake ourselves against
the United States, make that the fear and this the flag. But that hasn’t been the way it’s worked out so far.
The glory of Canada is that empirically, pragmatically, without a single binding ideology, but again and again in over 200 years, it has provided a model for the world—not of identity triumphant, but exactly the idea that home-and-hope nationalism encompasses the only values on which we can hope to build a future: common sense, toleration, co-existence. Canada is a glorious notion, a necessary notion, and one that, ironically, as the old, doomed idea of a nation comes to an end in our time, is becoming more—not less—of a model for what the nation can be in the future.
extent to which a culture recognizes and believes in hierarchy. If you’re high power distance, like France, you’re a culture that invests a great deal of meaning in this notion of institutionally described inequality, in hierarchy. If you’re a low power-distance culture like, say, Austria, it’s very important that everyone be on the same level. Hofstede has this wonderful moment when he describes going on holiday in Portugal and seeing the prime minister of Holland—one of the lowest power-distance cultures in the world—in a camper at a campsite, and he asked, “What are the odds you would ever see the president of France in a camper in a Portuguese campsite?” Of course, the answer is “Never.”
English, French— these are superficial differences
A psychologist named Geert Hofstede came up with a series of dimensions by which we can assess the differences between countries. One was something called power distance, the
The national cultures we belong to have meaning, and not in some abstract way. The values that are encoded by our country express themselves in very specific and real ways. They are the ways in which we make sense of everyday experience, and we may not be entirely aware of them. The people of Holland cannot necessarily express the fact that they have this deeply held notion about low power distance. Nonetheless, it colours every-
thing they do, up to and including how and where their prime minister goes on holiday.
I bring it up because as logical and rational as Adam’s arguments seem, they don’t ring true. He’s got a notion of Canada as a kind of procedural entity, and I think that’s missing something very fundamental. “Hopeand-holiday nationalism” sounds like the runner-up in a Club Med campaign for a new slogan.
He talks about Canada being based on an abstract idea of citizenship where “plural is possible”—not where plural is important, not where plural is powerful, not where plural has meaning. Well, here we have a man who grew up in the heart of francophone Canada, and he describes the divisions that exist between French and English Canada with a tone of world-weary pessimism and defeatism, as if the simple fact that French and English people in Canada speak a different language is sufficient to mean that we can never have some kind of real and true and powerful commonality. What Adam, I think, has done is to leave out the possibility that we can ever see past these relatively superficial differences in the expressions of our culture and forge something of real power and meaning in the way that we go about expressing ourselves in the presence of the rest of the world.
What hypocrites we are, talking about what Canada means and both of us live in New York! But I think that charge of hypocrisy is much more fairly aimed at me, because the country that I describe is a place where I should actually live, but if Canada is just this plural-is-possible hope-and-holiday thing, why shouldn’t we all just live in New York?
AM The reason one might be
J J r§l LT : drawn to Canada, even
Want a though one finds one’s life
multi-ethnic and work elsewhere, is model? exactly because what we
The Habs. find in New York is not a constant bend toward accommodation, civility, co-operation, mutual understanding, but on the contrary, exactly the kind of flag-and-fear nationalism that I decry. What people around the world say when they look to Canada as a model is, “Here’s a country that’s completely successful, peaceful, prosperous, where you have long traditions of coexistence despite the existence, simultaneously, of very real differences.”
I did grow up in Montreal, I’ve made a large part of my life amongst paranoid monolingual French-speakers, and I recognize that in Quebec there would not be a thousand nodding heads, saying, “Oh, yes, we feel our-
selves to be more Canadian than Québécois.” What we do have is the reality that so far, when faced with the choice between asserting their very strong, unbreakable and distinct ethnic identity against the political arrangements they find themselves in, and reaffirming those political arrangements because they make sense for exactly the abstract procedural reasons you mention, the Québécois have chosen again and again to remain within Canada.
Club Med says “hope and holiday”? I’ll go to that camp before I’ll go to the one that says, “Flags and fears for all who want them.” It seems to me that abstract, procedural, liberal states have been and remain very nearly the only hope within the world. Canada is unique, almost, among nations—Australia might be the one other— where that abstract procedural idea has worked so well that it’s become implanted deep within the DNA of the culture to give us exactly that sense of collectivity, of commonality.
I began by saying I don’t believe we can have a fully abstract idea of citizenship, it has to be rooted in something more tangible, immediate, local, collective. What, when I think about Canada, are the first two images that come to mind? One is hearing the CBC, that wonderful fount of talk and music and conversation. That is an invented, abstract, procedural institution of a liberal community that knows it needs to tax its citizens in order to have those kinds of connecting institutions.
And what’s the other? I think instantly and always of hockey, and of the Montreal Canadiens. They offer a model of a distinctly procedural, liberal, goal-oriented and yet multi-ethnic commonality, French and English working toward a common goal without being able to eliminate or deny the very real differences in background history that shaped them. And now with Belarusians and Czechs and Slovaks and FrenchCanadians and anglophones—and Americans from Long Island—all working together in that way.
That is my Canadian identity, that’s why I wear my Montreal Canadiens sweatshirt down the streets of New York. Canadianness is always rooted not in an ethnic imprinting in a single tradition, but exactly in our collective identity, the melding together of many different and mutually tolerant traditions.
The debate will be featured on Ideas, on CBC Radio One, April 7 at 9 p-m. (900 p.m. in Newfoundland). M
ON THE WEB: For video highlights and reaction to the debate—including Douglas Coupland, Janice Stein and John Ralston Saul— visit www.macleans.ca/inconversation