You'd almost think dispassionate pollster Michael Adams was—horrors—judgmental!
Science as sound as the Orgasmatron
You'd almost think dispassionate pollster Michael Adams was—horrors—judgmental!
Michael Adams had a big hit with his last book, Fire and lce, about the differences between America and Canada. My cousin always keeps a copy to hand and tells Americans, “If you want to understand the difference between our countries, read this book.”
And there’s the rub. A couple of years back, I began some generalization or other by saying, “The difference between America and Canada is...” And the American I was imparting this insight to interrupted me with: “The difference between America and Canada is that Americans don’t care what the difference between America and Canada is.”
Hard to argue with that. Likewise, a Parisian doesn’t care what the difference is between France and, say, Bhutan. So Mr. Adams’ boffo smash north of the border couldn’t even find a publisher south of it. For his follow-up, he’s junked the Canadian angle to focus on differences between Americans—American Backlash: The Untold Story of Social Change in the United States. Much of the new book recycles the peculiar obsessions of the last one— “gated communities”—but without all the Canuck comparisons. The result is a bit like a double act that’s dumped the straight man. But, despite eighty-sixing the 49th parallel, poor old Adams still can’t get a U.S. publisher.
It’s not hard to see why. Americans at least come by their ignorance of Canada without effort. Michael Adams has analyzed reams of data, cited thousands of examples, and the cumulative effect is only marginally less dotty than a discussion of Judaism by an Islamic scholar. As it happens, I agree with one of his larger points—that the red state/blue state divide is much exaggerated—though for different reasons. Democrats may think they’re Europhiles, but only in the same sense that John Kerry thinks he’s fluently francophone. Outside the godless coastal re-
doubts and college towns, few blue-staters would willingly join the Continentals in a moribund economy on the brink of a demographic death spiral. In the end, the blues are closer to the red states than they are to anywhere else on the planet.
That’s not exactly Adams’ point. He’s arguing that the critical difference in America is between the engaged (whether Democrat or Republican) and the disengaged—the nonvoters who outnumber supporters of either party. Could be. It could also be that lower voter turnout in the U.S. is nothing more than a reflection that politicians have less control over you than in Canada or Europe: if the state is your employer, your doctor and your nanny (as in much of the rest of the developed world), your life is perforce more “political.”
But my problem with Adams, the founder of the Environics polling firm, is more basic than that. In the Montreal Gazette the other day, he was comparing himself to Alexis de Tocqueville: “He was a count. I like to think I can count.” Well, I’ll take Monsieur le Comte any day. Tocqueville went to taverns and churches and observed Americans on the ground. Adams crunches numbers and then assigns meaning to them, based on a map of “social values.” At the top of the map is “Authority,” at the bottom “Individuality.” Okay, seems reasonable. At the left is “Survival” and at the right “Fulfillment.”
Hmm. I concede one could make the case
that those are opposites: in Europe, after all, radical secular narcissistic self-fulfillment and long-term societal survival are in very direct conflict. It’s when you look at the subvalues in each of Adams’ quadrants that one’s eyebrow begins to head ceiling-ward: in the “status and security quadrant,” for example, placed down at the bottom, a long way from AUTHORITY at the top but quite near to FULFILLMENT at the right, you spot a “social value” called “Introspection and Empathy.” And, when you look up Adams’ definitions of his terms, you find the following: “Tendency to analyze and examine one’s actions and those of others, rather than being judgmental about variances from the norm or from one’s one way of doing things. An interest in understanding life rather than taking sides.”
If you’ve read the English satirist Craig Brown’s “conjugations,” you’ll recognize the scientific rigour underpinning that:
You’re a laugh.
He makes fart noises with his armpit.”
Or in Adams’ case:
“I’m interested in understanding life. You take sides.
He’s judgmental about variances from one’s own way of doing things.”
The value of “Xenophobia,” which is found
confusingly in another “status and security quadrant” down in the left-hand corner above “Advertising As Stimulus,” is defined thus: “The sense that too much immigration threatens the purity of the country. The belief that immigrants who’ve made their new home in the United States should set aside their cultural backgrounds and blend into the American melting pot.”
That vocabulary is so loaded—“threatens the purity,” “set aside their cultural backgrounds”—one might almost think Mr. Adams is not a dispassionate social scientist and pollster but one of those ghastly persons who’s “judgmental about variances from one’s own way of doing things.” Yet, even discounting that, Mr. Adams’ category embraces two quite different issues, one of concern principally to a small fringe (racial “purity”), the other to a much broader swath (assimilation).
In conflating assimilation with “xenophobia,” isn’t Mr. Adams “taking sides” rather
Americans at least come by their ignorance of Canada without effort. Adams has analyzed reams of data.
than trying to “understand life”? I haven’t seen science this sound since I stopped by the Wilhelm Reich Museum in Rangeley, Maine, and a sweet little small-town Yankee old lady solemnly explained that Reich had “discovered” that the electrical discharge at the moment of orgasm was a form of energy called the “orgone,” and had created a machine that could harness the orgasmic energy to cure cancer and end droughts and so forth. I sat in the Orgasmatron or whatever it was called, but the earth did not move for me, alas. With hindsight, I can’t help feeling that if Michael Adams had invented an Orgasmatron that could measure American social values, he’d have had a better shot at a New York publisher and would have been no less scientific.
Adams’ method was established in Fire
and Ice: he notes at one point that in the U.S. SUVs outsell minivans by two-to-one, whereas in Canada it’s vice versa. That’s a fact. The fancy is in the meaning he appends to it. “This is a stark difference,” he writes, “whose roots can be traced directly to the differing values of our two countries.” This assertion seems to have no basis other than a casual assumption that Canadians are more environmentally responsible and thus more concerned with “excessive gasoline consumption, pollution and safety violations.”
Isn’t there a more obvious correlation? Minivans are cheaper than SUVs, and Canadians have less disposable income than Americans. It’s easy to be “socially responsible” if you’ve got no choice in the matter. On the Continent they’re driving around in things the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cup holder, so presumably they’re more “socially responsible” still. In Canada those who can afford SUVs buy them, it’s just that their numbers are smaller. Remember Herb Dhaliwal? Well, no, you probably don’t. But a couple of years back M. Chrétien made him minister of natural resources, and he certainly got through a lot of them. He drove around like a Hamas warlord in a three-ton Cadillac Escalade. That’s bigger than my SUV and I’m in favour of global warming. The difference is that the high living of a Liberal cabinet minister is confined, north of the border, mainly to Liberal cabinet ministers while down south it’s more widely available.
In American Backlash, Adams shifts his autoimmune deficiency syndrome into top gear. He’s much taken by the social significance of “extreme makeover” television, especially MTV’s Pimp My Ride. Have you seen this show? I haven’t. And nor have most Americans. That’s the point about today’s culture. “Popular culture” as a whole is popular, but in today’s fragmented market it’s a jostle of competing unpopular popular cultures. As the critic Stanley Crouch likes to say, if you make a movie and 10 million people go see it, you’ll gross $100 million—and 96 per cent of the population won’t have to be involved. That alone should caution anyone about reading too much into individual examples of “popular” culture. But Adams goes further, and on the basis of a largely un watched show in which viewers have their cars made over, posits a vast thesis about Americans’ relationship to their vehicles. That’s like Kinsey basing his conclusions about sexual behaviour on a porn store video of a guy nailing his goat.
Oh, and, as it happens, the “makeover” TV craze—like the “reality” shows and American Idol —comes from Britain. There’s a thesis on the death of American TV in there but not on the death of the American Dream.
Mr. Adams’ celebrity in his native land on the basis of these two books is remarkable. He may be smugly Canadian in his social values but he’s all-American in the skill with which he’s parlayed this shtick onto the bestseller lists. If he were in California, he’d be like Arnie, smoking big cigars while cruising Beverly Hills in his brand-new Hummer. But, as he’s in Ontario, I’m sure he’ll do the responsible thing and treat himself to a secondhand ’86 Honda Civic. M
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