Anti-Americanism, a staple of cultural and political life in Canada for longer than anyone can remember, has begun to feel different since the first pictures of the World Trade Center towers appeared on our TV screens Tuesday morning. We can't hope that anti-Americanism as a habit of thought was buried beneath the rubble of those falling buildings, but there's no doubt that events are forcing us to reconsider this persistent strain in our national psyche.
The process of coming to terms with September 11 will include rethinking, in ways that may involve pain and embarrassment, Canadian attitudes to America. In particular we will have to compare them with the attitudes of the Islamic extremists who motivate suicide bombers by calling the United States the Great Satan. Do our views, and those of the world's most dangerous fanatics, have anything in common?
We usually take this Canadian prejudice lightly, as a kind of foible, but we may have to begin seriously questioning it. Anti-Americanism is not the game that we have so often considered it. America is the most vital and progressive country in the world, the most significant source of democratic impulses, our best friend by far, and the place where much of our culture originates. If our intent is to be authentic and consistent, can we afford to share anything with those who base their politics on hating America?
Perhaps we should acknowledge that reflexive anti-Americanism (as opposed to honest disagreement with the United States) is a poison afflicting large parts of the world, a poison we should purge from our own system.
The late Frank Underhill, the University of Toronto historian who in 1933 wrote the founding document of Canadian democratic socialism, considered the everyday anti-Americanism of his fellow intellectuals laughable. He used to describe Canadians as the great pioneers of this sport; he suggested that foreign countries eager to work up public hatred of America should send delegations to Toronto to see it done by experts.
He of course knew that the founding of Canada was in part an act of anti-Americanism, a rejection of the new Republic by people who came north as United Empire Loyalists because they chose to remain subjects of the Crown. But by the 20th century this historical movement had evolved into a neurotic and unthinking resistance to American ideas and even a kind of snobbery, both unfounded and pathetic. Typically, anti-Americanism in Canada focuses on all that's tasteless or greedy in the United States and compares it with all that's most admirable in Canada. This is now the one form of prejudice that is accepted almost universally in Canada, tolerated in university classrooms and at dinner parties where racism and homophobia are considered shameful.
We rarely argue about this subject, and therefore rarely sort out our ideas. Our habit is to dismiss periodic outbreaks of anti-Americanism as minor incidents that we can quickly forget -- the way that the Liberal party, for instance, forgot 1988.
That was the year that the Conservatives destroyed Canada forever by signing a Free Trade Treaty that gave the Americans total power over every aspect of our life. Or so their opponents predicted.
The Liberal leader, John Turner, based his national election campaign on fear and hatred of the Americans -- and came fairly close to winning. But when the election was over and Brian Mulroney's Tories had signed the agreement, the Liberals began a long, furtive creep toward the Conservative position. By the time they were returned to power in 1993, with John Turner forgotten and Jean Chrétien the Prime Minister, the Liberals had adopted, without debate, the very policy they had denounced as treason. Having torn the country apart emotionally, turning husbands against wives and parents against children, they simply abandoned the subject. They probably think of it today as a minor incident, another political gimmick that didn't quite work, but surely it left a residue of anti-U.S. distrust.
In the arts we deal with this ingrained prejudice differently. If we disagree with anti-American artists and works of art, we simply ignore their content and talk about style, form and freedom of expression. So anti-Americanism, no matter how silly or inconsistent, flourishes unhindered. We see this perverse approach to American power and influence as simply another form of creative expression.
The late Greg Curnoe, whose art was given a major showing last winter at the Art Gallery of Ontario, made anti-Americanism more or less the centre of his intellectual life. As one of the stars of Canadian painting, he argued that a healthy Canadian culture required an intense anti-Americanism. Sometimes he realized that he sounded foolish, particularly when he acknowledged his love of American poets, comic books and jazz musicians. He even parodied himself by producing a manifesto demanding that American accents be banned. But there was no doubt that passionate feeling against the United States lay beneath much of his art. He came to prominence in the Vietnam period, when Canadians were particularly hostile to the United States, but his attitudes were also based (in my view) on envy and on the failure of Americans to appreciate him. "My work," he once remarked, "is about resisting as much as possible the tendency of American culture to overwhelm other cultures." He denied he was xenophobic: "I'm only xenophobic about one nation, and that's the United States."
The point is that no one argued against his ideas, or against the hundreds of other manifestations of anti-Americanism in culture. Those of us who (critically) loved America just saw anti-Americanism as one more distortion of the Canadian spirit, perhaps not a deeply important one. (I was one of many reviewers who admired Curnoe's art and took a genially indulgent view of his eccentric politics, on a sort of boys-will-be-boys basis.)
It is an eternal truth of politics that, no matter what position you take, you will discover that your side includes people you wish were on the other side. This is where all anti-Americans now find themselves. More than anything else, the crimes of September 11 were an extreme expression of loathing for the United States and its ideals.
Those who rule large populations through their version of religious doctrine and by killing their critics have excellent reasons for this loathing. America threatens every aspect of their existence, because America represents modernity in its most aggressive and developed form. America puts science above religion and puts free speech above both of them. Adapting democracy to culture, it organizes the mass media according to the tastes of the public -- a system that appals elites elsewhere in the world, particularly when the workers choose American rather than local culture. At the same time, America strives to live by pluralism, the conviction that people of different beliefs and races can live beside each other in peace, trade with each other, even learn from each other. In the effort to make this idea work Americans have often failed spectacularly, but they have persisted; and today their successes are vastly more important than their failures. That can only dismay those who believe in nations made up of populations that are ethnically and spiritually uniform.
The question of "influence" matters most. Even in countries normally allied with America, like France and Canada, American influence is viewed with suspicion, and barriers are erected against it. In Canada, typically, we judge many of our cultural institutions by how well they protect us against American influence. We most often defend public broadcasting, for instance, not because we love it but because, being non-American, it theoretically defends us against the cultural power of the United States.
We seem not to realize that, like all people at all times, we are inevitably influenced from somewhere. It seems nothing less than natural that the chief influence on most of the world, in our time, is the United States: the Americans, after all, deploy more talent and money than any other culture, so their way of life penetrates into more corners of the world, including places where it meets bitter resistance.
As alliances are formed and sides taken in the aftermath of September 11, much of the argument will come down to a relatively simple question: is U.S. influence, in sum, more harmful or more beneficial? It seems obvious to me that it is infinitely more beneficial. Accepting this reality means understanding the United States rather than reinforcing prejudices against it. That being so, the anti-Americanism that we have so casually practised for so long now begins to seem insincere and irrelevant.