Anti-Americanism in Canada wears a smiling face and considers itself both innocent and morally superior. But it has always seemed to me among the ugliest manifestations of the Canadian spirit, and a self-inflicted wound on our intellectual life. Last week, in the wake of the Sept. 11 atrocities, my readers offered new insights into it.
A piece I wrote for the National Post on Sept. 14, about Canadian anti-Americanism in the new context created by terrorism, attracted more e-mail than anything else I've written. Full of emotion, crammed with usually hidden resentments, these letters taught me several things about a subject I've studied for years.
First, I learned that many Canadians understand and dislike what one of them called "this most debilitating Canadian malaise" but have felt they either couldn't or shouldn't articulate their misgivings. A correspondent told me, "I have waited years to read something like this." I enjoyed the Montreal reader who called me a spoilsport because the heading on my piece said U.S.-bashing is no longer a game -- as he wrote, "What other game do Toronto intellectuals know?" Another reader said I was sure to be hated by the Toronto intelligentsia and a third said it was "very brave of you as a member of the arts community to take such stands." That's generous, but inaccurate. We have not yet reached the point where we ostracize each other for our views.
Many Canadians are deeply conflicted on the United States, and in my observation these conflicts lead to an uneasy and almost shameful sense of envy. My acquaintances include hard-hitting anti-American nationalists who preach a powerful keep-out-the-barbarians rhetoric on cultural policy but nevertheless follow with orgasmic fervour the Toronto Blue Jays of the American League. There are journalists who could never have formed their styles without studying American predecessors yet feel they can and should condescend to American culture. A British Columbia man, upset about the lumber dispute, wrote to me that he dislikes Americans because they change the rules when things don't go their way. On the other hand, he and his wife plan in future to spend six months a year in San Diego.
I heard from many Americans living in Canada who understand this subject better than I ever will. They resent reflexive anti-Americanism but believe they should not disclose their feelings, as if to do so would mark them as ungrateful immigrants. Sept. 11 seems to have changed some of them. One wrote: "I have lived, by choice, in Canada since 1993. Frequently, I have felt the need to apologize for being born and raised American. Never again." I've been astonished by the number of Americans who feel they are objects of contempt. In private life, this runs deeper than even I suspected.
An American graduate student in Western Canada wrote to tell me of years spent dealing with anti-American prejudice. Educated Canadians often frame their comments as jokes but make it clear they are not really joking. After Sept. 11, a student asked her: "Don't you really think the Americans had it coming to them?" If her skin were not white, she says, this hostility would be obviously racist. "This week has been a very lonely week for an American in this country." Still, she believes she's not allowed to complain. She didn't want her name or university published.
Those who have family links on both sides of the border find the situation especially embarrassing. One reader: "As a Canadian American living in Victoria for 17 years, I have been amazed at the prevalence of toxic, low-level anti-Americanism." Since he could easily pass for Canadian, he often overhears anti-American insults. When he discloses his background, "The usual response is that I don't seem like an American to them." (I've often heard that from Canadians speaking of Americans in the third person; they apparently don't know or care that this is precisely what anti-Semites say in the same circumstance.) Another Canadian American wrote from Burnaby to point out that the Canadians he knows, when not dismissing Americans as yahoos, spend their time watching American movies while dressed in American clothes.
The half-dozen readers who disagreed with me ranged from the thoughtful (as good friends of the Americans we should also be their friendly critics) to the paranoid. One conspiracy theorist said that the Sept. 11 events were organized by the Bush administration. Another, accusing me of McCarthyism, signed himself, "Yours in utter disgust." There was a reader who said U.S. propaganda has been so successful that many people don't notice when democracy is equated with capitalism. She apparently knows of a country which has democracy without economic freedom, a place of which I've never heard.
An Ontario man now at Harvard wrote to say (with some justice, I'm afraid) "It is in the Canadian arts community where this attitude is most carefully cultivated -- to most embarrassing effect. I'm often amazed that no one else seems to notice it, so deeply has it been woven into the fabric of our cultural institutions."
In recent decades, these distorted feelings about the United States have encouraged us to join their enemies in finding them intransigent or greedy. We have purposely not noticed how easygoing they have been on countless occasions. U.S. diplomats have shown prodigious tolerance for terrorists and have always been anxious to sit down and talk so that even the vilest killers can have one more chance to change into what international opinion calls "moderates." Last week, when Yasser Arafat, of all people, proclaimed himself the enemy of terrorism and gave blood to Americans for a photo opportunity, Americans were still so polite that (as far as I know) not one of them uttered a single bitter laugh in public.
But they are changing, under the influence of Sept. 11. They now find themselves called to a great and risky enterprise. As it happens, we Canadians share most of their values and much of their culture. For those reasons, and our proximity, we should be able to understand them better than anyone else and work with them to frustrate the nihilism being spread by a distorted form of Islam. Instead, we find ourselves limited in our response to the great world conflict of this era. We are at times nervous, cagey, scared, reluctant -- and all because of this gaping self-inflicted wound, our thoughtless but pervasive anti-Americanism.