by Kevin Burton
Today, the thoughts of a Canadian novelist and cultural commentator on the political and societal turmoil in the United States.
With much of the current commentary skewed either too far left or right to be believable, I thought it good to hear from a near neighbor. As a Canadian, Stephen Marche (pronounced mar-SHAY) has been forced to keep up with what has been going on with “the elephant next door.”
“Stephen Marche (born 1976) is a Canadian novelist, essayist, and cultural commentator,” according to Wikipedia. “He is an alumnus of The University of King’s College and of City College of New York (CUNY). In 2005, he received a doctorate in early modern English drama from the University of Toronto. He taught Renaissance drama at CUNY until 2007, when he resigned in order to write full-time.
What I bring you today was published Jan. 2 in the Globe and Mail, a newspaper published in five large Canadian cities.
Now, thoughts from Stephen Marche:
“In the old Road Runner cartoons, the Coyote doesn’t immediately fall when he sprints off the edge of a cliff. He can keep going for quite a while with no solid ground beneath him. It’s only when he looks down that he plunges to the bottom.”
“That’s America’s reality today. Its democracy ran off a cliff sometime in the middle of the past decade. And Americans are about to look down.”
“In 2022, the Supreme Court decision on abortion, whichever way it falls, will result in half the country feeling their court system is illegitimate. In 2022, elections will take place after an extended program to limit voting rights and intimidate electoral workers. Capitol police recently reported that threats against members of Congress have increased 107 per cent this year over last. America has sown the wind. The whirlwind is rising. Nobody wants to face the inevitable fallout, least of all America’s neighbors and allies.”
“For Canadians, the sudden, shocking vulnerability of the United States is unsettling on the deepest conceivable level. We are supposed to be the country that threatens to fall apart, not them. A referendum almost ended Canada as we know it when I was five, then again when I was 19. The United States, by contrast, has been, for most of my life, an undisputed icon of stability – the lynchpin of international law, the center of the global economy, the model democracy.”
“Pierre Trudeau said that living next to America was like sleeping beside an elephant – ‘one is affected by every twitch and grunt.’ But there’s something comfortable about sleeping beside an elephant. At least nobody else is going to roll over you.”
“The elephant is now on the rampage. The trends leading to this calamity have not been hard to detect: the hyper-partisanship afflicting government, the high levels of vertical and horizontal inequality, environmental degradation, the rapid decline of faith in institutions of all kinds. But the roots of the current American crisis go back to the very beginnings of the United States.”
“In his farewell address, George Washington was almost fantastically lucid about the situation the United States faces at this exact moment. ‘I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations,’ he warned. ‘This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.’ The founding father saw hyper-partisanship as the greatest danger to American democracy. Almost 250 years later, he’s been proven correct.”
“Washington issued his warning at the moment of supreme national and personal triumph. He wrote the farewell address – with help from Alexander Hamilton – at the end of his second term of office, as he was preparing to return to Mount Vernon. His archenemy, King George III, had admitted in private that if Washington relinquished his power and returned to his farm, he would be ‘the greatest man in the world.’ Washington had built an extraordinary country and was in the act of handing it over peacefully. Why, at this moment of personal moral supremacy, did he choose the dangers of partisanship as the subject of his speech?”
“The first U.S. president recognized the vulnerability that he himself had helped create – the vulnerability inherent to the glory of the American experiment. Difference is the core of the American experience. Difference is its genius. There has never been a country so comfortable with difference, so full of difference. The great insight of its founders was that they based government not on the drive toward consensus (like the early compacts that built Canada) but on the permission for disagreement. They structured U.S. government to ensure as little domination by one faction as possible.”
“But that only worked so long as there was a tension between the forces allowing difference and the forces insisting on unity. For 250 years, U.S. legal and political institutions provided a system through which to negotiate its incomparable competition of interests and perspectives, creating the world’s greatest democracy and economy in the process.”
“But once partisan drive takes precedence over the national interest, it shreds the tension underlying the system. Unless both sides believe they’re on the same side, they aren’t. And once shared purpose disappears, it’s gone. A flaw lurked right at the core of the experiment, as flaws so often do in works of ambitious genius.”
Tomorrow, Marche’s thoughts on America’s future and Canada’s necessary reaction to it.