The American Gaze: Adam Gopnik’s Canada

Jerry Bannister

Adam Gopnik’s recent article, “We could all have been Canadians,” published in the May 15th issue of the New Yorker, has attracted considerable attention on social media among Canadian historians.[1] I’ve already chimed in with a short comment on Christopher Moore’s blog.[2]   With the sun shining hopefully on my back deck this morning, I wanted to give Gopnik’s article a closer read. I am not interested in offering a critique – testing magazine articles for their historical accuracy is like shooting fish in a barrel – and the comments on Twitter about Gopnik’s lack of appreciation for the violence and oppression in Canada’s past are, in fact, right. Gopnik does overlook, downplay, and misrepresent the violence of settler colonialism.

What I would like to do this morning is to explore the ways in which Gopnik portrays Canada. I am interested in the stereotypes, myths, and tropes on which Gopnik relies. If American liberals have a selective memory and a skewed view of Canada, I am interested in what gets selected, what gets seen through their eyes. I am interested in this because, far too often, when we criticize something for relying on myths, we just leave it at that. We shoot our fish, pat ourselves on the back, and walk away. My worry is that, in doing so, we end up simplifying a simplification. If the American gaze relies on uncritical generalizations, our view of that gaze itself trades in generalizations. They see us as less violent, more polite, less greedy, and more rational. We are, in terms of national myths, the peaceable kingdom.

Well, the first thing one notices about Gopnik’s Canada is that it’s remarkably unimportant.   The shortened version of the title, in the table of contents, is what the article is really about: Rethinking the American Revolution. Gopnik isn’t all that interested in Canada: in an article that clocks in at just over 4,500 words, Canada gets by my count less than 600. So the first observation to be made about Gopnik’s Canada is that there just isn’t much there there. American liberals’ gaze towards Canada may be rose-coloured, but more than anything it’s myopic. They just don’t seem to see much.   As I pointed out on Chris Moore’s blog, the New Yorker has always been a quintessentially American magazine, written by and for people living in big American cities.   As any long-term subscriber can tell you (I’ve subscribed for over 20 years), the New Yorker is more apt to feature articles about Iceland than about Canada. With some notable exceptions – particularly the work of Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood – the magazine’s writers show little interest in Canada or things Canadian.   This, I suppose, may constitute what we can call the first American liberal myth about Canada: that it’s uninteresting.

Gopnik’s myth of Canada may be short, but it reveals much about the American gaze in 2017.   It invokes the standard laundry list of national things that we lack: no violent revolution, no “peculiar institution,” no Civil War, less violence, and “less inclined to celebrate the desperado over the peaceful present” (whatever that means).   What we enjoy is what America lacks: peaceful evolution, social-democratic commonwealth, and more cultural sanity, social equality, and public rationality. Gopnik draws on his own Canadian experience to report, “In Canada, ninth grade disclosed a history of uneasy compromise duality, and the constant search for temporary nonviolent solutions to intractable divides.” Our gentle break with Britain came “without any of the elaborate paraphernalia of patriotism attached to it.” We got peaceful continuity; they got Trump.   When Gopnik pulls back to offer a qualification, he immediately follows up with a reaffirmation, lest the reader pause to reconsider whether this Anti-America is not all it’s cracked up to be:

The Canadian experience was not free of sin – as the indefensible treatment of the First Nations demonstrates – and was, as well, not free of the “colonial cringe” that bedevils so many countries overattached to the motherland. (London and Paris, in this view, meant too much for too long to too many ambitious Canadians.) Still, there is something to be said, however small, for government by an efficient elected élite devoted to compromise.

We may be small, in other words, but our elites know how to keep Kevin O’Leary out of power.

Our supposed virtues may come from what we lack, but even this small myth has telling absences. Gopnik’s Canada differs significantly from the liberal stereotypes that dominated much of the late-twentieth century. It makes no mention of peacekeepers, multilateralism, multiculturalism, Trudeau (elder or younger), draft dodgers, underground railroad, or the refusal to join the war in Iraq in 2003. It still emphasizes the monarchy – Gopnik reports that the Queen’s face is still on our $20 bill – but, for an argument that turns on our polity, even the stereotype of our political system says nothing about Confederation, “peace, order, and good government,” the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, federalism, or even our much-lauded health-care system.   The 1972 Summit Series still makes the cut, but, for those looking for familiar national tropes, it’s slim pickings.   Even French Canada, which usually arouses interest among American liberals, generates little attention beyond passing references to uneasy compromise. Instead, Gopnik emphasizes how Australia and Canada share a twinned history of peaceful evolution from Britain, and this blurring of national lines serves to fuse disparate historical experiences into a single commonwealth doppelgänger.

I read somewhere that much of culture depends on the stories we tell ourselves about others. Gopnik’s story is not really about others, and it’s certainly not really about how Americans could be Canadians. To his credit, Gopnik tells us the question that genuinely interests him: “In plain American, is Donald Trump a bug or a feature of the American heritage?” For American liberals in 2017, this is the existential question. The election of Donald Trump has already wrought terrible damage, domestically and internationally, and to the list of casualties we should add the historical and international vision of American liberals. The crisis in American public life has created a black hole that relentlessly sucks away attention and interest in anything other than Trump. Americans liberals want to know, quite rightly, how they got into this mess and how they can get out of it.   As their neighbours, we should be sympathetic and supportive as they struggle against authoritarianism.  As we follow events in the United States, we should pay attention to how that struggle shapes national stories of others and ourselves.

Jerry Bannister is an associate professor of history at Dalhousie University.



Featured image: Photograph by “Lzee~by~the~Sea,” 2015, via Flickr, Creative Commons License (Attribution 2.0).

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