Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.
Is Canadian exceptionalism a thing? It’s always been fair comment for us to say how this country is not like all the others, but in the shadow of the Trump presidency, that whole new era of crazy, there is new energy in this narrative of difference. Veteran commentators, many of them friends of mine, have dilated at some length about the uniqueness of the Canadian experiment.
Here’s the basic argument. Canada, unfettered by what Michael Ignatieff condemned as “ethnic nationalism,” has carved out a whole new way of being a country.
It is post-national. Its banking system is centralized and immune from wacky market fluctuation. Its health-care system is impeccably public. And above all, its immigration policy is tolerant and open-minded, making for the truly multicultural polity that provokes the world’s envy.
Now, far be it for me to dispute this vision. In fact, it is so familiar that some of us have been touting it lo these many long years. Back in 1999, I wrote a book that defended Canada’s postnational advantages and suggested we should be proud of our transcendence of the tired narratives of identity based on bloodline or ideology. I wasn’t the only one: Richard Gwyn and John Ralston Saul, plus a few other familiar names, made their own versions of the argument.
Right now, the advocates are slightly younger (and cooler) Canadian intellectuals, such as Stephen Marche (in The Walrus) and Charles Foran (in The Guardian). In a country as small as this one, it can be no surprise that I count these two men as friends. It happens that I also claim friendship with Andrew Potter, a former graduate student, who mocked Mr. Foran’s Guardian article on his Twitter feed, even as he is about to convene a serious conference on the topic of exceptionalism that features still more friends.
To repeat: It’s a small country. Maybe that’s the true exceptionalism in play here? Anyway, stories about how we are unique, paired with push-back replies, feel to me like those predictable-as-the-weather Canadian weather stories, where writers deplore the inability of once-staunch Canadians to deal with cold and snow. Were we ever really so robust that -30 C temperatures and a blizzard were just, you know, a lark? I doubt it.
I likewise doubt the new tales of exceptionalism, which have the feeling of a national theodicy. You remember the idea: Theodicy is the claim that God’s will is inevitably working itself out in this world, never mind all signs to the contrary. We may confront vast stretches of misery and suffering, but that is all part of the plan! As the refrain goes, paraphrased from the philosopher Leibniz, everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds!
After the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which devastated the city and killed thousands of innocents, Voltaire was moved to lampoon this sad, evil idea. His satire Candide (1759), a kind of proto-novel, remains one of the essential texts in the literature of enlightenment and good sense. The young protagonist, Candide, is a devotee of the new Leibnizian philosophy; his outrageous misfortunes, bravely borne, eventually force a change of mind.
Canadian exceptionalism is the new Leibnizian philosophy. The reasons for this are instructive, even if the argument itself is suspect.
We might note, first, that the term itself is tainted – another borrowing from the expansive republic to the south. U.S. exceptionalism is the covering-law theory that assumes the United States, different from all other countries, can do no wrong and brook no objection. Mr. Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” (#MAGA) is just the most recent expression of this perpetually self-renewing delusion.
Worse, though, is the self-congratulation contained in the position. Don’t get me wrong: This is a great country, and I would not choose to live anywhere else. But I don’t think we Canadians have any special purchase on justice, diversity or fellow feeling. This is not the best of all possible countries, as recent arrivals and indigenous peoples will certainly attest. We are as rife as anyone else in intolerance, bigotry and ignorance.
Unless and until we confront these facts about our political life, tales of exceptional virtue will continue to strike a sour note. Sorry, friends.Report Typo/Error
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