Adam Gopnik’s latest book is A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism.
Praise is only meaningful when surprising. We want to be praised for the things we aspire to, however poorly, rather those we have accomplished, however well. If La Rochefoucauld or some other French worthy didn’t say that, he should have – and he might have added that unglamorous accomplishment is particularly hard to love: No one wants to be praised for having a sturdily successful middle-class marriage. Self-praise of unglamorous accomplishment, meanwhile, is the worst of all. Praise yourself at a dinner party for having sustained a moderate middle-class marriage for many years, and watch your fellow diners snore.
Canada, I have noted in the many decades I’ve spent passing back and forth between my Canadian and American homes, hates being praised for what it is: a model liberal nation. If, as a half-Canadian, you praise Canada in those terms, as I’ve done in print on several occasions, it encourages not a smile of assumed Canadian complacency, but more often, at least in the more articulate quarters, pure fury. I recall being upbraided on this point on a Canadian podcast a year or so ago, as the podcaster listed the horrors and injustices that, of course, litter Canadian history as they do that of every society and nation. He was doing it, though, not so much as self-indictment but in a fight for an overlooked seriousness, as though bad behaviours and historical black holes were a sign of national maturity. (Then he conceded that I probably had a point; it was a Canadian podcast.)
This truth says something significant about the nature of national praise, something significant about the nature of Canada, but also something crucially significant about the nature of liberal nations, and about the rhetorical deficit of liberalism.
What it says about praise is universal: We all like aspiration more than accomplishment. People in France don’t like being praised for the civilized life they live – they often won’t go to bistros or cafés, or walk home with baguettes under their arms, for fear of seeming too characteristic. (They do go on having adulterous love affairs, to be sure – there are some national traditions that we cannot traduce even when they have become painfully stereotyped.) The thing it says about Canada, of course, is that Canada is a reflexively courteous country, which dislikes boasting and boasters even on its own behalf. The great Canadian writers might be described as patriotic in the root sense – they are of their place – but they are hardly national in the belligerent way of Americans. Even Canadian nationalism is more defensive than aggressive.
One of my favourite family stories is about my much-loved mother-in-law, the pioneering Canadian filmmaker and director Gudrun Bjerring, who, when she was a young woman in the 1930s, won an important academic prize at the University of Manitoba. Confiding the news to her Icelandic-Canadian mother, she was told at once: “That’s wonderful. But don’t tell anyone!” Those Canadian habits of modesty, with its assumed mockery of pretension, are one of the reasons for the primacy of Canadian comedians in American humour. (Even in Quebec, where older Gallic habits of eloquence are still in place, one would much rather be seen as one of the guys than as one who stands above the rest.)
Yet, the truth is that Canada is a model liberal nation – meaning that it’s a nation built on the two founding liberal premises. First, that good enough is good enough, that sustaining social sympathy, even if it means accepting a permanently imperfect existence, counts for more than Utopian schemes. Second, that compromise and conciliation are not weak words pointing toward a mediocre centre, but magical words pointing toward semi-miraculous consequences: sustained social peace and prosperity and successful pluralism.
More concretely, Canada is living proof that liberalism need not be “atomizing,” or a solvent of community. In fact, the great Canadian liberal politicians of the mid-19th century, like all of their peers in the Western world who helped turn liberalism into an effective political practice, were rooted in the project of reinforcing common bonds. The liberal revolutions of that era were unifying revolutions, bringing together different ethnic groups under the common umbrella of one nation.
That kind of liberalism was supremely preoccupied with building coherent communities across ethnic lines. One turns again to John Ralston Saul’s “founding incident” of Canadian history, when, in 1849, Robert Baldwin, the Protestant leader of Upper Canada, today’s Ontario, and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, the leader of the almost exclusively Catholic Quebec, then called Lower Canada, joined together against an anti-Catholic mob in Montreal, for both national unity and liberal rights. They had every reason to break their communities into two warring tribes, but LaFontaine and Baldwin defied the rioting English-speaking crowd, standing next to one another (literally, on a balcony) to make a nation – to demonstrate that national unity was possible on a bi-ethnic and even religious basis.
On the basis of that non-violent but stoically determined demonstration, the Canadian nation was born. No one has ever defined model liberal values better than LaFontaine, when he wrote beautifully that “[Canada] is our homeland, as it should be the adopted homeland of the different populations that come from the diverse parts of the globe. … Their children should be, like us, and above all, Canadians. In addition to social equality, we need political liberty. Without it, we will have no future; without it, our needs cannot be satisfied. … These values are stronger than laws, and nothing we know of will weaken them.”
Social equality and political liberty – one depends on the other. That’s the key liberal idea – that there’s no choosing between the two, because they are the same thing seen at different moments of social evolution. Canada certainly depends for its persistence on a neutral liberal state. It is sometimes surprising for even a bilingual Canadian like me to see bilingual notices on every project that involves the federal government, even in places where there are vanishingly few French speakers. The point is not to promote neutrality as a virtue in itself. Rather, these practices emerge out of the knowledge of how many passions reign in a nation, and from a desire to allow them to simmer without burning the house down.
The Canadian idea is that living side by side without an inspiring idea is in itself an inspiring idea. Compromise is for liberal democrats a form of courage – the greatest form of courage because historically compromise is the most unusual kind of action. Compromise is just another word for coalition, and coalition is the cosmopolitanism of the pragmatic-minded. You give up an absolutism, and gain an alliance. In one way, it’s an optimistic belief – that people know how to live together and are pretty good at the practice of co-existence given the chance. It’s not that hard. But it’s also pessimistic, inasmuch as we have to protect and strengthen and reinforce the practice of co-existence with principles of pluralism. Solidarity stands down mobs, even in silence.
That’s exactly what we – or I – mean when we talk about the moral adventure of liberalism. It isn’t exactly like anything else in history, and the liberal institutions that we inherit are not like any other institutions. They may have begun as the possession of a limited ruling class, but their principles have proven themselves infinitely flexible in adopting to new members and participants. That’s simply what we mean when we call Canada a model liberal nation – not that it is better than other lands, but that it holds the means of its self-accounting in its own hands. Having grown up right through the rise of Quebec nationalism, with its understandable but often illiberal self-affirmation of linguistic particularism, going back to Montreal last week to speak at Leonard Cohen’s beloved synagogue, the Shaar Hashomayim, I could see a healthy, imperfect, good-enough-for-now evolution: a strongly bicultural city in the midst of a surrounding single nation. Far from national enough to please the Quebec nationalists, not always as cosmopolitan as it once may have been – Montreal remains a city of coalitions, that carries on.
Self-praise seems like self-approval. One need hardly enumerate all of the flaws and errors in the Canadian story. Indigenous people alone can tell us much. But in a way unique among fully historical societies, liberal institutions install a corrective conscience directly into the heart of our social life. That’s why new verdicts and fairer investigations have taken place through the independent judiciary, through open government inquiry, and perhaps above all through the safety of the workings of liberal universities that sustain habits of free inquiry – even when the inquiry is likely to be injurious to our pet histories or to our desire for historical oblivion. Knowing what we did wrong is part of being right. One need only compare this habit with the habits of authoritarian societies of left and right to recognize what an extraordinary historical anomaly it is.
Canada, of course, is hardly a stranger to populist currents. The story of Ontario’s Fords, placed alongside the Trumps, exists to refute, or reverse-spin, Marx’s famous dictum that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. This time, history happened first as farce and now as tragedy. (For that matter, one need only watch “Coach’s Corner” to understand the roots of populism and its quick connection to the celebration of bullying and violence.)
Which returns us to the question of complacency or self-congratulation. In general terms, this is a sin to be avoided – but we live in a moment when the liberal institutions – including that corrective conscience – are under global attack in a way that they have not been for a long time. And so the temptation is to make a kind of mirror-image Trumpism, a reverse Trumpism, where those habits of conciliation are shamed, and the necessity of confrontation put forward not as an occasional necessity but as an active virtue. Or, at best the kinds of liberal institutions that painstakingly protect French outside Quebec – or Judaism inside it – are treated as things to be taken for granted, obvious institutions, easily renewed after radical social change. Nothing in history suggests that this is so. Liberal institutions are as fragile to history as they are essential to social peace. To call Canada a model liberal nation is to call it a wildly imperfect, profoundly flawed, historically scarred, frequently hypocritical, needlessly rule-bound, often primly moralistic and sometimes selectively amnesiac country. Those are the good things. They are the attributes – or at least the aliments of abundance – of a healthy pluralistic society.
A model, after all, is not an ideal. An ideal exists to pursue in an unnameable future. A model is there to build from now.