If you’re an American, here’s a mystery for you: there’s a good chance you’re bored to tears when you hear that Canada is often ranked a better place to live than the US. For example, in the 2013 OECD Better Life Index, Canada ranks third while the US ranks sixth in quality of life; according to the 2013 UN Human Development Index, Canada ranks thirteenth and the US sixteenth when the results are adjusted for inequality; in a 2006 study, the US was found to have the ninth lowest social mobility among nine developed countries, while Canada was among the four countries with the highest social mobility; and for five years in a row, Canada topped the WEC’s ranking of countries’ banking systems, which helps explain why Canada withstood the 2008 housing market crash better than most developed countries.
There are many reasons Americans may have not to take such rankings seriously. National pride explains why you would prefer not to hear about how some foreign country is in some ways preferable to yours. Also, many Americans distrust the global institutions that run these studies. In any case, the US scores higher than Canada in certain areas, so the studies might be thought to cancel each other out. Moreover, a militarily superpowerful country like the US might be expected to brush off praise of much weaker countries like Canada. Also, Canada depends on the US for trade, since most of Canada’s exports go south across the border, so the US helps support Canada.
But the mystery remains why there’s not just skepticism here, but sleep-inducing boredom and why Canada specifically is felt to be so boring. After all, numerous European countries also typically score higher than the US in these sorts of studies, but they don’t have a reputation for being so dull. Indeed, this reputation precedes Canadians wherever they might travel around the world. If you Google “Canada boring country,” you get 17 million hits. In fact, there’s a global meme that Canada is, hands down, the world’s dullest country. If the name “Canada” is heard any place in the world, there’s a good chance listeners will yawn or offer some excuse to leave, whereas if “United States” is uttered, people will gather around, raise their voice and shake their fists. So why is the world so bored with Canada? And does this reaction prevent countries like the US from emulating Canada in certain respects or does it at least ensure that Americans won’t appeal to Canada as an example when they discuss their social issues?
Modern and Postmodern Liberalism
A number of reasons for the boredom come to mind. Canada is relatively safe and peaceful, and so Canada doesn’t often make international headlines, because the media prefer stories about conflict. So Canada is less famous than the US and not just because the US is home to the world’s most powerful entertainment industry. Canada is also a relatively young country whose history is less eventful than the American one. Also, much of Canada is snowy and that restricts options for outdoor activities. But the reason for Canada’s reputation that intrigues me is a political one, which has to do with the country’s relatively liberal values.
To see how politics is relevant here, you should consider the difference between modern and postmodern liberalism. “Modern liberalism” is almost redundant, since the liberal attitude a few centuries ago was just the humanistic one that altered Europe after the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the shift from feudalism to merchant capitalism, the Scientific Revolution, and the spread of science-centered Enlightenment philosophy. “Freedom of the individual!” was the rallying cry of the Age of Reason, when our capacity for rational self-control was celebrated as a source of human rights and as a promise of progress in all areas, not just in science and technology.
But then scientists made some discoveries that shook people’s confidence in the prospect of personal and social advances. Darwin explained how our species is in fact continuous with the animals we eat, enslave, or hunt for sport; Einstein, Heisenberg, and Gödel showed that knowledge is relative and partial, not absolute; and Freud popularized the discovery of the irrational unconscious, while cognitive psychologists today expose the myriad biases we have and the fallacies we’re prone to commit because of how the human brain evolved. The World Wars and the genocidal dictatorships of the last century confirmed the suspicion that early modernists got carried away when they speculated that utopias would await us in the near future if only natural inequalities were overcome by social systems that allow individuals to pursue their happiness, systems such as democracy and capitalism. Perhaps our curiosity and our ability to learn are our greatest strengths, but apparently we’re animals first and foremost, regardless of our fantasies to the contrary--at least, that’s the modern assumption which set the stage for current liberalism.
And so we entered a postmodern period of malaise and ennui, of cynicism, apathy, anxiety, and moral relativism. Faith in modern myths of the glories of Reason and personal Freedom were hardly helped when modern experiments in rational socialism ended in catastrophe. For example, from Marx’s prediction of a democratic uprising of the workers against capitalism, to Lenin’s pragmatic realization that a vanguard party would be needed to lead the revolution, to Stalin’s totalitarian repression of the workers due to his unending fear of capitalist sympathizers, there’s a predictable decline and confrontation of humanistic myths with natural reality.
Against the myths that Reason sets us free or that society in general can advance like science or technology, there’s the disquieting fact that the default organization of groups in most social species, from fish to birds to mammals and primates, is the dominance hierarchy, or pecking order, in which the majority sacrifice their wish for an equal share of the resources, in return for protection by the all-powerful alpha members of the group. This is what Trickle-down economics is really about and it’s also why there are Too Big to Fail plutocratic institutions that hold many modern democracies hostage. Moreover, there’s the pragmatic Iron Law of Oligarchy, according to which the larger a group, the more power within it has to be concentrated so that the group’s parts can be efficiently managed. Finally, there’s Lord Acton’s adage that power tends to corrupt people. In short, there’s a force of social gravity, as it were, which establishes as the default social order a pyramidal hierarchy that inevitably corrupts the minority in charge and threatens to bring down the whole society. Thus, modernists put their liberal (rationalistic, individualistic, hedonistic) ideals into practice only to have the socialist paradises come crashing down, humiliated by the force of social gravity.
The Dearth of Canadian Culture
What has all this to do with Canada? Well, for the most part Canadians are postmodern liberals, like most Europeans. Of course, the modern infrastructures of democracy and capitalism are still in place in these societies, but postmodern liberals are chastened by the collapse of socialist utopias and so they only gesture towards living up to modern ideals of skepticism, equality, and human rights. Like the US, these societies are stable and so they avoid extremes or else their opposite extremes balance each other out. But whereas European culture is informed by a long, rich history, Canadian liberalism has no prior traditions to fall back on, the premodern native Canadian ones notwithstanding. There’s British Parliamentary procedure, but Canadians haven’t felt emotionally tied to Britain for a long time. And so Canadians find themselves coping with the cultural vacuum that remains after the loss of faith in modern myths. European liberals have their countries’ long histories and the US is special for the depth of its conservative backlash against modernism, but alas, Canada is uniquely vapid among developed nations.
This cultural emptiness is apparent from Canada’s multiculturalism and political correctness, and from its fetishes for politeness and technocratic efficiency. I’m a Canadian citizen, I grew up in Canada, and I remember learning about the difference between Multiculturalism and the Melting Pot. Canada welcomes immigrants from all over the world and allows them to retain their native cultural identities, whereas in the US, which is also home to many immigrants, they assimilate by converting to the American faith. Canada is like a patchwork quilt or a hotel, whereas the US is more like a homogeneous stew. However, immigrants to Canada have no choice but to keep to themselves and to practice their native traditions, since Canada has no distinguishing modern traditions. True, Canadian culture isn’t entirely vacuous; there are cultural differences between conservative Alberta, liberal Quebec, and elitist Ontario, for example. (If I caused you to yawn just now, dear reader, by using the names of some Canadian provinces, I do apologize.) But whatever habits Canadians have naturally formed over the last couple of centuries, they’re not compelling enough to challenge the millennia-old mores of immigrants from India or China. The oldest, most authentic culture that Canadian liberals can call theirs is just modern European humanism, but for the above reasons this culture is out of favour. Thus, Canadian postmodern liberals are left in the lurch.
In its degraded, postmodern form, the ideal of equality amounts to moral relativism, and so liberals think they’re being “fair” and “tolerant” when they regard all cultures as equal, when each is allowed to flourish as long as it doesn’t act like a weed and strangle the other potted plants. Thus, Canada is like a museum in which you can wander the halls and look over the specimens, keeping your distance for fear of passing judgment, of going native and infecting yourself with the disease of culture. Better to be aloof and neutral, implies the postmodern liberal, but the cost of this rubberstamping of equality is insipidity. Canadians prefer the view from nowhere, but someplace is more interesting than no place.
Postmodern liberals resort to political correctness in the absence of their faith in any myth to rationalize their vestigial ideals. Instead of trusting in the sacredness of secular humanistic principles, to the point of being willing to die for them, these liberals believe in nothing beyond the clichéd, genetically-determined instincts, such as the love of kith and kin. Thus, Canadian culture is defined largely by a dehumanizing, legalistic bureaucracy, the imperatives being to maintain the status quo, to keep the museum’s hallways tidy, and above all to follow the plethora of signs on the walls. Canadians are so obedient to authority figures that in many Canadian suburbs, people don’t lock their doors during the day. There’s no fear of intruders, because most Canadians are passive. But instead of anything as colourful as a religion to rationalize their need to be nice, there’s just reflexive obedience to often stale conventions. The difference between a moral principle and a politically correct rule is that the former has some emotional weight because it taps into a person’s deepest convictions, about God, freewill, fear of death, or some other primordial concern, whereas the latter is like a smile that doesn’t reach the eyes. You can observe Canadian political correctness in action by comparing American to Canadian talk radio shows. In the American ones, both the hosts and the callers rant and rave with hysterical, typically irrational appeals to this or that grotesque narrative of current events. Not only is there little emotion in the Canadian shows, but the hosts usually choose to discuss the most dreary and trivial of matters, such as whether some politician went over the line by using this word rather than that one. The recent scandal involving Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford is an exception that proves the rule.
Canadians are politically correct because they’re preoccupied with being polite, nice, and fair. These are signs of anticulture, of a fear of being called to take a stand, because there’s no ground beneath you. If most Canadians were asked to explain their liberal values or to prove to a terrorist, for example, that human rights and liberties should be respected, they’d repeat some slogans they’d heard in the mainstream media and then they’d sputter, fall silent, and hang their heads. Because Canadian liberalism derives from modernism and Canadians haven’t had the history or the stomach for an American-style backlash, Canadian Christianity is a sad, dejected Frankenstein’s monster, a jumbled abomination that you never take out of your closet because it’s so hideous. Most Canadians couldn’t appeal to God’s will or to the words of the Bible to justify their morality, because they’re too liberal (modern) to do so with a straight face. Meanwhile, the secular, rationalistic defenses of liberal values have come to naught in the postmodern limbo, so Canadians can only smile and nod like Stepford wives.
Wind-up do-gooders need a well-oiled machine in which to run along their grooves, and so there’s a giant government bureaucracy responsible for all of those signs you see in Canada. Above all, the Canadian elite want to be efficient, to eliminate waste and to avoid mistakes, all of which distract Canadians from pondering whether the underlying assumptions of their liberal, modern way of life are still credible. Canadians often complain about the fact that their political leaders have no vision for Canada’s future, that they don’t tackle the big issues but take on meager projects piecemeal, pandering to useful demographics in the professional fashion, but lacking the authenticity of a true representative of Canadians, someone who knows what Canada’s about and believes so strongly in the Canadian way of life and mission that he or she is willing to take a stand and keep Canada on the straight and narrow path.
The Canadian Liberal Party looks to Justin Trudeau, the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, as the godsend to motivate the Liberals, but this is a case study in the hollowness of postmodern liberalism. (Again I apologize if I’ve made you sleepy by using the names of some Canadian politicians.) Justin Trudeau has little relevant experience and has only his name in common with his dashing father. Conservatives can get away with fantasizing that political skill is inherited, because they take seriously wacky myths about the divine right of kings and about the divinity of the blood of God’s chosen ones. Liberals have no such recourse, so the appeal of Justin Trudeau is literally as slight as the importance of his surname’s letters. That’s how toxic the liberal’s actual myths and ideals are now: Canadian liberals are more interested in the name of a bygone Liberal leader than in rethinking their values to suit the postmodern world.
Unlike in most developed countries, then, in which the natural environment provides only the backdrop for the people’s doings, the trees, valleys, rivers, and wildlife in Canada are the true stars of the Canadian show; Canadians themselves fade into the background. To be sure, Canadians are for the most part friendly, peaceful, safe, free, diverse, efficient, and relatively affluent. Canada is a hybrid society: individualistic without being anarchic and socialistic without being oppressive, and so Canadians enjoy a relatively high standard of living. But the cost of how these benefits are produced becomes apparent if we take the long view. In particular, we should keep in mind Oswald Spengler’s theory of how civilizations rise on the power of the ideals that first inspire a people, but then languish as the population becomes disillusioned. In Europe and the former North American colonies, this decline is reflected in the transition from the modern to the postmodern period.
Canadians are currently lounging in the dire peace that comes from lethargy as the modern Western civilization as a whole wanes, as postmodern liberals surrender to the fate of modernity. They have the narrow-mindedness of a body that’s shutting down in reaction to lethal forces. Their ossified infrastructures run on autopilot as Canadians defer to the technocrats to maintain social stability at all costs. Again, Europe and the US have compensatory strategies to delay the inevitable and to distract the masses from appreciating the meaninglessness of their lives, but Canadians aren’t so lucky. The bankruptcy of modern myths and ideals is on display in liberal Canada and Canadians lack even a curtain to cover their shame as the modern show winds down on their stage. If it can bear the pitiful spectacle, the world can watch liberal Canadians acting out their roles as modern, civilized, rational and free citizens. But the performance is absurdly hollow and the viewer can’t help but fidget in her seat, waiting for some plot to transpire, for some character growth or action sequence or powerful dialogue or even just for the peanut vender to hurry down the aisle so the spectator has some amusement to pass her time.
So while Americans would do well to appreciate the strengths of Canadian society, they can’t be expected to do so because Canadian anticulture wards off outsiders. However, boredom with Canada is actually a defense mechanism. Canadians sometimes say that the US is the canary in the coalmine, that what happens just south of the border is bound to catch up with Canada. But in some ways Canada’s the canary, which is to say that disenchantment with modern ideals may be more apparent there than elsewhere. Whereas Americans should be horrified by this, they indulge in boredom as though they were safe from the civilizational forces that have drained the life from Canadians, as though many Americans’ wallowing in premodern irrationalism were a viable strategy for surviving in the postmodern world that’s shaped by hyper-advanced science and technology. Neither Canadian automatism nor the American retreat to delusions seems like a promising lifestyle for denizens of the new world.