Even Canadians Think Americans Are Toxic

Of all the bad signs, this one feels especially telling. This summer was a rough one for Americans visiting Canada. Friends of mine who live in Washington, D.C., and summer in Nova Scotia put a sign in their car window this year: “Canadians Happy to Be Home.”

The word “home” was underlined twice. Nobody wants to be confused. A handful of Texans at a restaurant in the Canadian Rockies mentioned to their server that they were on vacation; she promptly called the police. There have even been unprecedented acts of minor violence: Cars with U.S. plates have been keyed, drivers tailgated and hassled.

Canada is the United States’ deepest and closest friend and ally, even if the U.S. often doesn’t know it, so Canadian opinion registers changes to America’s place in the world sooner and more fully than other countries. For Canadians, the sudden separation of the closed border on March 21 was shocking. That the border has remained closed ever since has been life changing. Until 2009, you didn’t even need a passport to cross. I remember drifting across the 49th parallel with a lazy wave.

Now, nurses from LaSalle, Ontario, who work across the border in Detroit, are living in trailers on their lawns, sequestered by circumstance. Neighbors have complained about the lawn trailers — a violation of local bylaws — but the mayor of LaSalle has declared that those bylaws won’t be enforced. The nurses are providing humanitarian efforts for people who, despite living in a different country, are still close friends. Nonetheless, the nurses work in the United States, so they must be kept apart.

America and Americans have become toxic. On one recent day, September 3, Canada had zero Covid-19-related deaths, and the United States had 1,066. Europe and Asia are beginning to open up from the pandemic, but the United States will remain closed. Eighty percent of Canadians want the border to stay shut. On the southern U.S. border, in the ultimate irony of the Trump era, mayors and governors of Mexican towns and states are asking for stricter regulations for Americans hoping to enter their country. The exclusion has nothing to do with history or anybody’s feelings. The matter is practical. It’s not just the Covid-19 numbers, but what those spiking numbers signify: political chaos, dissolution of the apparatus of the state, nihilistic individualism.

Rather than envy, we pity. Rather than contempt, Americans provoke outright fear.

The Canadian anti-Americanism of my childhood was easy to understand: It was the contemptuous envy of a kid brother for a big brother, with an explicit political dimension. Canadian Conservatives were constantly droning on about the “brain drain” to the United States and generally saying we needed to act more American, which meant more capitalistic. Liberals were always screaming about how free trade was going to make us the 51st state. It was all so transparent: We wouldn’t dare to be like Americans, but we wanted so badly to be like Americans. Trump and Covid-19 have more or less inverted that spirit: Rather than envy, we pity. Rather than contempt, Americans provoke outright fear.

The U.S. election is only ramping up the fearful pity. For Canada, it offers two possible outcomes. If Trump is elected, the only political question for the next four years will be the possibility of the suspension of the 22nd Amendment and how Trump will struggle to remain president by any means necessary. For Canada, that outcome would create a new and unprecedented precariousness: Are we still living next to a democracy, and if not, how do we deal with that fact?

But anyone who imagines that a Biden presidency will be a kind of triumphant restoration to the United States’ position of leadership of the free world is kidding themselves. The United States is going to be a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution to the crises of the 21st century. Covid-19 has shown that. Climate change, just to take the most obvious example, is a vastly elaborate problem that requires navigation of complex scientific analysis and the imposition of painful policies internationally to ensure collective survival. Covid-19 didn’t require much more than leaders who listened to basic medical advice. Covid-19 was like a pop quiz before the big exam, and it revealed that significant portions of the American elite do not care about mass death in their country and, to put it in the most naked terms, have no capacity to impose policy or respond collectively to events. The Republican Party literally hasn’t bothered with a platform this year—Trump is the platform. But a cult of personality won’t save you, as the Sturgis motorcycle rally and its estimated 260,000 Covid-19 cases demonstrated.

The United States is no longer the leader of the free world. Rather, it is the battleground for freedom — it’s where we’ll see if liberal democracy retains the structural power and backing of the world’s largest military. The United States is no longer the manager of the world; rather, it is a force that will need to be managed.

Meanwhile, it has now become a cliché that the American dream has moved north. Due to the almost unbelievable stupidity of the Trump administration’s restriction of H-1B visas, Toronto has emerged as a tech hub, adding more technology jobs in 2017 than San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., combined. In a world whose future will be determined by highly educated engineers, the United States has decided it doesn’t need highly educated engineers, and Canada has responded with the cold-blooded opportunism its immigration policy has always practiced—if you’re an engineer of the right type, and you speak English or French, you can get a work permit here in a couple weeks.

But the demographic data doesn’t yet reflect immigration due to Covid-19. And anecdotally, the northward migration seems, at least where I am, to be even greater than increased immigration due to Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. Dual citizens — and there are three-quarters of a million Canadians living in the United States — are moving back in droves. They appear to be giving up incredible jobs to move back here, jobs well worth leaving Canada for, jobs with serious money and power, jobs I would have considered guaranteed protection from any amount of chaos. And those returning Canadians must know that they’re coming back to a country with much more hidebound, more conservative institutions that simply will not offer them the freedoms and opportunities they had in the United States.

My hope is that these émigrés will revitalize Canada. But I don’t know. This culture has a way of stultifying and annulling. As a working person, I fell in love with the United States for the oldest reason there is: They let me do what I wanted. Americans published me. Canadians wouldn’t. How much love for America comes from being able to say, “You don’t want me? Fine, I’ll go to the States.” I have never understood the saying “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.” The opposite is true. Canadian culture is an anorexic’s feast: They gather as much talent as they can and delight in telling them what they can’t do. New York wants to say yes. Why do you think people move there? Or do I now have to say, “Why did people move there?”

Toronto, the city I live in, was built in no small measure by waves of American refugees. The 40,000 draft dodgers who moved to Canada were highly educated, highly motivated, and contributed enormously to the liberal institutions of the country as they currently exist. I wonder what the next round of returnees and refugees will build? And that’s what’s so confounding about this moment of American toxicity, of separation from the United States. It leaves me longing for the place even more now that I can’t travel there. Just as the United States has separated itself, as it has made itself toxic, the American spirit — its openness, its frankness, its risk-taking, its beautiful desire for the new — has never seemed more necessary, its potential loss more catastrophic. Those Canadians keying cars with U.S. plates, turning in diners at restaurants? I’m sure, like almost every Canadian, they have friends and colleagues and family across the border (like my Trump-supporting cousin in Seattle). Like any tragedy, the American collapse fills spectators with fear and pity because it could have been us. What was it, in them, that led to this? Do we have the same thing in us? Is it not the part of them we wish we had that led to the chaos?

I would like to think that the American separation might end with the arrival of a vaccine, but why would it? Already the anti-vaxxers are mobilizing. There is no cure for being too stupid to take medicine. For the foreseeable future, there will be one world for non-Americans and another for Americans. The question for the rest of the world is where can you find the American spirit if the America we knew has gone?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *