Tuesday, August 12, 2008

What's The Difference?

What's the Difference?

I first asked this question thirty years ago on a trip to northwest Ontario. I bicycled from Fort Frances to Dryden along the Wilderness Road in early autumn, just before the beginning of hunting season. I stopped at one of the few lodges along the road and had coffee with the owner.

Though still a teenager, I knew of one key difference between Canada and the United States: taxes, and especially business taxes, were much lower in the States. As the lodge owner told me of his travails in getting his business started, the difficulties inherent in obtaining permits and approvals, I realised he suffered disadvantages he would not even have to consider were he operating just a hundred kilometres south.

Everyone in Ontario spoke English, sent their children to school systems very much like those in the U.S., watched baseball and hockey on television, just like the Minnesotans to the south. The only difference, as I saw it from my experience, was the much higher rate of taxation in Canada. And so I posed the question this way:

Why doesn't Canada just join the U.S. as the 51st state?

I was positive the lodge owner, this entrepreneur suffering unnecessarily under Canada's oppressive tax burdens, would be immediately receptive to the idea. After all, weren't entrepreneurs much better off in an environment of lower taxes that encouraged commercial and creative freedom? I at first interpreted his furrowed brow and intense concentration on the swirls in his coffee as a sign of his strong concurrence with my common-sense position. He was silent for several moments after I asked the question, and this convinced me of his sober appreciation of my teenage wisdom.

This was the entrepreneur's response:
"I hope that border stays right where it is."

What? I don't remember my response to the man's statement, but I do remember my feelings at the time: shock, confusion, disbelief. What could possibly be more conducive to personal happiness and growth than the kind of freedom we enjoyed in the United States? The idea that the U.S. vision of freedom was illusory or not conducive to happiness never entered my head until much, much later in life. Although in my teen years I did not believe every action my country took was useful, I was certainly convinced of the cultural superiority of my country. We had life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Every other culture in the world, according to my understanding thirty years ago, was in awe of our advanced society.

Inherent in the Canadian businessman's response to my question was the truth that some other set of factors was of such great importance to the man that the attraction of lower taxes had little or no bearing on his life or the decisions he wished to face. Thirty years ago, my mind contained not a single intellectual tool to even approach this idea. In fact, I am so thick-headed that my poor brain required about two decades to even begin fabricating a concept of what the businessman had told me.

Since 1998, a single question has preoccupied my mind. I have sought the answer in some fourteen books by Pierre Berton, three difficult-to-digest literary, almost academic tomes by John Ralston Saul, and innumerable trips to Vancouver, Edmonton, Thunder Bay, Toronto, Barrie, Montreal, and Quebec City. I have studied la Revolution tranquille and les Rebellions de 1837. I've conducted intensive research in Wendat and Iroquois culture. I've had long conversations in both official languages.

This is the question that has occupied my faculties for the last ten years:

What's the difference?

I now know that there are many differences between the two cultures, some of them profound, and many of them quite subtle. The basic difference is simple, though I believe that coming to an adequate appreciation of the true difference is something that requires a good deal of thoughtful consideration.

The basic difference is this:
The culture of the U.S. is biased toward individualism
The culture of Canada is biased toward the common good

There are nuances even in this basic difference, of course. Some Canadians are indifferent to the needs of their neighbours; some Americans live only for others. But I think the statements above constitute an accurate broad-brush distinction between the two cultures. There are important secondary differences. Again, I feel the following statements are helpful in distinguishing the two cultures from each other:

1. Canada institutionalises most individual needs
2. The U.S. institutionalises most individual freedoms

Basic individual needs are life, food, clothing, shelter, health, and education. Basic individual freedoms are life, personal autonomy and social freedom. Individual needs are met to a higher degree in Canada than in the U.S. Except for the freedom to live one's life, individual freedoms are exercised more completely in the United States. The freedom to live, of course, is contingent upon the fulfillment of basic needs, which are not emphasised in the culture of the U.S.

The expression of personal freedom is of such importance in the U.S. that speech aimed at destroying alien cultures and individuals is protected and encouraged. The image of city police in full riot gear protecting a handful of Nazis so that they can "exercise their constitutional rights of free speech" is iconic and unique to American culture. Such a gathering in Canada or other civilised countries would be subject to laws regulating hate speech and hate crimes. This is because free speech, while important to society, is not deemed to outweigh the basic individual rights of life and health. Allowing a group of people to openly express ideas of genocide or murder is not consistent with the basic functions of society.

The maintenance of personal needs is of such importance in Canada and other civilised countries that most ulitities and personal services are run by the state or are heavily regulated by the state. The most obvious distinguishing example is health care. If you are a Canadian citizen and you require a million dollars worth of care, it is taken care of and you suffer little or no monetary loss. If you are a U.S. citizen and your require this level of care, you will likely lose your house and all of your possessions, even if you are insured. This is because health care is a private, for-profit industry in the U.S., and health insurance companies employ entire divisions of workers who find every legal loophole available and pry into every document or record in the patient's history to find a legally-defensible way of avoiding payment. This is encouraged, since capitalism is one of the supreme individual freedoms. Even if one person's monetary gain means the death of a hundred people, individual freedom is to be cultivated and encouraged.

Another interesting manifestation of the primary cultural difference between Canada and the U.S. was described most forcefully and persuasively in Michael Moore's film "Bowling for Columbine." Gun ownership in both countries is very high. Yet, in Canada, population 34 million, about 160 people per year are murdered by handguns. In the U.S., population 300 million, about 12,000 people each year are murdered by handguns. On a per capita basis, you are ten times more likely to be killed in the U.S. than in Canada.

There are two reasons. First, Canadians are more ingrained with a sense of the worth of the individual, while Americans have more of a sense of individual and property rights and much less concern for the life of neighbour or foe. Again, "trespassers will be shot" and "this house protected by Smith and Wesson" (a common handgun brand) is a common sign found throughout the U.S. Second, the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is often interpreted by common citizens as a guarantee of their right to bear arms.

This is just the beginning. This blog is an atttempt to explore the deep truths supporting the sometimes strong, sometimes subtle, sometimes nuanced cultural differences and the corollary legal and social distinctions between the two countries. I find this exploration endlessly fascinating and worthy of my energy and intense and sustained concentration and attention. I'm glad you've decided to explore with me, and I invite you to join me in future journeys on this most interesting path of cultural discovery.

12 Aug 2008

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