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U.S.-Canada: Just Who’s the Docile One?

Are Canadians a less deferent people than Americans?

November 30, 2004

Are Canadians a less deferent people than Americans?

In 1867, Canada's Fathers of Confederation dedicated their country to "peace, order and good government." Meanwhile, the ideals set out in Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence were "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Back then, it was Americans who were the revolutionaries, putting in place institutions that were designed to frustrate the authority of governments.

In contrast, counter-revolutionary Canadians saw the authority of political institutions as central to the well-being of their country.

America has long honored the individual fighting for truth and justice. Canadians, for their part, have tended to defer to elites who broker compromises between competing social groups. And while America's motto is E Pluribus Unum, out of many one, Canada started as two founding European cultures — French and English.

Since that time, this biculturalism has been expanded to include a multiculturalism that encompasses not only more recent immigrants, but also the aboriginal First Nations that were here long before Europeans arrived.

The Americans separated church and state, while we Canadians embedded state sponsorship of parochial education in our constitution. All in all, Canada never renounced its European political heritage — at least not as emphatically as the American revolutionaries did.

The Old World ideal of noblesse oblige has survived here even into this century, shaping our social assistance and public housing programs. In contrast, in the United States, the primary public expenditure has been mass education in the service of individual achievement.

From distinct roots, Canada and the United States have thus grown up with substantially different characters.

Group rights, public institutions and deference to authority have abided north of the border — while individualism, private interests and mistrust of authority have remained strong to the south. So much for the officially sanctioned saga. In the last quarter century, some counterintuitive developments have occurred on both sides of the 49th parallel.

Canadians have distanced themselves from traditional authority — organized religion, the patriarchal family and political elites. Peter C. Newman has characterized recent social change in Canada as the movement from deference to defiance.

Meanwhile, an ever greater proportion of America is clinging to old institutions — family, church, state and a myriad of clubs, voluntary associations, even gangs — as anchors in an increasingly chaotic world.

After all, the United States is a country where the price of untrammeled individualism is that, in an instant, illness, crime or an injudicious investment portfolio can turn the proverbial American Dream into an outright nightmare. As a result, many Americans are seeking refuge in the church, with family — or in gated communities.

In many ways, it is Canadians who have become the true revolutionaries, at least when it comes to social life. In fact, it has become apparent to me that Canadians are at the forefront of a fascinating and important social experiment.

We Canadians are coming to define a new sociological "post-modernity," characterized by multiple, flexible roles and identities.

In contrast, Americans — weaned for generations on ideals of freedom and independence — have in general not found adequate security and stability in their social environment.

That makes them hesitant when it comes to asserting the personal autonomy needed to enact the kind of individual explorations — spiritual, familial, sexual — that are taking place north of the border.

The increase in religiosity in the United States is perhaps the characteristic that best distinguishes America from other advanced industrial societies in terms of social change.

Whereas in Canada and Europe the church has been linked with the state (and, thus, over time has become subject to the distrust and questioning to which the state has been exposed), in America religion has long been decentralized and congregationally-based.

The diverse and populist system of American sectarianism has proved much more resilient, in the long run, than the more hierarchical, institutional, state-sanctioned church models of the Old World.

The claim that Americans' high levels of religious affiliation can be attributed to U.S. churches — particularly the Protestant sects — having been forced to market themselves effectively over the years in order to survive may well be true. In my records, however, we found an extremely strong correlation between deference to authority and religiosity among Americans.

Those Americans who describe themselves as "very religious" are far more likely to embrace trends associated with deference to authority — not only Obedience to Authority, but also values such as Patriarchy, Traditional Family, Duty and Propriety.

These people are looking for definitive answers and rules to live by, unlike many of those strong on the Spiritual Quest trend, who are looking to ask the right questions and wish to arrive at their own — albeit often tentative — conclusions.

Religion is fulfilling a role for Americans that secular institutions do in other countries: Safe haven, community, a place to be with "people like me," a refuge from Darwinistic competition and conflict in an increasingly dangerous world.

Churches are some of the few places, if not the only one, where many Americans feel truly safe — where guns are left at home or under the seat in the 4X4 — or checked at the door.

Besides what separates Americans and Canadians on the church front, it is interesting to note that these two New World nations have each won the sweepstakes in two international competitions. The Americans in the category for the highest standard of living on the planet — and the Canadians win for the best quality of life.

The Americans have done this by being motivated by the notion of individual achievement. The Canadians, in contrast, stand out by balancing individual autonomy with a sense of collective responsibility.

We Americans and Canadians are thus each 21st century expressions of the ideas of our ancestors — and the institutions they built. America honors traditionally masculine qualities. Canada honors qualities that are more traditionally feminine.

America honors the lone warrior fighting for truth and justice, the father who is master of his lonely house on the prairie — or a few good men planting the Stars and Stripes on a distant planet. Canada honors compromise, harmony and equality. Americans go where no man has gone before. Canadians follow hoping to make that new place livable.

What does this all mean for the global community? If American historian Samuel P. Huntington is right and the 21st century will be an often violent clash of civilizations — we will all be grateful for U.S. economic and military leadership.

If, however, the challenges of the 21st century will be addressing the growing disparities between rich and poor and the degradation of the Earth's ecology, then let us hope Canada and kindred nations can muster the courage to show us another path into the future.

The key to these apparent anomalies, I believe, is the consequence of America's single-minded pursuit of individual achievement in the absence of peace, order and good government. By adolescence and often earlier in life, Americans find themselves in an intense, often dangerous struggle for survival — or a winner take all quest for success.

In such a context, traditional authorities serve as anchors: A strong father, a strong police force, a strong military, a strong nation, the President and Commander-in-Chief. In such a world, there is little tolerance for subtlety, nuance — or shades of gray.

Life is a Manichean struggle between good and evil, winners and losers — and the only way good will prevail is by being the strongest, vanquishing the "evil empire" or the "axis of evil" — or the next incarnation of the forces of evil.

Bruce Springsteen, American icon and perpetual valedictorian of the school of hard knocks, summed it up in his aptly named tune, Atlantic City: "Down here, it's just winners and losers — and don't get caught on the wrong side of that line."

In that world, individuals must choose their side, fall into line — and follow their leader into battle. There is little room for individual autonomy in such a scenario.

That Americans are more deferential to institutions than Canadians is counter-intuitive. And perhaps most surprising, I have found Canadians to be a more autonomous people than Americans, less outer-directed and less conformist. This, too, is contrary to the stereotype of Americans as a nation of individuals.

Adapted from “Fire and Ice. The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values” (Penguin, Canada) by Michael Adams. Copyright 2003 by Michael Adams. Used by permission of the author.