O ye wha are sae guid yoursel’,
Sae pious and sae holy,
Ye’ve nought to do but mark and tell
Your neibours’ fauts and folly!
– Robert Burns
There are few things so rank as self-righteous ignorance, and Scott Gilmore’s op-ed article in Maclean’s magazine on August 10 fairly reeks of it. Maclean’s bills itself as Canada’s national news magazine – sort of a Newsweek of the North – and Gilmore is “a former diplomat and social entrepreneur” (I have no idea what that last bit means) whose credentials evidently authorize him to offer an opinion on American politics.
In the case of his recent article, Gilmore’s opinion is just another variation of that most tiresome northern cant: smug, self-satisfied, Canadian exceptionalism. American liberals and progressives who idolize Canada as a model of compassionate liberalism should take note; many Canadians, like Gilmore, think Americans (even the liberal ones) are somehow recalcitrant mentally-deficient children who can only hope to aspire to the level of Canadian civilization.
This is the subtext of Gilmore’s article, made explicit in his grand, sweeping generalizations about Americans. That his opinion is both ill-informed and just plain wrong only makes it worse.
Correctly noting that the United States is gripped in a moment of political and social crisis unlike few times in its history, with rising white nationalist terrorist violence, concentration camps, impending environmental catastrophe, a national government sinking in the foetid bile of its own corruption, and paralyzing political division, Gilmore wonders why “we have seen no large-scale protests since the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration.” His answer is that Americans are so overwhelmed by the vast scale of the daily insults to their freedom and democracy that they don’t know what to do.
Appalled as they might be, Gilmore writes, Americans are the proverbial dog, “just chasing its tail, round and round, no closer to catching it than ever, and yet too busy to do anything else.” Loudly implicit in all of this is the notion that, unlike Canadians, those poor, benighted Americans just aren’t up to the challenge.
To begin with, his premise is just wrong. The Women’s March of January 2017 was certainly the largest mass protest since the beginning of the Trump presidency and, by mobilizing 200,000 marchers in Washington DC, more than 400,000 in New York, and about 5.5 million nationwide, the largest in US history. But this was not the only such demonstration. The March for Science brought more than a million demonstrators into the streets (more than 100,000 in Washington alone) three months later; the demonstrators at the March for Our Lives, organized by the young Parkland activists the following year, numbered in the hundreds of thousands in Washington, New York, San Francisco, Boston and elsewhere.
And demonstrations have continued in cities and towns across the United States. The crowd of people who crammed into Daley Plaza last month for a rally to demand an end to the US government’s migrant detention policies were really there. I know, because I was there, and I have the video footage to prove it.
However, Gilmore wasn’t there, or at the March for Our Lives, or any of the other mass demonstrations that have been happening in the United States since Donald Trump assumed the presidency. And, in what can only be described as narcissistic self-absorption, he really seems to believe that if he wasn’t there, it must not have happened. Moreover, many Canadians suffer from the delusion that they are somehow qualified to pontificate on an American political situation that they only know through the lens of television and Internet news, or through their brief cross-border shopping expeditions to Plattsburgh and Buffalo.
So, from that narrow perspective, Canadians like Gilmore offer their ill-informed, vacuous judgments on the United States and American culture in the same superior tone that generations of snooty Britons complained about “the colonials.” The point isn’t to offer help and support, or even a well-considered critique, but to reinforce Canadian superiority and exceptionalism.
That is important to some Canadians because Canada is, at best, a second-rate world power. If Washington orders Ottawa to scrap its domestic jet fighter program, then it is scrapped; if President Trump tells Prime Minister Trudeau that he is renegotiating NAFTA on terms less favorable to Canada, then that is what happens. Let’s face it; Canada is America’s lapdog, and it always has been. For many Canadians the consolation prize is that they are somehow “better,” or “more mature,” or “more civilized” than Americans.
That is the subtext of Gilmore’s article – look at all the confused Americans who can’t even get their shit together to protest the decline of the democracy! – and that was certainly the lesson that many Canadians took from it. “They are a very fearful and risk adverse people,” said a Montrealer who once had a summer place in upstate New York, responding to the article in social media. “Also they don’t believe in supporting each other. ‘I got mine and fuck everyone else’ seems to be the motto.” Implicitly, Canadians are far more courageous and socially conscious.
A Torontonian mocked Americans who, he insisted, were too concerned about their yoga classes, and picking their kids up from soccer practice to bother with the inconvenience of demonstrating for democracy. This is a common trope in the Canadian representation of Americans; the stereotypical American is a wealthy, self-centered, white suburbanite with an SUV and two spoiled children. One could certainly come to that conclusion, of course, if your only source of intelligence on the United States was American sitcoms.
Most Canadians have very strong opinions about what goes on south of the border because, as the current prime minister’s father once said, living next to the United States is “like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” Yet, at the same time, few Canadians have much real knowledge about what is going on, apart from what they see on TV. American history is not usually taught in Canadian schools, except as an elective and, out of school, Canadians are no more inclined to crack a book on history or political theory than their neighbors in the United States.
Gilmore is only confident enough to make broad, plainly wrong, pronouncements on American politics because he doesn’t actually know what he is talking about, and doesn’t know enough to know that. He is like Jerzy Kosiński’s idiot-savant Chance the Gardener, who appears to know all because he has seen it on TV. Only, in Gilmore’s case, his perspective is from a 35th floor luxury hotel window whenever he breezes through Washington, New York, or Los Angeles.
What he fails to see from such comfortable heights is not only that there have been many mass demonstrations in the two and half years since Donald Trump became president, but all that demonstrating has been pretty exhausting. “Protests against political corruption are filling the streets of Moscow,” Gilmore clucks, chastising those lazy Americans. “In Hong Kong, the pro-democracy protests have persisted for four months, in spite of the increasingly clear threats of violence from Beijing.” The resistance to the Trump administration has been going on for 30 months.
He also fails to consider, doubtless out of historical ignorance, that people seeking political change are usually motivated to take to the streets when all other avenues of political activism have been exhausted or cut off. The people of Hong Kong and Moscow are marching because they have no other means of influencing China’s and Russia’s leaders. The mass demonstration is an expression of a frustrated political voice. Civil Rights activists took to the streets in the 1950s and 1960s because African Americans did not have access to the vote in the segregated south and thus could not change laws through democratic means. The epic struggle that culminated on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Montgomery Alabama in 1965 was largely for the right to vote.
The American political system is deeply flawed, often corrupt, and riddled with antidemocratic practices and laws meant to suppress minority votes. Yet, it does often work and most Americans who want change have not yet given up on democratic politics. Gilmore seems unaware that there are frequent elections in the United States, and that this is where the battle for America’s political soul is being fought. Congressional elections come up every two years, presidential elections come up every four, and there are municipal elections in the years in between.
Indeed, the mass demonstrations that Gilmore has been unable to see from his lofty perch have mobilized huge numbers of people into grassroots activism. That is where networks like Indivisible, Swing Left, Our Revolution, the Latino Victory Project and so many others have signed up a whole generation of local activists.
Their campaigns focus on issues more pressing and focused than merely raising placards and voices to express their discontent. Gilmore can’t see or hear it, because he isn’t actually here on the ground in the United States, but tens of millions of Americans are involved in these efforts, going to local meetings, participating in online forums, training, and putting pressure on legislators and officials at all levels, from school boards to Congress.
And they come out, to demonstrate outside ICE holding facilities, to march for reproductive rights, to push back against the darkness. They organize to warn immigrant communities of impending raids, they participate in sanctuary programs in their schools, churches, shuls, mosques, and community programs. They raise awareness of and demand accountability for police brutality. They call their elected representatives over and over again to demand action on gun control.
This kind of grassroots activism is working. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley won their elections in 2018 very much on the efforts of grassroots organizing by the Democratic Socialists of America and Democracy for America. Toni Preckwinkle’s mayoral bid this year in Chicago was driven by an extraordinary mobilization of street level activism.
Like many of his countrymen, Gilmore only sees what he wants to see, and that is only what satisfies his confirmation bias. In his mind, Americans are lazy, inept, and confused; they are cowed by the enormity of their political and social crisis and thus unable to mount an effective resistance to the forces of hate and division. Consequently, he fails to see the myriad ways in which American activists are courageously and diligently mounting that resistance.
Perhaps it is unfair to expect more from someone like Gilmore. He is, after all, the kind of journalist who would have been at home in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, hanging out in the Continental Hotel bar, waiting for government press releases rather than going out and actually doing the reporting himself. But the readers of Maclean’s – Canada’s newsmagazine – deserve better. The editors of Newsweek of the North owe them real reporting and not just so much self-satisfied ignorance.
Photo and video © Matthew Friedman