Dispatches

Hub Dialogue: How cheerful should we be about Canada’s future?

Why Canada needs to cheer up and recognize that there’s not much we can do about the future

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets then-U.S. President Donald Trump in December 2019. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Welcome to the first of our Hub Dialogues, where two writers from The Hub get together to discuss a topic they are in full disagreement on. After Howard Anglin good-naturedly poked fun at our founding essay, we invited him to hash it out with The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer.

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

Sean Speer (The Hub editor at large)

Howard, one of the things you observe in your recent essay, “Cheer up Canada, there’s nothing we can do”, which is one of the most popular on The Hub’s site, is that while we do have a degree of agency in shaping the future, there are some permanent features and conditions, like Canada’s history or political geography, that will necessarily place constraints on how much we can shape our future. Why don’t you tell us why The Hub’s founding essay is wrong, and why Canada needs to cheer up and recognize that there’s not much we can do about the future: we’re mostly along for the ride.

Howard Anglin (The Hub contributor)

Thank you, Sean.

First, I think I made this clear — at least I tried to make this clear — in my essay, that I don’t think that the inaugural essay is wrong. It’s an excellent essay. And I think there’s certainly a place for optimism in politics and cultural analysis. I happen to think it’s a pretty small place, and that it is especially at the local and particular level.

When one looks at culture, one can look at the broad trends globally or over decades, centuries, millennia, or you can focus on a much narrower frame of reference in time and place. You can consider something as small as a zoning decision in a neighborhood. And I think there’s a lot more room for optimism when it comes to small decisions at the local level, because I think that’s where we can actually make important differences. At a certain point, when you get above the level of the community and into the higher levels of culture, Canada, and Canadians I think, need to remember that we are embedded very much in a much broader civilization, of which we are a very small part. And a part that cannot do much to change the direction, the trajectory, of the wider civilizational drift. I think we have to remember that, when a future (historian Edward) Gibbon writes the story of the Anglo-American era, probably no Canadian Prime Minister will merit more than a footnote.

And I think we’ve seen these limitations, and will continue to feel them, particularly as we see American culture in decline. Right now, there is a sense of decline, stagnation, decay — call it what you will—a sense of enervation in American culture, which is, for better or for worse, is largely our culture as well. I get into some thoughts on why this is happening in the essay, but I could only scratch the surface. With some of the current pathologies, particularly the ones around race and identity that we’ve seen move from the American academies into American politics and now into Canadian politics, these show that as goes America, so goes Canada. So that’s probably way too long an answer—it would probably just be shorter to read the piece!

Sean Speer

No, it’s a terrific answer. It reminds me of an exchange between Russ Roberts, the host of the EconTalk podcast, and Jordan Peterson, the Canadian public intellectual, a couple of years ago, where Roberts is a bit self-conscious and defeatist about his inability to shape the broader culture. In his particular case, he is concerned about a drift away from market economics. And Peterson’s response was that he’s doing precisely what he ought to be doing. He’s a good husband, he’s a good father, he’s hosting a podcast, which is bringing to a relatively small but important audience the principles of economic freedom.

So, sometimes a degree of self-awareness about where and how we can make an impact isn’t just good for us, it can be good for the broader society. So, I take your point. Maybe we ought to make a slight revision to The Hub’s founding principles to say we want to create a platform where we can think boldly about Canada’s future, but also how each of us individually can make positive contributions within our households or our communities and other little platoons.

Let me just pick up those observations in your answer about stagnation, decadence, drift, and even what Ross Douthat calls “decadence.” If indeed those developments are occurring within American society and spilling into our own country, what, if anything, can we do to push back against them, to push back against the trend toward decadence and its slow yet steady drift into aimlessness and lack of purpose and meaning? Is there anything within our cultural or political or economic repertoire that can arrest those big developments?

Howard Anglin

Your reference to the Jordan Peterson is interesting because I think it does highlight one way in which some very, very few Canadians can punch through internationally, as Jordan Peterson has, and perhaps have a greater personal impact on the broader Western culture than our politicians in Canada can. There have been examples in the past, maybe a dozen such since World War II, among whom I’d include Northrop Frye, Marshall McLuhan, Charles Taylor, and of course musicians, artists, and film-makers who affect the culture in other ways. So, of course, those people that do really have something important to say should be saying it, and should be saying it loudly here at home, but also to global audiences and in the centres of civilizational power. Just as if you were a talented thinker or administrator born in Roman Spain or North Africa in the year 100AD, you’d go to Rome.

But for the rest of us, who don’t have their abilities, there’s not much we can do at that level, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things we can do in our lives. And it’s the things that people have always done. We need to start building from the bottom up, building small institutions, small groups of people who come together with a shared purpose. In the essay I use the old, cliche of tending your garden. But it’s true: we see that even at the smallest community level, community gardens are beautiful things. And everybody can participate in something like that. People can participate in the schooling their children, in their church, we can care for people that don’t have support, we can build intentional, small communities anywhere we are.

So I think optimism can’t be generalized. It needs to be fueled by a sense that there is a purpose in the work that you do, even if you happen to be living in a time of decay and stagnation. And if we get distracted by wider civilizational trends, we will neglect our own lives and our own communities. If you were living in the fifth century AD or during the 1960s in Eastern Europe, the fact that you’re living in troubling, difficult, challenging times wouldn’t relieve you of the need to do what you can, as far as you can do it. And so I think that people who look around today see a sort of cultural decay or stagnation, shouldn’t be paralyzed by that. So it’s not a counsel of despair. It’s just: “OK, well, civilization is going in the wrong direction, but I’m not going to worry about that. I’m just going to worry about what I can control my life and in my community.” And I think that’s what I tried to say, at least towards the end.

Sean Speer

Let me just push back on one point. So much of what you say I find persuasive, but is it enough to encourage people to retreat into the particular and the local at a time of at a time of secularism and heterogeneity? Can a country like Canada hold together in the absence of a compelling sense of national purpose? Or even, at the risk of sounding jingoistic, a sense of national greatness? Many of the case studies that you cite are historical examples of societies that function well because they were undergirded by different forces that are not present in modern society, whether it’s religiosity, an external national threat, or even a sense of national expansion. So, is your more modest vision for a future of moderate optimism compatible with an era of great diversity? Do we actually need a kind of vision of national purpose or national greatness, to hold us together in a form of shared vision of citizenship and community?

Howard Anglin

I think that would be nice, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. Canada will dissolve one way or another at some point. The United States will dissolve. Every country does; every civilization does. I quote French President Macron in my essay saying: “someday there’ll be no more Europe. Europe will collapse.” And it’s not something you hear in North America very often. Certainly not from American presidents. Even Jimmy Carter’s famous malaise speech — which is actually quite a good speech when you read it, and I actually agree with most of it — it’s not really a despairing speech. And certainly, I can’t think of the last Canadian politician that said: someday Canada won’t exist, as Macron said of Europe. And I think it’s important to think about that occasionally.

And I do think that our societies now are too fractured culturally to have a single national vision that will be compelling to everyone, or even a strong majority. And there probably won’t be unless and until perhaps there is an external threat, which unifies and rallies us. And that will come. I mean, that will happen, whether it’s in our lifetimes or not, there will come a threat that will rally us. It doesn’t even have to be an external threat, it could be an internal threat. I mean, the COVID-19 pandemic’s been horrible, terrible at times. But it is still not nearly as bad in terms of sheer devastation as something like the Black Death in Europe in the late Middle Ages. A truly existential threat like that could jar us out of our stagnation, or cause us to rally around something transcendent, a religious revival that re-inspires us.

But until that time, I just think we just have to keep muddling along. I don’t believe there is a single unifying vision, other than one that is so banal and platitudinous, that everybody can agree on. I think we’re going to be stuck with sort of bumper sticker rallying cries that don’t really inspire people, for want of a deeper cultural identity.

So, yeah, I think our society is too fractured to have the kind of common vision that we may have seen in the past. And going forward, is there any appetite for recapturing a sense of a Canadian Manifest Destiny or imperial ambition? To expand Canadian power and create colonies in the Caribbean or wherever? That’s the sort of thing that rallied countries in the past, that along with major wars like World War I and World War II or civil wars. I don’t think we have the cultural energy to do all that again, and I think there are good moral reasons not to want to go through all that again.

I do think our future is going to be smaller and more fractured, more local, and more difficult. I think the age of ease, the age of Pax Britannica, Pax Americana, sort of stretching roughly from, say, 1815 to 2001 or so, I think that age is over. And we can’t wish it back just by being blindly optimistic. We don’t have the cultural energy. We don’t have the cultural ambition. We have to make the best of what we have and that, to me, means focusing on what we can control, which is small and local.

Sean Speer

Howard, we’ll certainly take what you describe as a sort of moderated optimism, what others might see is cultural pessimism, into account at The Hub. But our ultimate goal is to be a platform to try to capture the bravado that you say is not part of the Canadian way — that isn’t reflected in our national DNA. We certainly hope that by enabling conversation and debate about Canada’s future, we can help to pull us out of decadence. And I guess the future will ultimately tell us whether your vision of a more fragmented, local, decentralized culture, and politics is the path forward, or whether it’s something bigger and grander — maybe Mars or something. Thanks so much, Howard.

Howard Anglin

Thank you very much. I’m certainly happy to be the resident cheerful pessimist. And the good thing is, neither of us will ever know who’s right or wrong because this will unfold on a scale that’s far beyond a single human lifetime. But that is how it always is, and in the meantime there is beauty in the small and local. I try not wish for a future that’s more ambitious than that, but I do hope for a future that’s a little more careful and beautiful.

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