This is an age of misery but also of mystery. Inflation and insurrection, populism and protest, demagoguery and disillusion, turbulence and tyranny — the annals of affliction are full. Abundant, too, are the puzzling questions: Can the centre hold? Is there a centre at all anymore? Can the democracies of North America be governed? Will democracy itself survive?
Our days of distress have left bookshelves crowded with volumes about the perils of the age, much the way the Cromwellian Protectorate lead to the sycophantic poetry of John Dryden, the First World War produced Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and the tumultuous but artistically fertile 1960s saw emerge Harper Lee, Kurt Vonnegut, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, Betty Friedan, Leonard Cohen, Michael Ondaatje, John Edgar Wideman, and many others.
Rob Goodman’s Not Here: Why American Democracy Is Eroding and How Canada Can Protect Itself and Astra Taylor’s The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together As Things Fall Apart may not be regarded in the future as durable literature, but it is incontrovertible that they aptly capture the zeitgeist of today. They are cris de coeur about the crises of the current age.
Not in whispers but in shouts, they both are saying: We are in danger. Our convictions about ourselves, our political system, our economy, are myths. Our assumptions about life are outdated and, in fact, repudiated by large numbers of people who find them fanciful at best, repellent at worst. Listen up, North America. These warnings are not apocalyptic nonsense but instead are rational reactions to a period when irrationality gallops, divisions widen, resentments seethe, and the climate changes (in both the troposphere and Trumposphere).
Goodman is a modern-day Sinclair Lewis, not bellowing that it can’t happen here but instead pleading that it mustn’t happen here. The “here” is apparent (Canada), and the “it” is equally clear: the slow unwinding of democratic values, and then of democratic institutions, and then of a cherished but endangered way of looking at the world and, ultimately, of a cherished but endangered way of life. He sees it across the border, whence he (like Bruce Springsteen, born in the U.S.A.) and Donald Trump (no longer a purely American archetype) came, and he seems to be channelling Job, who declared, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed.”
There is a lot of that sort of talk going on. Down in New Hampshire, where so many political trends are evident, the leading candidate for governor, the Republican Kelly Ayotte, began her campaign this summer by saying, “We are one election away from becoming Massachusetts in New Hampshire, and I’m not going to let that happen.” Goodman, for his part, is determined not to let Trumpism, rogue populism, and a whole panoply of American plagues (election denial, the rollback of voting rights, the rise of white supremacy, and even the withdrawal of protections for the most vulnerable) migrate across the forty-ninth parallel.
There is real agony in these pages. Goodman was a speechwriter for Congressman Steny Hoyer of Maryland when Hoyer was the majority leader in the House of Representatives, and for one of the lions of Democratic liberalism in the Senate, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. He worries that “the forces that produced Trumpism in America are on the move here, too: the same political vocabulary, the same collective imagination, the same conspiracy theories, the same funding sources.” And, he continues, “the same difficulty, among the political class in both countries, in imagining a constructive response to those forces, beyond the sledgehammer of law enforcement.”
It once was sufficient to say, as the Canada West Reform leader George Brown did when the American Civil War began in 1861, “We are glad we are not them.” Indeed, Canada is not the United States, and Goodman — who now teaches at Toronto Metropolitan University — wants to keep it that way, much the way people feel when they move from the crowded city to the green spaces beyond the urban belts: I fled all of that, and let’s make sure it doesn’t follow me here. He has a prescription, too, and it comes, in a way, from the language of the country he left behind. “Our future depends on our mental independence from America,” he writes. “The best tool we have for resisting democratic erosion is Canadian localism, especially as it applies to our eroding neighbour: in other words, steadily increasing Canadian separateness and distinctiveness from the United States.”
This talk of independence — separateness — is not unique to Goodman, of course, as talk of American independence was not unique to Thomas Jefferson in the late eighteenth century; some twenty-seven days before the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution in the Second Continental Congress declaring “that these united colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states.” As far back as the mid‑’60s, Lester B. Pearson knew that “if Canada were to be taken seriously as a nation, it needed to develop a stronger sense of self,” as John Ibbitson points out in his new book, The Duel. Last year a task force organized by the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa produced a paper called A National Security Strategy for the 2020s, which warned that Canada needed to come to terms with the notion that it “can no longer count on some of the traditional pillars that have guaranteed our security and prosperity for decades.” No one had to wonder which pillars the authors were talking about. Shortly thereafter, Ira Wells, who teaches literature and cultural criticism at the University of Toronto, published an article in The Walrus, arguing that “for all of its continued economic dominance, the US often appears on the brink of anarchy.” He speculated darkly that political violence south of the border might “involve complicated and unpredictable spillover events in Canada.”
But as Goodman warns that the American contagion could be expressed “in the storied language of liberty, tyranny, and constitutional order” and as he reminds readers that “political violence has held a privileged place in the American imagination,” he puts the modern Canadian challenge perhaps more simply than other voices: “We can’t aspire to anything meaningfully better until we are secure in our difference, until we stop seeing ourselves through American eyes.”
One of the intriguing subthemes of Goodman’s argument is one of those differences — one that already exists and one that will be startling to Canadians: the danger, deeply seated across the border, of the worship of national founders. In his estimable Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, from 2006, the Brown University historian Gordon S. Wood argued that the Founding Fathers “have a special significance for Americans” and that these revolutionaries-cum-constitutionalists have become “central to our sense of who we are.” There are no Canadian analogues (as the current drive to topple John A. Macdonald from his pedestals shows). “Few things are more foreign to Canada than the intensity of feeling with which Americans regard their founders,” Goodman observes. He goes on to argue against what he calls “fetishizing democracy”:
Our challenge is protecting democracy without smothering it in reverence: without treating it like a sacred object, a kind of holy relic that goes on procession every two or four years, whose bearing on our lives is not entirely clear and is never explained in much detail, which cannot be examined too closely, but which must be defended at all costs.
Goodman is asking that Canada do more than just bray about its gift for friendship, nation building, and cheerful offerings of refuge and winter coats to immigrants. Why? Because “determined and self-confident creativity” will be required “to live next to an eroding democracy, without eroding ourselves.”
That’s the heart of his argument, buttressed by the notion that anti-Americanism, always a recessive gene in the Canadian body politic, can be a creative force. It has happened before, in moments that he calls “refusals”: the times when Canada profited from rejecting ideas and initiatives from the United States. “In fact, some of Canada’s most creative periods were periods of refusal,” Goodman writes. “One of the most dynamic forces in our political history has been anti-Americanism. I mean anti-Americanism not as a knee-jerk prejudice or unearned superiority, but as a cold assessment of how American power has often been incompatible with Canadian goals.” Some examples: national unification in the mid-nineteenth century and our “development as a multinational, multicultural democracy in the twentieth.”
Goodman’s volume is also a handbook for reform. Create a permanent and formal role for Indigenous peoples in the country’s government, he argues. Move the electoral system away from first-past-the-post voting. Experiment with various ideas, such as using citizens’ assemblies to debate and perhaps create budgets and laws. But, mostly, cultivate “a sense of what sets us and our history and our political culture apart.”
The Age of Insecurity — a compilation of Astra Taylor’s 2023 CBC Massey Lectures — is likewise a handbook for a new way forward.
Taylor is a creative and multidisciplinary voice on the Canadian landscape, a Winnipeg-born political organizer who is not so much home-schooled as, for a good chunk of her childhood, un‑schooled; her parents thought that education was too important to be left to educators, much as Georges Clemenceau felt about war: “La guerre! C’est une chose trop grave pour la confier à des militaires” (War! It’s too serious a thing to entrust to the military).
The author begins by telling us that insecurity, the book’s leitmotif, is ubiquitous because we are so preoccupied with security: “We give children security blankets, purchase security systems for our homes, fret over cyber-security, wait dutifully at security checkpoints, extract fossil fuels to ensure energy security, and sacrifice the lives and freedoms of others in the name of our national security.” Even the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — which borrows language almost exactly from the 1948 Declaration of Universal Human Rights — sets “life, liberty and security of the person” as a Canadian national principle.
Taylor ties insecurity to modern economics; the word first surfaced in the seventeenth century, just as the market economy began to take shape. And so, she argues, if contented people made fewer purchases, capitalism and the economic growth that is its oxygen would cease to capitalize “on the very insecurities it produces, which it then prods and perpetuates, making us all insecure by design.” She also ties insecurity to inequality, for as the latter grows, she writes, so does the former. But in Taylor’s conception, it is not only the underclass that suffers. It is all of us: “The command to live life according to market priorities is so persuasive precisely because it is coupled with threats — threats of unemployment, destitution, shame, loss of status, and respect.”
Breaking those ties — changing the way society and the North American economy are structured — begins with the recognition that, as she puts it, “while insecurity can lead to very real ailments and aggravate certain medical conditions, it is not, in itself, a disease.” The challenge is to adopt a new concept of security by way of “a massive and visionary social movement.”
That movement would tackle climate change, contemplate legal rights for nature, and recognize Indigenous sovereignty. It would transform climate anxiety and insecurity into a mass sense of solidarity —“solidarity that is strong enough to respond to rising authoritarianism and to overcome the special interests championing the inadequate business-as-usual solutions that make up the standard menu of government climate policies today, including cap-and-trade.”
So now, in two books of rage and reason, volumes that are one part analysis and one part manifesto, we have come full circle — and the alarm bells have been rung. In The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic, from 2018, the Canadian historian Benjamin Carter Hett pointed out that few people in 1933, when Adolf Hitler came to power by purely legal means, could have anticipated the chaos, upheaval, and mechanized death of the Second World War. “It is hard to blame them for not foreseeing the unthinkable,” he wrote. “Yet their innocence failed them, and they were catastrophically wrong about their future. We who come later have one advantage over them: we have their example before us.”
Rob Goodman and Astra Taylor have sent us semaphore messages. Their books are warnings. They have seen the future, and it doesn’t work for Canada.