Canadians are not Americans. That’s not to say there aren’t similarities. With a majority of the population deriving from Northern Europe, a British cultural matrix, and Anglo-Saxon systems of law and government (excepting Quebec, Canada’s wild card in all things), it couldn’t be otherwise. Like the U.S., Canada was settled through mass immigration over an extended period, with a national character formed by the impact of the frontier. Canada is second only to the U.S. as a technological culture, rivaling us in scientific research and application. It could be said without much exaggeration that the U.S./Canada form a unique double culture.
But there are many differences as well. Canadians are subjects and not citizens, with a divergent view of the government-individual relationship. They have exhibited greater loyalty to the mother country than we ever did, actively fighting for British interests on several occasions beginning with the War of Independence. The Canadian character is cooler than ours. More patient and understanding on the one hand, more obedient and submissive on the other. A close friend who lived for many years in the UK told me that Britons tend to look on Americans as a nation of working-class louts, aggressive, loud-mouthed, and uncontrollable. In this formulation, Canadians would comprise a passive, polite, respectable lower-middle class.
The result of these subtle but undeniable differences is a constant tension rising from the mutual incomprehension of peoples who are almost, but not quite alike. It’s similar, though nowhere near as vicious, to the lack of understanding between the Irish and the English. We see this tension expressed from the Canadian side as a touching and sometimes almost creepy willingness to please, side by side with a sullen and too-easily unleashed contempt for all things American. (When researching particularly virulent expressions of anti-Americanism, the sociologist Paul Hollander needed to look no further than our northern border.) It’s also expressed in a sense of inferiority displayed by many Canadians, a tendency to defend the country when it doesn’t need defending, and an accompanying and seemingly contradictory sense of moral refinement in relation to Americans, as if Canadians were civilized Greeks out to educate the brutish Romans to the south. None of this has ever boiled over into open hostility, and it is unlikely to do so. But it can lead to mutual irritation, embarrassment, and amusement.
David Frum is a Canadian. He gained his status in the front ranks of this country’s conservative movement as a speechwriter for George W. Bush, a president whose greatest flaw was an inability to express himself clearly to the American public. Frum’s most notable contribution was the phrase “axis of evil”. No other phrase among many mocked and disparaged phrases spoken by W was mocked and disparaged as much as that one. Following his service with Bush, Frum worked for several years with conservatism’s flagship journal, the National Review. Having left NR, Frum has set out to remake American conservatism through a me-wife-and-dog organization called “New Majority”. At latest report, he’s not accomplishing much.
He’s not accomplishing much because he is Canadian attempting to steer the most American of all political movements. Frum is trying to operate across a cultural divide that he is scarcely aware exists. He does not truly understand America or Americans, while acting under the assumption that there’s nothing to understand, that the Yanks are simply a louder and more rash version of anybody you’d find above the 49th.
Frum’s Canadianess is more than apparent. Take his famous phrase “Axis of Evil”. It’s Churchillian, with the sweep and majesty of any number of phrases that Churchill coined -- “blood, sweat, toil, and tears”, “never in the field of human conflict have so many owed so much to so few”. We recognize them immediately, because nobody else in the 20th century talked that way. Churchill was the last of the Augustans, the ornate, studied, and very British oratorical tradition of the 18th century, the tradition of Pitt, Burke, and Fox. It was long obsolete even in Churchill’s time. He brought it off because he was a natural showman. Few others could have done so.
But Americans do not do Churchillian. Americans best express themselves in such fraught situations as 9/11 in tones simple and laconic. Grant’s remark to Sherman at Shiloh, “Whip ‘em tomorrow, though,” is one example. “Sighted sub, sank same,” is another. “Make my day,” is the movie version. That’s the tradition that Bush was adhering to with, “I hear you. And soon the whole world will hear you.”
We can assume that “Axis of Evil” might well have worked in a Canada still steeped in the culture of the Mother Country (Canadian young people still gravitate toward London when seeking careers in the media or arts. Steyn -- who has now reached the point where he’s best known by a single name, like Dylan or Bowie… uh, sorry; Astaire or Sinatra -- made his way across the ocean to Fleet Street before meandering to New Hampshire). But Frum’s phrase didn’t work here. It sounded self-conscious, as if Bush was reaching, trying unsuccessfully to match the historical moment. It was a mistake that would never have occurred to a native writer, a mistake that multiplied Bush’s woes and made the necessary and difficult campaign against terror that much harder to put across.
We could easily add “You betcha” to that list of Americanisms. Sarah Palin is quintessentially American and nothing else. She could have appeared in no other country on the planet. Every American, right or left or indifferent, recognizes her for what she is. She is an archetype, an example of what women came to the United States to become. That’s why conservatives follow her, and why the left attacks her so viciously and relentlessly.
It’s also why Frum fails to understand her (Brooks, Parker, and Brookhiser have no such excuse). Though in truth, “fail to understand” is a pretty weak formulation here. “Actively loathe” is a better choice.
To Frum, Palin is a “pathological” element, representing a “psychotic episode” in recent politics, her newfound influence an error of historic proportions. You could search closely to find similar references to other politicians in Frum’s work, even regarding the liberal opposition, and you would fail. This level of sheer venom appears to be reserved for Palin alone. She can accomplish nothing good or substantial -- it’s likely that her recent gutting of Obama’s health plan, accomplished with what amounted to a flick of her finger, went utterly unnoticed on Frum’s part.
Frum truly does not understand why Palin has attracted the attention and support she has. This is an awfully strange blind spot for a political writer, and one demanding some kind of explanation, which we’re unlikely to get at this point. But it must be said that anyone so lacking insight into Palin’s appeal and potential has very little to say to the voters of this country, conservative or otherwise.
We move on to Frum’s prescription for conservatives. To paraphrase, it amounts to a call for conservatives to become more moderate, more self-controlled, less confrontational, more selective in choosing their battles and more refined in how they conduct them. In other words, conservatives should become Canadians.
If you wanted to choose terms to define the Canadian character in light of politics (or anything else, for that matter) you couldn’t do better. That’s it in a nutshell. What it has to say to Americans is something else altogether. What we see here is a reflection of the basic Canadian complaint re us -- our rudeness, aggressiveness, and inability to resist a challenge. There’s a common conviction up north that most American problems would be solved if only we’d become more like them. That, and no less, is what Frum is giving expression to here.
The problem is, it’s been tried, and found wanting. The record shows that this type of aloof, over-refined, I’d brawl too but I’m wearing my best pants attitude is in fact the default of conservatism, the place where conservatives retreat when they’re tired. It was this style of conservatism that remained marginalized from the New Deal through the 60s, the doctrine that convinced working America that conservatives were nerveless, bloodless, neurotic twits best left to themselves. It wasn’t until the advent of the brawny, confrontational conservatism of Buckley, Goldwater (another American original, and -- no surprise -- another Frum bête noire), and Reagan that conservatism captured the imagination, support, and the votes of Americans at large.
In a greater sense, it would be a violation of our character. Americans are not Canadians. We enjoy getting loud about politics, the same as we do everything else. Jumping in with both feet is what Americans do. This occasionally leads to error, but it has also given rise to some of our finest moments. It led to the town halls this summer, which have put much of Obama’s policy on the rocks, and just last week helped propel Van Jones to a bright future in the private sector, where he will no longer be burdened with writing government policy in secret. (Was anybody else aware that this left-wing crank was involved with handing out stimulus spending? I certainly wasn’t.) It’s difficult to see any such results rising from the Canadian method.
A man who needs this explained to him, who fails to understand it from the start, is never going to lead American conservatism. The new Buckley will have to be found elsewhere -- if we need one, which may well not be the case. This doesn’t mean that there’s no place for David Frum. He means well, and there’s always a place for such people. A wise choice might involve establishing an organization to mediate between his home country and the United States. Not a lot of glamour there, but it’s a job that ought to be done. And it’s one that would perfectly suit the talents and character of a Canadian.