Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Adam Gopnik and Canadian history

At first I was entertained and amused at Adam Gopnik's "We Could Have Been Canada" in the New Yorker of May 15. The election of Donald Trump, maybe, has left Gopnik thinking that that whole American Revolution was a mistake, a surrender to extremism that continues to mark American life. Maybe things would be better, he reflects, if Americans had taken to the slower progressive amelioration that he associates with .... Canada. "We could have ended up with a social-democratic commonwealth that stretched from north to south, a near continent-wide Canada."

The essay is full of Gopnik's characteristic cleverness and erudition. And of course an argument that maybe Canada came out better than the Yanks is going to be pleasant reading for us Canadians, and students of say, Loyalism, and admirers of the parliamentary tradition, and....  It becomes even better when furious American patriots declare him disloyal if not treasonous, as here at History News Network.)

But Gopnik's essay goes deeper than a single facile observation to the effect that sometimes moderation is no vice. A writer in Adam Gopnik's thrall once described to me what he liked about Gopnik's nonfiction:
He is just: take a text, take another text, take a third text, and then think about them, and then write with such clarity. He did one on the Mormons. Talk about a minefield, but he just danced among them, just to make sure we all understood how complicated this issue was and how fairly he was going to treat it.
Gopnik is surely layering texts in this piece. He devotes a couple of pages of the New Yorker's precious real estate to Justin du Rivage and Revolution against Empire, a recent Yale history Ph.D turned book (I'd never heard of) in which du Rivage argues there was, not a purely "American" revolution, but an international struggle of "authoritarian reformers" and radical whigs. The American revolutionaries, he argues, were a local variant of the radical whigs, but in many ways the "authoritarian reformers" built better outcomes in the long run.  Empires are not the only evil, Gopnik writes. He jokes that when the taxation of trade routes in the empire is the problem, a Senator Palpatine may be more useful than a Han Solo.)

While mulling over du Rivage's argument, Gopnik also notes Alan Taylor's recent Revolutions (okay, heard of that one), and its argument that, once removed from the protection of empire, the new United States became easy prey to, e.g., the Barbary Pirates, and had to develop the now familiar American militarization, in a way Canada did not.

He takes up Holger Hoogk's Scars of Independence (new to me), which is mostly about the sheer violence of the American Revolution. Gopnik draws the lesson: war creates atrocity, atrocity firms up hatred, hatred fuels extremism, fear to the dark side leads. He notes that John Wilkes was a British radical whig who became an American hero and the namesake of John Wilkes Booth, who shot Abraham Lincoln. "Those who say, 'Thus always to tyrants,' can say it only when they shoot somebody," he observes.

Gopnik is willing to acknowledge contrary evidence, too, such as Jonathan Israel's case in The Expanding Blaze (unknown to me, but Gopnik says it is forthcoming, so...) that the American Revolution actually fuelled the movement to abolish slavery. But he is dubious. The authoritarian radicals building a more modern efficient empire abolished slavery much faster and more effectively than the heirs of the American Revolution did.

I'm left, not just with the boost to the Canada ego, or even with the skill and seeming ease with which Gopnik manoeuvres through a lot of big ideas. What also strikes me is all the big ideas he has to work with!  Big ideas that seem to flow endlessly from big, recent historical monographs of the American academic historical factories. Would that we had a few more Canadianists operating at a similar level! Gopnik may be admiring Canada and what he sees as its happy evolution from under the sway of the authoritarian radicals. (I can see the CHA papers already: they were racists, they were patriarchal, they were elites.)

But Gopnik is not citing any Canadian historians, any Canadian texts at all, as he leaps, as he dances.

Update, May 25:  Jerry Bannister writes from Dalhousie:
American liberals tend to like their idea of Canada far more than its messy historical, political, or scholarly realities. For all its supposed cosmopolitanism and sophistication, the New Yorker remains an American magazine, written by and for people living in big American cities. As a subscriber for over 20 years, I say that as an observation rather than an insult. I think it's one of the best magazines in the world. But its writers see the world through American eyes. Which means that even a PhD thesis written at a big American university will invariably get more attention than a dozen books written and published in Canada, regardless of the quality of the former or the latter. We can complain, cajole, or create as much as we please, but, at a certain point, we need to face facts. It's not us; it's them. There are plenty of big ideas out there in Canadian history, though they are published in Canada.
True, I think, about the ideas. (Glancing at Holger Hoogk's book, I'd probably have said, "the American Revolution was violent?  Duhh.")  But I'd welcome readers' suggestions of big ideas in Canadian historical writing.

Update, May 30: We noted more follow up here.

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