The weirdness of “anti-Americanism”

In Jonathan Kay’s first note as EIC of The Walrus we find him trotting out the chimera of “anti- Americanism” – something which he says the Canadian left has in abundance but which is also (break out the tissues, comrades!) present on the right.

The phrase “anti-Americanism” is one I remember hearing a lot of around the time of the Iraq war. Then, it seemed to denote anyone who thought the invasion and occupation of Iraq – premised as it was on a combination of malicious lies and utopian fantasies – was wrong, and said so. A few years later the National Post ran a thinkpiece on “the Golden age of Canadian anti-Americanism”, accusing figures in the 1960s intelligentsia such as George Grant and organizations on the left for promulgating this insidious yet almost completely undefined disease. During the 1988 federal election, in which the issue of free trade with the United States was front and centre, the phrase “anti-American” had another renaissance – this time describing anyone who thought the distinctiveness of Canada as a social and cultural entity would be threatened or compromised by the unrestricted access of American companies to our economy.

As you may have noticed, I find the construct of “anti-American” irritating. For Kay, it appears to be motivated by a mix of provincialist prejudice, conspiracy theory, and fear of the modern. Stephen Harper, he suggests, has instilled our meek little backwater with a bit of confidence and ambition (he can’t count the number of times Canada now appears at the top of surveys! *international* surveys, for that matter…).

Several things are curious about the phrase “anti-Americanism” and its frequent appearance in the lexicon of our political right. The first is simply that anyone would characterize something like opposition to the War in Iraq or Free Trade as the product of a prejudice. George Grant’s “anti-Americanism” consisted of an opposition to the placement of American nuclear weapons on Canadian soil, and the belief that the preservation of a society distinct and separate from the United States on the North American continent was something to fight for (even though he thought that fight was doomed to fail).

This brings us to the second and more decisive reason why the phrase “anti-Americanism” is a curious construct on the Canadian right which is that conservatives, having founded the country with the explicit intention of building a society with different values from those of the radical liberal tradition in the United States, now frequently decry expressions of that very same effort.

This gets at the subtext lingering behind the phrase “anti-Americanism”, which is that Canadian conservatives now ultimately want Canada to be more like the United States and others, particularly though not invariably on the left (and not because of anti-modernism, conspiracy theories, or fear) want it to be something different.


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