Some Exceptionalism Please, We’re Canadian

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Mark Kingwell begins “No exceptionalism please, we’re Canadian” by questioning the claim that Canada is extraordinary because it is post-national, has an especially secure banking system, an impeccable public health care system, and, above all, an open-minded, tolerant immigration policy. Kingwell used to believe these things but, today, even though he’s friends with some who do believe them and have published articles explaining why (for we’re “a small country. Maybe that’s the true exceptionalism in play here?”), he doubts any and all stories about how special we are. Indeed, they remind him of the philosopher Leibniz’s theodicy, his “sad, evil idea” that God made this the best of all possible worlds. It was rightly lampooned by Voltaire because it’s obvious that the world can be improved. In any case, Americans are the ones who tend to think that they’re exceptional and it makes them impervious to criticism. Even worse is how self-congratulatory it is. Better to recognize that Canada “is not the best of all possible countries, as recent arrivals and indigenous peoples will certainly attest. We are as rife as anyone else in intolerance, bigotry and ignorance…Sorry, friends.”


“Alright that’s it. I’m voting for Kellie Leitch.”

Of course this would be a wholly inappropriate way to react to Kingwell’s article. But it would be understandable. Time and again warnings have been issued about how the patronizing sanctimony of political correctness (or “political correctness (whatever that is),” as Kingwell recently put it) serves to create a backlash. However it seems he just can’t help it. True, his heart is in the right place, for he wants people to be sensitive to minorities. But the way he goes about it is so counterproductive.

“We are as rife as anyone else in intolerance, bigotry and ignorance.” This claim, so unmeasured a judgment, is what comes from thinking in the moralistic terms of purity and impurity. Like the rabbis in the Talmud debating about whether an oven can be defiled or not, when faced with such an all-or-nothing question there’s no way to avoid taking an extreme position (for the record: Rabbi Eliezer’s is monist and Rabbi Yehoshua’s is pluralist; by contrast, the Talmud’s as a whole is, paradoxically, both). And so Kingwell believes that Canada must be either the best of all possible countries or as bad as the rest of them. But this just can’t be right. We’re obviously not the best possible country, if only because Kingwell and others’ claims on behalf of a post-national Canada have made it easier for our majority English Canadian nation to continue to fool itself that it neither exists nor dominates the country’s (also supposedly non-existent) minority nations, the Québécois and the First Nations. But we’re surely not as bad as all the rest either. Not that we reason to be complacent. Still, the problems of intolerance, bigotry and ignorance are too important to go around lumping everyone in together like that. There are significant differences.

To Kingwell, however, those who talk in this way somehow still remind him of a guy who was rightly satirised for believing that the world cannot possibly be improved. Otherwise put: we’re worthy of being mocked. Which brings me to a mea culpa. I used to be a big fan of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. They were not only entertaining but also, most of the time, they were right. Yet whenever they mocked people outside of the establishment they were wrong. Because it is the economically anxious and otherwise alienated among them that are precisely the ones that need to be won over. Instead, Colbert and Stewart did the opposite, for when you hold someone in contempt how can you expect them to listen to you? So now there’s this powerful country right next door which seems to have lost its mind. Enough Americans were so angry that they abandoned all caution and elected Donald Trump their president out of spite.

That’s why it’s not at all helpful for Kingwell to use his column in one of our establishment newspapers to wag his finger at people, and certainly not while alluding to his and his friends insider status. Perhaps worse, if you read other books or essays by him, you’ll find that he’s doing so because he thinks that people are violating one of the rules of the civil debating game that he wants us to play. This is typical of political philosophers today, since the discipline has been overrun by aestheticizing Americans. There are those, followers of Hannah Arendt, for whom politics should consist of spectacular performances, i.e. it should be a big, even huuuge, beautiful show. And there are those, followers of John Rawls, for whom it’s a game that ought to be played fairly (play has been a central aesthetic category since at least Schiller). Evidently, Kingwell is in Rawls’ camp, but they’re not really that different.

We are, however.


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