Having spent our entire national history in the shadow of the United States, we Canadians have a hard time defining our culture. Some of us like to explain our culture by pointing out key perceived differences between Americans and us. Nationalist sentiment aside, it's hard to deny that our similarities far outweigh our differences. More than that, our differences are more akin to regional variations on a single culture than something wholly separate.
One of the benefits of our often uncomfortably close relationship is that Canadians can choose which aspects of our collective North American culture to connect with, and take responsibility for. This is a particularly useful trick for those cultural characteristics we might personally consider shameful, like the troubling societal attitudes betrayed by the periodic and bigoted outbursts of prominent personalities from the far right. Progressive Canadians can leave those incidents be, writing them off as American problems, American examples.
Every time an American public figure finds himself in the mainstream media's crosshairs over an embarrassing or incendiary incident, this dynamic is hard at work throughout Canada. When Rush Limbaugh earned the ire of decent and reasonable people everywhere for his public tirade against women's rights and his personal attack on a women's rights activist, most Canadians seemed to feel distinctly separate from the incident. It was covered extensively, but it never felt like it was hitting home the way it would if he were one of us.
Limbaugh is an American pundit, after all, and so it follows that the attitude driving the attack, the overarching problem itself, must be an American one.
This exercise in deliberate self-deception may make us feel better about ourselves and maybe even a bit superior to our neighbours, but it's all smoke and mirrors. It signifies nothing but our all too common national willingness to wash our hands of responsibility, sit back and watch the show unfold.
The reality of right wing sentiment in Canada was made irrevocably clear to me last year at a lecture by Canadian political commentator and bestselling author, Mark Steyn. He spoke at Centennial Hall in London, Ontario, with over one thousand in attendance and a full wall of merchandise set up in the foyer.
"I've got a slogan for you," one eager audience member asked into the microphone during the Q & A period. "Immigrate, fornicate, legislate, and dominate. How do we stop the cycle?"
While the man's statement may be jarring taken out of context, it was perfectly in tune with the atmosphere of the evening. In fact, by that point in the night hearing it barely got a rise out of me. Steyn's lecture was ominously titled Head for the Hills: Why Everything in Your World is Doomed, and it was exactly as level headed as the title made it sound.
Steyn spoke mainly about Islam in the western world. He talked about the perceived dangers of what he considers the ongoing process of the Islamification of the West, a process carried out through increased Islamic immigration, and correspondingly high birth rates among immigrant groups. He pointed out that France was well on its way to becoming a majority Muslim country, and that a similar fate was in store for the rest of the West if trends did not change.
Steyn coupled his discussion of shifting demographics with an ambiguous indictment of Islamic culture as a whole. He pointed to some of the oppressive practices taking place throughout the Islamic world, focusing on the often-appalling treatment of women, and made them out to be an inextricable part of a uniformly undesirable Islamic culture. He connected Islamic extremism to every man, woman, and child belonging to one of the world's most populous religious communities, mocking them all the while.
And then there were the theatrics.
All of the other speaking engagements I've attended have had a formal, somewhat academic feel that favoured substance over style. Not so with Mark Steyn. Steyn cued the music and sang the audience a few songs from his album, classics re-written to match his brand of political commentary. He sang "My Sharia Amour," a less than beautiful love ballad about the dangers of Islamic law set to the tune of "My Cherie Amour."
Worse than the songs were the actors. Steyn stunned me when he brought out a man dressed like an Islamic cleric to poke fun at him and his beliefs, using him as a sounding board for a string of tasteless jokes. He then upped the ante and brought out an actress scantily clad as a dominatrix to inflame the Imam. Many people in the crowd laughed; I was incredulous.
Only a handful of people left early, but those that did made no effort to conceal their distaste for what they'd seen. I can't be sure, but I imagined that they, like me, had come to get a feel for right wing sentiment in Canada. If they were anything like me, they were unnerved by what they found.
Steyn toed the line between free speech and inciting hatred. He seemed practiced with it, positing trends and statistics but never saying what ought to be done about it, only that something ought to be done. With manipulative orators like Mark Steyn, leaving things unsaid with a well-timed verbal ellipsis can be almost as effective as an overt statement in getting a point across.
That's what struck me as most telling about the audience member's statement at the end of the show. "Immigrate, fornicate, legislate, and dominate. How do we stop the cycle?" It made me wonder how many Canadians thought of Islam as a problem that needed to be solved. How many Canadians hold beliefs in line with public personalities like Mark Steyn, Rush Limbaugh, Anne Coulter, or the rest of the far right's cast of characters?
Canada isn't alone in having a deceptive perceived national aura of social liberalism and tolerance. By and large, people think of northern European countries as being a few degrees shy of socialism, havens of progressive liberal policy and thought. While these countries do have strong liberal traditions, nationalistic, xenophobic, and anti-Muslim right wing activists and politicians have a serious impact on northern Europe's politics.
The tensions between the right and left over Islamic immigration in northern Europe have never been worse. Geert Wilders, the leader of one of Holland's leading political parties, is well known for his anti-Islamic immigration platform. A more extreme example of right wing extremism can be found in Anders Breivik, the Norwegian gunman who chillingly murdered seventy-seven people last summer after publishing a manifesto speaking out against liberal policies and Islamic immigration.
This sort of xenophobia is abhorrent to most Canadians, just like it is to most Europeans, but it appeals to a larger portion of our populations than we'd care to admit. Luckily for us in Canada, we have a convenient cultural scapegoat in the United States.
It's a tricky thing, sleeping next to a giant; they cast an ominous shadow, and their snoring keeps us up at night. But Canadians need to take our share of the responsibility for the continued evolution of our collective North American culture. Until we do that, we will keep missing out on opportunities to engage in serious public discourse on pressing social issues on account of our lofty, self-imposed sense of separation from incidents written off as being distinctly American.