An essay of mine appears in today's Montreal Gazette. I read some of the comments last night, and then stopped; I won't engage in a discussion in the newspaper's comment thread, but please feel free to weigh in if you go over there - and I'd be happy to hear your thoughts here. Although no one likes being misunderstood, I'm still glad the piece was published. In the process I've learned several important things that I'd like to share with you, my faithful and sensitive readers who I am appreciating today more than ever.
First, subtle, lyrical essays do not translate well to newspapers or online websites where people expect a different sort of writing. I had originally written the essay for this blog, and perhaps it should have simply stayed here.
Second, editorial decisions can shift the tone and thrust of a piece. My original title was "Dual" and I had submitted the two photographs above and below. The paper showed me their edits, but not the changed title or photo (congested traffic at a border crossing) until after the piece was published. Part of what I was trying to convey was what it is like to be a dual citizen of an older age, traveling between two cultures, and specifically my own sadness about what has changed in America since 9/11.
Historical memory, of course, is constantly in the process of being created and erased. For me, born in 1952, the fifties are a sort of blur, underlain by the chill of the Cold War, and though I can explain intellectually and with hindsight some of what that time was "like," my own American reality began the year JFK was shot in Dallas. Likewise, someone who was young at the time of 9/11 and is now in their twenties cannot know personally what America was like before the Patriot Act, Homeland Security, Al-Qaeda, drone warfare, Guantanamo, Iraq, ISIS, international terrorism, and the rise of social media.
There is more to it than that, though. To some extent, our reality is imposed upon us, but in other ways, we - some of us in the privileged west, at least - choose how to see it, even choose how much to see. What is objective truth, and what is subjective and personal? That is an important question, and it underlies much of the political and social debate in many societies right now. I think it is also a question we have to keep asking ourselves throughout life, because rigidity on that score is an absolute peril.
Ever since I was young, I saw that American culture contained tremendous opportunity and genuine goodness, and at the same time - even in the small peaceful town where I grew up - I sensed the racism and violence that often lurked beneath the surface and sometime erupted. The popularity of Trump is not a surprise to me, and because I have seen the economic and social deterioration caused by globalization, poor government, the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, and the societal effect of constant wars, among other reasons, I think I understand the anger and hopelessness many people feel, and why some gravitate to a person who cries, "Make America Great Again," and casts blame on The Other.
Canada is not the same. When you move here, you think it is a similar society, but - perhaps particularly in Quebec - the similarities are superficial, the differences immense. I have found that Canadians, unless they have traveled a lot or lived in the U.S. for an extended period of time, simply do not understand what it is like to live in a society where owning guns is normal and violence is much more prevalent. Here are just a few examples: in my small town in Vermont, the neighbor on one side had a shotgun with which he threatened us when, during a flood, we tried to clear the ditch and culvert dividing our two properties. The neighbor on the other side collected pornography, throwing knives, and assault rifles. Our street was once evacuated because wayward teenagers had shot holes in the gas tanks on the side of a house. There were violent crimes, including murder, and women did not feel safe walking beyond the borders of the village at night. And this was mostly before drugs came heavily into that area, spawning whole new categories of suffering. Yet, we all lived our daily lives as "normal" because that was our reality - this is what people do everywhere. I am sure that many of my neighbors didn't know about some of this, because they didn't want to, or because they didn't look. And to a person from a dictatorial, oppressive regime or country torn by civil war, that town would seem like the height of peacefulness and security.
Was I afraid then, and am I afraid when I go to the U.S now? No. I try to be intelligent and reasonable, and not naive. The implication that I was afraid making a routine day trip to little Champlain, New York is ridiculous. What I am afraid for is America itself, and I think that is an anxiety shared by many who look into the current fissures and see an abyss that has actually been there for a long time. What was done to indigenous peoples had an effect. Slavery, racism, unequal opportunity and a refusal to look at this as a society have a lasting effect. Failure to look at what happened in Vietnam had an effect. A decade of war in the Middle East has had an effect. The ballooning of police and border control departments, and increased power of a surveillance state creates an effect. Racial and ethnic profiling create an effect. Terrorism has an effect. The media have an effect. And the longer we turn the other way, the more we allow our governments to do nothing, and the more we accept incursions into personal freedom, because of anxiety about "the other", the more we give away.
Canada is actually different. Yes, there is racism and some police brutality, but it is still questioned and debated by society. It is vastly harder to own a gun here, and violent crime is much lower: in the U.S. the homicide rate per 100,000 people in 2012 was 3.9; in Canada it was 1.4 (0.86 in Quebec in 2014.) To illustrate how absurd the protection of guns can be in the U.S., here's this from a journalist friend in Cleveland, Ohio, where the city is trying to prepare for protests at the Republican National Convention: "On top of it all, the city has banned nearly everything you can think of that is longer than it is wide from the outer 'event zone' in the heart of downtown — lumber, wooden handles for signs, pipes, sticks — but under state law, it cannot ban openly carried firearms."
Canadians complain constantly about the healthcare system, but by law all citizens and permanent residents have access to this basic human need as well as many other social programs that are largely taken for granted. There may be less wealth but there is also less extreme poverty, and there is a "social safety net."
I wish Canadians could see what they have more clearly, because freedom can erode quite quickly. A truth we can all perhaps agree on is that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.
Lacolle (hamlet of Odelltown), Quebec. July 8, 2016.