One month to go in the semester, and things are starting to wrap up. The past two weeks have featured a lot of concluding events and traditions for seniors, which I have been able to take part in as a senior myself. Definitely the coolest happening was last Saturday, which was a combo day for Holi and Bacchanal. I had never celebrated Holi before, and it was something else – paint everywhere. I quickly rushed back to my room to shower, and then headed to Bacchanal, a free concert for all students on the steps of Low Library (try doing that for our 50000+ students at Robarts U of T). This year Bacchanal featured the Chainsmokers and Lupe Fiasco, as well as some local artists. The word Bacchanal comes from the Roman god Bacchus, the god of wine, so it was naturally a pretty rowdy event.
I was also in Washington DC, with this year’s group of Killam Fellows. It was a great event, that featured museums and monuments, a visit to the world-famous Woodrow Wilson Center, and the Washington Nationals home opener. More than this though, it was a chance to reunite with those I had met in September, and to reflect on our experiences on the other side of the Canada-US border.
And so, the perfect segue into my final thought about my time here.
While I was at the Newseum in DC (one of the most original and interesting museums I’ve ever been to), I came across an old copy of the American Constitution (from the 18th century). This treasured document is still taught, memorized and analyzed today. Who knows the beginning of the Canadian Constitution? Some of you probably do, but it hardly has the same significance as it does in the States.
Why is that? In my opinion, it stems from one of the more insightful things I’ve heard here: America was not founded with any inherent spatial constraints, or official social barriers to entry – it is based on an idea. Space is finite and determined, while ideas are interpretable and infinite. Belief in the ‘American’ idea – an idea that exists independent of economic performance – is the fuel that keeps America’s image going strong. While in Canada we see, to the south, a declining hegemon, saddled by debt and falling behind, over here America has never been stronger. There is definitely the belief that as long as America ‘sticks to the script,’ it will prevail.
America has almost always been at war since its creation. Oftentimes, these wars are said to come about from economic motivations – in Iraq for example. But more than this, I believe, is the need to have the American idea triumph over opposing ideologies, whether that opponent is ‘Communism,’ or the even more vague ‘Terror’ – often taken to refer to Islamic fundamentalism. So, as the centrifugal forces of gerrymandering, China scaring, climate change, healthcare and the like lead to the increased polarization of adversarial doctrines, is America soon to be at war with itself? Hyperbolic yes, but seems to follow.
What does this say about ‘America’s Hat’ to the north: Canada! Well, the most important thing I think it says is how different Canada, and Canadian culture, is to American. If the most important aspect of America are its ideals, we should look at this as a point of difference. While I don’t believe that Canada has different ideals than America, it is the value that we are willing to place on ideals that differs. Canada is a younger country, prone to large shifts in thinking to suit our times. We are unafraid to confront important policy issues, and heck we were even willing to have the vote on Quebec sovereignty – twice (meanwhile clashing ideas in America have led to war)! Because there is less of an a priori value placed on our initial ideals, we are more open to change. In America, the word ‘freedom’ is an automatic trump card. Play that, and the other side is automatically placed far on the defensive. In Canada, the introduction of new controversial ideas does not stifle the conversation, it creates one. Nowadays, we see a tension in the US, between whether or not we want to stick to the causes of the system – hoping for good effects – or look at the effects of the current system, and address the root causes to produce better ones; healthcare is an example of this. Seems like a pretty fundamental difference to me.
I am so thankful to the Killam Fellowship, the CIE and the IR/History/Polisci departments for their support of my exchange. Going abroad in the last semester is risky, and without the help of those mentioned I would not have been able to keep everything on track. Also, thank you to Victoria College, Trinity College and CIE for their generous financial support, also making my time at Columbia possible. All experiences are memorable (that’s what makes them memories), but I believe this exchange will be a particularly important shaper of the person I will be in the future.
Signing off – all the best, and thanks for reading!