All countries have their own brand of chest-thumping nationalism, but almost none is as patently universal — even messianic — as this belief in America’s special character and role in the world. While the mission may be centuries old, the phrase only recently entered the political lexicon, after it was first uttered by none other than Joseph Stalin. Today the term is experiencing a resurgence in an age of anxiety about American decline.
In the book, Canada becomes a sort of promised land, a refuge. There is a line characters cling to: “Canada was better than America and everyone knew that – except Americans.” Is that how it feels to you?
I never had much conceptual idea of Canada being better. But whenever I go there, I feel this fierce sense of American exigence just relent. America beats on you so hard the whole time. You are constantly being pummelled by other people’s rights and their sense of patriotism. So the American’s experience of going to Canada, or at least my experience, is that you throw all that clamour off. Which is a relief sometimes.
How does that sentiment go down among American readers?
Last night, I was in New Orleans at this book party full of local oligarchs, a charity group. I was trying to tell them why I called the book Canada, and I said this stuff about America beating on you and I saw a lot of unfriendly faces in the room. There is this very strong “If you are not for us, you are against us” feeling in America just now. Perhaps there always has been. You are not allowed to complain.
We drive out of the airport past the compulsory orgy of American flags, which despite their quiet fluttering still manage to scream: YOU’RE IN AMERICA! YOU’RE IN AMERICA! YOU’RE IN AMERICA!
Where am I?
Oh, yeah. Thanks.
By amusing contrast, if you ever watch a U.S. soccer match, the overwhelming impression you get from the American commentators is of a desperate, almost pleading, desire for respect and acknowledgement. It’s almost painful, the earnest hope that if they can just pull off one more upset of a major footballing power, they’ll finally be accepted by the sport’s European elite. Then, inevitably, they balance out a surprise victory over Spain or Italy with a loss to Mexico or a draw against a tiny nation, and the whole pathetic struggle with feelings of inadequacy begins anew.