Fire and Ice

The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values
by Michael Adams
ISBN: 0143014234

Let me reveal my bias up front: I have been infatuated with Canada for quite some time now. I’ve been there three times in the past year and a half, and during my last trip I went looking for this book. I’d heard that it wasn’t a pleasant read if you were a thin-skinned American, and I was curious to see what a sociologist (as compared to a pundit) had to say about the differences between Americans and Canadians.

Turns out, we are quite different. Candadians are not, as the jokes go, just Americans in parkas or with health insurance. The values we hold as individuals, when looked at in aggregate, put our societies in very different places on the map. Adams does just that — taking responses from three sets of major surveys in 1992, 1996, and 2000 — plotting Canadians and Americans on a social values map. Not only are Canadians and Americans further apart then their geography might lead one to think, we aren’t even moving in the same direction.

Adams realizes he is painting in broad strokes here, and that his type of research (which he explains in more detail in the various appendices) doesn’t necessarily represent individual voices well, but rather reveals trends and group opinions. Personally, I enjoyed most all of his zingers (“Being in debt up to one’s eyeballs tends to remind one of the wisdom of saving for a rainy day, or at least until the next sale at Wal-Mart”) because I recognized a painful truth in them. I will admit that the phrase “willing to swallow whole national patriarch George W. Bush’s simplistic morality tale” made me cringe — again, because it is largely true, that is what the majority of this country is doing.

Some of the more interesting parts of the book weren’t revealed in the percentages, appalling as they are: Nearly half of Americans households possess at least one gun, and one quarter of Americans believe non-white immigration should not be allowed. No, what I found particularly interesting was how Adams considered differing national histories (“life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” vs “peace, order and good government”) and political structures in making sense of the values divide between most Canadians and most Americans.

Americans aren’t the central audience of Adams’s book, though we would do well to pay attention to his findings:

[refering to the social values map]
The political war in America is being waged between the upper-left (Status and Security) and the lower-right (Idealism and Autonomy) quadrants, with both sides vying for the votes of the nice, “regular” people in the upper-right (Authenticity and Responsibility) quadrant. What few have realized thus far is that the team that’s winning the cultural war (the one that really matters) isn’t even wearing jerseys: the nihilistic lower-left (Exclusion and Intensity) quadrant is the fastest growing group in America, and they don’t vote.

I highly recommend Fire and Ice for those who want more in-depth and objective consideration of American values than is available from either Fox News or the New York Times. Adams and his colleagues at Environics have revealed an intensely disturbing (if you are a progressive in the lower-right quadrant of the social values map) state of affairs, but better to look under the rock and see what is really there.

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