Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values, Michael Adams

Penguin Canada, 2003, 224 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-14-301422-6

As a teenage Canadian during the early nineties, it was easy to feel pessimistic about the future of my country: The free-trade agreement was being expanded to include all of North America, the Meech accord had failed and a recession was going on even as the government still spent like a drunken sailor. Common wisdom had it that, sooner or later, Canada was due for an ultimate absorption into the United States. After all, weren’t the two countries so similar anyway?

But don’t assume that this kind of thinking was a product of the nineties; ever since Confederation, Canadian history has been dominated by this fear of American hegemony. What’s new, though, is Canada’s growing disbelief in this “myth of converging values.” As Michael Adams sets out to argue in his numbers-enhanced book-length op-ed Fire and Ice, Canada may in fact be at the threshold of a mature understanding of itself as a distinct entity from the United States.

The genius -and chief distinguishing characteristic- of Fire and Ice is that it’s based on new data extracted from polls conducted in 1992, 1996 and 2000. Adams’ polling company (Environics) conducted surveys in both Canada and the US, asking respondents to agree or disagree with statement designed to measure their attitudes toward social values. Those answers were grouped together to evaluate respondents’ social values, which are then plotted on a two-scale map running from Individuality to Authority on one scale, and from Survival to Fulfilment on the other.

When Adams started comparing the answers of Canadian respondents to Americans, he saw clear differences. In the book’s most shocking example, when pollsters asked (in 2000) if respondents agreed with the statement “the father of the family must be master in his own home”, 18 percent of Canadians agreed, whereas fully 49 percent of Americans answered affirmatively. (In response to another question, 44% of Americans in 2000 agreed that “a widely advertised product is probably good” versus merely 17% of Canadians.)

Even more striking: When Adams started comparing results of his surveys from 1992 to 2000, he not only saw important differences between Canadian and American social values (Canadians generally being more individualist and more fulfilment-oriented than Americans), but also saw them headed in increasingly divergent direction: Canada toward Individuality/Fulfilment, and the US toward Individuality/Survival.

The numbers get more and more interesting as Adams digs into subgroups. Among all age groups, for instance, the relative positions of Canadians versus Americans remains generally constant, but the divergence gets stronger as one goes down the age groups, suggesting than contrarily to popular belief, the difference between younger Americans and Canadians is increasing compared to their elders. More interestingly, regional dissection of social attitudes revealed a Canada clearly different, even region by region, from the United States. Quebec and British Columbia at one end of the social scale, and the American Deep South at the other extremity.

All of those numbers are spun in a compelling argument about the divergent nature of both countries. Adams is clear in his belief that Canada is becomes an increasingly diverse and socially mature country. He’s not quite as certain of the evolution of trends in the US. Ironically enough, one of the most striking suggestions in Fire and Ice has to do with the American “culture war”. While opponents on both sides of the debate agree that it’s a tug-of-war between conservative and liberal ideology, Adams argues that his number are not showing “winners” in one direction or another, but an orthogonal disaffection with both sides. In the book’s terminology, the conflict between the Authority/Survival values and the Individuality/Fulfilment values are in fact resulting in a massive shift toward Individuality/Survival. (Or, in cruder words, a nihilistic “I get mine; screw you” attitude in a culture already predisposed toward violence.)

All of which draws up a highly comforting portrait if you happen to be a Canadian or think like one. Adams makes his case with lively writing, plenty of pop-culture references, occasional slams at the Bush administration and a few well-used charts and editorial cartoons. By suggesting that Canada is not only different, but is also evolving in a “better” society than its southern neighbour, Fire and Ice is like catnip to Canadian liberals. I’d love to read American reviews of it.

I do have a few reservations, mind you. Many of Adam’s examples feel cherry-picked for maximal impact. Even though it’s an argument visibly based on numbers, said numbers are still hidden in Environics’ proprietary databases. It’s also too easy to make sweeping statements based on three data points. The next step would be to conduct the poll again in 2004 and see if the trends are maintained. [February 2004: I was lucky enough to be able to contact Michael Adams by email, and he confirmed that Environics hopes to perform another North-American values survey in late 2004.]

Certainly, Fire and Ice finds a lot of validation in what one may gather from news and current social trends. If the 2000-2004 period has proved anything for Canadians, it’s that it’s quite possible to disagree with the United States. To be more precise, while every Canadian may have felt like an American on September 12, 2001 (and don’t look at me like that: I was on Parliament Hill with 100,000 other silent Canadians as we mourned 9/11), the aftermath, including the American Invasion of Iraq, proved far more divisive than anything else in recent memory. Canada found spiritual kinship in Europe, not in America.

What more, the arguments expounded in Fire and Ice resonate with plenty of other recent social commentary. Watch BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE again and tell me with a straight face that America isn’t regressing toward values centred on fearful survival. (Indeed, the Canadian segment of the documentary can almost act as a précis for Adams’ thesis) In an America gating itself in restricted communities, ever-more fearful of poverty and foreigners, isn’t Canada a counter-example worth admiring? One of the virtues of Fire and Ice is how it doesn’t simply lays out the differences between both countries, but also makes educated guesses as to why the land of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness seems to be less free than the land of peace, order and good government.

Adams’ argument also finds jaw-dropping resonance in another recent book, Robert Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power, a treatise on the growing rift between American and Europe when it comes to defence and foreign policy. Kagan argues that America is choosing Power (economic and military) whereas Europe is headed toward a post-modern Paradise of multilateralism and tolerance. Faced between those two choices, Canada’s logical alternative seems obvious. It’s difficult to escape the feeling that both Kagan and Adams are describing the same thing from different perspective, Kagan being strategic while Adams focuses on the tactical. The portrait, in both cases, h
as an innate bleakness: The fracturing of the western democracies in two factions, one fully enjoying its position in history while the other one becomes paranoid and aggressive. Kind of takes the extra oomph out of being a kinder, gentler country, doesn’t it?

In any case, Fire and Ice is a lot to digest in a few dozen pages. (Its main text is barely 144 pages long; the rest of the book is made out of more technical appendices) It’s a whole new social theory, but one that definitely looks like reality. Adams makes a forceful case, and his gentle flag-waving nationalism is a pleasure to read, not just because it happens to be pleasant, but also because it’s written in delightfully readable prose.

Time and a few more surveys will tell if Adams is on the right track and if our new divergent values will, indeed, keep diverging. In the meantime, though, Fire and ice is likely to be picked up by thousands of interested readers and dozens of university-grade social studies classes. Maybe it’s even headed toward self-prophecy. Who knows? While Adams may spend the first few pages of Fire and Ice explaining why its thesis is so counterintuitive, it comes at a time where the nation (officially declared “cool” by no less an authority than The Economist) finds itself dealing with something new; self-confidence.

Because, really, when was the last time you heard a Canadian complaining about the inevitability of assimilation? We left that in the twentieth century, baby!

[April 2009: A new edition of Fire and Ice is now in stores, and if it doesn’t update the main text of the book, it does provide a new 30-pages preface that reflects upon the last few years and presents the latest data from Environics’ 2007-2008 household surveys. Bad news for those who thought that The Obama/Harper combo meant that the nations were growing closer together: Adams’ data suggests that not much has changed in the past few years, and that the nations are still on divergent paths.]

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