Tag Archives: Michael Adams

Unlikely Utopia, Michael Adams

Viking Canada, 2007, 180 pages, C$34.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-06368-0

Despite occasional setbacks, the twenty-first century has been a remarkably good time to be Canadian. Steadfastly progressive politics despite occasional conservative leadership, strong economic indicators and amazing social cohesion: for a country that many counted for dead in the early 1990s, Canada has bounced back and a new feeling of smug nationalism has swept the land. One of the cheerleaders of this new conception of Canada is pollster Michael Adams, whose perspective on the opinions of the land make him a privileged commentator on current trends. His 2003 dissection of Canada/USA differences, Fire and Ice, remains one of the most illuminating essay on the social differences between both countries.

After 2005’s American Backlash, which tried to apply many of the same polling results to analyze the American character, his newest pop-sociology book is Unlikely Utopia: The Surprising Triumph of Canadian Pluralism. As the unsubtle subtitle indicates, this is “a good-news story about Canadian multiculturalism”. Contradicting many, Adams attempts to prove that the Canadian experience in dealing with immigration is producing exceptional results.

This is a faintly daring thesis for a number of reasons. Over the past few years, national evening news have relayed a stream of mini-crises and events almost designed to make us feel as if the Grand Canadian Experiment with multiculturalism was reaching saturation point: Controversies over religious (ie: “non-Christian”) symbols in schools, the Herouxville debacle (in which a tiny Quebec town passed an explicitly racist code of conduct), racially-tinged crime reports in Toronto, public hearings on cultural accommodation in Quebec, and so on. Not knowing any better, one would think that there was nothing to do but turn back the clock, barricade the borders and go ask the Queen for advice.

Then there’s the typically Canadian gift for self-doubt. Adams scores the book’s first rhetorical victory early on when he points out that Canadian have a quasi-pathological need to put themselves down. Few Canadians will agree that their national social model is inherently superior: for every success, Canadians will feel obligated to ward off accusations of smugness by pointing our the country’s failing in dealing with first nations, with immigrant’s educational equivalents, with the country’s history of racism, with systemic discrimination. “Canadians seem to expect, if not downright savour, bad news.” [P.xviii]

Adams sees things differently. In the first of the book’s four chapters, he looks at recent immigrant survey results and finds more cause for celebration than concern: 85% of respondents would still come back to Canada if they had to do it again, 75% of all Canadians think immigration had a positive effect on the country (a result far above other countries) and 85% think that multiculturalism is important to our national identity. He finds evidence that the average Canadians think the system is in trouble for other people, but not for them.

In the second chapter, he looks at numbers from Statistics Canada to find out that so-called “ethnic enclaves” in Canada are hardly homogeneous, but reflect the increasing diversity of Canadian cities. Further finding show that immigrants consistently rank the weather as what they like least about Canada, that Canada is doing better than other western countries in integrating foreign-born residents in politics, and that intermarriages between ethnic groups are skyrocketing, having “increased by 35 percent between 1991 and 2001.” [P.82] “If Canada is becoming a hopelessly segregated society, rising rates of intermarriage are a strange symptom of the alleged disease”.[P.85]

Chapter Three focuses on Muslims in Canada by presenting the results of a special survey conducted in late 2006. Again, Adams finds few causes for concern: Large majorities of respondents are proud to be Canadian (94%), think that Muslims are better treated in Canada than in other Western countries (77%) and believe that most Muslim want to adopt Canadian customs (58%). In fact, Adams finds little cause to think that the Muslim experience in Canada is any different from any other group of immigrants.

Finally, Adams, looks at Quebec’s own complex feelings about multiculturalism, concluding (not unreasonably) that the frenzy of controversy about “reasonable accommodations” is more a reflexion of Quebec’s own insecurities as they see their culture as being already threatened by the English-speaking masses outside the province’s border. To that, one should add Quebec’s ringing rejection of religion as a dominant cultural force during the past few decades, giving rise to self-consciously secular society that also seems threatened by both the immigrant arrivals and the conservative forces outside Quebec.

But beyond the data, there’s a lot to like in the way that Unlikely Utopia is written. Pop-sociology has rarely been so much fun to read, and considerable praise should be heaped on Adams’ shoulders as he manages to bring all the numbers together in a coherent thesis. Unlikely pop references abound, as do common sense put-downs and snarky attacks against paranoid right-wing pundits.

Unlikely Utopia is amusing, clear and rhetorically deft. Adams must have a fantastic team of beta readers, because time and time again, the book manages to spot and handles objections even as they come up in the readers’ mind. For instance, Adams answers the questions raised by the Paris riots by pointing out at the lack of ghettos in Canadian cities, and deals with the obvious question of “home-grown terrorism” by pointing out that such things are always statistical outliers that don’t reflect majority opinion or social trends. He adds “If -horribly- a terrorist attack does occur on Canadian soil, there is no need to throw out this book; nothing in it will necessarily have been proven false. But if one day you wake up and read on the front page of the newspaper that tens of thousands of cars have been burned by angry, excluded youth in the suburbs of a Canadian city where unemployment among ethnic minorities approaches 40 percent, by all mean throw the book out. I’ll have already used mine as kindling.” [P.145]

The other bit of Unlikely Utopia that is worth pondering is the supposition that “diversity seems to work better the more there is of it. As American society has shown us, a society with only two major racial groups – one affluent, the other persistently much less so – is anything but easy to manage. In Canadian society, although we have a long way to do, the sheer scale of our diversity may come to offset issues of prejudice and discrimination – or as one commentator put it, we may one day simply have too many races for racism to survive.” [P.60]

Some will find this ridiculously optimistic, but I think that Adams is on to something here, and that his entire book presents are far more nuanced portrait of the situation than the evening news choose to highlight. The unseen majority of the immigrant experience in Canada is uneventful in the way most lives are lived in Canada. As a diversity-loving multicultural liberal, I happen to be in
Adams’ target audience for Unlikely Utopia, but the numbers seem to be on our side for once.

But for all of my admiration for Adams’ work here, I’m stopping short of recommending the book as a purchase. Like American Backlash, the amount of material in the book’s slim 180 pages hardly warrants the high price tag. Wait for the paperback or put yourself on the waiting list at the nearest library. It’s an entertaining book with a positive message and a fantastic sense of the New Canada growing under all the chaff thrown up in the media, but it’s hardly worth $34.00. You can get a far cheaper illustration of the triumph of Canadian multiculturalism by looking over the food court at the nearest mall.

American Backlash, Michael Adams

Viking Canada, 2005, 230 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-670-06370-3

I don’t think it’s possible to be too laudatory about Michael Adams’ previous book, Fire and Ice: Canada, The United States and the Myth of Convergence. By putting some statistical rigour onto a national feeling that had been growing for years, Adams crystallized the Canadian zeitgeist at a time where it finally manifested itself. It’s a bit pretentious to say that 2003 was the year that Canada grew up, but it certainly stands as a significant moment where (thanks to marijuana, same-sex marriage and staying-the-hell-out-of-Iraq) the country realized it was truly different from the United States. That it wasn’t just not converging with the US, but actively moving in a different direction. Sharply written with a mixture of structured polling results and pop-culture references, Fire and Ice went to to earn wide acclaim and healthy sales.

American Backlash is more or less a direct sequel to Fire and Ice, except that the analysis focuses almost exclusively on the United States. Once again, Adams takes a look at the results of his periodical household opinion surveys and draws inferences about the American character. What’s that fuss about culture wars? Is it true that, socially, the US is made of very different regions? Is the US growing more nihilistic by the minute?

As a Canadian, I’m almost disturbed at Adams’ presumptuousness in daring to psychoanalyze another country, especially if that country is the US. Through written and published for Canada, American Backlash takes on the risky task of finding out what Americans think, and if Canadians know one things very well, it’s that the US never, ever reacts favourably to outside opinion. Wouldn’t it be better, asks the polite Canadian, if we just avoided the subject altogether? I wouldn’t enjoy reading Adams’ hate mail after the publication of this book. It’s hardly surprising if the book still hasn’t found an American publisher.

But never mind my nervous fretting of hands. What does Adams have to say about the US?

One of his early conclusions is that the so-called culture war in the US is taking place upon the least important social axis. While Adams finds clear differences between self-identified conservatives and liberals (although those differences are almost orthogonal to one another: “liberals have issues while conservatives has values” he memorably coins on page 156), committed voters on both sides are very similar in terms of aspirations and community engagement. The real difference comes when you study voters versus non-voters: Perhaps predictably, non-voters are more likely to be hedonistic, consumerist and accepting of violence. It’s not such a stretch to assume that those evils that conservative and liberals are arguing against are to be found not in each other, but in this politically disengaged third group. (Ha! And you thought gansgta rap fashion was just an aberration, not a personification!)

At a thin 230 pages (only 177 of which are the main text, the rest being taken up by notes on methodology, sources and an index), American Backlash doesn’t have much more space for other subjects. It still does manage to study regional characteristics of America (suggesting that the stereotypes about this or that area of the US are largely based on real differences) and present a short history of political trends in twentieth-century America. (Hence the title, painting a picture of American politics mostly defined by what it opposes rather that what unites: the modern conservative movement as an overreaction against the evils of those “liberal hippies” of the sixties, just as the hippies were overreacting against mainstream values of the fifties…)

Unfortunately, American Backlash is not designed to speak about Canada, or how the US compares to other nations. Beyond cursory mentions of increasing liberalism everywhere else in the first world, Adams remains focused on the American national character. Readers hoping to catch a glimpse of Adams’ 2004 survey results for Canada will have their appetites whetted but left unfulfilled: you can bet good dollars that those results will have to wait until Adams’ next book. (In the meantime, Adams shows a sharp turn toward authoritarianism in the US from 2000 to 2004, and suggests a similar, but not as extreme trend in Canada.)

This being said, I think that fans of Fire and Ice will be the most disappointed in American Backlash. While the book is interesting and relatively solid, it does cover a lot of ground already explained in the previous book, and adds only a few points of interest. I supposed that many American readers will be offended by the besmirching of their national character, but then again they will have to make an effort to get the book from its Canadian publisher. For everyone else, it’s an interesting analysis of the social mood south of the border: will it be proved right just as Fire and Ice found its own vindication?

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.]