Crisis of Identity: Here, There, and in the Canuckosphere

Samuel Gregg’s thoughtful Liberty Forum essay on the prospects for a functional “Anglosphere” leaves me perplexed. He is no Pollyanna on the matter, but to my mind he underestimates some monumental intellectual and practical difficulties confronting statesmen who would try to move the English-speaking peoples from ad hoc cooperation in various areas, animated by real if ever-shifting common interests and a residual but fading sense of common identity, toward a more unified posture. .

Like Gregg, I consider myself as much a product of the Anglosphere, such as it is, as one can be. Born and raised in Canada by British parents who were postwar immigrants to that country, I earned undergraduate and law degrees there, and graduate degrees in the United States (and one, I confess, on the Continent). I am now a U.S. citizen, teaching and writing primarily in the areas of American constitutionalism and American political thought.

A big part of me wants to believe that there is, notwithstanding the inexorable reality of evolving economic, political, and strategic interests, some persisting sense of Anglo or Anglo-American identity that might be preserved, and even buttressed in ways that would not only allow the Anglosphere to fight common enemies, but put forth a reasonably unified conception of the political good. But an equally big part of me doubts that such a thing is possible in the face of what I take to be the dissolution of all identities linked to the crisis of the West, which is to say the crisis of Western political thought.

Perhaps I can illustrate this by weighing the extent to which Canada even considers itself part of the Anglosphere. I am genuinely uncertain as to whether Canada is an outlier in Gregg’s analysis, or if, rather, he is engaging in wishful thinking about the whole concept.

My experience in Canadian state schools was very different from Gregg’s in Australian Catholic schools. I envy his education in the “unfolding of events through modern times,” viewed through the lens first of British and then American dominance, as well as his study of Shakespeare, Kipling, and Hemingway. My admittedly fuzzy memory of my education from elementary through high school years leads me to conclude that I was well versed in Indian (or “First Nations,” as they are now called) tribal doings, including various portaging, hunting, and trapping activities, along with a smattering of literature heavily influenced by politically correct samplings of Canadian authors. I recall no coherent narrative whatsoever of anything that could be understood as growing from, or supporting, a larger Anglosphere.

Certainly American television programs were ubiquitous in my youth, but Canadians were force-fed a healthy dose (or unhealthy, depending on one’s view of state-sponsored “culture”) of Canadian-produced shows as well. At the very we least had to make the effort to rise from the couch and turn off the TV when those shows came on. I do remember portraits of the Queen hanging from the walls of government buildings, including schoolhouses, and singing “God Save the Queen” at school assemblies. But I believe even these practices have now fallen into desuetude. Under the influence of educational theories fashionable from at least the early 1970s, I was one of those Canadian children growing up in an oddly disjointed Canuckosphere, if you will, though I suppose I did share with my classmates an awareness that Quebec was something of a foreign land.

Even more important than their sense of apartness from Quebec, English Canadians saw themselves as something apart from the United States. Anti-Americanism reached a fever pitch (by Canadian standards) starting in the late 1960s, for all the predictable reasons. But the interesting thing about anti-Americanism in Canada as opposed to other countries in the Anglosphere, or anywhere else as far as I know, is that it provided almost the only terms in which average citizens defined their own national identity. Then, as now, Canadianism was largely reduced to anti-Americanism—that is to say, the assertion that what Canada is, in essence, is not the United States.

Healthcare and gun-control policies are the touchstones of this assertion; they point, in the minds of Canadians, to a larger degree of concern for their fellow citizens, and a lesser degree of concern for the protection of individual rights and prerogatives at the expense of the common good, as compared to Americans (This is not to say that such Canadian prejudices are well-grounded—by many measures, Canadians are in fact less communitarian than Americans.)

On the U.S. side, Gregg seems to think that Americans are set apart from the rest of the Anglosphere not only by sports, but by “the detailed attention paid to the American Founding and events such as the American Revolution and the Civil War.” I must beg to differ. As a teacher of American college students for more than 20 years, I can attest with a high degree of confidence that even if those things were once subjects to which American education paid detailed attention, they are no more. Today’s undergraduates know virtually nothing of their own heritage, never mind its very real connections, and debts, to a larger Anglosphere.

Gregg believes people from “core Anglosphere nations” assume they will be on the same side in times of international crisis, “or at least, not actively or passively supporting the other side.” Well, maybe. But in the greatest running crisis of the second half of the 20th century—the Cold War—there were plenty of Anglos, intellectuals mostly, who were in fact either actively or passively supporting the other side. Some even rose to positions of political power. Canada’s Pierre Trudeau, while not exactly an Anglo, nevertheless led an Anglosphere country and made a point of being best friends forever with Fidel Castro. (His son, whose politics seem to be to the left of his father, is now the leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, and has a non-trivial chance of becoming the next Prime Minister.)

It’s worth noting that no Canadian appears on Gregg’s list of estimable figures who have argued in recent years for cultivating the historical and cultural bonds that link Anglosphere nations, in aid of promoting a unified Anglosphere “as a global political actor.”

He wisely refrains from exaggerating commonalities. The common law, for example, is not as common as it once was. But I would go further, and argue that neither Canada nor the United States enjoys a common law system anymore when it comes to big-ticket cultural controversies like abortion, homosexuality, the death penalty, and many more. Instead of being decided politically, the law surrounding these matters is now increasingly decided by self-appointed philosopher-kings in judicial robes, who rely on a Progressive liberalism deeply at odds with their own constitutional traditions.

Moreover, there is no serious political pushback against this in either country. The United States and Canada have become nations of last men, in Nietzsche’s sense, when it comes to basic self-government. And in becoming this, they have rejected nothing less than the British system of self-government which was so admired, and to varying degrees copied, at the founding moments of each nation. Neither parliamentary supremacy nor republican rights doctrines are likely to sway the minds of contemporary Canadians or Americans so as to furnish them with a political compass, never mind a backbone. Is it realistic to expect that such people might somehow be attached to an international “Anglosphere” when they are not attached to their own polities?

Gregg also draws back from overstating the link between economic freedom and Anglo values. It is true that former British colonies routinely rank highly on indices of economic freedom, but so do some non-Anglo countries. As British politician Daniel Hannan likes to point out, there is still something to be said for the Anglo-American insistence that anything not proscribed by law is legal. This disposition is not as widely shared on the Continent, where the very definition of legality is bound up with the existence, rather than non-existence, of law and regulation. Even so, this disposition has not been enough to place effective limits on the massive, overlapping regulatory states that exist within the American federal system, nor has it been enough to prevent Britain from falling behind some non-Anglosphere nations on measures of economic freedom, and of productivity.

These problems are not simply of the Progressive Left’s making. In the United States, country-club or Chamber of Commerce Republicans, who can’t take their eyes off the Dow Jones or the bottom line, rarely lose much sleep over violations of constitutional principles or attacks on free markets, never mind the disintegration of the Anglosphere. They certainly can’t be relied on to fight against corporatism, protectionism, or various other forms of crony capitalism. They are more than willing, for reasons of short-term advantage, to hand “conservative” politicians the rope that will hang us all.

Furthermore, as Gregg notes, it’s hard to know just how much the Anglosphere alliance that defeated Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Soviet Russia might be relied upon in future conflicts. Certainly the Canadians, whose efforts in World War II were heroic and relatively underreported, have, in the postwar period, long considered themselves peacemakers rather fighters. They seem, contrary to Gregg’s optimism, at least as willing as people in Continental countries, to “put their trust in international organizations and international treaties,” despite having avoided the physical devastation of two world wars. Admittedly, some of this has changed in the post-9/11 environment. As Gregg notes, Canadians, like their American, British and Australian counterparts, have been willing to go hands-on against Islamist terrorists. For this, they have felt the blowback of recent attacks on the homeland, but have so far stayed the course.

Perhaps the key to this change was simply the ouster of the Liberal Party from the halls of power—and from its claim to be Canada’s natural “governing party”—by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. The political will to cultivate—or perhaps keep on life support—an Anglosphere, or for that matter any traditional political category, seems to be always perishable, and always at war with a superior force: an insistent, universalizing, enervating Western liberalism.

It’s too early to tell, as I say, if Canadian politics have been fundamentally realigned by the flawed but sometimes impressive Harper. If the Anglosphere requires conservative parties’ controlling the levers of power in Anglosphere countries—something which Gregg seems to recognize in his concluding paragraphs—it is perhaps not so much an Anglosphere we need to cultivate as a genuinely conservative, Anglo-constitutional sensibility on the part of Western political leaders, whatever the national exigencies to which various regimes must respond. On this I think Gregg and I might find considerable common ground: in order to cultivate an Anglo-constitutional sensibility, it helps to be rooted in Anglo-constitutionalism. The extent to which such rooting is a necessary condition can be debated; that it is an insufficient one seems to me to be incontrovertible.

Gregg’s Anglosphere, even as it values the sovereignty of the nations that comprise it, is nonetheless willing to act in concert “over extended periods of time in ways that other groupings appear unable to replicate.” But as I have suggested, such concerted efforts are arguably more contingent than Gregg allows, and rest on an identity less distinct, and persuasive, than he (and I) would like.

He notes the Left’s reflexive anti-Americanism across the Anglosphere. Yet complicating the matter is the fact that anti-Americanism has also, in Canada at least, been very much a phenomenon of the Right, at least at times. Many conservatives have held up the notion of a dying Anglosphere as the only shield against American economic and cultural imperialism. The late Canadian political philosopher George Parkin Grant (1918-1988) argued that any conservatism—including the traditionalist conservatism of the Anglosphere—was increasingly impossible in the face of the American technological juggernaut, which subsumed and consumed everything in its path. And Canada, given its geographic position, was most immediately in this path. As Grant put it:

the impossibility of conservatism in our era is the impossibility of Canada. As Canadians we attempted a ridiculous task in trying to build a conservative nation in the age of progress, on a continent we share with the most dynamic nation on earth. The current of modern history was against us.

Grant’s writings served, for generations of Canadians, as a clarion call to a conservatism that would contain the “continental capitalists” whose ethic, in his view, works as a solvent on all notions and traditions of virtue. His gloomy prediction:

If tyranny is to come to North America, it will come cosily and on cat’s feet. . . . In fact, it will come with the denial of rights to all those who cannot defend themselves. It will come in the name of the cost-benefit analysis of human life.

In the wake of such analysis, what is left of the Anglosphere? It would console me to be shown that I’m missing something. I hope Samuel Gregg can yet convince me that I am.