LIKE LESS PRIVILEGED refugees arriving in less favoured countries, Americans emigrating to Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s were often far more vividly aware of what they were leaving behind than of what they were coming to. Visions of Canada as a .sort of virginal America or an English speaking Sweden or Switzerland were not uncommon, even among those who had lived along the border and listened to the CBC -- and even taken vacations in the black fly ridden wilderness of Northern Ontario.
I first met Edgar Friedenberg the day he arrived in Canada. He sported a haircut which left his head naked to an inch above his ears. (He had had it cut in Houlton, Maine, he said, as a panicky last minute attempt to avoid hassles with border guards and immigration officials.) Crossing the border at Woodstock, he had driven to Fredericton to have a look at the alternative school we were building, where, over a cup of coffee, we talked about education and Canada and the United States. I was slightly awed at meeting the author of Coming of Age in America, a book I venerated, and I do not now remember the details of the conversation. But it is the only time in my life I have felt I knew more than Friedenberg about something having to do with society.
What I knew, back in 1970, was something about Canada: I had begun to see that Canadian officialdom, and Canadian society, are far different from American. His haircut, I thought, was a peculiarly American gesture in that it assumed an official eagerness for confrontation. But what we had found, in a year of operating an alternative school in New Brunswick, was almost the exact opposite: officialdom seemed eager to ignore our existence as far as possible. While "free schools" all over the U.S. were being harassed and persecuted by local boards of education, health departments, building safety branches, police, and fire marshals, we flourished in a blissful cocoon of official benign neglect. No hassle. (And no haircut.)
Just as I had two years earlier, Friedenberg had come to Canada unconsciously expecting pretty much what he had left behind. It did not take either of us long to discover that the differences between the two countries run deep and are nevertheless profound for being, often, only hairlines on the surface. In his exploration of those cracks over the next 10 years, Friedenberg has found, as I would have expected, unexpected depths of significance and pattern. Deference to Authority: The Case of Canada is the result of a decade of contemplating the differences, and it is a startling and illuminating and infuriating book, even for those of us who had a headstart on Friedenberg in understanding his subject.
In part, the book owes its effectiveness to Friedenberg's analytic technique. Derived, I imagine, from structuralist methods in anthropology and French literary criticism, the technique involves standing back from an institution or situation that everyone takes for granted and looking at it as though one were a Martian. Not: "What does this institution say it's for?" Or even: "What do we all assume it's for?" But rather: "What does it really do?" This attitude permeates the book, and is perhaps most obvious in his chapter on Canadian prisons, entitled "The Punishment Industry." The chapter concludes on this ironic note:
Truly, crime contributes to the economy: it creates jobs, it even adds to the gross national product as this is customarily calculated. And all this rests on the backs of about 25,000 poor -- mostly very poor -- souls in jail. Most of them are less than 30 years old and have never finished school; a disproportionate number are active people. In what other way could these few these gallant if not happy few impoverished in body and mind and often even in spirit, contribute so much to their country?The tone of that raises an interesting question about the tone of the entire book. Any American in Canada (and, even more, any Canadian in America) will recognize the almost imperceptible chill that spreads through the room when he makes a disparaging remark about his host country. An unspoken, "Well, if you hate it so much here, why don't you go back where you came from?" hangs ominously in the air. Occasionally, it even gets spoken. "Of course, I despise my country from head to foot," Pushkin remarked in a letter, "but it makes me furious when a foreigner shares my feeling."
It seems clear that Deference to Authority will engender a good deal of that sort of feeling. But whatever one's feelings, and whatever the ultimate judgement one may pass on the book's analysis, it is clearly a work with resonance, one that deals in a memorable way with a social phenomenon that's really there in the world around us. Within the first few days after reading the book, at least two things happened that, it seemed to me, could have been taken from Friedenberg's set of examples and which reading the book illuminated for me.
One was a group of New Brunswickers calling themselves the Health Defence League lying down in front of the provincial spruce budworm spray program's planes; another was the "loosening" -- not lifting -- of the Lieutenant Governor's Warrant on which a citizen named Emmerson Bonnar has been held in various New Brunswick mental institutions for 16 years, because he is alleged to have been involved in a purse snatching incident and was determined to be "unfit to stand trial."
Both incidents seemed to me, in a way they might not have before, quintessentially Canadian. The genteel and civilized comportment of both sides in the dispute over whether a dozen or so Grumman Avengers were to ascend into the New Brunswick sky with 625 gallons each of Fenitrothion solution to disperse to the four winds, for instance, was at least certainly not American. Nor was the calm assumption of almost everyone involved that Bonnar, having been "declared" unfit to stand trial 16 years ago, has no such thing as civil liberties. The incidents, and perhaps even more the lackadaisical attitude of the local newspaper and, as far as I could determine, the public at large, seem to me strong evidence that Friedenberg's basic argument -- that Canadians defer to authority where Americans submit (with ill grace) to power -- is not far off the mark.
There is an equally important reason why the book deserves to be taken seriously, if not solemnly: it is, in a peculiarly American way, a marvellously witty book. Friedenberg's style depends on the deadpan detonation of a sudden slang word or unexpected understatement or ironic juxtaposition in the midst of what seems a purely academic, discursive passage. Listening closely repays the effort.
But there is, or should be, nothing shocking about discovering that police have abused civil liberties and that their responsible superiors have helped them conceal their misdeeds. It is no more shocking than the discovery that the family dog has messed on the rug; it can't be permitted to continue, and you may have to smack the animal with a newspaper to teach it to quit, or get rid of it if it simply can't be trained. But the disclosure of the mess and of how it happened does not bring discredit on the household; indeed, this is the only way to get it cleaned up. Sweeping it under the rug and accepting it as evidence that the dog is zealous in defending the security of the home will, however, soon make the house uninhabitable. The householders may also help to forestall such domestic tragedies if they learn to detect, by its usually stiff and pompous gait, when the creature is really full of shit, and turn it out before it gets a chance to do further damage.Admittedly, there is not much new there in the way of political or social analysis of the workings of the Canadian system. But the reader who bewails that fact and does not laugh at the surprising precision and wit of that "stiff and pompous gait" will, I think, have missed the point and will almost certainly find the entire book not worth the effort involved in reading it. Those who do enjoy it will agree that, like the essays of Samuel Johnson (another writer I find myself reading passages from to friends) the value resides not in the novelty of what is being said but in the magisterially final way it is put. The trick is to find a new and striking way to phrase truths that people know so well they've forgotten them.
Authority is a powerful depressant and extremely addictive. Like other tranquilizers, authority is prescribed to solve problems that have been mistakenly diagnosed, and whose real roots it cannot touch and serves, in fact, to obscure.Or, more domestically:
Canada’s dependence on dominant American economic interests leaves her in a position analogous to that of a wife in a marriage of convenience in a male dominated society. The convenience is mutual, but unequal.Friedenberg tends to use such analogies in reductive and debunking ways, comparing the highfalutin and abstract with the more domestic and contemptible, in order to promote certain kinds of attitudes. This creates a tone that, if it is not typically American, is un Canadian, as in the comparison between the government and the dog who has messed on the rug. Or this:
Union activity in Canada takes on a peculiar tone. Protest is likely to be angrier and more shrill than in the United States, but also -- and justifiably -- less confident. Canadians, fighting their status superiors on occasions when this cannot be avoided, are likely to sound like defiant children who have every reason to believe that, whether they are right or wrong, they are going to get spanked for being uppity. This is not, generally speaking, the way American Teamsters, in any of their manifold operations, respond . . . .An equally characteristic device is to find hidden charges of meaning in common words or phrases. He refers, for instance, to "drug crazed customs officials -- crazed by ambition, not ingestion." In discussing the malleability of the BNA Act, he notes that the five year maximum duration of Parliament may be suspended with Parliament's own consent, in times of 'apprehended insurrection.' No constitutional limits are set to the apprehensiveness of the Canadian government."
The offhanded, flippant (American, if you will) tone of this book, and the near arrogance with which generalizations are tossed off, will infuriate many readers, especially if they are experts on the prison system or constitutional law or the Canadian economy. I suspect Friedenberg will be pleased. In a way, it's too bad; had the book performed a serious analysis of the institutions Friedenberg discusses -- as his Coming of Age in America did -- the book might have been more effective in illuminating what is, after all, a pretty important issue, and might have been more useful to a country toward which his feelings are, at bottom, pretty warm.
Toward the end of the book he says this:
Despite the enormous potential for oppression the Canadian system affords, I have not been and do not feel oppressed here; and the years I have spent in this country have been the happiest I have known.Like the 18th century writers I am continually reminded of in reading him, Friedenberg will not let his theory seduce him into seeing what is not there. In theory, Canada should not be as free a society as America. In practice, however:
The ubiquitous Government of Canada does not merely restrict: it also establishes order, which is the fundamental precondition of freedom. You are not free to walk about the city if you have reason to fear being mugged or shot. You are not free to do anything much in your later years if you are continually dogged by threat of catastrophic illness. In these important respects Canadians enjoy far more freedom than Americans.Deference to authority, then, is a two sided coin. It is not a heroic ideal like the struggle for liberty; on the other hand it is preferable, as a way of holding a society together, to fear of power. Deference allows rather more dignity than fear; authority is rather more civilized than power. The school we were building the day I met Friedenberg was not persecuted because the Canadian authorities expected deference to their authority. And in fact they got it, even from the more confrontative Americans involved. On the other hand, in the U.S. officials didn't get any deference and were not often perceived as having authority. What they had, and were perceived to have, was power; and they exercised it. That distinction, which Friedenberg insists on, is fundamental to the contrast between the two policies on either side of what used to be called "the longest undefended border in the world."
In Colombo's Canadian Quotations Friedenberg is quoted as having written, in 1972: "Emigration does not greatly alter national character; if anything, it turns it to caricature. . . . Living in Canada for two years has already taught me how American I am." After 10, perhaps he knows even better; certainly Deference to Authority is an American's view of Canada, and not a Canadian's. Its author, however, does not appear to have become a caricature.