A survey conducted post-apocalyptic debt ceiling kerfuffle indicates 82% of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Congress. In Canada, it appears many people think at least that many Americans are off their rockers.
I’ve just returned from eleven days on the road, traveling by car with my sister throughout Canada’s Maritime province, Nova Scotia. It’s a place of breathtaking scenery, moderate climate, pockets of poverty, and smaller pockets of wealth. The locals are dependent on tourists who may not show up and crops and catches that may not materialize. On the other hand, lobster is plentiful.
The Nova Scotians–Acadians, Fundians and residents of the Eastern and Southern shores–are friendly and forthcoming, with little of the anxiety that permeates our current culture. Perhaps they’ve become more adjusted to an unpredictable life, along with the unpredictable weather that produced an unprecedented amount of rain this summer. They seem to like Americans on an individual basis, at least the far fewer number they’ve apparently seen this summer. Blame our economy or our aforementioned anxiety or maybe the lousy weather—or maybe the fact that ferry service from Portland, Maine to Halifax was suspended two years ago—but we state-siders are on the endangered list this year.
My sister, who habitually rises with the dawn, went searching for coffee every morning at Tim Horton’s, Canada’s ubiquitous version of Dunkin’ Donuts, where she sat amongst and eavesdropped on the local fishermen, loggers, long haulers and itinerant workers. I was frequently chatted up by shop clerks and desk clerks eager for conversation during the slow summer. The most common topic, aside from the weather was politics: not politics as practiced in Halifax or Toronto, but further south, in Washington, DC.
There’s plenty to talk about at home, mind you. Toronto, Canada’s largest and presumably most liberal city, just last year overwhelmingly elected a mayor who in both girth and taste for political bullying has it all over our own Chris Christie. Rob Ford is a member of the Progressive Conservative party (is there really such a thing?) and is virulently anti-tax and anti-waste. Among the wasteful programs he’s targeted are anything having to do with the environment or mass transit. He voted to close several prominent bike lanes, calling cyclists “a pain in the ass to motorists” and claims he respects the environment because he turns out the lights.
Nova Scotia has experienced its own political scandals. The province where bribes have for years been a way of life has seen a number of its legislators indicted over the past year. Furthermore, the province has, according to a recent economic report, lost 4,000 jobs over the past year.
Up in Cape Breton, I saw much in the way of single issue signage in support of the unborn and little in the way of diversity—ethnic, political or religious. More than 80% of the residents trace their origins wholly or partly to Great Britain (including Scotland and Ireland), with ancestral ties to France accounting for another 18% of the population. A fair number in this tourist-heavy community take seasonal unemployment in stride by drinking, sleeping and “jumping on the dole” during the winter, according to my Chéticamp guide.
Why are these people so interested in U.S politics, eh?
What struck me about our northern brethren’s questions and observations was that they came with an undercurrent of concern–about the bitterness and pessimism that seems to define our national mood these days. “Does anyone in your country feel hopeful about anything?” one woman queried after asking me to rate Obama’s job performance. “I used to think of Americans as optimistic types,” ventured a traveler from British Columbia, “but no more.”
It’s not surprising to realize we still matter to people outside our country. In fact, those candidates who aren’t suggesting we pull up the moat will insist that America must regain its “super-power status” without, of course, suggesting a viable plan for making that happen.
I don’t know that most of the citizens of the world expect us (or want us) to flex our military, economic or even philanthropic muscles as we once did. They know we’re on the same austerity diet they are. But what I’ve noticed, and others have as well, is that the US is suffering from a character deficit. The mix of optimism, courage, generosity and determination that used to define America has deserted us. True, we have often overstated the argument pertaining to American exceptionalism. On the other hand, the uniquely open-minded, open-hearted, questing American spirit is exceptional. It’s the one resource we can’t afford to lose.
It’s been a long time since we were number one—in education, affordable health care; in several other measures pertaining to well-being and quality of life. We should be focused on making gains in those areas, even as we get used to our slipped position in terms of economic clout. Whether we need to maintain some semblance of superiority in matters of warfare is something we have to reassess. But we shouldn’t, we needn’t surrender our spirit. That’s something Americans have always been able to count on. It turns out to be something the rest of the world counts on as well.