Recently I finished reading Michael Adams’ 2004 book Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values. As I’m originally from the US and have a keen interest in the cultural differences between the two countries, I was fascinated to read the author’s interpretation of polling data suggesting that Americans and Canadians, in a socio-cultural sense, are evolving in different ways. The author begins by crafting a value map that charts respect for authority, individualism, survival, and fulfillment. Based on these factors he constructs four quadrants representing authenticity/responsibility, status/security, exclusion/intensity, and idealism/autonomy. Adams’ conclusion is that while Canadians have been drifting into the idealist/autonomy quadrant, Americans are drifting to the nihilistic and materialist exclusion/intensity quadrant. The author then further refines this claim, stating that Canada has created a people that are flexible, tolerant, socially liberal, autonomous, inner-directed,and spiritually eclectic people, while the US is increasingly materialistic, intolerant, socially conservative, and deferential to institutional authority. What is especially intriguing is that this is seemingly at odds with Canada’s ‘conservative’ past and the US’ ‘liberal’ tradition.
While the author provides compelling arguments throughout, my issue with this book is that it was a bit too obvious that the author crafted carefully-worded questions to get the answers he was looking for and thus reinforce his arguments (even he admits that only about half the questions in the US and Canadian surveys were identically-worded). Additionally, even though I found myself agreeing with nearly all of the author’s points about the positive attributes of Canadians, Adams’ inherent bias was rather distasteful to me.
In fact, in terms of my own experience living in the US until I was 18, I did not find the country to be the violent, chaotic, ultra-competitive, and materialistic place Adams portrays it to be. No doubt inner-cities can be like this and often are (just as certain areas of Canadian cities are), unfortunately, but this does not apply to small towns, rural areas, or even many suburban communities. It is also significant that despite the myriad economic and social problems that continue to plague the US, it is a country of immense compassion and generosity on the part of ordinary citizens.
This is not at all to say that these attributes cannot be found in many Canadians; in fact, I’ve witnessed some of the most impressive and striking acts of human compassion in its largest city, Toronto. But I do think approaching such an issue should be done with prudence and impartiality, especially when it’s a respected researched reporting the results.