Why the silence from our northern neighbor matters

April 16, 2007

Amid all the wailing over the decline of U.S. journalism, word that the Washington Post is shutting its Toronto bureau was barely audible. The Post follows the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times in ending fulltime coverage of this country’s northern neighbor. By this summer, the Toronto Star reports, no U.S. newspaper will have a staff correspondent in Canada.

So why should you care? After all, if Canada were brimming with news U.S. readers would naturally demand to know what was happening there, and metro papers here would oblige. But by conventional U.S. standards of newsworthiness Canada is a nullity. If it’s true, as Churchill remarked of the Balkans, that some places produce more history than they consume, Canada would be the opposite, a black hole that imports trends, culture, politics, histories from elsewhere  from Scotland, England, France, the U.S. and, lately, the West Indies and South Asia  and emits no perceptible light.

At least that would be the explanation a budget-minded U.S. news executive might offer. The problem with that is it says more about the wafer-thin imagination of our journalists than the realities of contemporary Canada. And I think it also says something about the weirdly selective way in which our media deem certain parts of the world worthy of notice.

Here’s an example. Some years ago  the late ‘80s, early ‘90s  the U.S. media became utterly smitten with Japan. The genius of Japanese industry, the gold-plated work ethic of Japanese workers, the sky-high savings rate of Japanese consumers  all were subjects of innumerable newspaper reports, magazine articles, books and learned publications, many of them fawning, nearly all of them deeply impressed. Japan’s customs, institutions and social norms were themselves newsworthy. Japan was a bristling economic rival and, consequently, it was a country that the United States needed to learn from.

And learn what exactly? Lessons of hard work, sacrifice, obedience, the virtues of putting up with less, the blessings of a less clamorous, less individualistic and more compliant society. Japan was admired for its scarcity of lawyers, abundance of patriotism and sturdy deference to authority. (That these blessings came with fewer civic rights, a sham democracy, a denial of war guilt and an emperor-worship most of us would consider pagan, wasn’t a key part of the message.)

The Japan example suggests that under certain circumstances U.S. media can take an interest in foreign societies, even when they aren’t churning out what we would normally consider news. But the ideological tilt was unmistakable.

By contrast, our media have never mustered comparable interest in countries that, like us, are developed and industrialized, but which have chosen a direction of social and public policy radically different from that of the Japanese juggernaut that we were being encouraged to admire. Here I’m referring to the countries of Western Europe, among which I’d include  spiritually, not geographically  Canada, which has developed a European-style social democracy right over the border.

These are countries that not only are our economic partners, but have confronted practically all the tough issues of social and public policy that we, in the United States, are facing: immigration, minority rights, health care, providing for an aging population, managing social and economic inequalities, halting environmental degradation, and much more.

They deal with exactly the same problems, yet we never hear how successfully. It’s as if American working stiffs aren’t supposed to hear that their counterparts in Germany get six weeks a year of vacation, that Canadians are healthier than we are, and that ordinary people in most countries of Europe don’t need to worry that they’ll be financially ruined if they get sick, or that they won’t afford to educate their children or even to retire.

This is not to idealize the solutions countries like Canada and Europe’s social democracies have arrived at. They are criticized for being sclerotic and rule-bound, for discouraging initiative through burdensome regulation and excessive tax, for dampening imagination and enterprise. There are reasons why so many of their brightest and most ambitious talents come here.

But that doesn’t justify this country’s spectacular lack of interest in places that, whatever their shortcomings, have made great strides toward creating humane and democratic societies that in many respects are, unfortunately, quite unlike ours.

For an imperial power, the United States is an oddly incurious place. Our media don’t help. They should poke and prod, and demand that we pay attention to people abroad even when they’re neither disaster victims nor terrorists. Instead, by their inattention, the media perpetuate the dangerous belief that our divine right is to speak and be heeded, never to listen.

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