Frye on the Two Americas

Walden Pond

As the American presidential election campaign comes to a close, and the prospect of a president Romney is, grotesquely, a possible outcome we must brace for, I thought it might be worth quoting from an essay that Frye wrote in the late sixties, entitled “America: True or False?”  Roger Hyman, a Canadianist and a colleague of mine here at McMaster, drew the piece to my attention the other day as we were grumbling over lunch about the wretched state of the world and harkening back to the sixties and the very different, much more hopeful atmosphere then; he recalled, to my envy, the year at grad school when he was taking, all at the same time, courses from three giants, Frye, McLuhan, and Donald Creighton, the Red Tory historian of Canada.

The essay was written in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam war and the student movement, and originally published in Notes for a Native Land, A New Encounter with Canada (ed. Andy Wainwright, Oberon Press, 1969), a collection of essays by various Canadian writers and intellectuals. It was another time, another place, but the words, mutatis mutandis–and the necessary adjustments are remarkably few–still speak so clearly and lucidly. As Frye eloquently said of Canada in The Modern Century, the country we should be loyal to is not the country that exists, but the one we have failed to create:

. . . . As for the USA, there is a political separation from that country which a Canadian feels as soon as he goes outside Canada. Politically, Canada ought to be one of the small, observant countries in a new world of continental, powers, much as, say, Switzerland has been in Europe. A Canadian going to the United States to teach in a university there is often asked by his American students if he notices any difference. They expect the answer to be no, and nine-tenths of the time it is no, but the tenth time there is some point of discussion that suddenly makes him feel like a Finn in Russia or a Dane in Germany. His students have been conditioned from infancy to be citizens of a vast imperial power; he has been conditioned to watch, to take sides in decisions made elsewhere.

But what does political separation matter when economically and culturally there seems to be no difference at all? The great producing machine of North American capitalism knows nothing of an undefended border: it spews its consumer goods all over us, pollutes our air and water and earth, turns our landscapes into a strangling nightmare of highways, tears the guts out of our cities and strews them along “ribbon developments,” cuts down our forests and digs up our mines, bellows and mimes a mixture of advertising and propaganda into our eyes and ears all day long. In short, everything that happens in the United States happens in Canada too, except that most of it is crossing a border and invading another country. But is that any real exception? Canadians seem to be quite willing to go along with this process: no political leader dares resist it for fear of “lowering the standard of living.” If our identity is to consist only of a querulous and pointless anti-Americanism, it is hardly worth holding on to.

The economic development of America has been intensely competitive, and so has developed in an oligarchic direction, taking advantage of everything that increases social inequality, like racism. Exclusiveness breeds hysteria, because of the constant fear of revolt from “below,” and the hysteria is increased by an economy that depends on advertising, and so tries to create a gullible and uncritical public. Advertising absorbs propaganda as the economic expansion goes beyond the limits of America and turns imperialist, and the two merge into the category of “public relations,” where one throws oneself into a dramatic role, and says, not what one means, but what the tactics of the situation are supposed to demand. In so insane a context the question of whether or not murdering a prominent figure or planting a bomb would be good publicity for one’s cause becomes almost a rational question. Hysteria breeds counter-hysteria, racism counter-racism, and American capitalism is now facing various opposed forces who may turn out to be stronger than it is, because they fight with the same weapons but believe in them more intensely. On both sides the social unit is the organized mob. An appalling crash in the near future seems to be at least a possibility for American society, and Canada could no more avoid such a conflict than Belgium could avoid a war between Germany and France. We look round for a third force, but the best organized one seems to be the criminals, who profit from both.

And yet everyone realizes: that there are two Americas, and that underneath this gigantic parasite on the American way of life there is quite a different America, tough, shrewd, humorous, deeply committed to a belief in democracy, with a genuine hatred of violence and unreason, anxious to reduce, even try to eliminate, poverty and social discrimination in its own country and to keep out of trouble with other nations. It may be sentimental and easily misled, but it is very far from being inarticulate or powerless. It is potentially in control of the political structure, which may often be,. in practice, the executive committee of the economic structure, but does not have to be: the Constitution which is its basis aims at democracy, not at oligarchy, and it is still a powerful revolutionary force.

I do not see how America can find its identity, much less avoid chaos, unless a massive citizens’ resistance develops which is opposed to exploitation and imperialism on the one hand, and to jack-booted radicalism on the other. It would not be a new movement, but simply the will of the people, the people as a genuine society strong enough to contain and dissolve all mobs. It would be based on a conception of freedom as the social expression of tolerance, and on the understanding that violence and lying cannot produce anything except more violence and more lies. It would be politically active, because democracy has to do with majority rule and not merely with enduring the tyranny of organized minorities. It would not be conservative or radical in its direction, but both at once.

What is true of American identity is a fortiori true of Canadian identity. Our political independence, such as it is, is the chance that enables us to make common cause with the genuine American that Thoreau and Jefferson and Mark Twain and even Ezra Pound were talking about. This all sounds very vague, but that doesn’t worry me: this is a statement of belief, not a program of action. It also sounds very unlikely, but hope is said to be a major virtue.

(CW 12: 403-405)

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1 thought on “Frye on the Two Americas

  1. Trevor Losh-Johnson

    This is a movingly prophetic excerpt. The only unaccounted element in today’s political climate seems to me to be the appropriation of the penultimate paragraph’s “citizen’s resistance” by the imperialist tendencies of the oligarchic powers. Think of the Tea Party being exploited and promulgated by major pharmaceutical organizations, using “grassroots” organizations as fronts. I wish I could say this kind of thinking is paranoid or pessimistic. It seems more realistic than anything.

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