Why aren't they like us?

November 02, 1995|By Peter A. Jay

Havre de Grace -- So Quebec, by the narrowest of whiskers, will remain for the moment a part of Canada. Do we care? We should, for in the cacaphonic separatist struggle to the north are the outlines of our own unhappy future.

Time was, and not so long ago either, that intellectuals in the United States saw Canada as a role model. It didn't seem to get involved in wars, and it was a big democratic welfare state in which a majority of the population, invoking fairness and diversity and other warm but vague concepts, bent over backward to make its largest minority happy.

Today, with Canada an economic basket case and its French and English populations viewing each other with open odium, it doesn't seem such a wonderful model in any sense, even to intellectuals. But it may be a little late for Americans to be coming to that conclusion.

The wintry metaphor which occurs is that of a ski slope. Halfway down, still barely in balance but obviously out of control and rapidly heading for the woods, are the Canadians. For them to survive the run intact, it's going to require a miracle.

Too late to stop

Far above them Uncle Sam, a skier without the resilience he used to have, has started confidently down the same trail. But it is beginning to dawn on him that he has made a dangerous mistake. He'd like to stop, climb back up and choose an easier route. But the mountain is so steep and icy that that's probably out of the question, and right now he's snowplowing desperately, trying at least to slow down, hoping to survive. He's in need of a miracle too.

National unity, like a marriage that works, takes constant effort. But in recent years Canada's attentions have been directed, not at national unity, but toward satisfying its French-speaking residents -- and, more particularly, the ambitious politicians who represent them. This is a commendable but ultimately unattainable goal.

Before Monday's vote, one of the networks interviewed a young man from Montreal who explained his support for separation something like this:

''Canada's a wonderful country. We're free, we can do what we want. If we're French, well, we have our French language, we have our French culture. But you see, we want something more.''

He was unclear exactly what that ''something'' was, but very clear that he would vote to take Quebec out of the Canadian confederation in order to obtain it.

Goodwill and guilt

In Canada as in the United States, there are currently many more forces mobilized to stroke, bribe or otherwise placate minorities than there are to foster a sense of national unity and common purpose. These forces may be individually benign, but they're collectively destructive.

They include majority goodwill, often leavened with guilt; minority pride, sharpened by hostility over slights real and imagined; and the powerful entrepreneurial ambition of minority politicians, who soon learn that the worse they can make relations seem between their constituents and the majority Others, the greater the opportunity to consolidate power.

In one form or another, what we see in Quebec, we also see in Baltimore, and in Belfast. We see it in South Africa, and we see it in Sri Lanka. We see it all across what used to be the Soviet Union, and even more bloodily in what used to be Yugoslavia. Nowhere is it pretty.

About a month ago, under the headline ''A Distorted Image of Minorities,'' the Washington Post published an interesting poll reflecting some apparently widespread misperceptions about the American population -- currently 74 percent white, 11.8 percent black, 9.5 percent Hispanic and 3.1 percent Asian.

We believe what we see

Most people, of all races, guessed that only about half the population of the country was white, but they dramatically overestimated the minority presence. The blacks, Asians and Hispanics who were polled, on average, estimated their own minority's percentage of the population at double or more its actual share.

One reason for this is that we tend to believe what we see. Most rTC minorities live in urban areas, and the minority responses to the poll reflect that. But another reason has to be the relentless harping on racial and ethnic matters that pervades the American media.

In happier days, there used to be a French saying, Vive la difference! In a sense, you might say that it celebrated the joys of union. But today les differences seem to lead only to confrontation and misunderstanding.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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