Dear United States of America,
We’ve had a good run. Our relationship goes back to my mother, who was born on your soil in the beautiful borough of Brooklyn, New York, and proudly held onto her American citizenship all her life despite having moved to Newfoundland at the ripe old age of 20 months and remaining there (apart from a brief six-month stay back in Brooklyn as a young adult) till she died.
Then I hung out with you for three years in my own young adulthood, in the great state of Michigan (in the part of it that some people called “Michiana,” where the big treat was to go to Chicago for a day trip). They were three great years and I enjoyed every minute. And you remain home to many of my dearest friends and family members.
Lately though, I think our relationship has become a little dysfunctional. And maybe it’s not you; it’s me.
Well, no. It’s at least partly you. But as in any relationship, the only part I can control is the part to do with me.
I’ve always had a passing interest in your politics, as any smart Canadian does — reference the old Pierre Trudeau quote about being in bed with an elephant. (I’m not sure if you know it. Or if you know who Pierre Trudeau was. You’ve never been as invested in this relationship as I have and I sometimes feel you don’t even know much about me, or my country).
During those three years I spent living with you, you had an election. It was 1984 and the incumbent, Ronald Reagan, was running against Walter Mondale, who had been VP to that good man Jimmy Carter. I didn’t know or care much about Mondale but I liked that he had broken precedent by nominating a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, as his VP candidate (1984! Glass ceilings shattering everywhere!!!). On election night I sat in a sad room on campus with the college “Young Democrats” club — most of whom were, like myself, actually Canadians — watching Mondale lose.
Over the years, I’ve kept up with your politics — I remember the nail-biter election of 2000, and attending a small 2003 protest (small in my Canadian city, huge worldwide) against Bush’s war in Iraq. But I was interested the way you’re interested if your neighbour is getting new siding on his house. “Oh, that looks nice,” you might say to yourself, or, “Eww, how can they live with that colour?” But even if I’m the one who has to look at it, it’s not my house and not my choice. So I’ve been able to remain somewhat detached, even as we continued our pleasant but distant relationship.
Then 2016 happened, and you went and had that election.
You know the one. The one with the smart, capable, experienced woman who’d been working for this job her whole life, versus the ridiculous, ignorant, racist reality show has-been? The one where I stayed up late because I wanted to see with my own eyes the moment when the US elected its first woman leader (a trick my own country still hasn’t managed)?
Yeah. That’s the point at which I think our relationship got a little unhealthy.
Since 2016, I’ve been interested, as most of the world has, in what’s been happening in Donald Trump’s USA. I’ve been concerned about it they way I’ve been concerned about, say, Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit-referendum UK, or for that matter Bolsinaro’s Brazil or any one of the several other countries that have taken a hard turn towards right-wing nationalist populism served with heaping sides of isolationism and xenophobia. Like anyone who believes the only possible future for this planet lies in us all working together, I’m alarmed when countries — especially those filled with people I care about — seem to be moving towards more barriers, less co-operation; more hate, less acceptance. And as one of the 30 million mice in bed with this elephant, I have, of course, worried about the spillover of Trumpism into Canada. It’s only natural to have been interested in, and worried about, your politics over the last 4 years.
I will admit, though, that it’s gone a bit beyond natural interest.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that over the past four years I’ve been following the politics of your country more closely than I have my own (except during our actual elections, when I have managed to pay attention). I listen to American political podcasts. I have read hundreds of articles about American politics in the last four years. I follow American politicians and activists on Twitter. I have even read more books about the American political landscape than I have about our own.
It’s beyond a healthy interest: it’s an obsession. One that’s only gotten worse in the weeks and then days leading up to — and after — the US election on November 3.
In the last five days I have spent more time staring at the map at the top of this post (or an earlier, more upsetting iteration of it) than I have at the faces of my own husband and daughter WHO LIVE IN THE HOUSE WITH ME.
Why this obsession? First, start with the sensible reasons above — the interest of a small-L liberal in a dangerous conservative movement in a neighbouring country — and move to the one that’s equally true but less sensible.
The second reason: It’s a compelling narrative. Politics are often muddy and full of compromise, but the Trump story was appealing because it presented a clear bad guy, something we don’t always get in these kinds of stories — a villain with no redeeming personal qualities to offset his repellent political views, who combined stunning ignorance about his job with breathtaking levels of rudeness and pettiness. On the other side, whole hosts of activists and allies and white-hat politicians were fighting for The Good Guys. Even during the complicated days of the Democratic primary, it was easy to look at all these people (well, maybe not Mike Bloomberg, but the rest of them) and cast any of them as The Good Guy, or the Good Gal, who would ride into town to save the day.
Trump supporters, of course, derived the same kind of pleasure from a simple good vs evil narrative, but with the roles reversed.
Finally, I guess, the third and most shameful reason is that, like any addiction, an addiction to US politics feeds on itself. The more time you spend thinking about it, engaging with it, sharing snarky Twitter memes about it, the more you’re drawn into it. And you keep going back for more.
But politics isn’t a game or a prime-time drama. It’s a messy business of figuring out, through the ballot box and also through the day-to-day work of activism and advocacy, how to create a society that offers the best life for the most people. That’s work we all have to engage in, but we can only engage in it in the place where we live. Other people’s politics can only ever be a spectator sport, a drama that gives us the thrill of cheering for the good guys and booing the bad guys, without engaging in the hard work of making our own communities better.
I try to do politics in my own country, both as a voter and a person active in my community, but I feel like some of the energy I could have been putting into making my city and province and country a better place has gone, in these last four years, into a vicarious fascination with another country’s politics.
So I made myself a promise: however the American election worked out, once a winner was declared, I would detach from it. Follow it with as much interest as I would the politics of any other country I cared about, but stop obsessing about it. Unfollow some folks on Twitter. Prioritize reading about issues in Canada rather than in the US. Unsubscribe from a bunch of podcasts (honestly, breaking up with the Pod Save America guys is going to be hardest part because I love those Obama bros — their relationships, their snark, the whole package. I’d listen if Jon, Jon, Tommy and Dan just did a podcast about, I don’t know, watching TV or something).
“Once a winner was declared” took a little longer than I expected, but last night I watched Vice President Elect Kamala Harris and President Elect Joe Biden speak to their supporters, accompanied by a killer soundtrack and a fireworks display that a Canadian politician would blush to even think about, much less ever have dedicated to them. It was a beautiful, inspiring moment full of hope, optimism, and the sense that our American friends had shown themselves capable of choosing a better leader — even if not by the resounding landslide I’d hoped for.
Now, for you, America, begins the messy hard work of cleaning up after the party is over. Leftists getting angry at Biden’s centrist cabinet picks and trying to push him in the direction they want him to go (push hard, friends!!). Conservatives moaning about impending socialism as the Biden government fiendishly plots to make it possible for people to go to the hospital without checking their bank account. The Supreme Court striking down Biden’s best legislation. Mitch McConnell’s Republican-majority Senate refusing to sign a bill to offer relief to people who’ve lost their jobs in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Donald Trump barricading himself in the White House and having to be evicted.
But these are your problems, not mine. I won’t be watching (OK, I might click on some footage if Trump really does have to be hauled out by the Secret Service, but otherwise, no). You’ve got your own fights to fight, and we’ve got ours. Canadians have gotten off easy for four years on the world stage simply by having a leader whose most outstanding qualities were 1) being physically attractive, and 2) not being Donald Trump (see #1). But that’s not enough. It’s not enough for the poor in Canada. It’s not enough for Indigenous people. It’s not enough for Black people, or disabled people, or LGBT people in Canada, all of whom have important battles to fight and for whom, for the most part, this government has not done enough. It’s not enough for 10,510 Canadians (as of today) who’ve died since March of this year when they didn’t have to, nearly 80% of whom were seniors in long-term care homes, the elders we should have protected and cherished instead of leaving them exposed to a deadly virus.
I want to get more educated about these fights and get my hands dirtier in helping to fight them. Is that a mixed metaphor, or do your hands actually get dirty in fights? I don’t know. I just know I can’t do this while being constantly distracted by the south-of-the-border Political Drama of the Week.
I love you, America, and in some part of my heart I always will. But for now, it’s best that we go our separate ways.