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Tyee Books

Sidekicks to American Empire

An interview with Linda McQuaig

By Charles Demers 1 May 2007 |

Charles Demers is a regular contributor to Tyee Books and the editor of Seven Oaks magazine.

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Linda McQuaig.
  • Holding the Bully's Coat: Canada and the U.S. Empire
  • Linda McQuaig
  • Random House (2007)

A strange thing has been happening over the last few years in this country of ours. Our public attitudes on key issues such as the war in Iraq, same-sex marriage and the Kyoto protocols have been diverging ever more sharply from those of southern neighbour. But the federal government and mainstream opinion-makers have been headed in the opposite direction, cozying up to the Americans in ways that would make Brian Mulroney blush.

In her new book, Holding the Bully's Coat: Canada and the U.S. Empire, author and columnist Linda McQuaig's tackles this paradox with wit, alacrity and vigor. Luckily, McQuaig didn't get the memo that the left had conceded the terrain of populism and accessibility to the right, so she's able to establish with eloquence that yes, she's angry, and, yes she can tell you why.

The 'why' includes a list that goes on and on: from the Harper government's shameful defense of Israeli policy, to the cottage industry of penis-envying commentators like Jack Granatstein, who view peacekeeping as an insult to balls and country, all the way through Canada's military side-kicking for the White House in Afghanistan and Haiti.

McQuaig's writing on Afghanistan is especially commendable for its clear-headedness, demolishing the schoolboy delusion that we're there to free long-suffering women or to build a functional democracy at gunpoint.

The Tyee spoke to McQuaig by phone last week about empire, Michael Ignatieff, and the hurdles of national identity:

On American Empire

"The notion of the Bush administration as imperialistic, or bullying, or whatever, really has entered the mainstream. And there's no question I want to highlight that connection we have, or that role of the Bush administration. But I also do, in the book, make the point that it's really not just the Bush administration that we're dealing with here. It's the whole history of U.S. interventionism that goes beyond the Bush administration. It's something, you could say, deep in the American political psyche that seems to predispose them to this kind of behaviour. It's definitely reached a phenomenal proportion, a transparency, with the Bush administration, but it's not like it's just the Bush administration -- we're talking about a much deeper phenomenon on the part of the U.S. than that."

On Canada and the European Union

"I did a book called The Wealthy Banker's Wife which, among other things, looked at social programs in U.S. and Europe. In terms of attitudes, we were strongly more similar to Europe. The problem is that our elite keep pushing us towards the U.S. But in our mentality we're much closer to Europe. And we can get support from Europe for our positions, so we should be making common cause with them more often, both in terms of a social welfare model and in terms of taking stands in the world. In June, 2006, the European Union came out against Guantanamo Bay. Why didn't Canada get on board with that and add our voice to that? We should be criticizing Guantanamo Bay anyway, but if there's a powerful voice like the EU we should get on board.

"There's lots wrong with Europe and European countries, but in lots of areas there's lots of common ground with Europe and Canada. Like [on] gun control, for example, we're a lot more progressive than the U.S. We should be covering Europe in much more detail. I mention in the book that in the federal government, we've been shrinking our ties, bureaucratically, with Europe and we should be expanding them."

On Ignatieff, torture and arrogance

"That quote [in Holding the Bully's Coat] from Ignatieff, where he talks about torture [being defensible] as long as it's done by a patriotic American, now that's an interesting quote. That one hasn't gotten the play that some of the others [have]. That one was from an interview he did with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. That is an incredible statement of the notion of American exceptionalism, the idea that America should be excepted from being bound by international law. And for Ignatieff to come out and endorse that in the way he did is just phenomenal. I find it striking, because he doesn't talk like that in Canada. You don't hear him talk like that so much in Parliament.... And yet if you actually look at some of the things he's said, he's actually an extraordinary neoconservative. He's up there with guys like Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith and some of those people in terms of the extremism of his position. And yet this guy's a prominent politician in Canada....

"I mean imagine somebody in the U.S., a politician, spending 40 years outside the country and then thinking that they could just sort of sweep in and run for president. I mean the arrogance of it is just mind-boggling. And yet he came very close."

On so-called anti-Americans and real-life anti-Canadians

"I've always been astounded by the way [elite opinion-makers] can get away with that stuff, that they can go on lecturing us, like if you criticize American behaviour in the world, as any sane morally-based person should, you're dismissed as some kind of anti-American. I mean, why isn't that just 'speaking up'? Recognizing a force that's out of control causing damage in the world? Why would that be something to attack people for...?

"They want to enjoy the kind of status, wealth, and power that the American elite enjoy. And so that's why they're always complaining about taxes being too high here, too many social programs, et cetera. And they're just so contemptuous of any expression of criticism of the United States and also, even more surprising, any kind of overt assertion about the things that are good about Canada. Because they dislike all those symbols, and not just symbols, but dislike all those institutions, of goals like equality and inclusiveness, which I would argue are important to Canadians. They just find that almost irritating. And it really does almost speak to an anti-Canadian attitude. Like that thing I quote early on in the book, where David Bercuson is celebrating when that Canadian hurdler trips at the Olympics. He can't wait to get to his computer and type out his screed about Canada as a nation of losers. I mean that just says it all."