Back in 1986, when it was still both smart and impertinent, The New Republic (TNR) magazine—inspired by that notoriously soporific New York Times headline—playfully invited its readers to submit their own competing nominations. “Has there ever been a more boring headline?” TNR marveled. “Is it possible even to imagine a more boring headline?”
History does not record the findings of the TNR readership. But as far as I’m concerned, more than 30 years and thousands of news stories later, that one is still the champ. Yes, it’s a cheap shot—the NYT copy desk undoubtedly inflicted it on their hapless columnist, Flora Lewis, who had been a brilliant student, a seasoned foreign correspondent, and the first woman offered her own piece of real estate in the NYT’s most exclusive neighborhood, its Op-Ed page.
Had you made it past that enervating headline without nodding off, you would have read her earnest plea for a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Canada, in which she praised the Canadians for putting aside their reflexive nationalism and called on the Americans to respond favorably.
As we’ve been traveling on vacation through Nova Scotia—the most populous of Canada’s three Maritime provinces, which include New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island—I thought of that headline, and the policy issue, and how distant that vanished world of political discourse seems today.
For one thing, the NYT has dramatically upped its headline-writing game (sample: “He’s One of the Biggest Backers of Trump’s Push to Protect American Steel. And He’s Canadian.”)
For another, as this story sadly makes clear, it’s now Americans, not Canadians, who are short-sighted protectionists antagonizing allies and trading partners.
Finally, it’s just sobering to compare yesterday’s plodding but serious op-ed with today’s counterparts, where the relentless quest for clicks and eyeballs invariably rewards the dazzling but trivial.
While we’re on the subject, let’s revisit Flora’s unfortunate headline. An open trade policy isn’t the only “worthwhile Canadian initiative.” How about Canada’s health-care system, a network of 13 provincial and territorial health care insurance plans funded federally but administered locally? All Canadians are covered by a national program mandated to provide universal, comprehensive, portable, accessible health care under public, not private, auspices.
Here’s another: For more than 60 years, the Canada Council for the Arts has provided robust public funding for artists and arts organizations, awarded through competitive grants, administered independent of government control, and free of political influence, yet transparent and financially accountable.
More examples? Canadians are so zealous in protecting their natural environment that sometimes even the best-intended efforts can go hilariously awry.
Worried about climate change and the carbon footprint? Canada generates 65 percent of its electricity and 17 percent of all its energy needs from renewable sources; in the U.S., barely 12 percent of our overall energy production and less than 15 percent of our electricity comes from renewables.
Canadians also seem to have much greater respect for their historical and cultural environment, with a more generous and evolved attitude of respect and obligation toward their indigenous peoples, or Aboriginal Canadians, despite a messy and violent history of colonial competition among the various European powers who settled there.
On a personal level, Canadians are friendly and solicitous to a degree many Americans would find startling. They are such well-mannered drivers that should a pedestrian happen to be standing anywhere near a curb, whether or not there’s an intersection, drivers will immediately stop and refuse to move until the pedestrian is safely across. In any right-of-way situation, Canadian drivers will politely defer to you regardless of whose turn it would ordinarily be.
So, by all means, let’s share a chuckle over a lame headline from long ago. But Canada is arguably our closest neighbor, culturally and politically, and the International Boundary that separates our two countries is the longest undefended border militarily in the world.
Canada has been a staunch and loyal American ally in many conflicts, and it’s as mortifying as it is inexplicable to see an American president openly disparage and insult Canadian leaders as Donald Trump has done.
I don’t think it’s too much to ask our American presidential candidates for a reset in U.S.-Canada relations. Canadians are famously forbearing and patient, but it’s long past time for a “worthwhile American initiative”—and that’s no joke.