From Toronto With Love: Meditations on Governance, Immigration, and Culture
Books discussed in this essay:
Francis Fukuyama, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, power, and the neoconservative legacy, 2006.
Robert Kaplan, An Empire Wilderness (1990), The Coming Anarchy (2000), and The Revenge of Geography (2012)
Bernard-Henri Levy, War, Evil, and the End of History (2004), Left in Dark Times (2009), and (with Michel Houellebecq) Public Enemies (2011)
Michel Houellebecq, Submission (2015)
Toronto looks like the place at the end of history: peaceful, rich, plentiful for almost everyone there, with opportunities for hedonism as well as for employment for many more than the old-stock settlers whose grandfathers were sent there for furs, ores, and trees. Debate in Toronto is about how to manage the spectacular abundance, not how to make do. If Toronto continues to thrive, then Francis Fukuyama and Bernard-Henri Levy are correct, that this is indeed the best of all possible worlds because we’ve identified the path and we’re on it, which means that the pessimists, logically, are wrong.
The Keynesians would say that the great abundance of Toronto rests on the structures that sustain robust consumer demand: progressive taxes, a great array of public goods (schools, subways, hospitals), and a sensible spreading of the risk of ill-health to the broadest possible pool by way of universal health insurance. The pessimists grumble that Canadian defense spending per capita is miniscule because Canada enjoys free protection under the behemoth US umbrella, and that Canadian prosperity is just a spillover, a barely noticeable bit of largesse that those allegedly independent people should thank Uncle Sam for. (Canadian defense takes 1.4 percent of GDP, US takes 3.3 percent.) But as Robert Kaplan and others attest, Canada is a most consistent and formidable US ally, so enough with all that.
It’s the peace, the prosperity, the specific achievement of an identity of determined diversity that is so distinct in Toronto—an evolution of the most unlikely of models, a latter day Pax Romanum of managed markets, tamed banks, and abundance, all in a lawful realm.
We visit often. And then we return home.
After our visit to the Aga Khan Museum in eastern Toronto, the part where the science center is, we crossed the northern border of the United States at Niagara Falls to return home to our Rust Belt college town. Circumstances peculiar to the distribution of public funds in New York State help mask the devastated state of our town, which receives billions in subsidies just by being connected to New York City, but the contrast with Toronto and with southern Ontario could not be starker. West of the Niagara River, the population is growing rapidly; here, it is shrinking. The median price of a Toronto area home approaches C$1million, about US$750,000, while here it’s US$160,000. Toronto is proof of Edward Glaeser’s overall thesis in his Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier: that cities do indeed shape our reality.
The loonie has long been a draw for us, and Toronto is only two hours from home even in the worst traffic. Thus for almost 10 years, we’ve had Nexus cards that brand us as what the Canadian and US immigration services call “trusted travelers,” which means that we breeze through the border checkpoints as if it’s the time before 9/11. We’re privileged: It’s very safe here in Buffalo, where the 40-some homicides a year have for decades been either young men in the drug trade or young women victimized by men in the drug trade, and since most of the population is far from it, we kill ourselves with the usual weapons: chicken wings, bad driving, and despair. Violent death is even more rare in Ontario, where marijuana is now formally and not just de facto legal. Canada is generally safer because there are far fewer guns per capita. The national gun-homicide number equals Buffalo’s annual toll, and there hasn’t been a mass school shooting since Montreal in 1989. We’re privileged to be able to travel freely to a big metro that, since the Quebec separatists scared the Montreal money south to what used to be called Upper Canada in 1970, has become a sophisticated international capital of finance, trade, science, and culture, and a magnet for immigration.
The country is a barbell version of Chile, thickly settled only at the two ends of a long American border that’s like the coastline of an anything but pacific sea. We’re adjacent to the bigger of the two ends, so we and other New Yorkers avail ourselves of Toronto on day trips, and go for long weekends to Ottawa and Montreal in about the same travel time as people from Washington visit New York or Boston. The loonie is low; sadly, it’s probably going to be lower still.
One of the benefits of crossing the northern border is that US news and politics subside. The news seems not so very relevant when the treats at the Saint Lawrence Market, the restaurants, and the streetside bargain bins on Spadina are so cheap. And after the empty streets of our hometown, it’s good to see people—of every conceivable hue—in tocques and overcoats. There is density, everywhere, but it is a more peaceful, more generally prosperous density than in US big cities. Statistics Canada last year noted that almost half the population of Toronto is foreign-born1; it is the exemplar of the diversity that is now commonplace in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, and a couple of the other successful American center-cities that Wharton’s Joseph Gyourko calls “superstar cities,” because unlike almost all other US cities, including ours, their cores not having hollowed out.2
Toronto is indeed a superstar. Jane Jacobs’s last, dyspeptic book Dark Age Ahead3 got much of Toronto right but part of it entirely wrong, in that she feared Toronto’s 1998 annexation of its suburbs, a move that only a few US cities have succeeded in doing. There’s a lot of good to be learned by would-be analysts of the current and the coming world by respectfully setting Jacobs’s farewell book aside and picking up urbanist Enid Slack’s very sober work on prosaic issues like property taxes and governance.4 The big new city institute there is like a magnet: The famous Richard “creative class” Florida5 had the good sense to take the route north to be near Enid Slack’s operation.
It’s cities that still define civilization, so granular issues—like paying for sanitation and transit, managing land, and keeping housing costs from pricing workers out—have gained a place in the general discussion of serious people here. Toronto’s success is arguably what has kept Canada relevant. American intellectuals, even geopoliticians and thought-leaders on world affairs, generally don’t know that they should think about it at all.
Jacobs worried about the culture forgetting that it ever knew some of the discourses that used to define our common Western identity, and pointedly questioned the vacuity of over-specialized intellectuals. Reading some of today’s best in geopolitics and foreign relations shows that they don’t even know that they don’t know.
As I write, still serene after our time with the Aga Khan’s elegant contribution to the Toronto landscape, the gilet jaunes are spending their 18th weekend protesting the over-concentration of wealth, personal income, and opportunity in a few French “superstar” cities, and the marginalization of the rest. The American version of this protest is the Trump rally, where the blistering anger at coastal elites gets expressed but, being cultural progeny of Puritans and not of sans-culottes, despite their anguish, they can’t bring themselves to demand higher wages, shorter workweeks, better social security, cheaper health insurance. The comedian Bill Maher recently noted, summarizing a think-tank report, that Americans in Flyover Country, just like the French in the pays peripherique, want what city folks have—then found himself skewered for having mocked the bumpkins.6
But he’s right. So is Glaeser, Slack, Gyourko. And the politics is this: that how and whether American cities work (and now French cities, too) is consequential knowledge. Politics is made in, and in reaction to, the function or dysfunction of cities, real or imagined.
So far, things are still largely working in Toronto, which is part of the reason why Toronto got the Aga Khan’s largesse, and why the worldwide Ismaili community—only 15 million out of more than a billion people who profess some allegiance to the very diverse religion of Islam—has a big presence there.
Others can describe the evolving theology of the Ismailis, which to the ill-schooled (here!) seems like Episcopalianism: transnational, serene, nothing to do with adamantly asserted dogmatism or evangelism, just quietly persist. If the Aga Khan has a Christian counterpart, perhaps it is the Archbishop of Canterbury, except that that cleric is tied up with a specific state, and the leader of the Ismailis isn’t.
The museum is in the North York area, an immigrant-filled, sprawling suburban zone that is almost 30 minutes by car from downtown Toronto, where the experts on cities live, where the plan to staple the suburbs to the city center was designed, right there where the other major cultural institutions of Canada’s biggest metro are clustered. The huge Toronto zoo, and the gloriously interactive Toronto science center, like the Aga Khan museum, are outside downtown, out where the babies and the newcomers are.
North York is still Toronto. There’s even more Toronto to the east: The formerly separate city of Scarborough, an outright majority of whose population is immigrants, was amalgamated with Old Toronto, North York, Etobicoke, East York, and York in 1998. Jane Jacobs did not approve of extending the city’s old boundaries to encompass all of this.
But here is where the Aga Khan Museum and the Ismaili Center complex is, in, arguably, the newest part of Toronto. And though there haven’t been any Parkland or Columbine massacres, no place on earth is exempt from violence: Only a mile away, last summer, a suicidal “involuntary celibate” man killed 10 pedestrians when he drove his truck into North York’s town center. But that seems as far away as the wars and expulsions that sent the Aga Khan’s constituents here from some of the brutalized, chaotic places so very far from Toronto, places that shock even veteran thinkers like Levy and Kaplan, who have personally reported from zones of great brutality.
That is, by the way, why to pay attention to what Bernard-Henri Levy says about Europe, about advanced countries, about universal notions of human rights. His reports from the now-superseded bloodiness of Sri Lanka in the days when the Tamil Tigers used female suicide bombers; his reports from the invisible war zones of eastern Congo, from the relentless insanity of Colombia—his admonitions to European and American intellectuals from Bosnia, when the monstrous Milosevic, the monstrous Karadzic, the mired-in-civilian-blood Mladic—are from his witness. Levy is rich, he is handsome, he’s been a philosophy professor, he’s been dismissed as a dilettante. Nonsense. He’s been warning us. He’s been doing the hard work.
The Aga Khan has a Canadian connection, a very genuine and reciprocal one. He’s in his early 80s now, fabulously rich, lives in a chateau north of Paris, owns racehorses and stud farms in France and in Ireland, and also owns an island in the Bahamas where his late friend Pierre Trudeau’s son and family somewhat controversially vacationed after Justin became prime minister.7 If he’s no longer the society-page jetsetter he once was, the Aga Khan’s international philanthropy remains very visible, in part because of his annual architecture prize, the largest prize given for architectural innovation. The Aga Khan still has a seat at the tables where war and peace are negotiated for the lands between Egypt and India. He is a prince without a territory, a UN ambassador, one of a handful of honorary Canadians.
Six thousand Ismailis came to Canada in 1972 when Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada decreed that all Asians had 60 days to leave a country they’d been living in for decades. It helped that the Aga Khan, who has the specific role of spiritual leader of the world’s Ismailis, had a personal relationship with then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Migrants and refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, and elsewhere in Central and South Asia have helped the Canadian Ismaili population grow to 80,000.8
Among them are the Toronto residents who staff his museum.
It was a particularly bright, sunny day. The gleaming white of the Ismaili Center and of the museum did well against the cloudless blue sky.
When asked what other languages she speaks beside her very faintly accented North American English, the 20-something ticket-seller at the museum’s front desk admitted to Turkish and Farsi. “Three such complex languages, and so different,” I said, because encouragement for such extraordinary competence is the least one can do. She brightened and explained that her family is from that part of Iran where they speak both. “Hamadan?” I asked, because the thimbleful of knowledge at our house comes from a couple of very worn rugs and a dusty atlas. “No, Tabriz,” she corrected me. “In Azerbaijan.”
Statistics Canada: Close to three-quarters of the foreign-born in Toronto can and do communicate in a language other than Canada’s two official languages, English and French.
Nearby, in a side gallery, a young woman was weaving a rug with a half-dozen colors of unspun wool suspended in bright bunches above her loom. She, too, spoke happily—about her project, about the design process, about having learned the techniques as a child, at her grandmother’s house in central Iran. Neither her mother nor her grandmother were the ones who’d taught her, but rather a neighbor’s relative, a woman whose family still led the semi-nomadic herders’ existence of their people, the Bakhtiari, one of Iran’s ethnic minorities which retain their distinct language and identity yet claim descent from the same revered ancients as the Persian-speaking majority there. The Bakhtiaris’ story of themselves is that they derive from a legendary hero chronicled in the medieval Persian poet Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, the Book of Kings.9 Today they persist as a distinct regional political power, with a distinct language spoken by five million in a country of 82 million. Persian speakers are around 50 million of the total; the complexities of identity, language, region, and religion are dazzling, or daunting.
And here they are: Iranian-born, Uganda-born, India-born, some Afghans, some Pakistanis, many Toronto-born nowadays, safely, with a very elegant space in which to present expressions of individual talent that are still very much connected to a tradition that includes, embraces, indeed celebrates innovation.
Of the many women present, from the ticket-seller to the weaver, the craft-room attendant, the gift-shop clerks, and an older woman guiding a group past the Prince’s collection of artifacts, books, and art in the main gallery, none wore the hijab. Only the greeter at the museum’s restaurant covered her hair.
Canada has made of immigration an all-parties consensus. No less a conservative voice than Conrad Black, the newspaper baron, former chairman of Canada’s former tractor manufacturer Massey-Ferguson, and convicted fraud, sings the praises of Canada’s successful immigration policy in his National Post columns just as clearly as his nemesis, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who says precisely the same from his many platforms. The story of the 46 percent of Toronto that is foreign-born is literally on display within view of the Ismailis’ campus: An edifice labeled Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints is just across the way, which means that American Mormons have established themselves here; directly across the street is the Japanese Cultural Center, the offices of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, a large Korean Catholic Church.
But to the place itself: The contents of the Aga Khan’s museum are serenely displayed. Korans and incunabula dating to the ninth century are arrayed elegantly with ceramics, carvings, paintings, architectural elements, and various objets d’art of great antiquity and doubtless of immense monetary value. Unlike in the usual Western museum, this place is quite specifically about Islam as the binder-together of both individual and cultural expression. What is especially remarkable is the pre-eminence of Persian culture. The Ismailis are Shi’a Muslims, and this is a very consequential political and cultural difference from the much more numerous Sunni. Most Persians are Shi’a; most non-Persian Muslims are not. The Aga Khan’s collection on display in Toronto reflects the sensibilities of those who, for most of the past millennium and more, have seen and still see culture and law, art and literature, governance and faith comfortably as Persian.
There’s not over-much to see, but what we see is nothing like what one sees in the gloriously diverse Royal Ontario Museum, specifically in the sense that nothing arrived here from the loot grabbed by invading imperialists.
What’s there is all part of a traditional leader’s collection, offered to the general public, the non-Muslim public in a secular country, but perhaps mostly on display for the benefit of the Ismailis themselves. This is not a prettied-up thug’s haul, wrenched from homelands and then curated. To visit is to feel an invitation to stay.
But to the men whose thoughts about the world drive how the powerful act in the world, this peace and beauty is not germane. Canada is a sort of Erewhon, the Ismailis trivial.
Take Robert Kaplan, for example, and contrast him with Bernard-Henri Levy. Levy is an intellectual, a philosopher, and a journalist, a very rich man who has been humble enough to write reports that consist mainly of interviews, and to contain his analysis to his epilogues. What he has recorded is searing. There are monsters out there on the periphery of the world, he warned.
So did Kaplan. But when Kaplan returned from the world, he did more than bear witness. He made himself an advisor to the American military. More: During the George W. Bush administration, he participated as a close advisor, including in closed-door war-planning sessions, even as he used his public platform to argue for invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein. He is known to have worked closely with Paul Wolfowitz to get the Iraq war underway.
It was that kind of “Leninism” that drove Fukuyama from his comfortable place at the very top of the hierarchy of conservative intellectuals. By Leninism he means the forceful assertion of military muscle, at the insistence of powerful men who had decided that they knew best what needed doing, because they had decided to change history—to advance the war against actors and states that violated Western norms.
Fukuyama had got them all going when he declared that we’d reached the “end of history” with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But when the neoconservatives loosed the dogs of war, Fukuyama recoiled.
Fukuyama is the calm, thorough writer who got very famous very quickly with a couple of essays about the end of the Cold War. He published at a specific moment, during the George H. W. Bush administration. The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. Fukuyama published. He put his two major essays into a book that was a best-seller in 1992, the year that a small plurality of participating American voters elected Bill Clinton. Fukuyama by then had a conservative audience that had hailed Ronald Reagan for his ideological steadfastness against Communism; a couple of years after Reagan’s recitation of speechwriter Peggy Noonan’s line “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” the good people of Berlin’s halves had united to pull the damned thing down. Fukuyama’s two essays, The End of History and The Last Man, hailed the triumph of liberal capitalism and democracy in a new presentation of Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel’s famous notion that history had a moral trend toward a positive end. As Fukuyama would write in a subsequent book, “Democracy in my view is likely to expand universally in the long run.”
Fukuyama is wrong, of course.
But he was still making that argument after George W. Bush started the war against Saddam Hussein and the other Arab dictators. Fukuyama didn’t approve. So he abruptly parted company with the people who’d lionized him as a keystone of their neoconservative moment.
Since then, he has gone on to suggest that the current American way of governing is impossible to maintain: that government has become too complex, that we are paralyzed by rules and processes—but he still asserts that we’re still the light of the world. If there is an intellectual in the Trump entourage, all they need to do is what George W. Bush’s men did: Look to Fukuyama for justification for what they do. There’s a useful fellow.
But as all the happy, safe refugees in Toronto can attest, Fukuyama is wrong about the inevitability of progress toward a happy democratic capitalism. It’s not inevitable. It’s not coming in the long run. It exists in Canada—Erewhon—because of the fortuitous circumstances of Canada having been richly endowed, shielded by American power, and equipped with a great counter-example: Buffalo, New York specifically, and the racially riven, city-destroying United States of America in general.
Someone will write more about how the thought-leaders of Ontario, specifically in the greater Toronto area, had from the mid-1950s until at least Y2K to absorb the nightly output of the NBC, CBS, and ABC television affiliates broadcasting from Buffalo, not much more than 50 miles away as flies the crow and the television signal. The nightly stories of gun-crime, of fires, of racialized conflict, of racialized politics, of economic distress as high-paying union manufacturing jobs left and lowbrow culture eclipsed what Dwight MacDonald both spoofed and celebrated as Midcult—this was all there for Canadians to watch, and watch they did. Canadian civic and political campaigns, both, were run for urban reform, against racial exclusion, against sprawl, against neighborhood-wrecking highways, specifically and adamantly and emphatically and repeatedly warning against becoming Buffalo.
And then, something else shifted: the flow. After having streamed into the US for decades, refugees began to cross the Niagara into Canada rather than come the other way. The word got out all over the world: Canada is better.
But back to the US, where our leading conservative intellectuals (the only kind we have among public intellectuals, except for Robert Reich and Paul Krugman) came to power.
That was so even after the financial crash of 2008, as the consensus among US foreign policy elites was rather remarkably similar to the consensus among US economic policy elites. The neoconservatives may have been the authors and designers of the Leninism that targeted Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, and Bashar al-Assad, but it is difficult to see—besides some squeamishness about maintaining troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some ninny phrases about the Arab Spring—that there was any difference at all between Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Some issues may well have begun marching from obscurity to the very front of many minds (see below), but the big thinkers—add to this list Robert Kagan—still held the floor. Indeed, Kagan’s wife Victoria Nuland, like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were indistinguishable in tone and language from former Vice President Richard Cheney and his various appointees and advisors.
What this new catholicism missed was the trio of new facts, and the crisis of legitimacy of the Fukuyama view of the world. First, the return of pre-1929 income polarization, and, with it, financial instability. Second, the dogged persistence of troublemakers, chiefly Russian, who helped engineer Brexit, the rise of Marine Le Pen, the rise of Viktor Orban in Hungary, and the rise of the new nationalists in Italy, Spain, and even in Ontario. Third, environmental distress that is starting to cost people more money and lives on a quicker step than anybody but the scientists thought.
It’s easy to pick on 1990s Fukuyama for not having understood that the rich are far too rich for democratic institutions to handle, even though the trend-line toward income polarization had been obvious for decades by then. Forgive Fukuyama and Kaplan for not having seen that the Moscow mobster state disrupts NATO because it’s in the nature of the scorpion to sting, because it wasn’t obvious until fairly recently that Putin and his people are actually the ones who are specifically making this happen. And the environment (weather, freshwater, fisheries, storms) is getting disruptive even in Canada: Forest fires burned Fort McMurray in Alberta almost to the ground in 2017, then burned in British Columbia in 2018, though the news was all about California. Even in Ontario cottage country, in Gordie Howe’s hometown of Parry Sound, fires ravaged places that hadn’t ever seen anything like it since the late 19th century.
Francis Fukuyama became famous for validating the hopes of democratic capitalism. He predicted more Toronto. He did not predict Viktor Orban. He did not think about economic growth being bounded by the biophysical limits of a planet that seems to be experiencing very difficult weather events due to 250 years of accumulated carbon dioxide, with more destructive weather to come, as aspiring consumers reach for US and EU levels of personal consumption and thus add to the CO2 problem.
A somewhat more cautious or pessimistic thinker, much-criticized but also much-read, is the military observer and sometime general Robert Kaplan. Kaplan is a great and true friend of the American military. (He has very kind words for the Canadian armed forces, too.) Since his book An Empire Wilderness, and even before, his The Coming Anarchy (1994), he had been warning that the society that these steadfast and quite selfless people serve and protect is becoming stranger to and more estranged from them in a world full of criminals.
Like Andrew Bacevich, Kaplan increasingly questions the missions that our political elite sends them on: In pursuit of what geopolitical goal, precisely, are American and allied forces deployed across this planet, he asks. Have we not learned that the center of global power is and always has been the landmass of Eurasia, from which we are quite distant? And shouldn’t we be tending our own garden, knitting the ravel’d sleeve of our care, not letting our own culture dissolve into something unrecognizable?
But we are letting it dissolve. We have. Jane Jacobs said so. The troublesome novelist Michel Houellebecq says so, too, in his debates with Bernard-Henri Levy, and in his page-turner, eroticized attacks on secularism, cosmopolitanism, liberalism, multiculturalism.
Houellebecq rails against the European Union, hails Donald Trump, trumpets his disgust with liberals, his enthusiasm for nationalism, his pessimism about the perfectibility of man, his dour conviction that male intellectuals and progressives will happily betray feminism and other distinctly Western notions (including humanism and Catholicism) if clever and well-funded Arabs come to town and hand out higher salaries and teenage concubines, because the Muslims aren’t asking for much, actually—conversion to Islam.
Houellebecq hates intellectuals, but he saves his deepest contempt for liberals.
And Houellebecq implicitly thinks that Toronto (perhaps he’s thinking of Western civilization, perhaps he’s thinking only of France) is a lie. Why? Because our unifying culture (in France, the physical landscape of churches and monasteries and shrines bequeathed by history) has all been abandoned for sex and drugs and rock and roll, as if our whole society has become a coarser, dumber version of the star of the famous late-19th-century novel by the French author Huysmans, Against Nature.
If that’s too thick with literature, think this way: The biggest-selling French author today and for the past many years writes porny best-sellers that exclaim that inclusiveness, cultural diversity, consumer culture, and especially our sexualized society have wrecked everything.
All of these writers are doing some version of performance art, I suppose: Overstate, oversimplify, grab attention. Status-anxious politicians will pick up the text to prove themselves literate.
One doesn’t get anywhere as an intellectual these days without being a provocateur, and all these guys have done their fair share of that. It’s entertainment, but it’s politics, too, and becomes action: Fukuyama rejected the Bush doctrine, and questions the viability of American governance without sweeping change of the kind that made Hercules famous, a cleansing sword to sever all the Gordian knots that keep Americans tied up for years in Environmental Impact Statements (just to name one such) whenever one wants to build something like, say, a high-speed rail line.
Kaplan warns that the military are growing impatient with civilian corruption and fecklessness while global capitalism knows few loyalties, such as to duty, honor, country. Levy valiantly defends civilization while his Leftist allies embrace anti-Semitism and mutter about Jews like Levy. Houellebecq sells millions of copies of his soft-porn sneers at the illusion that what Levy thinks is culture is culture, which is to say, Houellebecq crystallizes the warnings and critiques of the others, and endorses Trump when he goes out on his book tours for his latest sticky reads.
Up in Canada, the paradise of the new ahistoric existence of humanity, with its lovely gun-free diversity, its sensible governance (big asterisk here), and its relatively clean politics (except for Montreal and perhaps even except for the younger Trudeau), we get to witness the Aga Khan moment, in its handsome framing of white marble and cherished endowments from ancient lands, ancient times.
But perhaps Erewhon won’t last.
The cleavages will soon get harder to avoid seeing, because just as we enjoyed a 75-cent loonie, it trended toward becoming a 74-cent loonie. The warnings are coming fast that it’ll go lower. Missteps in governance—such as Ontario’s premature commitment to a too-expensive green energy program before the technology had been developed—and the general explosion of housing prices have combined to hit moderate-income households hard, resulting in a populist surge that found particular support among Canada’s immigrant voters.
Canada is a civilized, calm, orderly refuge. All agree. Most there are on their best behavior, except the Quebec biker gangs that profess white supremacy when they’re not busy figuring out how to stay in the mobster business, a challenge now that marijuana has been legalized, thus separating them from their major revenue stream. The order will be strained when the bottom truly falls out of the market for Canadian bitumen,10 which the rest of the world calls tar-sands oil, which is very energy-inefficient. (The energy return on investment for tar-sands oil is lower than the energy return on investment for wind or solar.) The cleavage will come when it becomes clear to the rest of the eastern Canadian barbell, namely the vast Greater Toronto area, that only Quebec will enjoy what it enjoys today, namely, abundant and cheap electricity, over 95 percent of which is generated by the great hydro projects northwest of Quebec City, just this side of Hudson Bay—while the rest of the heavily populated zone along the Great Lakes is stuck with very expensive power from gas, nuclear, and some very bad deals for wind power. The cleavage will come when the abrupt changes in how things are produced and distributed (i.e., automation) runs into the elite narrative of praise for more and greater immigration to a society that doesn’t have a gilet jaunes rebellion in its periphery, because its periphery has already emptied into its three or four Superstar Cities.
Meanwhile, there is America and the world, and Europe and the world, the world consisting mainly of the Chinese drive for global hegemony and the Russian mob’s drive to stay in power by disrupting every functioning liberal democracy west of Belarus, especially the ones that would still prefer that Russian-engineered Brexit wouldn’t go forward, please.
In this ugly new world, Houellebecq’s allies are the Russian disruptors, and his enemy is the internationalist Levy, and the lily-gilding Fukuyama, and all those American military officers Kaplan has interviewed for his last two decades’ worth of books, all of whom think NATO and the European Union are useful and important structures that should be maintained as a bulwark, a shield, a band of brotherhood arrayed against the lawless disruptors of the near, middle, and far East.
The Aga Khan did not build his museum in the United States. When he recently visited the US, the Dallas Morning News published an estimate of 40,000 Ismailis living in the Houston area. But the eyes of Texas are on its southern border, where 100,000 refugees from Central America have tried to cross just in the first quarter. The United States has around 320 million people, not Canada’s 39 million, so the presence of a goodly number of diverse, peaceful, entrepreneurial, anciently civilized, and philanthropic Ismailis won’t have the footprint or the visibility in the US as they do in Canada.
We will happily visit them again. I doubt we’ll stay. We live in the West’s future already, in the Rust Belt, where 40 years of depopulation, deindustrialization, and political alienation have already happened, long since. Buffalo is the real Hegelian future: the future as de-growth, peripherality, and relative peace so long as we can still collect our remittances.
1. 46 percent, or 2.5 million people: https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/as-sa/99-010-x/99-010-x2011001-eng.cfm
3. New York, 2004
8. For a summary of this history, see https://ismailimail.blog/tag/pierre-trudeau/
9. For an overview of Ferdowsi’s place in Iranian cultural history, see Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, 3 volumes, Chicago, 1975.
Bruce Fisher teaches at SUNY Buffalo State and is director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies. His latest book, Where the Streets Are Paved With Rust: Essays From America’s Broken Heartland (The Public Books/Foundling Press 2018) is available at Talking Leaves Books and at foundlingspress.com.