North American Cultures: Values and Institutions in Canada and the United States
To pass from the United States to Canada or from Canada to the United States at any of the border crossings is certainly to enter a different world. But this is also true when one passes from Indiana to Kentucky, or Utah to Nevada; or, within Canada, from Ontario to the Maritime provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (I set aside the special case of Quebec); or within the countries of Europe, from the Côte d’Or to Provence, or the canton of Geneva to the Valais, or from Tuscany to the old Kingdom of Naples, or from Castile to Catalonia. It was the perception of such differences, puzzling and troubling and stimulating, that seems to have suggested to Max Weber the hypothesis set out in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
The case of the United States and Canada offers, as well as contrasts of the sort I have described, a contrast of a different, broader, and more elusive kind. Indeed, it may often seem that there is no marked contrast between, for example, Montana and Alberta, Michigan and Ontario. The externals seem much the same. At the entrances to small towns one may see the same names outside supermarkets, the same sleazy magazines at the checkout counters, the same signs for hamburgers and ice cream, the same exhortations to repentance with references to the same Biblical texts. Such externals may indeed suggest that one is in the same country and immersed in the same culture. Yet a chance encounter in an eating place or a shop (how affable the Americans are, how reserved—even glum—the Canadians!), a medical emergency, the enveloping atmosphere of a Canadian Sunday afternoon, all can make it plain that these are indeed profoundly different societies, and that the differences are national and political and are fundamental in a way that regional and provincial differences are not. (Once again I set aside the special case of Quebec, where the difference from the rest of Canada is so plainly more than regional or provincial. Here one may feel compelled to speak of a national difference. The same difficulty occurs over Catalonia or Northern Ireland or Slovakia.)
Professor Lipset is interested in the comparative study of national cultures and political institutions. It is a way of coming to know more about one’s own culture and to measure the qualities of one’s own society. One may come to have a keener feeling for what is at stake in the discussion of this or that issue. For instance, Americans are properly anxious over some features of their legal and political order. It seems to be a worry, to take one example, that the principles of the legal system may lead to painful consequences, as in litigation over damages in civil suits, or in the virtually interminable processes of appeal in some criminal cases. A comparative study of such problems in the setting of another society, similar enough and different enough (and Canada fits this requirement nicely), may…
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