Matt Gurney: Your expectations are a problem
We are not owed any particular future, and are not guaranteed more of what we've already had.
Your expectations are a problem, my friends.
Let's get a few caveats out of the way: I don't mean you, personally and exclusively (though someone will undoubtedly take this as a direct insult). This is very much a comment on Canada and the Western world broadly. And I also don't mean expectations in the sense of what you, as a person, are owed by anyone else, like an employer or a partner — aim for the stars!
But your expectations are still a problem, as are mine, in this critical and broadly shared way: our understanding of the facts on the ground, the world we live in — how we expect it to be — may be wrong, or at least increasingly outdated. And the longer it takes us to realize this, the more danger we will face.
Some version of this column has been rattling around in my skull for some time, and the overall thesis is certainly in line with much of my work over the years, where I’ve warned of the costs of our complacency, often in the area of national defence. But this one is different — it’s not about a specific problem, per se, so much as it is an attempt to understand a series of problems at their roots. It has not proven an easy one to write. The thesis — that Canadians' fundamental expectations are increasingly out of step with the current reality — is hard to prove or even investigate. There’s no poll or survey, no collection of data sets, that will make this case.
But there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence, and it simply, on a gut level, feels right. Canadians and the citizens of other comparable countries alive today are, in the main, products of an economic, military, political and public-health winning streak that has continued unabated since the end of the Second World War.
There have been periods of time or incidents that would seem to contradict it — the U.S. lost in Vietnam, for instance, and we’ve had economic slumps and epidemics along the way. But overall, a typical Canadian and many others across the West, born after 1945 or so, has lived in an era where their country was militarily secure, economically prosperous, politically stable and nestled comfortably inside a confident, triumphant liberal-democratic international consensus. Along the way, we have experienced medical breakthroughs that have continuously both lengthened and improved our time on this earth. Consider my late grandfather as a representative example of the progress contained in a single lifetime: in his youth, he nearly perished of an infection because antibiotics were not yet available; when he did die in his early 80s, stricken by Alzheimer’s, he had two separate forms of cancer, both of which were manageable, chronic conditions due to new drugs and laser surgeries.
It’s remarkable. From near-death-from-sepsis-in-childhood to blasting tumours with light in one man's lifespan.
This is true for all of us, in some way or another. Entire lives have been lived, and entire generations raised, during this multi-generational winning streak — and even though the benefits of it haven't been shared equally by all our citizens (a sad understatement, alas), it's been true enough for so many for so long that we have come to accept as normal — to expect — something that is actually quite rare. We are living in the best moment of history, in terms of our security, health and prosperity — or at least we were until early 2020. This winning streak lasted, I fear, just long enough for a critical mass of us to lose perspective on how rare and precious the last few generations have been in the West. We’ve lost the ability to realize that, maybe, we had not embarked on a brave new era of exponential human progress. Rather, perhaps we’ve taken for granted a historical fluke.
What finally brought this column forth was two incidents that, though unrelated, happened within moments of each other earlier in the week. The first was simply a chat with a friend; we were catching up on life when she mentioned that the news about Omicron had hit her hard, because it felt like yet another delay to the return to "normal." The second was some typically overheated Twitter reaction my Line colleague Jen Gerson received when she noted — entirely correctly — that COVID-19, though devastating, wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been, nor as nasty as some plagues throughout history.
Consider my friend's dread about a delayed return to normal. I expect a return to something functionally comparable to our old normal; my own life is basically there already (with the irritating but tolerable exception of wearing of a mask in many indoor settings). But I have never taken a return to normal as a given. A functional return to a pre-pandemic normal still strikes me as the most likely outcome by a wide margin, but there are a lot of plausible scenarios where our lives remain permanently, negatively changed. This isn't a prediction. But if you don't at least grant the possibility that it could be otherwise, you're kidding yourself. Your expectations of a return to the comfortable old familiar are blinding you to the reality that life can change in ways that are never undone. This has happened to people before, and there is absolutely nothing stopping it from happening to you, or all of us.
And the reaction to Jen's tweet (which she expanded into a full column on Thursday) was awfully revealing of just how far removed from some harsh realities Canadians have become. COVID-19 might have been the worst shared global experience you've ever experienced. That’s true of me, too. But there's a massive gulf between "worst thing I've lived through" and "the worst thing that could plausibly happen." We don’t even need to ponder hypotheticals. Read about 1918, which, as Jen noted in her column, was vastly more deadly in terms of overall deaths — and it’s not even close.
Don’t believe me? Canada’s COVID-19 death toll is currently a bit under 30,000. We lost 50,000 to Spanish Flu, out of a population of eight million. An equally deadly pandemic this time would have killed almost a quarter million of us. That’s every COVID death, plus 200,000-some-odd more.
Consider what would have happened if COVID-19 had been even modestly more contagious or deadly, or consider my nightmare scenario: it attacked the young, the very young, not the old. This could have been so much worse. It could still become so.
This seems lost on many, including some very smart people who ought to know better. I have a very clear memory of chatting with a colleague in the summer of 2020, and mentioning that I was glad the first wave hadn't proven worse. He was aghast — genuinely confused and shocked. "How could it be worse?" he asked. His question left me equally shocked and confused. I had to ask him if he was being serious. He was.
And many would agree with him: they can’t imagine it having been harder. To them, I say only this: if your imagination can't conceive of anything worse than the last 20 months, and if your grasp of history is so weak that you think that the last 20 months have been some unprecedented catastrophe, that's a comment on your imagination and historical literacy, not on the last 20 months. It’s not nice to look back on this pandemic and realize that we were lucky to dodge something worse, but if you truly think it couldn’t have been much nastier, I hope you never have the experience of being proven wrong.
Some of these failures in comprehension, understanding and imagination are on the individual level, some are on the institutional level, and I'm not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg. It's too easy to simply blame government leaders and officials for these problems — I'm afraid that our politics, on this score, is simply downstream of our collective societal cluelessness about just how fragile and precious our way of life has become.
But here's the rub, folks: we are not owed any particular future, and are not guaranteed more of what we've already had. This is not a defeatist declaration — I believe we can continue to thrive. As a father of young children, I am forced to be an optimist — I have to believe the world will be good for them. But we're going to have to work for that world, and that starts with understanding that none of what we've enjoyed is the natural state of human affairs.
This will be hard for Canadians to grasp. For our entire history, we have been under the protection of the preeminent global power — we had the incredible fortune of sliding out from under the British umbrella right into the protective cover of the American one without getting hit by a single drop of rain. Basic assumptions about our physical security are hardwired into our national concept of everything — but is that concept changing? Are the Americans still a reliable ally? Can we take their own political stability for granted? We expect America to be stable and friendly — but should we? Is the Western alliance system and the “rules-based international order” we hear so much about things that actually still exist, or are they slogans?
Or take health care. The long-understood bargain in Canada has been that we'd tolerate substandard service in many areas, such as long wait times for non-essential procedures, because we had faith the system would be there for us if our lives were really on the line. Health systems across Canada have been overwhelmed by the pandemic. We now have massive backlogs of urgently necessary tests and procedures, and these delays are going to cost lives — they have already cost lives. What we expect from the health-care system, it is no longer able to consistently provide.
Take a gander at B.C. Can we expect the same weather patterns we’ve built our infrastructure around, there and elsewhere? How many of you made a big financial decision in recent years on the expectation that, after a 40-year absence, inflation would continue to remain stable and modest? And Putin isn't going to really invade Ukraine, is he? Is he?
I could go on. The point is not to descend into panic. I'm not panicked. But I am increasingly convinced that you can explain a lot of Canadian dysfunction — the lack of "state capacity" we are increasingly hearing about — by simply understanding that we have built our government, our entire political class and a horrifying degree of our national collective psychology around a series of deeply held and extremely cheerful assumptions about the world, our safety, our prosperity, our health and the ascendancy of our values that no longer hold true. Our tools are not suited to the jobs newly at hand.
Before we can even begin to respond to these challenges, we have to perceive them, truly see them and accept their reality, and that's going to require a process of overcoming denial that may take longer than we have.
Because we have about 75 years’ worth of "givens" we need to start interrogating anew, and asking if they still hold, and there’s going to be a massive temptation to reassure ourselves that they do, because to admit otherwise is going to compel a lot of action, a lot of spending and some long, sleepless nights. But we don’t have a choice. We need to do this. Because our expectations have become a problem that we need to start solving.
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