Malcolm Gladwell vs. Adam Gopnik
CANADA: Nation or notion?
Apr 03, 2008 | 18:53:22
MG: Canada is unencumbered and mean (in a good way)
I want to talk about what it means to be small because, after all, it is Canada’s size that’s the occasion for this debate. India does not have “Why India?” debates, America doesn’t have “Why America?” debates—although, to be fair, other countries have “Why America?” debates. Canadians are insecure, we think we’re trivial and marginal, and that’s because of our size. Our size is not in fact the problem.
Our size is the solution. When I gave Adam a one-sentence preview of my argument, he said, “Oh, the small-is-beautiful argument.” What I really want to make is the argument that small is powerful, or—perhaps more accurately—small is useful. Now, this is something that, in a slightly different context, anthropologists and sociologists have thought about a lot. So I thought I would begin by drawing on an example that may seem far-fetched—but trust me, I will circle around and make it make sense—and that is the incredible success of ethnic Chinese immigrants throughout the world. Some say, “Well, they’re just smarter than the rest of us,” some say that they possess some kind of particular entrepreneurial gene, others say that their mothers are particularly ambitious for their children—which always strikes me as odd because it assumes there are mothers out there who are not ambitious for their children.
But the best of the arguments, I think, is that Chinese immigrants are successful wherever they go not because of any traits inherent to being Chinese, but because of the particular position they occupy in the societies they move to. Chinese immigrants are outsiders and minorities, which we normally think of as disadvantages, but are in fact enormous advantages. For example, if you’re trying to succeed with a small business, there is a big advantage to being in an area where you don’t have a lot of friends and family [who] want discounts on the things they buy at your store, a job for their sister-in-law, and on and on, and all of a sudden you’ve got a significant impediment to turning a profit. Clifford Geertz compares Balinese and Chinese businesses in Bali, and points out that in the Balinese business you’ve got endless numbers of workers sitting around, and in the equivalent Chinese immigrant business you’ve got three people: a father, a mother, and a 10-year-old boy.
The other thing that being unencumbered allows you to be is mean. The thing that is most deadly to the success of small businesses is the inability to collect debts, right? Getting people to pay up is profoundly difficult when you are deeply rooted in a community. Some lovely anthropological work looks at Chinese immigrants in Malaysia, and there was one study of a Chinese small businessman who had extended credit to Malaysian farmers. For most of the year the Chinese businessman dressed like a Malaysian, spoke in the quiet, respectful tones of a Malaysian, operated as a Malaysian, until harvest time, when he went out to the fields to collect his debts. All of a sudden he was Chinese, to ensure that he would not be treated like a fellow Malay who might be expected to be more generous on price or credit terms. He was able, in other words, to occupy this identity as the outsider to his benefit.
Now, the third thing about being unencumbered is that, paradoxically, it allows you—forces you—to be connected. Think about the Chinese immigrant [businessman] in a strange land. Who does he know? Other Chinese immigrants in other parts of that country. That allows them access to all kinds of information, favourable terms on shipments, all kinds of things that the businessman whose world is entirely described by a hometown never has. Without having strong local ties you are forced to develop weak regional ties, and that is an enormous advantage.
Put those three things together—being unencumbered, having the ability to be mean, and being forced to be connected—and you have a beautiful illustration of why the Chinese are so successful. I think their position is precisely analogous to the position of Canada on the world stage today. We are the immigrant outsider, but that is an advantage. Why did Canada not go to Iraq, and Britain did? Ideological differences between our government and the Blair government, but on a deeper structural level, Britain was encumbered, they had obligations both historic and contemporary. We didn’t, we’re too small. We had the ability, the opportunity, to evaluate that decision on its own merits.