Ambition & Individual Responsibility

The light and dark of America’s two most dominant traits

As a Canadian, I grew up in a place that is almost but not quite the USA. We consume the same culture, eat the same food, work in the same industries. American and Canadian values are closely aligned. But they differ in two big ways.

Through a Canadian lens, Americans are distinguished by their innate ambition and sense of individual responsibility. At their best, they represent America at its best. But their echoes can be held responsible for this country’s dark side.

Ambition underpins America’s innovative industries, its dominance in sport, the (eroding) strength of its middle class, its cultural force around the world, and its remarkable universities.

Walk into any coffee shop and you’ll find two American 20-year-olds working on a start-up to take down Citibank. In the USA, they’re cheered on. In Canada, they’d be politely patted on the head.

The belief that anything can be accomplished is uniquely American. It’s what has drawn me and countless other immigrants to this place: the promise of unbounded, global opportunity.

Similarly, a profound sense of individual responsibility is what makes America one of the most philanthropic countries in the world. Americans are dedicated and loyal to their families. They volunteer their time and join community organizations. They hold a deep reverence for public service.

Americans do things because if they don’t, no one else will. They step up.

But ambition is also responsible for the idiocy of Donald Trump and the dumbing of political debate, capitalism’s devastating interventions in the Middle East, nuclear weapons and the military industrial complex, the damaging and divisive myth of American Exceptionalism, the unprecedented consumption of natural resources and the resulting environmental damage, the 21st century crusade against Islam, and Kim Kardashian and the worship of fame.

You’re with us or against us. USA! USA! USA!

Similarly, individual responsibility is why America has no social safety net, imprisons more of its citizens than any other major country, is the only western democracy to still have the death penalty, fails to recognize systemic injustice, champions the second amendment, has 6 of the top 15 cities with the most homeless residents, sees poverty as a sin, and believes that a black President marks the end of racism.

They had it coming. Sink or swim. Should’ve known better.

Still, I find myself drawn here. I love Canada but ran into its limits.

I hope my daughters grow up with the best of this country and deep, personal ambition to fix the rest.

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