Epilogue: Big Ideas and Small Countries

Epilogue: Big Ideas and Small Countries McGill University

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Home > McGill News > 2004 > Fall 2004 > Epilogue: Big Ideas and Small Countries

Epilogue: Big Ideas and Small Countries

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I can remember exactly the moment it happened. I was sitting in Professor Charles Bayley's "From Plato to NATO" class in the basement of the Leacock Building - an appropriate location because Professor Bayley was, in many ways, the foundation of the history department. He taught at McGill for almost 60 years (from 1935 to 1993). Had my grandmother taken history when she was at McGill rather than the sciences, I could have borrowed her course notes.

I could have used them too. I had a hard time taking things down in Professor Bayley's class. I was too busy taking things in. Oh, there was the usual litany of places, dates and names, but there was also an underlying pattern that knit together the errant strands, making a complete, perfect tapestry. And, occasionally, there was an illuminating flash of something more. Something rare. Something beautiful. A Big Idea.

I met my first Professor Bayley Big Idea somewhere in Germany during the Middle Ages. He was describing a town that had become heavily armed because it happened to be in an area that contained the raw elements needed for making weapons. As a result, the local culture had become militarized. He casually threw off a few other examples of geography as history. It was, for my tender freshman brain, a rather shocking Big Idea.

Might I be the result of an ancient seismic disturbance? Were some countries more prone to warfare because of geology? What relevance does this have in an age of modern transport? Suddenly, the class was over and I had no notes.

Over the next few years at McGill quite a few Big Ideas were forced into my stunned brain. I read small books with vast reach: Rats, Lice and History; Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds; Violence, Monkeys and Man. But the vanguard of political correctness began to bleat, drowning out frail, delicate themes of "traditional" studies. Big Ideas were about as popular as dead white men. And the goal in academia was to become ever more specialized - to ignore the forest in favour of not even the trees, but the leaves.

After McGill, I left Montreal to find Big Ideas of my own. I went from Timbuktu to Bora Bora trying to resolve the swirl of humanity into reassuring, predictable structures. Unfortunately, humanity didn't cooperate.

Until I went to Monaco. Here something felt very different - a confidence, a settledness I hadn't found elsewhere. Around 30,000 people lived in Monaco, but only 5,000 were actual citizens. They made up a nation within a country. An incredibly privileged nation.

Monegasques had first pick of the best jobs, subsidized housing, free education and health care. Every Christmas, their children went up to the Pink Palace to personally receive presents from the Prince.

The whole country was run like an extended family, with Rainier as a benevolent - but firm - father. Monegasques were forbidden to gamble in the country's casinos, every speck of public space was reputed to be under video surveillance, and the police-to-citizen ratio was enormous. For the most part, the locals didn't mind the restraints. They trusted their government to rule in their best interest. They seemed - gasp - happy. It was extraordinary.

I found other countries that cared for their populations. The highest life expectancy in the world is in Andorra. Tonga has the most PhDs per capita on the planet. No one reads more than the Icelanders. Hidden around the globe were havens of sanity and health. And they were all tiny, usually with a population under 350,000. I could feel a Big Idea coming on.

I visited as many microstates as I could, comparing them to similar countries with larger populations. Liechtenstein and Austria, Maldives and Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Madagascar. Invariably, no matter the official political structure, the microstate functioned like an extended family, and was more humane, democratic and equitable.

Countries often broke down when they became just a bit bigger. From around 350,000 to about eight million, they tended to have major problems (states this size include Solomon Islands, Fiji, Cyprus, Papua New Guinea, Haiti, Burundi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Northern Ireland and Chechnya also fall into this group).

What seemed to happen was that, for various reasons, the population fragmented. In smaller countries, everyone is known as an individual (in Tonga, there are a lot of "leitis," or transvestites. They're accepted because they are not seen as transvestites, but as so-and-so's son or what's-his-name's uncle). In larger populations, the extended family model is no longer possible. There are just too many people. So people label. And labels divide.

When two or more small "nations" share a single political system, one of the groups tends to take power and use it against their closest competitor for resources, the other group within the country.

There are ways to mitigate the fragmentation. New Zealand, at about three million, experienced increasing tensions between the Maori and later settlers. One way they are addressing the problem is by incorporating aspects of Maori culture and language into the general education system, thereby creating a feeling of commonality. Combine that with their abundant resources and hopefully it'll work.

Then again, maybe my Big Idea makes no sense at all. But, at least, I'm trying. With the silent support of Professors Bayley, Maxwell, Russell and others, I hope that one day I can build a pyramid of Ideas high enough to give me a view of the future, with a firm foundation in the past. If only I had taken better notes.


Cleo Paskal is a columnist for the National Post.

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