Canada Day and nationalism


in Canada, Politics, Psychology

I cannot uncritically say “Happy Canada Day”. In part, that’s because of Canada’s genocidal and otherwise unjust history, but there is also my broader skepticism about nationalism itself.

It seems a bit akin to following professional sports. It may not appeal to me personally, but I have no reasonable objection to people who support a local baseball or hockey team. By all means, follow their games, wear their clothes, and memorize their player stats. Just don’t become fanatical to the point that you dehumanize others because of their different allegiances. And, especially, don’t use your loyalty as justification for violence.

That’s where nationalism really diverges from other forms of partisan enthusiasm: the fundamental connection between the state and violence. At its most benign form, that’s what empowers the courts and police to imprison people involuntarily and even do them harm in circumstances we consider justified. It has also justified a lot of senseless slaughter, however, even in democracies. In an interview in 1914 George Bernard Shaw said of the first world war:

In both armies, the soldiers should shoot their officers and go home, the agriculturalist to his land and the townsman to his painting and glazing… we always learn from war that we never learn from war.

I wish that had been closer to the lesson that we took from WWI, not the nonsense about a war to end all wars of making the world safe for democracy. Similarly not the nonsense about Canada becoming a nation because of Vimy Ridge, or generally because of our participation in that slaughter. Canada fought by default on behalf of one empire against another empire: neither noble nor necessary.

Critically in the rest of this century humanity desperately needs to counter its twin tendencies to sort people into boxes and say that the people in other boxes don’t matter. There’s no sensible Canadian response to climate change or nuclear proliferation or pandemic illness or global poverty absent a concomitant effort from other countries. For a few people perhaps nationalism supports international humanitarianism and cosmopolitan ethics, because they have defined the substantive content of what it means to hold their nationality to include those values. I would rather see people embracing a cosmopolitan ethic wholeheartedly, recognizing that the government that represents them is especially morally and practically important, but that their national identification simultaneously means a lot less than being human, being part of the biosphere, being part of the species that will need to change so much if we’re going to endure beyond the lifetime of today’s children and live in a world that any of us would recognize or welcome.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

anon July 1, 2018 at 12:12 pm

It’s also annoying to see patriotism used for commercial promotion. You like Canada, therefore you should shop at Tim Horton’s and Canadian Tire. People who are uncritical of patriotism itself seem to often also be uncritical of the kinds of things other people try to get them to do via patriotic appeals.

. December 15, 2018 at 7:30 pm

Americans need to rediscover the inclusive heart of American nationalism. The United States is a liberal concept, built upon the principles of liberty, justice and equality before the law. American nationalism is an allegiance to those principles. Historically, however, it has been tainted by the illiberal tendencies of racism and xenophobia, found today in alt-right notions of blood-and-soil nationalism.

We should defang the nefarious nagging of the nativists and re-read revolutionaries such as Thomas Paine and democratic thinkers like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Frederick Douglass. Americans must not let fashionable bigotries corrupt the liberal gift of American nationalism. Our experiment must be shared; American nationalism and liberal internationalism can co-exist. The human psyche may demand a tribe, but the progress of humanity demands co-operation.

evan white
Newport, Rhode Island

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