Tonight, while standing in the back of the class trying to satisfy the increasingly persistent demands of my aching vertebrae, I realized something important.
I’m not patriotic. Not really
‘Canada’ is an institution I’m glad to be a part of, but I’m not necessarily proud of. I’m glad to live in Canada compared to some of the alternatives, but there is very little nationalistic fervor in the depths of my soul. I own one flag, an American one, and like most Canadians I live within 100 miles of the American border and have more ideologically in common with my neighbours to the immediate south than my fellow Canadians to the east. ‘Canada’ as a community and institution is a convenient abstraction that gets me a passport, a certain sense of security, and a student loan. America, as the global policeman, arsenal of democracy, and bastion of the republic, serves an important geopolitical role that Canada cannot. I am American economically and socially (although not politically), and so are most Canadians.
I came this conclusion during a group discussion on Benedict Anderson’s book Imagined Communities, which attempts to prove that nationalism is an invention of the last 200 years, manufactured to fill the void left in human existence by the waning of religious absolutism in European thought. As society left behind the existential meaning provided by Catholic theology and began questioning the divine authority of monarchs, new answers were required, and one possibility was the radical idea of the nation-state. As a Marxist, Anderson was trying to figure out why every revolution since 1945 (and many before then), defined themselves in national terms, and why this ambiguous idea of ‘nation’ exerted such control over the human imagination around the world.
Why, Anderson asks in the second chapter, do we have tombs dedicated to the ‘Unknown Soldier’ in national capitals around the world? No one in ancient Rome or Greece would have bothered to erect a monument to an unknown combatant; he would have had neither significance nor glory. Equally strange is the idea of a tomb to the unknown Marxist or liberal, since the bonds of intellectual brotherhood do not seem to run as deep (or rather along the same lines) as those of nationalism. Even the angels and religious language that often adorn such tombs is strange in this context, since the movement follows the Enlightenment yet relies upon a religious tradition at its core.
What is nationalism? It has no famous philosophers, no Hobbes, no Locke, no Smith, or Rousseau. More importantly, what is a ‘nation?’ Anderson calls it ‘an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” What he means is that we as people create nations, literally imagining them into existence, and we make them limited in scope (they are restricted to a certain space and population), and special in nature (better, nicer, closer to God than the rest).
I have trouble with the word ‘imagined’ in this definition because, as Anderson points out, most nations are linked by linguistic, economic, geographical, and cultural similarities (at least historically). Some, especially the former colonies, began with the artificial imposition of lines on a map, but these nations also show mixed success in developing national identities. Nations, like many historical phenomena, are neither inevitable nor created from the ether — they exist as one possible response to a complex system of forces and events.
‘Canada’ does not really fit Anderson’s theories, but then again his book is so sweeping in its generalizations that no one nation probably does. Never let a few ugly facts ruin a beautiful hypothesis, I always say, and Anderson seems to be a scholar after my own heart. After all, Canada was created in the mashing together of two somewhat hostile linguistic communities who (according to the hypothesis) should have become separate nations.
So what is Canada? Well, our first definition is that ‘it’s not the U.S.’ which is a delightful exercise in stupidity. To define us by what we are not is to make us a shadow of that thing, not a robust and independent entity.
Perhaps we are the product of beer and Timmies commercials: a beaver-fixated, cheerfully-dumb, hockey-playing, booze-swilling, toque-clad people of the ice. Nationalism, as Anderson noted, isn’t known in intellectual circles as being particularly sophisticated, but for peddling a certain brand of camaraderie between the economic and political elites and the unwashed masses. “The nation,” Anderson says, “is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship,” especially by those who wish their comrades to overlook deep systems of fiscal and social inequality and focus on the “horizontal” bonds.
Small wonder than that in many parts of the world the most enthusiastic proponents of nationalism are those who hold big pieces of the economic and political pie. I won’t name any names, but some of the flag-waving patriots running in the American election have been particularly blessed by a nationalistic blindness in regards to their business endeavors. America may be great, but it is also hideously unequal, and as that divide widens it frays the imagined community on which the concept of America is based.
Anderson is a Marxist, and his worldview (I believe) limits his ability to appreciate nationalism as a system of thought. One of the more confusing passages in his book argues that nationalism is not “an ideology,” since “it would, I think, make things easier if one treated it as if it belonged with ‘kinship’ and ‘religion,’ rather than with ‘liberalism’ or ‘fascism.’”
My classmates interpreted this to mean that ‘nationalism’ isn’t a serious intellectual concept and should be relegated to the same dustbin as a belief in fairies, Jesus, or Ted Cruz’s tax policy. Personally, I found myself wondering about his emphasis on the “an” in calling nationalism “an ideology.” Does Anderson see it as an umbrella category with a number of ideological offshoots? Or does he indeed see it as primarily emotional and possibly exploitive – and provide ‘religion” as a similarly powerful yet nonsensical concept?
I once asked my roommate why he believes so deeply that being patriotic is a good thing. His answer was neither vague nor primarily appealing to emotion. He rattled off a number of civic virtues, mentioned the importance of participation to the healthy functioning of a democracy, and talked about the global importance of Canada as a moderating force. It was a good argument, and he didn’t mention fairies once.
I suspect that some of classmates’ dislike for the concept of nationalism (and perhaps part of academia’s dislike as whole) is a deeply embedded liberal understanding of the primacy of the individual. As a Christian I often get accused of approaching complex issues with a decidedly theological bent, and I do, but I resent the underlying implication that no one else interprets circumstances through the clarifying lens of their own ideology. Individualism, as the product of liberalism and the foundation of postmodern western understanding, is immediately condescending of anything that stresses the primacy of community. Adherents say this is because of the troubling record of ‘mass-movements’ in the 20th century, but I find that it also reflects a certain egocentric arrogance.
God may have stated that it is not good for man to be alone, but postmodern man (and woman) has decided that to be alone is the only state in which he or she is absolutely free. Nationalism, as an ‘imagined community,’ is a constraint upon that freedom.
This may be why nationalism is so often derided as the progenitor of racism, despite the fact that racism has existed as far back in human history as other indicators of society (war, complex hierarchy, trade, etc.). Anderson argues that racism is actually the result of “class,” which I guess is to be expected from a Marxist, and yet that still seems more feasible than it being the result of an idea barely two centuries old.
I, for my part, am not scared of admitting the importance of community to my identity and ideology. Yet I’m still confused by the patriotic idea that my primary allegiance should be to my nation, rather than another ideological construction.
I’m glad to be Canadian, but I would not ‘die’ for either queen or country. If my corpse is ever interred or represented by a tomb for the unknown soldier, it will not be said that I died defending beavers, the right to drink craft beer, or even the freedom of the Canadian political system. My undying allegiance is to another community entirely, one that transcends space, time, and the pettiness of nationalist rhetoric.