What is it? Well, some – including Bob Dylan and Sam Shepherd – say, “It’s the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings.” I am bound to concur. It’s at the core of currently-floundering Trump’s message (believe me, he won’t go down so easily), just as it was rooted in the barking of Adolf Hitler, whose principal appeal was one of national and ‘racial’ solidarity. The Fuhrer’s ranting demands for lebensraum merely consisted of a call to expand the Fatherland and reintegrate bits that had been carved off by history – German-speaking bits, on the whole. So the hollering for nationalist fervour – which is patriotism, after all is said and done – seems not to be a good thing? If the Nazis are too extreme and polarizing an example, take Napoleon. His vision for a United States of Europe – an idea currently crumbling into dust – was in reality one of an engorged France controlling many servile satellites. Paris was to be the capital of this ‘union’, which was the French Empire under another name. From Frederick the Great all the way back to the Romans, patriotism meant the expansion of a local ideology to incorporate thinking in the most far-flung regions. Rome extended to Persia. Great Britain included China, and still, psychologically, includes Australia and some Pacific islands. But patrimonies, homelands, now seem to feel threatened, insecure. Hence the appeal of patriotic hectoring in various forms.
Is this, one asks, why the Angus Reid organization last week conducted a poll to gauge the level of emotional attachment citizens had to Canada? Putting aside the value and rectitude of polls in general, this one evidently noted that so-called ‘millennials’ – apparently people aged 18 to 35 – showed a marked lack of emotional attachment to their country. This strikes me as a good thing. Ever-jingoistic, the media thought otherwise, with baleful comments about the shortage of national pride. It may just be me, but I keep hearing politicians talking about Canada as, “the best country in the world,” these days. It almost sounds like part of the nation’s name, like “America the Wonderful”, or Alexander the Great. Don’t get me wrong, I have great affection for my adopted country, and certainly consider it a better place to live than most others. But to say it is the greatest country in the world has grimmer implications. If we weren’t such a small place, in terms of population – the tiny British isles have three times as many people – we would be hauling these nationalistic fantasies into a far more dangerous place, and we would be…well, America.
Can a vast country, built by immigrants from everywhere on the backs of a crushed indigenous peoples, ever claim the uniqueness of being, “One nation under God”? We are forced to admit that ‘the West’, wherever it is now located, is largely a product of European economic migrants. With its disgraceful thousand-year history of endless petty wars, Europe can hardly lay claim to the virtues of peaceful coexistence. And thus Europeans have an ingrained tendency to seek hostile solutions, where other erstwhile nationals – the Chinese, for example – look to a more innate rectitude of purpose to overcome problems. China has five thousand years of continuous civilization – the Chi’in state is the world’s oldest political union – where the USA barely has 300 years. While the Chinese have a strong sense of cultural identity, it has never translated itself into imperial designs. The state has merely reclaimed territories lost during periods of internal weakness. The American model, aped now so often by Canada, involves an incapacity to see the world as not, or – God forbid! – even anti-American. Historically, the United States has either been xenophobic and enclosed, or else imperialistic, seeking to impose itself on vulnerable nations or peoples. With the current enthusiasm for world-cop-like missions, I see a danger in Canada pursuing this path. It is logically impossible, however.
The Angus Reid poll, seeking to measure the levels of national idolatry, fails to take into account the increasing number of Canadian citizens who can never claim to love this country more than any other – usually the one of their heritage. Thirty-five years away from it, I would still have to choose England over Canada, if the countries were ever at war. No doubt, the same is true for many if not most immigrants. Culture, heritage, language, whatever it is – they bind us. To hear “God bless America”, or “Canada, the greatest country in the world”, is thus alienating. It implies that some of us are Canadians, and others are not, when, in truth, only the abused First Nations have a right to that claim. The Quebecois have been here four centuries, yet many of them still identify themselves as other than strictly Canadian, or ‘Anglo’. Patriotic fervour – the military, the heroism! – may not be so apparent a disease here as it is in America, yet deadly diseases grow and spread.
The Trump groan, to “Make America great again” is – besides making one wonder when exactly the USA was ever great – a call to arms. Crush dissent! Muslims and Mexicans out! We’re the global cop and the world will now pay us for the task, whether or not anyone wants it! For people who have nothing or know nothing, it may incite some form of identity or pride. Yet for the rest it’s obnoxious. And patriotism is truly obnoxious. The One God’s on our side – everyone else is wrong, or with Satan. That’s how it works, and it has been the single greatest cause of human misery for all of recorded history. You love your country, you fight for it – no matter how right, wrong, or indifferent the casus belli may be. As studies of the human genome show, we are all the same. Even the idea of races is ill-founded. As the greatest photograph in history shows, we all live on one beautiful little blue planet – and we’ll have to share its bounty equally, ,or else perish, like many incompatible species before us. Old maxims are rarely incorrect: Patriotism? It’s the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings.
Paul William Roberts