Tuesday was Canada Day and we had a fine holiday; Friday is the Fourth of July, when our southern neighbour will be waving more flags than usual and its thinkers intoning on What America Means. In my forties and having had the luxury of seeing many nations up close, today I understand not at all what a nation is, what it means to be American or Bolivian or Japanese or Egyptian. But it’s a thing worth worrying about, and brought downstage centre by the coincidence of dates, and also by the fact that I’m having trouble evicting Old Glory from my menubar.
Nationalism Sucks · Intellectually, I am left pretty well cold by national anthems and national sentiment and “national honour” and the whole patriotism thing. Historically, more people have died in stupid ways in extreme pain and degradation in the service of the abstractions of nationhood than for any other single cause. Imagine there’s no countries... nothing to kill or die for the song says, and I can imagine that, almost.
John F. Kennedy said Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. To which I say “Screw that; I care about Lauren and music and my son and technology and my Mother and good writing and my brothers and photography and some other individual people, and baseball, those are the things that matter.” My nation is a convenience, a way of organizing things to keep the streets clean and the poor fed and the bandits in jail and the buses running, so that I can hang out with my family and friends and write computer software and do business and go to hear people play music.
Politics are a necessary part of keeping all this going whether you like them or not. I am baffled, though, by people who claim to love their country but despise its politics. This seems like loving a band but hating their music, or loving a house but finding it ugly and uncomfortable.
Canada · And yet, and yet: our red and white flag looks fine against the blue sky, almost as good as the blazing reds of the real maples on the sides of the great mountains in the crystal autumn air. And we run a pretty civilized shop here, things like this and this and this or even this don’t happen in Canada. But to be honest, that’s just an accident of geography and politics and immigration patterns, it’s not as though we’re really any better or worse, one on one, than people anywhere else.
We’re in the news this week because Vancouver won the vote to host the 2010 Winter Olympics, leading to an outburst of patriotic frenzy that was frankly more than a little over the top. And I love the Olympics. Despite the corruption, and the drugs, and the invented-by-Hitler anthem ceremonies and ensuing medal-count sweepstakes, the opening ceremony always, every time, brings tears to my eyes; the young people gathered together for the joy and drama of physical contest, ostensibly in the service of the nation but really in competition with each other as individuals. The essence is totally of the individual and of the team, and not of the nation, and that’s why it moves me.
Stars and Stripes · Under OS X, you can switch your keyboard setup to work for just about any language; among other things, you can do direct entry of Unicode characters. I investigated this and discovered that if you have more than one keyboard layout available, a little flag lodges itself in the menubar showing which is active. For basic no-bells-and-whistles English like I use, that’s an American flag.
Yes, you can get a Canadian flag, but that’s for Canadian-French, the slash key is for é or something, it’s unusable by hackers. So, I turned off all the options but something in OS X is a little buggy and at regular intervals, I’m looking at stars & stripes in my menubar. Which irritates the hell out of me.
Not That I’m Anti-American · The whole notion of being anti-American, or pro-American, or pro/anti any country as such, has no basis in rationality. These are just collections of people who share a geography and a political and commercial infrastructure. The days when most countries were defined by language or race or faith are pretty well over, the way people move around these days.
You can certainly, without loss of rationality, be impressed or revolted by the people who run a particular country, or care passionately about the policies they talk about and implement. You can talk rationally about the economic basis of a country, because despite the march of globalization, national boundaries remain pretty economically important.
But I’m not American and I would really much rather not have that flag staring at me all the time.
Is it All About Sports? · Our house-guest Sally is Australian born and bred, without the history of gadding about the world that Lauren and I share, and I quizzed her about what made her heart swell with Aussie pride. While, like any Australian, she eventually got to Gallipoli, it was by way of a lot of sports: Kathy Freeman, the great Pommie-slaughtering cricketers, and so on.
Hmm, weren’t we talking about the Olympics just now? To be honest, almost every one of the very few occasions when I’ve felt like a patriotic yahoo was in the context of sports. Canada gets totally paralyzed every few years when there’s a credible major international hockey tournament, the Olympics or equivalent. We expect to win more than we lose, we expect trouble from the Russians regularly and the Swedes and Americans occasionally. And I watch the big games and get all excited.
Once I even got to be in the stands and watch Canada play: soccer against El Salvador in the World Cup preliminaries (we’re in a group with Mexico and a bunch of little Central American countries; Mexico usually gets in and we get in down in the dirt with the Salvadoreans and Guatemalans and so on for the other spot). Anyhow, it was exciting as hell and we won.
Maybe There’s Something To It · I’m perhaps unduly negative about the notion of the nation due to having grown up in the Middle East where the nations are mostly pretty dysfunctional things, except for doing a first-rate job of providing a basis for terrorism and war.
Anyone can see that a group of people can be more than the sum of the individuals. Could that scale up to the level of the nation? After all, even jaded cynical left-wingers like Lewis Lapham have been heard to intone about the “The American Idea,” and discourse about “The Genius of France” is routine in that country, and anyone who’s been to Japan knows that the people there have a special relationship to their country.
At the end of the day, I don’t buy it. I think it’s mostly mythology and tribalism and bullshit. I think the main functions of nationalism, viewed historically, have been twofold: to empower tyrants to oppress citizens, and to justify trade barriers and subsidies for the benefit of the already-rich.
It’s not that I want to replace that US flag with a Maple Leaf in my menu bar; I don’t want any flag there, because I’m a person, and a member of a company and a city and a family and a profession and some committees and a whole lot of conversations, oh yes and a nation too, but neither I nor my menu needs wrapping in anyone’s flag.