Lest We Forget Nationalism

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Like the International Olympic Committee, I have a few medals left to award.

They are in the event Purplest Sportswriting in the Wake of the Canadian Men’s Hockey Victory.

Gold goes to Rosie DiManno of The Toronto Star, even though she was using an old program, just like Jamie Salé and David Pelletier.

In her case, it was Breathlessness Conveyed by Short, Incomplete Sentences. “Our game. Our beautiful, pure, honest gallant game. . . . Gold, golder, goldest.”

Silver goes to Christie Blatchford of the National Post, who relied on repetition (“They saw Mr. Gretzky wait . . . they love Wayne. They would not have been surprised . . . ”) undergirded by moral brazenness (“ . . . hockey is great because it breeds this goodness in men”).

A bronze to Stephen Brunt of the National Post for the courage to attempt straight sentimentality (“O Canada sounds sweet and perfect and cuts straight to the heart”) with no accompanying stylistic device.

And an honourable mention to Roy MacGregor of The Globe and Mail because no one else that I saw told us how Canada’s hard-nosed Owen Nolan left the bench with four minutes to go to get his video camera from the dressing room so he could record the end. (“He shoots, he reloads!”)

Does anything else drain emotions out of Canadians this way?

Referendums in Quebec may come close. People travel from vast distances — small towns in British Columbia or the Maritimes — to parade through Montreal streets yelling hoarsely, in English, “We love you, Quebec, please don’t go.”

It really can make you marvel at the power of national feelings, even in a country like Canada, which is supposed to be among the least nationalistic.

Think of the immensely disparate people who watched and celebrated that game last Sunday. What makes them believe they are all part of the same thing?

What I’m amazed by is not that hockey can have this unifying effect, but that anything can.

Take the United States, one of the most nationalistic places on Earth.

What makes someone who has always lived in, say, Arizona, identify with New Yorkers and the civil war? Or cab drivers and people in urban ghettos, even Americans in prisons, feel that they, too, were attacked on September 11?

They may have arrived in the country very recently, it doesn’t seem to matter. And these are often fierce identifications.

An American reader writes: “Notice we do not choose to make the enemies of freedom irrelevant, push them aside, or isolate them. . . . We CRUSH them. That is what we are doing now. And we need no higher authority than the American people and its leaders.”

What I find striking is the “we,” as if the letter writer is in total harmony with an entire population, its history, destiny and government.

I know I’m not saying anything new, but it still makes my jaw drop, this ongoing power of nationalism.

The Olympics, lest we forget a week after, are almost entirely a celebration of nationalism, not individual achievement, which is overtly the Olympic ideal.

In the era of globalization, national passions show no sign of becoming obsolete, and not just in regions such as the Balkans.

It’s not surprising that people identify with larger entities than themselves. It’s obvious from birth on that we are connected to and dependent on others for almost everything, including language and thought. In that sense, larger identifications are simply human.

But there’s a range of possibilities. British ethicist Jonathan Glover, in his Moral History of the Twentieth Century, says “we are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, friends, architects, scientists.”

Yet “people are more likely to identify with being a Serbian or a Croatian than with being a builder or a car mechanic.”

Of all identifications, nationalism tends to get the gold, because people look for something not just larger than themselves, but with a larger meaning to go with it.

A nation, whether it’s a modern country or an ancient tribe, is more likely to provide that meaning than the other car mechanics you know.

Besides, among the mighty forces that affect people’s lives, their nation seems at least open to being influenced in return, unlike, say, nature or the economy.

Nationalism’s only real competitors have been ideologies like communism and religions like Islam. So it makes some sense that, at the moment, Islamic fundamentalism finds itself confronted by American nationalism, with each claiming exclusive possession of universal truth.

I feel like I’ve been hearing arguments for and against nationalism all my life.

As kids, we were told that Lester B. Pearson, one of Canada’s heroes, opposed nationalism because it caused the Second World War. Then he became Prime Minister and gave Canada its own flag to wave.

That debate — nationalism, good or bad — is starting to look quaint and misguided. It’s like winter. You can love it or hate it — personally, I’m partial to anything that draws people out of isolation and brings them into connection. (I’m talking about nationalism, not winter.)

Mostly, you have to deal with it.

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