The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Canadian Nationalism

PART ONE: Patriotism and Nationalism

Patriotism, as neo-Thomistic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has argued, is a virtue.(1) Not everyone would agree with Dr. MacIntyre on this and those who disagree will often respond by quoting the Eighteenth Century lexicographer and raconteur Samuel Johnson who said “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Dr. Johnson himself, however, would have agreed with the proposition that patriotism is a virtue. For this particular nugget of wit, as for so many others mined from the ample lode contained within Dr. Johnson’s personal conversations, we are indebted to James Boswell who recognized the treasure in his friend’s repartee for what it was and dutifully recorded it for posterity. In this instance Boswell thought it necessary to explain the comment and wrote:

But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest. (2)

Now Boswell’s interpretation of his friend’s words is not infallible and even if it were “Dr. Johnson says so” would not be sufficient to settle the question of the virtuous nature of patriotism one way or the other. For evidence that Boswell’s interpretation of this particular remark is correct, however, we need look no further than Johnson’s pamphlet “The Patriot” written against the claims to patriotism on the part of the rebelling colonies and their Whig supporters in Parliament on the eve of the American Revolution. (3) Similarly, we have no lack of evidence in support of the proposition that patriotism is a virtue (4). Patriotism belongs in the category of natural loves, like the live of parent for child and child for parent. While a person may devise a theoretical argument against such love it is difficult to fathom why one would wish to do so.

If patriotism is a virtue is nationalism also a virtue?

To answer that question we need to understand what the difference is between patriotism and nationalism. The difference is difficult to understand because although the two concepts are similar, so much so that some people use the terms interchangeably, they belong to entirely different categories. Patriotism is an attitude of the heart, a habit of thinking, a character trait. Nationalism, on the other hand, is an ideology, a set of beliefs that has been thought out and formulated. Nationalism has a definite history which can be, and has been, written down and explained in an orderly fashion. Its sources can be traced, there is a relatively recent period in which it was first formulated and expressed, then a period in which it was propagated and acted upon. You could not write such a history for patriotism. Nationalism spreads as messengers convey its ideas and make converts who, if they are of a different country, adapt it to suit their purposes. Patriotism, however, is a sentiment that occurs naturally among peoples in all places and times. A history of patriotism could only be a collection of independent stories.

Nationalism, therefore, cannot be a virtue. A virtue is a positive character trait, a pattern of right thinking or behaving which has become habitual. It is neither a virtue nor a vice to accept a set of ideas, although whether or not one does so may be influenced by one’s virtues and vices. For this same reason, nationalism cannot be a vice either. Unlike patriotism, it does not belong in the general category of which good examples are virtues and bad examples are vices.

What this means is that the proper question is not whether or not nationalism is a virtue but whether it is a good or a bad ideology.

That question assumes, of course, that ideologies come in good and bad. That is not an assumption that everyone would accept. The term ideology has been around for a little over two centuries and in that time it has seldom been applied to something the speaker considers to be laudatory or even neutral. It is usually used to refer to the ideas of one’s opponents rather than to one’s own ideas.

Michael Oakeshott in his essay “Rationalism and Politics” wrote about the impact of modern rationalism upon political thought. He describes the rationalist as someone who stands “for thought free from obligation to any authority save the authority of ‘reason’” and as the enemy of “authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary or habitual”. The rationalist “falls easily into the error of identifying the customary and the traditional with the changeless” and so rejects the “tradition of ideas”. Ideology, according to Oakeshott, is what the rationalist replaces the “tradition of ideas” with. Ideology is “the formalized abridgement of the supposed substratum of rational truth contained in the tradition”. It contains only “technical knowledge”, i.e., knowledge “susceptible of precise formulation”, because the rationalist rejects all other forms of knowledge. (5)

Oakeshott’s definition of ideology is a negative one, but not in the same way other definitions of ideology are negative. Karl Marx, for example, regarded ideology as a tool of oppression, a set of beliefs drawn up by the propertied classes and believed by the working classes in order to maintain the existing division of power and wealth. (6) In Oakeshott’s essay, the problem with ideology is not that it is bad in itself, but that it is the result of the deliberate impoverishment of knowledge and wisdom that is rationalism. Rationalists who were “men of real political education” might produce works which were valuable, which were “abridgements of a tradition”, but “from which, nevertheless, the full significance of the traditional inevitably escapes”. The example he gives of this is classical liberalism which he describes as “the ideology which Locke had distilled from the English tradition.” (7)

Nationalism is an ideology in Oakeshott’s sense of the term. Kenneth R. Minogue has called it “the foremost ideology of the modern world” (8). It is a fairly simple ideology too. Its basic concept, indeed, its only essential concept, is that of the sovereignty of the nation. The implications of this concept vary greatly from one instance of nationalism to another. ll nationalists insist upon the sovereignty of their own nation, some, would extend the principle to other nations as well. Nationalism can take the form of an assertion of a nation’s independence and self-determination against forces that seek to subjugate it, whether they be great imperial powers in the traditional sense, or the forces of internationalism and globalism in the present era. It can also, however, be used to justify the domination of others. It can be used to justify wars of conquest against foreign peoples and it can be used to demand that regional and local loyalties and interests within the nation itself must take the backseat to the national interest.

If nationalism is an ideology, and ideology is an abridgement of a tradition, then it follows that nationalism is an abridgement of a tradition. The pre-modern tradition taught people that they owed allegiance to their king but which placed that allegiance in the context of other loyalties, some of which were nearer and dearer than loyalty to the king, others of which transcended that loyalty. Nationalism abridged that tradition by making the highest object of one’s loyalty the nation as represented by the institutional state.

Nationalism is inferior both to the tradition which it, as an ideology, abridges and to patriotism, the natural love for one’s country which flourishes best in the context of that tradition. “The nation” is an abstract concept and by making it the highest object of loyalty nationalism subordinates concrete objects of loyalty, such as one’s family and friends, to an idea. Patriotism, on the other hand, is a love for one’s country that grows out of one’s love for the concrete people and places that are nearest to him. Edmund Burke described it this way:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind. (9)

Since the nationalist makes the nation, an abstract object of his own construction, the object of his affection, it is possible for a nationalist to actually hate his country. According to Kenneth Minogue this is, in fact, a much observed characteristic of nationalists. (10) This is not something that could ever be true of a patriot. A patriot loves his country because it is his country not because he identifies it with an ideal. His love for his country is of the same nature as his love for his family, a love which is not blind to faults but which also does not require one to pretend those faults don’t exist. (11)

Nationalism shares the flaws which are common to all ideologies, in particular the tendency to try and force an imperfect reality into an artificially constructed ideal mold. In the age in which we live, however, it is difficult to be a patriot without being a nationalist to some degree or another. The modern age, the age of rationalism and ideology, was also the age of the nation-state. Patriots of countries born in the modern age often find it convenient to express their patriotism in terms of nationalism and in this new global era in which internationalism threatens the dissolution of national identities, nationalism will become increasingly necessary to the patriot.

PART TWO: The Two Canadian Nationalisms

In my country Canada, which is now celebrating its 145th birthday, nationalism has been an important force since day one. This is also true of the United States of America, Germany, Israel and indeed it must inevitably be true of any country that has its origins in the Modern Age. Nationalism takes a different form in every country in which it arises. This is as true of Canada as it is of any other country and in fact there are two distinct forms of Canadian nationalism, one which was present in the country from the beginning, the other which arose in the Twentieth Century. By Canadian nationalism I mean nationalism which regards Canada as a whole as a nation. I am not counting Quebec nationalism, nationalist movements among Canadian aboriginals, white or black racial nationalism, or any other version of nationalism which might have a presence in Canada but which has a nation other than Canada itself as its object.

National unity is a goal of all forms of nationalism. Nothing brings a country, or any other group for that matter, together like an outside threat and for this reason nationalism is usually at its strongest when the country is under such a threat. In the case of both Canadian nationalisms the perceived threat to the country was American imperialism. The American imperialism which the first Canadian nationalism opposed was imperialism in the literal, traditional, sense of the term. Two hundred years ago, the United States declared war against Great Britain and in the ensuing two and a half year conflict, the Americans on several occasions invaded and tried to conquer the British territory to their north, including what is now Ontario and Quebec but which at the time were Upper and Lower Canada. These attempts did not succeed and the invaders were turned back but in the decades to come American journalists and politicians would speak of America’s “Manifest Destiny” to conquer and govern the entire continent of North America. The cultural, economic, and political divisions in the United States split that country into two warring factions from 1861-1865. The sympathy of Britain and her North American provinces lay with the South to whom some assistance was granted and so when the North was victorious there was fear of a retaliatory strike against British North America. Thus the cumulative experience of the 19th Century led to a reasonable fear of American imperial conquest. The movement to unite the provinces of British North America into a new country kicked into high gear and a little over a week prior to the second anniversary of Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox, Queen Victoria signed the British North America Act into law. On July 1st of that year the Act came into effect and a new country, the Dominion of Canada, was born.

The fear of American imperialism which gave strength to the original Canadian nationalism was a legitimate and reasonable fear considering the history of the 19th Century prior to Confederation. The second kind of Canadian nationalism also uses fear of American imperialism but the “imperialism” it warns against is not literal military conquest and subjugation but the cultural and economic influence of the United States. This second Canadian nationalism was born in the post-World War II period. The two world wars had brought about a tremendous shift in global power. Britain and France had lost much of their influence and Germany, of course, was completely crushed. The Second World War had left the world divided into two spheres of influence centred around the two superpowers that had emerged from the war, the United States and the Soviet Union. Canada, like Britain and the rest of the free world, was within the sphere of American influence.

There were, of course, legitimate reasons for Western countries to be concerned about rising American influence. The loss of their own cultural identities and traditions and the spread of the corrupting influence of Hollywood culture would be two examples. The second Canadian nationalism did not focus on these concerns, however. Indeed, it arguably did more to undermine Canada’s traditions and identity than American influence. The institutions of the country established by Sir John A. MacDonald and the other Fathers of Confederation in 1867 came under heavy attack by the new wave of Canadian nationalists. They falsely accused those institutions of indicating colonial subjugation. The country’s official name was “The Dominion of Canada”. The new Canadian nationalists said that this denoted colonial status, that “dominion” was synonymous with “colony”. In fact, the name had been chosen out of the Bible (Psalm 72:8) by the Fathers of Confederation, after their British advisers suggested that their original choice of a name “the Kingdom of Canada” might defeat the purpose of Confederation by provoking an American act rather than securing the country against it. “Dominion” was chosen as a synonym for “kingdom” to denote a country that was and thankfully still is a constitutional monarchy. Canada’s flag was the Canadian Red Ensign, which contained the Union Jack in the canton and the Canadian coat of arms on a red field. This was the flag Canada’s soldiers had fought under in the Second World War, a war we had entered under our own Parliament’s declaration, and which was militarily our country’s greatest hour. Lester Pearson denounced this flag as a symbol of colonialism and insisted that we be given a new one.

Lester Pearson was the first Prime Minister to represent the new Canadian nationalism and his premiership began after the fall of the premiership of the last Prime Minister to represent the old Canadian nationalism, John G. Diefenbaker. The way in which the Diefenbaker premiership fell reveals a great deal about the new Canadian nationalism and the sincerity of its fear of American imperialism.

John G. Diefenbaker, the leader of the Conservative Party, became Prime Minister in 1957 with a minority government, then won the 1958 federal election with the largest majority victory in Canadian history up until that time (it still is the largest in terms of percentage of seats, in terms of numbers of seats Brian Mulroney’s subsequent majority win in 1984 was larger). In 1962 he won again, but with a minority. His government was defeated in 1963 when Lester Pearson, leader of the Liberal Party, proposed a vote of no-confidence in the government. Diefenbaker lost the vote and the general election was called which ushered Lester Pearson and the Liberals into power.

What was the issue that prompted Pearson’s call for a vote of no-confidence?

The Diefenbaker government had controversially scrapped the Avro Arrow program after accepting Bomarc missiles from the Americans as part of a NATO defense project. The American government then began putting pressure on Diefenbaker to accept nuclear warheads for the Bomarc missiles. Lester Pearson had loudly spoken in favour of accepting these warheads. After much wavering, Diefenbaker said no, that he did not want American nuclear warheads on Canadian soil. This brought upon the vote of no-confidence.

If the new Canadian nationalists like Lester Pearson were as concerned as they professed to be about Canada’s independent identity is it not odd that they would oppose Diefenbaker on this? Canada’s greatest philosopher, George Grant certainly thought so. In his most celebrated book, Lament for a Nation, he argued that the absorption of Canada into the American empire was unfortunate but inevitable and pointed to the way Diefenbaker was brought down as the ultimate evidence of that inevitability. The subtitle of his book was “The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism”. (12) Grant’s nephew, former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, has suggested that his jeremiad was premature, written at a time when Canada was just beginning to assert her national identity. The evidence Ignatieff offers is less than convincing, however. It consists of a long list of progressive and left-wing innovations. (13) These do not make a national identity and have done more to divide the nation than to unite it.

After the fall of the Diefenbaker government, Pearson’s Liberals formed the government and the Liberal Party remained in power until 1984, except for the half a year when Joe Clark was Prime Minister. During this time they downsized the Canadian armed forces considerably and committed much of the armed forces to the peacekeeping service of the United Nations. The inevitable result of this was that Canada became more and more dependent upon the United States for her own homeland security.

What this tells us is that the Liberal Party, during the Pearson/Trudeau years when it embraced the new “Canadian nationalism”, remained fully committed to turning Canada into a satellite of the United States. This is visible to see despite the fact that these left-wing “Canadian nationalists” affected an anti-Americanism of the most vulgar and bilious sort, the kind rightly condemned by French philosopher Jean-François Revel in his 2002 book Anti-Americanism. (14)

John Diefenbaker, of the older, more genuine, school of Canadian nationalism, was frequently accused of anti-Americanism. His response was to say “I am not anti-American, I am very pro-Canadian”. In his memoirs he wrote “I believed in a Canada free from the directing influence of the United States—a belief that served to emphasize my devotion to the Monarchy in Canada and to the Commonwealth relationship.” (15) He also made it absolutely clear, in his memoirs and other writings, that when it came to the conflict then raging on the world theatre between the United States and her allies on the one hand and the Soviet Union and her satellites on the other, our place was on the side of the United States. In contrast, the new school of “Canadian nationalists” mocked our country’s British traditions and connections and placed Canada firmly under the influence of the United States in practice, while shouting their contempt for her – and sometimes their open sympathy with her Communist enemies (16) – from the rooftops.

Whereas Diefenbaker, who like our first Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald was a Tory of the Disraeli school, saw Canada’s national identity in terms of her traditions, institutions, and her place in the Commonwealth, the new “Canadian nationalists” saw Canadian national identity as something which the federal government needed to artificially engineer for us in order to make us different from the United States. To hear such people talk one would think that Tommy Douglas’ single-payer health care system is what makes Canada Canadian. (17) One wonders what these idiots are going to do now that Barack Obama has introduced socialized health care to the United States.

What our country is sorely in need of today, almost a century and a half since Confederation, is a revival of the older school of Canadian nationalism.

Happy Dominion Day

God save the Queen

(1) “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” was the title of the Lindley Lecture given by Dr. MacIntyre to the University of Kansas in 1984, which the University published as a 19 page pamphlet later that year. In this lecture Dr. MacIntyre answered the question in the affirmative by challenging the liberal morality which demands a “no” answer.

(2) I am quoting from the 1965 reprint of the 1953 new edition of the Oxford Standard edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson in which this quote can be found on page 615. The incident in question occurs in the entry for Friday 7, April 1775.



(5) The essay “Rationalism and Politics” by Michael Oakeshott, originally published in the Cambridge Journal in 1947, can be found on pages 1-36 of Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and other essays (Metheun & Co LTD: London, 1962).

(6) Interestingly, revolutionary syndicalist Georges Sorel, who borrowed many ideas from Marx, inverted his concept of ideology. Sorel argued that revolutions were led by rising elites who required ideological doctrines to motivate and control their forces.

(7) Oakeshott, p. 27.

(8) Kenneth R. Minogue, Nationalism (Metheun & Co LTD: London, 1969) p. 8.

(9) Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, Gateway Edition (Henry Regnery Company: Chicago, 1955), pp 71-72.

(10) Minogue, pp. 22-23. Among the examples Minogue gives are John Maynard Keynes description of Clemenceau at Versailles as having “one illusion—France; and one disillusion—mankind, including Frenchmen, and his colleagues not least” and General Beck’s remark about Hitler that “This fellow has no Fatherland at all.”

(11) G. K. Chesterton in an essay entitled “A Defence of Patriotism” which is the sixteenth chapter of his book The Defendant wrote that “'My country, right or wrong,' is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, 'My mother, drunk or sober.' No doubt if a decent man's mother took to drink he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be in a state of gay indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery.”

(12) George Grant, Lament For A Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism, Carleton Library Series, (Carleton University Press: Ottawa, 1970) .   The first edition of this book came out in 1965.

(13) This can be found in the chapter on George Grant in Michael Ignatieff’s True Patriot Love: Four Generations in Search of Canada (Viking: Toronto, 2009).

(14) Jean-François Revel, Anti-Americanism (Encounter: San Fransisco, 2003). This is the English translation by Diarmid Cammell. The French edition came out in 2002.

(15) John G. Diefenbaker, One Canada: Volume I: The Crusading Years 1895 to 1956 (MacMillan of Canada: Toronto, 1975), p. 140.

(16) Pierre Trudeau, the favourite Prime Minister of the new school of Canadian nationalists, was a noted Communist sympathizer, an admirer of Chinese Communist tyrant Mao Tse-tung and a friend of Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

(17) William Christian in his biography of George Grant writes, with regards to the vote that brought down the Diefenbaker government “George knew at once where he stood in this crisis. The night before the key vote he phoned Tommy Douglas, the NDP leader, to try to persuade him not to defeat the government.” William Christian, George Grant: A Biography (University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1993), p. 241. The phone call failed. The left-wing NDP and the right-wing Social Credit both supported the Liberal vote of no confidence. This, of course, has nothing to do with the merits or demerits of Douglas’ socialized health care, but it is rather ironic when one considers the context in which Douglas’ name is most likely to arise today.

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