We are more. And less.

Posted on February 16, 2010


As a Canadian expatriate — some might say, ex-patriot — I have to say, those opening ceremonies in Vancouver were brutal to watch. If I’d watched them in a room full of friends here in North Carolina, I would have been apologizing on my native country’s behalf. And, of course, my friends here would have found that to be deeply Canadian.

Nationalism used to be pretty simple. When a centralized political and intellectual elite in a diverse and less-than-united country wanted to create a strong, common, patriotic identity among the citizens, there were a number of tools at their disposal. They could ban minority languages in public and in the schools; enforce a standard curriculum and literally rewrite history; vilify internal and external national enemies; and use compulsory military service to indoctrinate each generation of young men, while drumming up the occasional patriotic war to fight. (I’ve written about this in chapter 2, here.)

Virtually every country in Europe and North America conducted these nation-building exercises in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And by the mid- to late-20th century, most countries in Asia, Africa, South America, and the South Pacific had also got into the nationalism business.

But nowadays most of these methods either don’t work, or look like goonish ethnic cleansing. State monopolies of radio and TV have also disappeared (except in Italy…), and the dispersal of information and economic power in most democratic societies made it ever-more difficult for nationalist propaganda to work in a modern democratic society.

But there are still international sports competitions! Winning significant Olympic events, or a World Cup in a sport your nation cares about, is one of the last great ways of boosting national pride and cohesion. And so too, it seems, is having the opportunity to host one these global events. Ask China or South Africa.

There is a spectrum of nationalisms, from evil to progressive. And international sport has been leveraged by governments across that spectrum. The Berlin Games in 1936 set a particularly high bar for the nasty co-opting of amateur sports. And who knows how many corrupt and morally or financially bankrupt regimes have used international sporting success to extend their grip on power. It is widely believed, e.g., that the military junta was on its last legs when Argentina hosted and won the World Cup in 1978, and that this heady cocktail of sporting nationalism kept them in power for another four years. At that point, with no such easy fix, they tried to stir up nationalist passions the old-fashioned way through military adventurism. After losing that decidedly bloodier contest they were finally swept from power.

The nationalism on display in the opening ceremonies in Vancouver last week was neither evil nor progressive. Just lame. Perhaps it was not even recognized for what it was by outsiders; although surely there must have been passages that were simply baffling for foreign viewers. How many countries require a slam poet to take three minutes to explicitly define their nation with a series of clichés and coded references (“little 9’s and 99’s”) that are presented like a revelation?

The central aim of all nationalisms is to create what Benedict Anderson called an “imagined community” or “family” among people who are in fact strangers. They typically do this by emphasizing how their nation or its members are different from others outside the nation — especially the nearest neighbors. This is what Freud and Michael Ignatieff (who was a Harvard professor before he was the leader of the main opposition party in Canada) called the “narcissism of small differences”: where we take great pains to deceive ourselves into thinking we are most different from those to whom we are actually most similar.

So on display during the Opening Ceremonies were most of the now very tired elements of the official Canadian national mythology from the past half-century. It was Canada’s way of convincing itself that it really was different from its southern neighbors, and that all Canadians shared some common historical experiences. Check off the elements on display last Friday:

  • Canada as ethnic mosaic, not melting pot (check);
  • two official languages (check, even though the cultural and political differences between those linguistic communities were air-brushed out, and even though most people, especially in Vancouver, don’t speak them both);
  • national character shaped by exploring and settling in harsh environments and climates (check, even though the vast majority live in cities and a sizable minority are from families that immigrated recently);
  • long history of peaceful, organic co-existence with Aboriginal peoples (check, even though very untrue); and so on.

But why exactly did the organizers think the world would want to know what Canadians thought “defined” them as a people? Were they afraid that the rest of the world had doubts that Canada was a real country? Do they think that folks outside of Canada have actually wondered whether Canada has a definable identity?

Indeed, why was this ceremony even about Canada — with the Maple Leaf up-front and center? Aren’t the Winter Games typically about the host town and region, and a shared trans-border experience of winter? Vancouver and the province of British Columbia are a spectacularly beautiful part of the world with a unique geography (albeit one that should be hosting the Summer, not the Winter, Games) that has long been a meeting point of native peoples and immigrants of successive waves. Why was this not a sufficient branding motif for the Games and the ceremony? Why did the organizing committee succumb to the tired, dishonest, corny, Disnified nationalist vision of the gnomes in Ottawa?