Wednesday, 14 May 2008

"Pass the Fries and Praise the Ammunition": A Short Primer on Chauvinism

A commenter on a friend's blog recently expressed his incredulity at the notion, beloved of our Canada-bashing elites, that "Canadian anti-Americanism is always petty and smug and parochial and morally superior"--that it victimises a blameless people who have earned a higher esteem. Another commenter chimed in to defend this elite view, arguing that Canadian "anti-Americans" always experience their consumption of American stereotypes as "fact rather than... [as] prejudice".

As is usual whenever this topic is broached, the terms of the discussion were hopelessly opaque. Canadian chauvinism is rarely defined properly, as, being so rare, very few samples of it have been available for detailed analysis. Nevertheless, a few assertions may be made with a fair deal of certainty.

First, very few Canadian chauvinists, anti-American or otherwise, exist. They are not allowed to exist. Our civic soil has been salted against the growth of something as elementary as civic consciousness and is utterly incapable of nurturing anything as grand as civic pride or as passionate as its extremity, chauvinism.

Our schools teach that Canada was accidentally confected as a bland stew of disparate regionally and ethnically differentiated ciphers whose greatest achievement has been to agree to disagree. Two of our loudest and most influential provinces (as well as the nation's richest, craftiest, and most ideologically-driven political party) long ago adopted an official "Canada-Sucks" approach to federalism that has had an enormously deflationary impact on our national morale. Virtually every post-war Canadian nationalist who has attempted a public career has been destroyed. Diefenbaker, Gordon, and Orchard are the triumvirs of a tradition that has faced nothing but relentless ridicule, sneering odium and total, ignominious, unmitigated defeat. What is de rigueur for all political hopefuls in the Great American Republic--stentorian, chest-beating, monomaniacal, triumphalist xenophobia--is poison here. An avowed Canadian nationalist who premises his campaign on any kind of xenophobia would have a better chance of winning public office if he produced glossy posters of himself performing a lewd and lascivious act upon the decaying corpse of an infant Emperor penguin and hand-delivered them to the editors-in-chief of each of our major dailies.

Now, many Canadians are indifferent to America; many others see the U.S. as rather odd, funny, or exotic, but such dispositions can hardly be considered actively malign except by those of our continentalist compatriots who share America's glass-jaw ego. I've certainly never met a Swede who is tempted to interpret broad Canadian indifference to Sweden as "anti-Swedishness", and I've yet to see a Nigerian grumble about our crude "anti-Nigerianism". To Americans and their useful idiots in our Vichy milice (who volunteer to help keep us uppity Canucks in our place), all that is not rabid pro-American fealty is seen as sullen belligerence.

True anti-American chauvinism would require a philosophical grounding or a point of analytical departure from which to critique the United States as such, in respect of its foundational rationale, its mission, and the execution of that mission. My own chauvinism (for it is a chauvinism, admittedly) is such a creature. I think America is otiose per se--a noisome latrine filled to overflowing by the worst case of cultural dysentery ever to afflict Western civilisation. It would be idle to accuse me of being anti-American; one might as well "accuse" me of being right-handed. I accept the term as a fairly non-controversial description. Any normal Canadian would flinch at the epithet and attempt to escape it. I do not and will not. In fact, I proudly insist on the appellation: I've earned it in ways that most others who've been saddled with the tag have not and would not try to (actually, I prefer "un-American", but "anti-American", which is always readier to hand to the obstreperous Canada-bashing hecklers who are prone to fling it, will do).

No. Most Canadians who seem anti-American are merely reacting to specific American acts of cupidity, arrogance and fecklessness. It is not "petty and smug and parochial and morally superior" to complain of another nation's stupidity or venality. Otherwise, it would be "petty and smug and parochial and morally superior" of Americans to express concern over Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions. Are Americans uncomfortable because they smugly believe that, while safe in the hands of God-fearing Anglo-Saxons like themselves, nuclear technology is sure to bring the planet to grief if it lands in the hands of a tribe of swarthy, savage, idol-worshipping rag-heads? Well, yes, actually, they are, but that is precisely the point: I do not think Americans hate Iranians per se (though some do, I'm sure); they hate what they are doing. Likewise, most Canadians do not hate Americans per se; but many Canadians hate many things that Americans do.

Thus, the distinction is key: chauvinism is unconditional hatred of other nations on principle, even when they are at their best, while circumstantial critiques of another nation's collective gestures are not only legitimate in all cases but are inevitable and probably necessary when the offending nation is at its worst. Two cases may help to illustrate how to apply the rule governing this distinction.

In the first, we will rend the veil of charity that has been drawn around this fiasco, and recall that, in retaliation for France's refusal to become part of the "Coalition of the Willing" (aka "The Rag-Tag Gaggle of Ex-Warsaw Pact Kleptocracies"), French fries were re-named "Freedom Fries" by Congressional fiat in an act hitherto unequalled for sheer, pettifogging parochialism.

Let us assimilate, slowly, the full meaning of this event. On the day this childish tantrum occurred, the most powerful nation on Earth felt so aggrieved and threatened by France's supremely commendable act, that its House of Representatives pushed aside trivial national concerns such as poverty, crime and health care in order to wash the stain of "France" from the nation's psychic undergarments through a Stalinist re-christening of some of its junk food. This is how the legislative body of the world's sole superpower spent part of its day. Rest assured that this folly was not limited to the nation's elites; in a stirring example of the can-do spirit of enterprise that distinguishes America's grass-roots, restaurants throughout the nation had already begun to use the Francophobic phrase for the fries. Many have kept the name to this day.

Now, think of what triggered this self-abasing idiocy: the French government had merely respected the will of the overwhelming majority of the people at whose pleasure it serves; France's polite and legitimate refusal to wage a fraudulent war of choice was the fruit of its adherence to democratic principles. France is not averse to military interventions (witness its recent operations in Cote D'Ivoire and elsewhere), but this was a restrained, cautious France--France at its best, and, as such, it was demonised by American chauvinists (who, naturally, would still have reflexively vituperated the French as effete surrender-monkeys even if they had joined the pro-war mob). Ultimately, this vulgar comedy needs to be seen as a nation at its worst heaping scorn upon a nation at its best; this is chauvinism, and it forms part of the circumstantial unease that many Canadians felt towards post-9/11 America.

The second example hits closer to home. We will recall that, within hours of the WTC disaster, American media began to report a Canadian connection to the hijackers. To my knowledge, the origin of this urban legend has never been identified (I doubt if anyone has even looked for it--strangely, as I find the question fascinating), but its consequence was that, within a week, millions of Americans were convinced that the hijackers had infiltrated the U.S. from Canada. Despite John Ashcroft's later assurances to the contrary, this myth proved enormously resilient, propagated as it was by squalid right-wing talk-radio hacks and Canada-hating Republicans. As late as 2005, Newt Gingrich was still keeping it alive.

As not a shred of evidence was ever produced in support of the myth, it is hard not to assume that its noxious spores were spread by a visceral American fear and hatred of the "Other", and of a particular "Other"--that "commie-loving", secular, collectivist Siberia where all colours and creeds are allowed to mix promiscuously in an ungodly, insalubrious mélange adultère de tout ungraced by the discipline of the American Way of Life. The myth was a Scarlet Letter threaded upon an eccentric misfit by ignorant and frightened townsfolk.

The rationalisations came later, after Washington was forced to admit the obvious. The hijacking might not be our can to carry, but Canada had a "porous border", we were told. Our immigration policies were too lax; we let too many people in, many of them probably undesirable, some of them probably even "anti-American". We were told to clean up our act and tighten the tap on our newcomers (this from a nation that admits to having around twelve million illegal aliens).

Thus we were resented, not for doing anything actually dangerous, but for having a liberal immigration policy, the kind of policy Americans think they have--the one expressed by the kitsch mawkishness of the Statue of Liberty ("give us your non-Muslims, your huddled Caucasians yearning to breathe free") and gauzy, nostalgic visions of Ellis Island. Americans, at their vindictive, parochial worst, resented Canada for a liberality fully within the tradition that America was once a part of (and affected to lead), and some of us (Carolyn Parrish, for one) reacted with a vehemence born of understandable exasperation, not at America as such, but at its pettiness. This, too, illustrates the difference between rank chauvinism and contextual critique.

Chauvinism is an art. It's the one art Americans take seriously, and, thus, they excel at it. Someday, we may be competitive, but I doubt it. We're far too others, that is; we hate each other.


Red Tory said...

I think I can honestly say that I’ve never heard the expression “Canadian chauvinism” before.

Sir Francis said...

Well, that's the heart of my customer contract, Red: when you visit Dred Tory, you're guaranteed to hear something you've never heard before (quite irrespective of whether you wanted to hear it, of course). :)

Red Tory said...

It's highly refreshing, although I don't share your profound contempt for the American experiment. Well, not most days anyhow.

It's kind of funny how many (primarily "Conservatives") have vicariously channeled their feelings of chauvinism, or more accurately jingoism, into the absolute worst aspects of American "culture" and American imperialism. They seem quite happy to be the neighbourhood bully's pet toady.

Aeneas the Younger said...

Canadian Patriotism is based (historically) on one thing and one thing only: LOYALTY.

There are few of us remaining who understand as to what and why ...

Anonymous said...

No, loyalty and decency, for which there are even fewer remaining who understand.

But what I don't get is why SF, who claims to be inspired by historical European links, seems to be unaware that the European zeitgeist has completely renounced nationalism and chauvinism and pegged them as malign historical forces and the source of much dangerous evil. Today they are about progressive, inevitable integration in the cause of peace, prosperity and social justice. I guess you have to work a lot of overtime at your demonization project to convince yourself we should be headed the other way.

Sir Francis said...


...the European zeitgeist has completely renounced nationalism...

This would come as a surprise to the millions of Britons who just voted for the BNP in county elections.

Really, if you think the Irish, French, Germans and Italians have "renounced nationalism", you need to read more European media or perhaps actually visit the place.

I guess you have to work a lot of overtime at your demonization project to convince yourself we should be headed the other way.

Which way have the U.S. and the proponents of Fortress America been going lately, Peter? I take it you've heard of Guantanamo, Maher Arar, the Patriot Act, etc.? You and I must have divergent notions of "peace, prosperity and social justice".

As for my "demonization", did the "Freedom Fries" nonsense not occur? Were Canadians not blamed for 9/11?

If I've made all of this up, please advance the evidence that might disabuse me. As it is, what you take to be "demonisation" seems to be "history", unless you consider Shindler's List to be "demonisation" as well...

Anonymous said...

or perhaps actually visit the place.

About thirty times actually, both personally and professionally. But no matter. I'm just trying to get my head around the idea that we should be outward-looking, global, influential, generous, multilateral, humane, cooperative and compassionate towards most of the world, but suspicious, wary, insular, defiant, autarchic and near-xenophobic towards the one country that everyone in the world knows we ressemble more than any other. That seems to be not only a conflicted foreign policy, but a conflicted national personality.

Sir Francis said...

That seems to be not only a conflicted foreign policy, but a conflicted national personality.

"Conflicted"? Not really, since, in order to be outward-looking, global, influential, generous, multilateral, humane, cooperative and compassionate, Canadians need to retain as much political and cultural distance as possible from people who comprise the most suspicious, wary, insular, defiant, autarchic and near-xenophobic society in the Western world, in my (admittedly minority) view.

[America is] the one country that everyone in the world knows we ressemble[sic] more than any other...

I would argue that this is a pre-9/11 view. I think the fault lines between the two nations are clearer than formerly--are the clearest they've been since the Civil Rights Era (circa '65-'75), when we watched in helpless horror as Americans burned down their own cities and cannibalised each other.

Many people across the world may indeed believe we resemble Americans, but do we? That's the truly significant question.

By the way, if you have any surplus frequent-flyer points on your hands, don't be shy about sending a few my way. I could use a vacation, and I don't mean just a few days in Niagara-on-the-Lake...

Anonymous said...

Sorry, the travel was spread over too many years and the points are pretty much gone. Well, maybe just enough of them left to send you and the missus away for a nice romantic weekend in Pittsburgh.

We disagree profoundly, but I'm not going to keep trolling your site over it. If you genuinely believe the U.S. and Americans are (and always have been) a malign force the world would be better off without, then I see the logic of your position, but I am incredulous factually and politically. It also explains why you see Canadians who disagree with you and actually express affection, admiration and/or gratitude at times as self-hating or even treasonous. It can't be easy for you being surrounded by so many traitors with low self-esteem.

It is hard/futile to engage your kind of anti-Americanism, which, unlike the situation for our 19th century ancestors, seems to go beyond empirically discernible, resonating threats or differences over who, why, what, where, when, etc. and posits instead a kind of voracious bacillus that will suck out our precious bodily fluids if we don't keep it as far away from our children as possible. But the damn kids just won't listen, will they? Ah well, SF, you know kids. I conclude from your two admittedly literate posts is that anti-Americanism for you is like a geometric axiom to be accepted as self-evident and to be addressed more in the spirit of public health and disease control than political dialogue. If you will permit one last analogy, you remind me of the guy who roars breathlessly into a sober, sedate conference on drug use and drug laws and forces everyone to watch a showing of "Reefer Madness".

In fact, our world views (and notions of Canadianness) are so profoundly different that it's inevitable we quickly exhaust the limits of political debate and start falling back on psychology to diagnose each other. You've actually already started that, so here is my first effort at a retort. Cheers.

Ti-Guy said...

It's interesting to note that Peter Burnet's observations are of a reality occurring almost entirely within a symbolic realm; that there are very few actual references to real-world events to inform what he believes are fundamental truths about Canada, Europe, the United States, etc.

I'll refrain from reacting with hostility, because it appears to be pointless, but it deserves to be noted, given how much space it has taken up here.

I don't share your chauvinism, Sir Francis, but understand its utility in terms of this particular topic; a clearly-staked out position is a necessary corrective to help clear the fog from the discussion that has relied too much on perception and faith, rather than documented knowledge or credible experience (for example, travel abroad that is of a different kind than for the purposes of tourism or business). Canadians (such as myself) who immerse themselves in an immigrant experience abroad (one that I enjoyed immensely, the success of which I marked at that point where I no longer felt too alien, and, more importantly when I wasn't taken to be all that alien) come away with a vastly better understanding of issues of national identity (including a very candid understanding of how others really think of your national identity) than could ever be achieved by relying solely on the propaganda most of us are exposed to when it comes to group identities as a whole.

When you wrote this, SF...

Our schools teach that Canada was accidentally confected as a bland stew of disparate regionally and ethnically differentiated ciphers whose greatest achievement has been to agree to disagree.

...I found myself wondering if I'd prefer it any other way. Although this is not the history I was taught about my own patrie, it was the one taught (at least inadvertently) about Canada as a whole and, more than anything else, established the context in which Canada remains an open question; an ongoing conversation (one that, hopefully, can remain tolerably civil) among the people who live here. History itself remains an open question, and these two elements in the understanding of present reality strike me as satisfyingly congruent.

That may not be comforting and easy for people who prefer simple solutions to complex problems (and who, in this respect and quite ironically, often support complex solutions to simple problems), but those people represent the absence of analytical good practice or excellence of which we're all too familiar.

Sir Francis said...

Canada remains an open question; an ongoing conversation...

...a fact which I treasure and which I think a crucial element of our society's richness.

I wish, though, that the legitimacy of our nation's very existence were a closed question. It is not, thanks to serious structural weaknesses bedevilling our own society and to America's continued Manifest-Destiny arrogance.

Ti-Guy said...

I wish, though, that the legitimacy of our nation's very existence were a closed question.

A rather curious situation for one of the world's oldest democracies to find itself in, eh?

Sir Francis said...

I'm not going to keep trolling your site over it.

Well, I wish you would. I knew I'd exhaust your patience eventually, but I didn't think it would happen so soon.

At least keep stopping by until I finally post my meditation on Europe, which was deferred in favour of the last few "current events" posts.

It can't be easy for you being surrounded by so many traitors with low self-esteem.

Au contraire. The ultramontane Catholicism of my Quebecois upbringing conferred a masochism that makes the pain of carrying the nationalist cross down a Via Dolorosa of baying canaille rather delightful. I've grown to crave it, actually.

But, despite appearances, I am open to persuasion. To someone who could prove that America deserves to be our cultural paragon or that it has a healthier historical and current commitment to peace and social justice, I would concede utterly and unreservedly.

I have been offered no such proof, and I do not believe it to be available. What passes for "proof" is virtually always the geometric axiom to be accepted as self-evident that America--being big, powerful and loud--is good for us. Rubbish. They are hardly even good for themselves.

What may be good enough for the "kids", Peter, is just not good enough for me. I'm afraid I am simply impervious to the charms of Snoop Dogg. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I am simply impervious to the charms of Snoop Dogg.

Well-played, sir. :-)

I didn't mean I was going away, simply that I didn't want to descend into the kind of back and forth "you're a %&@# lying twat" repartee that seems to stand for debate in so much of the Canadian blogosphere. I just didn't see much future in debating the Americans with you head-on when you start from the position they bear an uncanny resemblance to the Anti-Christ. You will find me much more respectful of those Europeans you are assuming I disdain when your eagerly anticipated post appears. Nonetheless, your courteous welcome is noted and appreciated.

But let's forget for a moment about the U.S., a country that has inspired progressive, anti-American Canada much more than it wants to admit (Charter of Rights, legal trends, the American inspired UN, foreign aid/multilateralism, social libertarianism, universal immigration etc., even anti-Americanism itself--after all, no one does it better than the Americans). Indeed, the more I encounter visceral anti-Americanism from a Canadian today, the more I look for the post-grad degree from Harvard and the dog-earred copies of Galbraith, Chomsky, etc., although I would have to admit those who labour for a Jacobite restoration don't really fit that mould.

OK, we have a blessed country that is different from the States (and everywhere else) and we want to cherish and preserve that what makes it so. Geography, modern culture and demographics make it understandable and inevitable that we will always do so in part in reaction to the Americans (your cousins, SF). I'm not one of those new simplistic libertarian-conservatives who goes around singing "We gotta accentuate the positive..." as he demands a flat tax, but I don't totally dismiss him either and those who simply rely on reaction are, in my view, relying on abstact constructs rather than the empirical reality the average Canadian encounters, and therefore doomed to fail. A German can build his anti-American nationalism on his fevered ideological nightmares, but we are simply too close and too similar to fall for the "America is racist, America has no soul, America is dangerous, America covets our resources and our women" cant.

In the 19th century, Canadians faced Manifest Destiny, popular anti-Catholicism, grandad's tales of losing his land and being tarred and feathered, whiskey traders, hot button border disputes, 1812, Fenians, armed slave-catchers, etc. Plus they had the Imperial anchor and the Church to give depth and breadth to a rather mean frontier life (Anti-Americanism in those days was a conservative cause). Today, we have none of those objective menaces, although we've lots of Canadians desperately trying to invent new ones. Our border folks need not keep watch at night for the invasion of the rapacious Yankee trader today because that's the last thing on his mind. He's hunkered down keeping watch for black helicopters on his side. C'mon, they can't even get tough with us over Arctic sovereignty even though it challenges their global strategic thinking head-on.

Plus, the kind of traditional Canadian distinctiveness I assume you and Grant stand for seems to have been based on so many formative cultural plinths progressive Canada has been pleased to batter down under American influence as fast as possible--religion, aristocratic deference, the Imperial connection (the Brits sort of forced our hands there, as Dief discovered), and a very stuffy social order. Let's just say Gay Pride Day is not an indigenous Canadian concept.

So, what are we left with? Well, we can go the leftist route and deify the state as aeneas does and base it all on high taxes and rule by bureaucratic fiat to show how different we are (the one thing that draws me to Second Amendment thinking is encountering beautiful Canadians in Starbucks who say: "I like paying taxes". Talk about history's biggest jerks!). Having thrown off so much of their heritage so gleefully, what else do the progressives have to offer? Anyway, no thanks. Or oppose the Yanks on principle on the global stage and thus naively romanticize and idealize the real savages of this world--how Canadian, to show ourselves how grown-up we are, the favourite tactic of my fourteen year old? (Note to Ti-Guy: The reason people argue such behaviour is adolescent is because it is.) Or we can look to the irrational outside of dogma--what we live and feel on a daily basis. We are a quiet, somewhat passive, slightly boring, liberal-minded country with a decidedly conservative disposition beside a pulsatingly-powerful libertarian-minded country with a liberal disposition and a list of pros and cons that is endless, but is sexy and alluring beyond belief. Our distinctions lie in the realm of social tolerance, decency, reserve, baseline safety and security, anti-violence and a huge national investment in just getting along. Do I treasure that? I'm a father, you're goddam right I do. Although I support the cause of the free-speech bloggers, I'm appalled by the extremism and ranting hate-language, which is indeed un-Canadian and best left at the border. I'll fight them, but on decency/tolerance grounds, not by embracing the tyrannies of the human rights cabal that follows bien-pensant American thinking like slaves. Anyway, the point is I reject Canadian nationalism built on artificial abstracts and threats that simply don't hold up to empirical analysis. Plus I like the cousins and the rest of the Anglosphere and understand very well their contribution to why my family lives in the world's most peaceful, civilized country and doesn't have to worry about things that go bump in the night. Even proudly independant grown-ups can sometimes benefit from dim memories of those old nursery rhymes.

So, SF, it appears we are both a little quixoitc. You are indeed the first man I've ever met to champion the Family Compact, but have you ever met anyone whose favourite Canadian hero is Dudley Do-Right?

Ti-Guy said...

Note to Ti-Guy: The reason people argue such behaviour is adolescent is because it is.

I see you're quick to put yourself into the role of the scolding parent when you address this issue with other adults. That is significant. As I've said before, it's the hectoring, lecturing and badgering that's the real issue, which is, we all know, the sign of an insecure parent. As well, as any parent knows, it never persuades.

This post examines two very recent and rather astonishing bouts of infantile fury and dangerous chauvinism on the part of the American ruling class; whatever exposition you have to present on the greatness of the American civilisation is entirely irrelevant.

I've never really understood what motivates this pomposity and grandiosity except to note that it is characteristic of an increasingly (if not entirely) irrelevant segment of Canada's ruling elite, who prefer to look for explanations of national or cultural inferiority in the behaviour of others, especially the masses, rather than look to each other. That might be because I'm subject to/part of an elite that is actually fond of its own people, not one that uses them to explain whatever inferiority complexes and sense of inadequacy they are perenially traumatised by.

As always, the "anglopherics" in Canada have my deepest sympathies.