Frequently, an array of radically disassociated but nearly simultaneous events will fall upon one as a cluster and suggest a significance beyond itself. In my case, I returned from a trip to Brussels just in time to witness Canadian political and media officialdom clear its collective throat on Canada Day and demonstrate an excruciating inability to proclaim anything approaching the faintest affection for the nation of which they should be deliriously grateful to be the parasitic and frivolous elite, with Stephen Harper arguably outdoing them all by suggesting, vacuously, that Canadians are a worthy people only insofar as we live among a lot of deep lakes and big trees.
Then, less than a month later, I learned that the nation I had returned from and whose culture seemed so admirable had suffered the collapse of its government and appears to be in serious danger of dissolution thanks to the kind of petty linguistic, ideological and ethnic squabbles that have beset my own nation for over a century. "Here," I thought sadly as I read the news, "is yet another beautiful community--with so many latent reserves of sanity--being driven into the abyss by the suicidal poltroonery of a clique of highly motivated political misfits".
One of the things that has always helped blunt my outrage over the glee with which our partisan charlatans prick our national wounds is the assurance that ours is a unique agony, an aberration (fed perhaps by our uncomfortable proximity to a society that espouses hysteria as a national ethos) fated for ultimate and perhaps imminent resolution through Time's own inertial momentum. After all, is there not a "return to normal" after every national and international crisis--a fall back into status quo ante bellum? Europe went back to sleep after Waterloo; America went back to sleep after Appomattox; the world went back to sleep (though sinking into nightmare) after Nuremburg.
Accordingly, I saw no reason why Canadians should be denied the slumber so many others less worthy have enjoyed or why we should not be allowed to luxuriate, if only for awhile, in the inviolability of our Confederation. Events in Belgium suggest to me now that what seemed aberrant might be the rule--that there is something about prosperous, materially blessed, highly developed, bi-lingual and multi-ethnic societies that makes their elites want to destroy them.
Eerily, just as my thoughts were crawling through that darkness, I decided to rent Oberst Redl, István Szabó's brilliant film about the notorious Austro-Hungarian traitor; I had always wanted to see it and was finally inspired to do so after re-watching his (in my view inferior but better-known) Mephisto. While watching the movie, I recalled that A.J.P. Taylor's The Habsburg Monarchy lay buried beneath a pile of books on my bedside table, begun more than a year ago and tossed aside after a few chapters in favour of something else (which was, in turn, no doubt abandoned in favour of yet something else: I've more books than dust motes around me, and I'm a fickle and faithless reader). After watching the film and reading more of the book in my dark mood, I couldn't help but see Austria-Hungary's national doom and Redl's personal catastrophe as prototypes of the destiny we're inviting and that Belgium seems to have already embraced.
Talylor argues that Austria-Hungary was a rag-tag of mutually indifferent ethnicities among whom the aristocratic, military and managerial elite never bothered to nurture a sense of national belonging because the manipulation of ethnic hostility was, in itself, a crucial component of their ascendancy and because the empire was useful to its ascendant class mainly as an instrument of foreign policy and personal enrichment.
The hair shirt that the Austro-Hungarian Empire made for itself seems to me to fit Canada all too well: do ethnic, regional and linguistic enclaves not serve as the key pieces of our political chess game, used always for the basest, most destructive purposes? How much national authenticity does our governing class possess? Do they even claim to possess any such thing? Do the John Manleys, Tom D'Aquinos and Stephen Harpers bother to hide their view that Canada matters, if at all, only as an element in the properly diversified investment portfolios of North American millionaires, as a fiscal entity within an integrated continental market and as a small if not wholly negligible piece of the American military leviathan? I hear Canada described as many things by the vaudeville hacks who pass for leaders today; we're frequently called a "market", a "tax-base", a "partner" in the "Global War on Terror"; we are rarely called a "nation". The word is sometimes whispered; the brave among us say it aloud, but the word has otherwise fallen into near extinction. The question is not whether our elite wallows today in Austro-Hungarian cynicism: the facts of that case are clear. Now we merely need calculate how long it will take them to sink to full-blown Anschluss decadence.
Meanwhile, Szabó's Redl lives the consequences of Austria-Hungary's decrepitude. An "ethnic" (he's a Galician Jew), Redl longs for an identity that would keep him loyal to the empire and to the monarchy, but nothing about his community has the power to confer such a thing upon him. He finds himself becoming progressively detached from the artificial construct that he is preposterously asked to serve before being decisively turned against it when Russian counter-intelligence agents exploit his homosexuality through blackmail. Redl, become a double-agent through duress, convinces himself that he is not a traitor, that he owes the empire nothing because it is itself nothing, a fiction, an absurd mongrel miscellany without foundational purpose or mission. Redl is discovered and must die, but, for, him, his treason was worth it--it was a liberation: Redl had to repress both his ethnicity and his sexuality in order to thrive in the ranks of the imperial technocracy; by using (and thus acknowledging) both of those repressed loci, the Russians made the doomed man feel alive as he had never felt before.
I cannot help but see Redl in so many Canadians, especially in our military. What else was Rick Hillier but a redneck Redl? Hillier and, I fear, many of his soldiers were desperate for an identity, for a mission, for action that would give meaning to their vocations and shape to their lives. Canada's elite were, alone, either powerless or unwilling to do this. There was, though, another, much larger power that was only too delighted to activate those repressed urges, to exploit the sense of drift and anonymity that has been haunting our military and our society for years. Now, we are moving; we have objectives; we have a reason to exist. In being ignominiously co-opted by and subtended to the domestic priorities and geo-political projects of the United States, we at least have a virtual nationhood, a pretend nationhood, which undoubtedly seems immeasurably more vibrant than the pale sunset our own elites have been offering up as a national destiny for more than two decades.
It feels so damn good that, to most, it must barely seem like treason at all.