Tuesday, July 1, 2008


Few things are so irrational as the belief that we must love the place where, through no fault or choice of our own, we were born, but it is the essence of patriotism. It is an entirely unnatural condition. A baby is no more born a patriot than she is born a member of the Green Party or a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs. We make them these things. Children are taught patriotism growing up, and especially in schools, where every day they are forced to sing a national anthem (and in some cases recite a pledge of allegiance) whose words they do not understand. About the only thing they do understand is that patriotism is compulsory, and it is a brave teacher indeed who will tell them that love is not love when it is not freely given.

Youthful indoctrination makes it difficult to think about the meaning and consequences of patriotism in adulthood (which is, of course, the whole point), and so it's no wonder that most patriots don't really understand what they mean when they say that they love their country, or defy others to "love it or leave it." Do they mean that they love its physical geography? Its people, collectively? Its laws? Its institutions? Its government? Its current chief executive or currently reigning political party? The worst and most dangerous kind of patriotism is the one that cannot distinguish between these.

Paradoxically, the most vocal patriots almost invariably have a long list of grievances against their country, either because they liked it better the way it was or because they do not like the direction it is going. Yet you can be sure that they will be the first to impugn the patriotism of people with a different set of grievances. But people have political allegiances precisely because their love of country is not conditional, because there are things they wish to change or wish to defend against change.

All this stems from the fact that most people in most countries do not have a shared vision of what their country means: they don't agree about what happened in the past and don't agree about the way things ought to be today. And may it always be so, for wherever there has been consensus, or the illusion of consensus, there has been totalitarianism. Citizens of liberal democracies are safer precisely because it's harder for any one group to impose a consensus on all the others.

One consequence of a tolerant society is that it admits to the political arena people who cannot abide the very freedom that it grants them. I write this column on the eve of the 141st birthday of my country, near the downtown of one of the most multicultural cities in the world, on the very day of the Pride parade. I admit that this city — clean, safe, exciting, multicultural — is the source of great national pride for me, but I do not delude myself that amongst whole legions of Canadian "patriots" such things as multiculturalism and a tolerance for diversity are held to be destroying our country. I think that they are wrong, but I agree with them on one point: our freedoms must not be a suicide pact with people who would use them against us.

Almost exactly two years ago, I had a brief discussion with a student who was distributing pamphlets on the U of T campus while the Pride celebrations were ongoing, just a few blocks away. Suffice to say that his pamphlets were suffused with passages about the vengeance that will one day be visited by God (that is, his god) upon the very people who were then participating in — or indeed supporting — the celebrations. I asked him if he would eventually like to see Canadian laws rewritten based on a strict observance of the proscriptions set out in his particular holy text. His answer was an unequivocal "yes", and he went on to say that he had no doubt that that would eventually occur. I then asked if, under such circumstances, I'd be permitted not to practice his religion. He clarified that those currently not practicing his faith were hell-bound anyway, and then told me emphatically that his religion would be the compulsory in the Canada he envisioned.

So let us be clear, readers: that person as good as threatened me, and he threatened you, too. But amongst my liberal and left-leaning colleagues (and take note, my American friends: those two positions are categorically not the same) there are those who would, in the name of tolerance, defend his right to threaten us without the possibility of rebuttal. I insist upon the right of anyone to peaceably express his views - but I absolutely insist upon a right to criticize those views in return, regardless of their source, even if they stem from a sincerely held religious conviction. You cannot claim to adjudicate on all matters of truth and morality and then demand immunity from criticism in return.

I love my country, and for many reasons, the foremost of which is the fact that my love for Canada is a choice that I can freely make. I am very glad to have had, in my youth, some brave teachers who taught me that patriotism must be voluntary or else not be at all. I carry that love in my heart and in my mind - I do not need superficial totems such as flags and lapel pins and a frankly insipid national anthem in order to profess it. And I will, moreover, defend my country against those who would cynically exploit its commitment to justice and tolerance to create an unjust and intolerant society.

No comments: