Friday, September 29, 2006

Thoughts on nationalism and loyalties

From the email of a correspondent this morning.  The quote is from a speech made by Teddy Roosevelt.  The remainder, my correspondent’s response to it.


“In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the person's becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American...There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag... We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language... and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.”

I dunno...

Roosevelt sounded good up until the linguistic chauvinism and issues of loyalty.

But then I come from a country with two official languages.  It is possible to be a good Canadian without knowing one or the other of them, not a word. For that matter, I don't think anyone takes issue with your bone fides if you speak neither of them.  You could be an Inuit for instance.  A lot of older people who immigrated to Canada from Italy or elsewhere have never managed to master English.  Conceivably a younger person from abroad might never be comfortable outside of Cantonese or Portuguese, though he would clearly be at a disadvantage outside his neighborhood.  I think in our country we make few demands on you until the second generation -- your children should certainly fit in.

Loyalty.  What is loyalty anyway?  If I moved to the U.S. would I have to pretend to dispise hockey and love basketball?  (Even if the later sport was invented by a Canadian?)  Where do you go to have an uncritical love of the Stars and Stripes pharmaceutically installed if you weren't born with the instinct.  To me, the Canadian flag is a piece of cloth I have no especial love for.  The values it is supposed to stand for are my values, but I have those values to love and don't need the cloth.  How could an American flag mean any more to me if I stepped over a dotted line on a map and began hanging up my hat there?  Loyalty to freedom, democracy, equalitarian principles?  Unquestionably... whether I find them in America, Canada, France, India, or South Korea.  Loyalty to a man in a public office?  That's monarchy.  Loyalty to a crown or a flag?  Fetishism.

Loyalty to a "way of life", that is the minutae and detail of our day to day life?  I certainly have a fondness the particular theme music of our news stations, that Fox or CNN doesn't evoke.  I like streets of the city I live in, the brands of candy bars in our 7-11's, the observance of "Victoria Day", the tragedy of Dieppe and victory at Vimy Ridge, the Canadian National Exhibition every fall, the huge Caribbean festival in the summer, pictures of the old British lady on our pennies instead of the guant bearded man, etc, etc, etc.  These are not momentous things, just the tiny details of my life that I am more fond of than the strange manners and customs of a place I never lived.  Had I lived some of my life in Turkey or the United States, I would have a place in my heart for them, because they would be a part of me.  In fact, I have spent enough time in the U.S. to be fond of it in my way.

I suppose, though, what Teddy Roosevelt meant was to put your way of life, your institutions, your nation ahead of all others.  You cannot be a good German or Mexican and be a good American at the same time.  Your country may need you to go and kick German ass someday, and won't tolerate your ambivalence. You are with us or against us.  A very American attitude.  Here in Canada, we prefer not to think about it...  Maybe we won't need you to kick anybody's ass, or at least not the ass of your folks back in the old country.  When push came to shove, as it has on ocassion, Canadians have not generally held back.  They went to Germany and kicked ass.  And French Canadians, who you might expect to suffer from split loyalties, were in fact reluctant to rush off to Europe to save France.  When the chips were down, it seemed Canadians did put Canada first in important matters.  So we let them celebrate their Hindu holidays and wear their turbans and speak Somali at home and don't question their loyalties.  Better we should not try to tear people's hearts in two.

But I suppose Teddy Roosevelt was from another time and another place.  If some of his words smack to me of simple Jingoism, its because I prefer not to think in blacks and whites, and recognize we live in a more flawed world, with difficult issues and complicated cases, than the one priveleged men in the late 19th. century believed they inhabited.

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