Monday, August 15, 2011

Nationalist Scoundrels

I am viscerally opposed I am to Canadian nationalism--the protection of Canadian jobs against qualified non-Canadian applicants, and of Canadian culture on radio and TV. It is mostly a whiny way that Canadians claim entitlements that they don't deserve, and as such it reminds me of union featherbedding on a grand scale. But as a person of Indian origin, I am proud of Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. This has led me to wonder when nationalism is morally permissible.

Nations are, I take it, groups of people historically united by culture, political organization, and language, and who constitute a significant majority in a geographical area. The majority criterion is important: Jews have shared culture, but they are not a nation, except in Israel.

Nationalism is an exclusionary ideology adopted by such a group. It aims to reserve political participation, economic opportunities, and cultural liberty for members of the group. Minority rights movements may ask for some of these things, but they are not nationalisms because they are not conducted by nations.

Is nationalism ever morally justified? Is it ever right to adopt an ideology that encourages the exclusion of people? Is it ever right for a majority to do so?

Well, it can be right when either it reacts to the colonial subjugation of a nation, or when it attempts to preserve the shared culture against an imminent threat. For example, Indian nationalism was morally justified during British rule. It isn’t justified any more, and has fortunately ceased to exist (I think) having been replaced by provincial nationalisms that have very little justification (though occasionally a modicum). Quebec nationalism was justified when the French language was under threat in North America. It is putrefying now (and enjoying it). There are many other examples of this sort.

On the other hand, there are many cases where nationalism is clearly unjustified or even preposterous. There is an English nation, but it has never been subjugated or threatened. It is debatable whether there is an American nation, but even if there is, the same applies. And in fact, there is no significant American nationalist movement in the sense just defined. (There is American patriotism, to an uncomfortable degree, and American militarism, ditto—but this is a different matter.) Aggressive nationalism is preposterous and can never be justified. The German nation was under threat in the 1930s, but how many brain cells does it take to see that this didn’t even begin to justify the annexation of Czechoslovakia or Poland?

Canadians are not a nation. There is no group of people historically united by culture, political organization, and language, and who constitute a significant majority in Canada. This is one reason why multiculturalism has worked here. In the US, multiculturalism is a vibrant cultural force, but members of non English-speaking cultures have to face a degree of intolerance. (In Australia, the nation is so ineluctably sexy that Chinese and Indians simply surrender with soft moans and shudders. This is the coming form of nationalism, but I won’t discuss it further here.) Canadians are more like Europeans than Americans in the tolerance dimension. In Europe, however, minority cultures bump up against nations. In Canada, there is tolerance, but no nation. These are great conditions for multiculturalism. (In Quebec, by the way, there is a nation, and multiculturalism has a harder ride.)

I ask the question about Canada in particular, but having asked it I wonder whether Canada is the only democratic country in the world that still harbours mainstream nationalism. There is a bit of it in Australia and in many European countries, but in these countries it is mostly a fringe movement. Every country tries to protect itself against levels of immigration that (in its view) would unduly stress its economy. But in which independent democracy other than Canada do polite centrists lament the incursions of qualified non-nationals?

Everybody knows the term CanCon here: it stands for Canadian Content, and it’s a phrase because radio stations and cable channels must carry a quota of it. This is appalling, and in my view it has a bad effect on the Canadian entertainment industry. Is there OzCon or DutchCon? (Actually, as I discovered, there are analogues: but somehow it doesn't feel as damaging to me.)

It’s all very puzzling. Back in the early sixties, George Grant wrote a barnburner called Lament for a Nation. This elegantly written but myopic book—I’ll write more about it in a future post—set the agenda for the then rising Canadian nationalist movement. The title was characteristically brilliant. Would it have stoked as much fury if it had been more accurately titled Lament for a Nation Unborn?


ADHR said...

I'm not sure about the definition of "nation". It seems to havesome counter-intuitive consequences.

For one, many Canadians -- those who are fourth or fifth-generation, say -- would have no national identity at all. Unless, I suppose, you would say that these individuals have as their national identity whatever nation their great-great-grandparents or great-great-great-grandparents had? That seems like an equally counter-intuitive consequence to me, though. Surely there has to come a point where one is so distant from one's familial national origins that one can't legitimately count that as one's national identity.

For two, aboriginals in Canada would have no national identity whatsoever. Their ancestral nation doesn't count, as it no longer amounts to a significant majority in a geographical area. And the same applies to even something broad like "aboriginal Canadian".

For three, it implies that there's no such thing as Canadian nationalism. You've defined nationalism as something only nations can engage in. If there's no Canadian nation, then there's no such thing as Canadian nationalism. As I think the point you want to make is that there's something worrisome about isolationism or exclusion of various national groups, this seems like the worst consequence.

Why not revise it from "majority" to "population"? So, "groups of people historically united by culture, political organization, and language, and who constitute a significant population in a geographical area"? That would imply, though, that there is such a national identity as Canadian.

Nationalism can still be a problem even if "nation" is defined more permissively. In fact, it could be more of a problem, as the Canadian nation can now be accused of being nationalistic, as could the Quebec nation.

I'm also not sure about the claims regarding Canadian content, although I note that this seems like more of a throwaway than the main point. First, it's not just Australia that has similar laws, but also Mexico, the EU member states (although that's not domestic, but EU-wide), Israel and New Zealand. NZ is actually a good case for comparison; like Canada, New Zealand has to deal with a tremendous influx of cultural content from a nearby, much larger country. (I'm not suggesting that's necessarily a bad thing, only something that both Canada and New Zealand experience.)

Second, in Canada these laws are often honoured only technically. Daytime television on Canadian networks, for example, is often low-cost productions like talk or reality TV, or reruns, which are placed solely to fulfill regulations without doing anything serious to actually help Canadian culture industries thrive. Similarly, several networks also don't air anything late at night, in order to reduce their obligations.

While I'm sympathetic to your claims about Canadian nationalism -- the worst example I can think of is actually our economic isolationism, particularly in relation to internet service -- I don't see a problem with trying to improve Canadian content industries. It's clear that the Americans, in particular, can outspend any Canadian media company several times over, an advantage that wasn't earned entirely fairly. (For example, consider the history of Californian tax breaks for movie and television production.) That seems to put Canadian companies at a competitive disadvantage, and it seems reasonable to me for government to act to try to level the playing field.

The question for me is whether an improvement in the media grants system would be more effective than Canadian content regulations. (Which is an empirical point that I'm hopelessly unqualified to address. Surely some economists somewhere have examined this?)

Allan Olley said...

Mohan, I have to disagree with you about at least one aspect of the various cultural/media programs of the federal government. While goals of cultural nationalism and economic protectionism are there and are dubious (even if the US is dumping entertainment on us), there is also a goal to allow all residents and citizens of Canada a greater ability to communicate with each other (regardless of cultural identity or lack there of). TV, radio and other popular and not so popular culture are entertainment but they can also enable us to communicate our anxieties, ambitions and other issues to each other if in a somewhat indirect way. Without some subsidy or protection local voices would be more crowded out. The exact mechanism by which this opening of space should be achieved seems to me up to question, but that goal, to maintain an infrastructure of communication, seems like a solid one to me.

A note CanCon regulations are effectively a tax on the inherently LIMITED broadcast spectrum (a technological factor that is currently less and less of an issue thanks to new communication technology) that is then turned over to producers located in Canada. This makes it much equivalent to a program to fund cultural product via grants or indeed publicly funded broadcasters like the CBC, these practices are common internationally. The CBC has a rather famous analog in the BBC, which is far more effective at making sure the UK airwaves are filled with British produced TV and radio then CanCon regulations are here (helped historically by the difficulty of getting a broadcast license in the UK).