09 January 2017

'No core identity'? The impossibility of the state without a soul

I am no friend of nationalism. Given what my paternal relatives experienced as refugees in their own country of Cyprus, I thoroughly detest the clashing ethnic nationalisms that tore apart the island. I hate what the Turks did to the Armenians in 1915 and what they did to the Greeks of Smyrna seven years later. I dislike what Serbs did to Croats and vice versa. And, of course, I need hardly mention the Holocaust ruthlessly implemented for the sake of an ethnically pure Germany.

That said, I cannot endorse Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's assertion that Canada is "the first postnational state," as indicated in this article from The Guardian: The Canada experiment: is this the world's first 'postnational' country?  Here is author Charles Foran:

But as well as practical considerations for remaining an immigrant country, Canadians, by and large, are also philosophically predisposed to an openness that others find bewildering, even reckless. The prime minister, Justin Trudeau, articulated this when he told the New York Times Magazine that Canada could be the “first postnational state”. He added: “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.”

The remark, made in October 2015, failed to cause a ripple – but when I mentioned it to Michael Bach, Germany’s minister for European affairs, who was touring Canada to learn more about integration, he was astounded. No European politician could say such a thing, he said. The thought was too radical.

For a European, of course, the nation-state model remains sacrosanct, never mind how ill-suited it may be to an era of dissolving borders and widespread exodus. The modern state – loosely defined by a more or less coherent racial and religious group, ruled by internal laws and guarded by a national army – took shape in Europe. Telling an Italian or French citizen they lack a “core identity” may not be the best vote-winning strategy.

Trudeau's description calls up some very strange mental images. One might envision a robot programmed to do all, or most, of the things a human being can do, but, like the unfortunate tin woodman in The Wizard of Oz, lacking a heart. In Canada we like to think that our identity resides in our very lack of identity. Not satisfied with citizenship in a soulless nation, some go so far as to assert that what defines Canada is its universal health care. But neither of these will work, and they certainly will not satisfy the human soul.

Following the late Benedict Anderson, we might call a nation an imagined community, given that we do not naturally feel a sense of kinship and camaraderie with those living even half an hour from us, much less on the other side of the country. But this is all the more reason for a country to cultivate and maintain certain intangibles that cannot simply be created de novo. Even the most diverse of nations requires some sort of commonality, that is, certain shared assumptions about life that set the tone for the larger society and for just governance. A common culture—especially political culture—is needed if a nation is to be more than just a collection of insular tribes under a political order so abstract as to be unable to command popular support.

Such shared assumptions need not be based on skin colour or blood ancestry. We needn't follow Gus Portokalos from My Big Fat Greek Wedding in asserting that there are two kinds of people in the world: Greeks and those who wish they were Greeks. There is no reason to conclude that our nation is the biggest and best in all respects and has a special mission to fulfil, based simply on the fact that we happen to live here. This is jingoism at its worst. Nevertheless, a nation should include at least such elements as common commitment to the rule of law, generally-accepted limits on political power and rhetoric, belief in constitutional governance, the rights of citizens, etc. English-speaking democracies have generally excelled at cultivating this political sense of nationhood better than many continental European countries whose governing institutions have not yet stood the test of centuries.

The danger of Justin Trudeau's rhetoric, however well meant, is that it may provide a pretext for government to manage all this diversity if it gets out of hand. Such government management will not, of course, be devoid of assumptions about the best way of life. The political managers will operate on the basis of their own worldviews, which in some sense they will be imposing on everyone else. As Fr. Richard John Neuhaus correctly observed more than three decades ago, a naked public square cannot long remain naked. Some comprehensive doctrine—some "thick" conception of human life—will inevitably fill the vacuum. If this is true in political life, it is also true in social life. Canadians, like Americans, cherish the contributions made by their immigrants, whom they have generally welcomed. But immigrants have come here, not because Canada has no core identity, but precisely because of Canada's core political identity: a stable democracy with a vibrant tradition of the rule of law rooted in British and French precedents. More to the point, this core identity is unlike the political cultures these immigrants have left behind.

Common assumptions, usages and customs, passed down through the generations, infuse life into a nation and generally preclude the necessity of government's micromanaging the larger society. A government that makes a policy of denying the normative character of these customs in favour of a vague multiculturalism does so at the peril of the larger culture to which it owes, yes, its own core identity as a constitutional government.

A slightly different version is posted at First Thoughts.

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can be contacted at: dkoyzis@redeemer.ca