Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
Samuel Johnson penned these words in 1775 and, like most insights that strike a note of truth, its accuracy continues to this day.
Johnson was addressing the skeezy kind of person who endeavours to mask their own ambitions by projecting them onto the desires of a nation. Johnson had plenty of examples on which to base his observation. From Egyptian pharaohs to Greek generals to Roman and Chinese emperors to Russian czars, history is awash with these characters. Louis XIV cornered the market when he declared, "L'etat c'est moi" - he was the state, and thus whatever he wanted was in the best interest of France.
What these scoundrels and manipulative egomaniacs understood was that notions of patriotism and nationalism are powerful tools. Patriotism is a force that can mobilize large numbers of people to make extreme sacrifices for a given cause; all you have to do is paint a flag on the problem.
Tens of thousands of Canadians marched to their deaths in the Boer War and First World War even though we had no real stake in the outcome of either conflict. Why? For king and country of course.
The Second World War brought more of the same, but at least Canada had a choice to get involved in that one. Even if we had taken a pass when Britain declared war after Germany invaded Poland, Canadians would be drawn into the war when the Japanese attacked Canadian troops guarding Hong Kong a year later.
These international conflicts indeed required involvement on a national scale, and patriotic fervor was the ideal tool to motivate the masses. But patriotism is also a double-edged sword - just as it can inspire the masses to come together, it also makes a dandy flag-shaped shroud that can be draped over unseemly activities. The conquistadors destroyed the Aztec and Incan empires while citing a love of Spain, a convenient tale to cover up the real motive: their passion for gold. Indigenous tribes in North America died by the thousands thanks to European diseases as Britain, France, Spain and, later, the United States raced to plant their respective flags on all corners of the continent.
The Cold War of the 20th century managed to blur the patriotic lines considerably. Was it really "for the good of the country" when governments tested psychedelic drugs on mental patients? Why did the superpowers sponsor coups to overthrow legitimate governments that didn't see things the way the U.S./ USSR wanted them to? Why can't you buy Coca-Cola in Havana? Tell us again why western nations boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games? And why the Soviet bloc returned the favour four years later in Los Angeles?
Growing up in Canada in the later stages of the Cold War, patriotism was something to be suspicious of. Canada, aside from lending our psychiatric patients to the Cold War cause, stayed on the fringes for the most. But that does not mean patriotism was dead. Bobby Clarke broke Valeri Kharlamov's ankle with a vicious slash and we had no problem with it because he was a good Canadian kid doing everything he could to help his country win. Or more famously, Ben Johnson went from Canadian hero to displaced Jamaican in 9.79 seconds one evening at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.
Since then, however, the patriotic skepticism has been waning considerably. My yardstick is every July 1 when Canada Day festivities take place around the country. I don't recall Dominion Day/ Canada Day being that big a deal when I was growing up. It was a holiday and a good time to go camping, but I don't remember any big civic parties taking place.
In the last 20 years, however, Canada Day has become an increasingly bigger deal as Generation Whatever has embraced the Canadian spirit in a way people my age were leery of doing. Massive bashes attract tens of thousands of people all decked out in miniature Canadian flags and temporary maple leaf tattoos. New Canadians are sworn in by citizenship judges as onlookers cheer, people of all ethnic origin chow down on deep fried pancakes marketed as beaver tails while pet owners show off their dogs' red and white dyed fur.
The flag waving and national chest thumping is everything we used to mock the Americans for in the 1970s and '80s. And yet it's an inspiring thing to behold. I was amazed at the crowds who packed the streets of Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics, turning an international sporting festival into a Canada Day celebration in February.
This is the good kind of patriotism, something that is uplifting and provides Canadians with a sense of unity without the usual spark of sticks, gloves and skates.
But at the same time, the wariness I learned at a young age is not misplaced. There remains the potential for this spirit to be manipulated for political gain - such as hanging our hats on a British military victory 200 years ago...
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
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