I DISTRUST all mass passion, it scares me a bit, and I suppose that’s one reason why my sense of nationalism has never really been worth much. Not at home anyway. I had to be at some peculiarly snotty gathering for academics in Mayfair, or nursing a rum-and-lime at some bar on the pink sands of an Antiguan beach, or standing around at a sweaty costume party in southern California, and some ignorant loose-mouthed foreigner had to give me the last word on exactly what was wrong with poor old Canada . . . and then my voice would shake, the blood would come up behind my eyes somewhere, I’d consider the distance
by fist to the loose mouth and then, only then, I’d realize not only that there may be an ugly capacity for violence in the Canadian character after all, but also that I really am a Canadian in the way that the French are French, the Greeks are Greek, and the Danes are Danish. And now? Well, Nancy Greene is fine and The Band is just great but, as it happens, it’s been quite a long time since I’ve lived outside Canada and, therefore, nothing much has happened to arouse the tiny lion of my national pride, or to remind me that there’s something about belonging to this country that matters. Nothing much, that is, except for the strange and ferocious mail that’s been pouring into my office at Maclean’s for several weeks.
Maclean’s had described The Heartening Surge Of A New Canadian Nationalism (Canada Report, February) and we’d said we wanted to fan nationalism’s flames and, though that appeared in the bleakness of late January, we are now into the fragrant mornings of the spring of 1970, and the mail continues to pile up. The last of the snow is fading in the shadows of the southern forests, the boats are back on the bay, men are rounding up their animals in the steamy foothills, the rivers are moving again, and great cloudy valleys of blossoms celebrate the fruit juice of the future. And yet, we’re still getting letters about January’s flames of nationalism, and I can’t help wondering. Why doesn’t everyone go fishing, or open up the cottage, or take off some clothes and stretch out on a hot beach, or make love behind a billboard, or something?
Why are people still sitting down to
scream at us on paper about the filthy depredations of those damn, damn, damn Yankees? Why do people continue to insist that you and your stupid nationalism, Maclean’s, you’ll be the ruination of us all? Why are others nominating Walter Gordon as prime minister; labeling the Prime Minister we have as Mr. Sell-Out of the Seventies; urging Canada to send gunboats to the Arctic; recommending we grab off U.S. companies in the style made famous by Dr. Castro; and, on the other hand, ordering us all to please come to our senses, join hands with our American friends and march off together into the bloody sunset beyond the Pacific horizon? And finally, Why can’t we just take this whole crazy Canadian inheritance of history and determination and backwoods pride and unique dreams, and let it all go plop into that great mothering quicksand called the United States of America?
And did you think for a moment that, in that last question, you detected the familiar odor of anti-Americanism? Impossible! I am an American, or next thing to it. My mother’s mother was born in Boston, and I have a great aunt who lives in San Juan Capistrano. My father’s father and my father’s mother were Nova Scotians but, in the 1880s, they went to live in New England. Three of their four daughters were born there and, if they’d stayed much longer, my own father would have been American by birth. 1 have an aunt in Detroit and an aunt in San Bernardino and, moreover, one of my great-grandmothers had seven sisters and, in the latter part
of the 19th century, so many of them
Repeat after me: I am not anti-American, I am not anti-American, I am not... (BELOW> Welfare’s a right. Right? Well, listen, you poor slob, you just try to appeal a welfare ruling some time! The simple pleasures of bringing the president of a great university to heel 22) And comments from some of the people who are filling our mailbag more (hurray!) every month 27 3D
were heading south that, by now, only God could trace the ancient blood relationships between me and perhaps hundreds of Americans I’ll never meet, or even hear about. For all I know, some of them have died in Vietnam. Believe me, I do not hate Americans.
I won’t recite the whole embarrassing catalogue of U.S. cultural influences on my boyhood. Every redblooded Canadian boy knows them anyway. I’ll just say that when I was a kid I knew in my heart that Syl Apps was not quite the man that Joe Louis was, that General Crerar was not quite the general that General Eisenhower was, that none of the girls on my street would ever be quite the girl that Judy Garland was, and that no Canadian born of woman could ever be quite so excellent as Randolph Scott. I was a grown man before I learned that Alexander Mackenzie beat Lewis and Clark to the Pacific.
In 1956-57, I won a scholarship to study at the London School of Economics. I was supposed to read stuff about government, economics, European history, and I did do some of that; but then, as the months passed and the year wore on, 1 drifted more and more frequently into the good little public libraries of London. They all had juicy stocks of American novels. I spent my evenings in the pubs and theatres of the best city in the world, but I spent my days in Theodore Dreiser, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Kay Boyle, Katherine Anne Porter, Shirley Jackson, Irwin Shaw, John Cheever, John O'Hara ... It was a great year, and I guess I was not the first Canadian who had to go to England to find out how much of him was Yankee. It turned out to be quite a bit.
There’s something else, and it has little to do with novels, with Randolph Scott, or even with memories and blood connections. It’s a feeling that many Americans are fighting my battles for me, and I do not mean in Vietnam. There's the war, there’s territorial ambition, there’s civil rights, there’s racial strife, continental pollution and, in all these crucial matters of U.S. government policy and conditions of life in America, I know that there are hundreds of thousands of Americans who not only agree with the judgments I make from my cold and comfortable distance, but also live with these conditions, and stay in the kitchen where the fire is hot, and bring courage to a battle for the beliefs we share. I don’t hate them.
Okay. So why am I telling all this to you. a perfect stranger? The answer ! is that a great many of the people who
wrote to Maclean’s about The Heartening Surge Of A New Canadian Nationalism got the nasty impression that the only flames the magazine was fanning were flames of hatred against Americans, and this was not the deliberate intention of the editors of Maclean’s. The reaction of these readers suggested, first, that a certain amount of blind anti-Americanism is so deeply a part of the Canadian character that a lot of people will jump to endorse it even when it has not expressed itself; and, second, that it is simply impossible for Canadians (including magazine writers and editors) to discuss their nationalism without allowing something that sounds an awful lot like anti-Americanism to creep into the talk. Moreover, some of the mail came from tolerant and obviously intelligent American people — people like my aunts and my
cousins and in-laws —people who rather liked Maclean’s but were bewildered and hurt by what the magazine had told them about the way many Canadians feel about the U.S.
And that’s why I’m telling you all this. I just wanted to explain to somebody that you can hate what the United States of America is capable of doing to Canada without hating the American people. You can even feel that part of you is American, you can even love the American people, but this does not mean you enjoy their taking over your country and obliterating what you are. Jumbo may be adorable; it still hurts when he steps on your foot.
A few letter-writers chided us for promoting the ugly sort of nationalism that has caused so much of the violent agony of this century, and did we not know that Canada’s only possible contribution to the preservation of mankind lay in a self-conscious sacrifice of our petty nationalistic passions to the cause of world government? But I cannot see that there is any grand cause that our disappearance as a nation could possibly help. What influence has Utah got in the corridors of world power?
There are other reasons why I do not want to see Canada become Utah, or even several Utahs. There are things about Canada that I like, and I want them preserved; one of these is our wilderness. There are things about Canada that I do not like, and I think that Canadians, if left alone, have a better chance of fixing them than anyone else; one of these things is our treatment of blacks, Indians, Eskimos and poor people. I am not keen on racial generalizations but there are certain qualities in the Canadian character that offer a sweet chance to build a graceful society; some of these are honesty, courtesy, tolerance of human variety, and something that might be defined as a sense of decency. (I am something of a smug Canadian.)
It sounds increasingly silly and archaic to talk about any country’s having A Great Future but, at least, we may still have a chance to avoid the ugly and terribly irrevocable mistakes of other countries. We may just be the world’s last best hope for kindness, vision and some sort of spirituality in the daily machinery of human affairs.
I mean, I don’t hate Americans. It’s just that their country is so massive that, without even trying, they’ll give us a hard bump, and we’ll fall down. Or they’ll suck us all up in their whirling industrial galaxy. Or we’ll just disappear into that gargantuan amoeba. And we just won’t be any more, and we will never have done any of the things that we might have done. □
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