Why is it that American nationalism is so great, while everyone else’s is so bad?

Walter Stewart March 7 1977

Why is it that American nationalism is so great, while everyone else’s is so bad?

Walter Stewart March 7 1977

Why is it that American nationalism is so great, while everyone else’s is so bad?

Walter Stewart

Picture yourself driving along a Canadian highway, when you are overtaken by a car with a blaring bumper sticker: CANADA, LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT. Soon you come to a giant billboard: MEASURE CANADIAN, REJECT THE METRIC SYSTEM. Another bumper sticker: GOD BLESS CANADA. YOU drive past a football stadium, where massed bands form into the figure of a maple leaf and a beaver, while overhead air force jets rumble past and the swelling strains of O Canada clash with the roar of the flypast. Can’t imagine it, can you? There are no such bumper stickers, no such overt, cloying signs of Canadian nationalism on ready display. These phenomena belong to the Americans, one of the most fiercely nationalistic people in the world. It’s something to keep in mind in the afterglow of last month’s Trudeau-Carter love-in.

1 have no complaint about American nationalism—we have learned to live with the jingoistic slogans and self-centred assumptions of the United States since James Monroe coolly carved out the Western hemisphere as a sector of American dominance in 1823. But what gripes me is to hear these self-same Americans complain about recent, piecemeal and tentative Canadian attempts to assert a national identity. Who was it who said, “My country, right or wrong”? Not a Canadian; our version goes, “My country, ye Gods, probably wrong again.”

There have been some stirrings of Canadian nationalism over the past decade. We did raise a fuss about the domination of Canadian universities by U.S. professors; we have established the Foreign Investment Review Act to provide minimal protection against the wholesale swallowing of our industries; we have even moved to protect some aspects of Canadian culture with Canadian content regulations in radio and TV, and the removal of tax loopholes for American magazines masquerading as Canadian ones. But our moves have been timid and accompanied by fierce resistance within our own country. Even so, the Americans are appalled. They think we have gone bananas. Some of them suspect us of willful subversion; others, more kindly folk, suspect that we have gone astray but can be led back to the paths of right-thinking by a little forbearance on their part. “We understand what you are going through up there,” Congressman John LaFalce of New York told me. “This is natural growing pains, all this nationalist stuff. You’ll get over it.”

U.S. nationalism is so inbred and instinctive that most people in the United

States simply assume the superiority of things American. At a dinner party, I mentioned that, in Canada, Thanksgiving is celebrated in October, whereas in the United States it falls in November. My hostess, a charming and educated woman, was astounded. “You mean you have Thanksgiving, too?” she asked. “But what do you have to be thankful for?”

When the Braziliansjacked up the price of coffee recently, as Americans have jacked up the price of machinery and Canadians the price of potash from time to time, it was seen as an affront to national pride. William Satire, writing in The New York Times, noted sombrely, “Coffee is a symbol of American dependence on foreign suppliers, and the coffee rip-off is a test of American will.”

That’s what they used to say about Vietnam. The solution, presumably, is to make everything the Americans need at home, where the nasty foreigners can’t get at the price structure. Whatever the merits of that argument, no one could call it internationalist. And it is a common argument. Americans want to be independent in energy, for example, but it always turns out that their calculations of what is America ranges into our backyard. Here, for example, is a Washington Post writer commenting on U.S. foreign policy; “In America, in short, foreign policy making is different from that of most countries. Not just because America is a superpower and can make other countries’ business its business, nor because it is an entire continent well endowed with resources...” So much for Mexico and Canada. What Canadian writer—or Mexican—could ever assume that its nation embraced the continent?

This unconscious nationalism has made Americans protective in trading matters even as they complain about the protectionism of others. There was a considerable fuss last fall, for example, when officers of the United Electrical Workers union heard that Amtrak railway officials were considering the importation of locomotives from Sweden, at a potential cost of 2,000 jobs to the union in Erie, Pennsylvania. Amtrak promptly denied the rumor, and pointed out that any foreign firm submitting bids to build American locomotives would have to work out a licensing deal with Americans; the machines would be built in the United States. The late Larry Sefton of the Steelworkers union once made a speech, which has been quoted ever since, in which he declared, “Nationalism has never put a penny in a worker’s pocket and it never will.” Tell that to the boys in Erie, Pa.

The United Textile Workers run ads on TV featuring a kindly looking fellow who explains that when people buy garments that were made in foreign lands, “We can’t support our families, or buy goods here.” Funny, I have never seen that ad in Canada, where we have members of the same union. Finally, since 1971, the Americans have subsidized exports through the taxbreak gimmick of the Domestic International Sales Corporation—or DISCwhile complaining bitterly about the regional grants we use to support companies in the export market.

I am not saying that these measures are wrong. The amount of protection a nation erects around its own markets tends to be a matter for internal decision. Every nation, including Canada, talks free trade but practises some form of protection. I simply point out that the Americans are incredibly sensitive to any steps taken against them and incredibly insensitive to the results of their own actions. It was not Canada that slapped a 10% duty on all imports in 1971, but the United States. Had we attempted such a step we would have heard wails not only from Washington but from all those Canadians who think nationalism is a new invention or an unnatural act, or both.

Nationalism can be overdone, and often is, in both Canada and the United States. But the assumption, made too often in both nations, that it is uniquely Canadian is simply nonsense.