Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Perils of the Politics of Patriotism

Stephen Harper, Frances Russell demonstrate dangers at the heart of politicized patriotism

There's something extremely shameful about the spectacle that too often surrounds the politics of patriotism.

Various political figures and commentators can often be seen spinning fervently about, trying like hell to rip the flag off the shoulders of their opponents while they try to wrap themselves in it.

That spectacle is at the very heart -- in any number of ways -- of an op/ed column written by the Winnipeg Free Press' Frances Russell, in which she suggests that Stephen Harper and the Conservative party have "nothing to teach on patriotism".

Russell begins by reflecting on the shameful and irresponsible "Just Visiting" ads the Harper Conservatives have been airing against Michael Ignatieff.

Russell notes that, on the eve of the release of Ignatieff's most recent book, True Patriot Love, the Harper Conservatives attempted to counter-brand Ignatieff as unpatriotic at best (and at worst impugned his citizenship in an extremely irresponsible fashion):
"The Conservatives' attack ads seek to 'frame' Ignatieff before he has a chance to do so himself. They're claiming he's unpatriotic because he repeatedly led people to believe he was an American during his years at Harvard University teaching, writing and broadcasting.

Toronto author and columnist Rick Salutin says Ignatieff owes Canadians an explanation, and he's right. If Ignatieff is smart, he'll provide one. Salutin suggests he admit 'it was immature and dishonest but I thought it would help me get ahead in the U.S.'
Yet, as it turns out, Russell herself isn't above the politics of patriotism either, as she seems to define Canadian patriotism as strict adherence to a very narrow ideological view:
"But the ads are almost as risky for the Harper Conservatives. Canadians may well ask themselves who is more unpatriotic: Ignatieff, for passing himself off as a American citizen while living and working in a country that doesn't much like or listen to foreigners; or Harper, for his determination to jettison Canada's societal, political and governmental institutions and adopt those of the US?"
This particular passage is nothing more or less than the old "hidden agenda" smear again trotted out for deployment against Canadian conservative leaders.

Oddly enough, Michael Ignatieff himself has previously noted that there's nothing hidden about the Harper agenda, noting that the Harper agenda is as simple as changing Canada's course in a more conservative direction (which, apparently, only Ignatieff and Russell seem truly shocked at -- a conservative party wanting a more conservative Canada? Quelle Suprise!).

This, naturally, has led the Harper government in the direction of tax cuts -- in this case the GST and Income Tax cuts that Russell insists have led to a structural deficit, but declines to mention that this "structural deficit" is actually only present under conditions in which the government spends lavishly on whatever pet projects it may decide to pursue -- such as a superfluous long gun registry that runs billions of dollars over budget.
"With a system of government that has fixed elections every two (Congress), four (White House) and six (Senate) years, the US invented the perpetual election campaign and its ugly offspring, perpetual attack ads.

Animated by their Reform party base, Harper's 'Republican' Conservatives have never hidden their contempt for Canada's parliamentary democracy or stopped trying to twist its institutions beyond recognition to fit American forms: fixed election dates; elected senators; state (provincial) rights; perpetual campaigns: personal attack ads rather than debates on issues; the embrace, during last winter's parliamentary crisis, of American populist ideas about direct democracy with a strong (presidential) leader orchestrating and responding to spasms of popular will; the adoption of the American right's agenda of law and order, guns, social and religious conservatism, militarism.
In her fervour to denounce Harper as "un-Canadian" for finding anything of value in the American political system, Russell overlooks numerous facts.

First off, if any political party pioneered the state of permanent campaign in Canadian politics, it was the Liberal party. It was the Liberal party who spent the better part of their 13 years in government -- and the three years since -- taking any opportunity to portray their opponents as extreme, dangerous, and "un-Canadian".

Secondly, Canada's provinces are not a creation of the federal government. Rather, confederation -- and with it, the federal government -- is a creation of the provinces. As such, provinces very much do have rights. As a matter of fact, those rights are clearly outlined in the Canadian Constitution, a document that previous Liberal governments never hesitated to shred just a little whenever they had eyed a matter of provincial jurisdiction they wanted to tread upon -- such as natural resources, as they did with the National Energy Program (for just one example).

Furthermore, as deeply personal as the current Conservative attack ads are, they barely hold a candle to Liberal ads that suggested Harper would declare martial law over Canadian cities if elected Prime Minister.

Last but not least, Canadians have expressed their support for both fixed election dates and an elected Senate. (Sadly, Stephen Harper declined to stick by his guns on either issue, calling an election well ahead of his fixed election date law, and appointing 18 Senators when it appeared that he might lose government to an ill-conceived and undemocratic Liberal/NDP/Bloc coalition government.)

It's on this last note that one may question the patriotism of Russell herself -- after all, how patriotic could someone who clearly has so much contempt for the opinions of her fellow citizens possibly be?

While one may question the patriotism of Russell, however, one shouldn't.

Patriotism, most simply defined, is simply love for and devotion to one's country. This doesn't necessarily mean that one will spend their entire life living in their country, or that they will always guarantee with the direction of their country.

In fact, one would argue that time abroad -- even as long a period as 32 years -- should strengthen the patriotism of anyone who truly loves their country. In fact, one should argue that a patriotic individual should wish to correct the course of their country if they feel it has gone awry.

A patriotic citizen should never be completely satisfied with their country. Their love of their country should continually drive them to seek ways to improve it. If a citizen believes that adopting certain features of another country's political system within their own would benefit their country, a patriotic citizen should prefer to have tiny-minded individuals like Frances Russell call them unpatriotic than to see their country proceed without that benefit.

To tell a citizen or a leader that whatever improvements they want to make to their country must fall within a specific ideological boundary under penalty of being branded unpatriotic is nothing less than the act of a selfish demagogue -- one who is unwilling to compromise on their narrow vision of the country so that it may grow and improve.

While the Conservative party's "Just Visiting" ads very much are incredibly irresponsible, so is Russell's rhetoric. She, no more than any other Canadian, has the right to impugn the patriotism of any Canadian who would seek to make Canada a better place.

It's Frances Russell who has nothing to teach Canadians about patriotism.

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