On Canada’s 150th, it’s time for progressives to rediscover our patriotism

Today marks 150 years since Canadian Confederation. For some Canadians, our 150th is a historic opportunity to celebrate our national pride. For others, celebrating Canada’s 150th conjures mixed feelings, or is anathema, due to some of the uglier aspects of our history–especially those related to the mistreatment of First Nations–or to areas in which we still need to make progress–especially those related to economic and social inequality. These mixed or negative feeling towards Canadian patriotism around Canada 150 are especially common among progressives, those on the political left.

These debates around whether or how to celebrate Canada’s 150th–and by extension, how strongly we should permit ourselves to feel national pride–often remind me of a conversation I had with an American colleague shortly before Independence Day in 2010, the first since I had moved to the U.S.

Like today in Canada, it was a time when many American progressives were conflicted about their patriotism. The economy had just crashed because of government mismanagement and corporate greed; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were dragging on; economic inequality and private indebtedness were approaching levels not seen since the 1930s; the election of the first African-American president had arguably inspired unprecedented obstructionism in Congress as well as the dog-whistling ‘birther’ movement (questioning his citizenship).

My colleague–a fellow left-winger who was deeply troubled by all of these issues–mentioned casually that he had a huge American flag on display outside his house. He must have sensed my surprise, because he followed this up by saying something like, “Why should Republicans have a monopoly on patriotism? Why should they own the flag?”  I don’t know if my colleague had some deeper message in mind when he said this–beyond clearly being annoyed that patriotism has come to be seen as a conservative stance–but what he said has gotten me thinking over the years about how important patriotism can be to a healthy society–especially a diverse society like Canada–and how this has become increasingly underappreciated on the left.

A progressive society cannot survive without patriotism.

At its core, a progressive society is about providing equal opportunities to all citizens, and supporting the most vulnerable. Each of these goals requires strong government institutions, including some redistributive ones. Without progressive economic redistribution (i.e. taxes and spending that result in net transfers of wealth from rich to poor), it is mathematically inevitable that wealth will concentrate over time. Without strong anti-discrimination and anti-corruption institutions, it is inevitable that people’s favoritism of their in-groups will cause political and social power to concentrate as well.

But, as the research of Robert Putnam and others has shown, these key progressive democratic institutions cannot gain the public support that they need in a society with low levels of trust among its citizens. People need common identitiesthe kind provided by patriotism–to engage civilly and build trust. Think about it: if Canada was just a collection of segregated groups that were distrustful of each other, why would members of any one group want to pay tax money if some of it was going to go to members of other groups?

It is telling that, in the history of western countries, many of the largest government investments in redistributive social programs and institutions (e.g., the U.S. G.I. bill and huge tax hikes on high earners in both Canada and the U.S., during and after WWII), and many of the largest spikes in civic engagement (e.g., in the U.S. after 9/11), came after major wars or disasters–when patriotism was at its highest. Indeed, research suggests that working together to solve a problem is one of the key ways people build trust. Wars and disasters have provided societal-scale shared civic projects in the past, but there are lots of other more constructive societal-scale civic projects we could embark on together today.  For example, transitioning to renewable energy, while minimizing the pain in fossil-energy-dependent communities, could be one. Even if we can’t find a problem requiring a society-wide effort to solve together, we can still focus on reaching out, interacting with, and collaborating with Canadians who are different from us at a smaller scale; contact and mutual understanding have also been shown to build trust and reduce outgroup hostility between people and groups.

No matter what we invest in together in order to build social cohesion, we have to invest, which means we have to rediscover our sense of civic duty, and shed some of our sense of civic entitlement. As John F. Kennedy famously put it: “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” Of course, investing in society requires being given an opportunity to do so; I do not intend to chastise people facing weak or non-existent employment opportunities for not working, for example, as some (especially on the right) have sometimes done. But there also has been a well-documented rise in narcissistic behavior and thinking over at least the last two decades in the west, especially among young people. The economic disadvantages facing young people today are real, but so is the ‘me culture’. We need to address both.

This may sound incredibly obvious, but one way we can both build trust and combat narcissism in society is to create discourses that reward trust-building and pro-social behavior (instead of narcissism). Progressive grievance cultures do the opposite. A lot of what people call ‘grievance culture’ or ‘victimhood culture‘ seems to stem from the well-intentioned ‘platinum rule’ (treat others the way they want to be treated). But the problem is that, when you mix the platinum rule with the idea that even unintentional slights born out of misunderstanding are forms of aggression (‘microaggressions‘) or even violence, you create a social norm that requires everyone to be a mind reader, and allows anyone (especially if they belong to a protected group) to react as disproportionately and maliciously as they like when someone fails to read their mind.

A social movement that gives people wide latitude to abuse each other over subjective offenses is asking to be taken over by narcissists and sociopaths, and can also make narcissists and sociopaths out of previously well-intentioned people. This has played out in every fanatical or fundamentalist sect of every religious and political group that has ever existed. No matter what the original religion or political movement is, the fundamentalist version invariably attracts antisocial personalities (i.e. narcissists and sociopaths) to its leadership and turns nasty.

So, instead of building and following a set of norms that rewards people for taking offense and preaching to the converted, let’s instead reward people for listening to others, reaching out to people that have different perspectives or opinions, and taking concrete actions that aim to make the world a better place (instead of just symbolically self-flogging to signal virtue and enlightenment). A society which people take pride in both being a part of and improving (i.e. a patriotic one), and one in which people earn respect by being kind to one another rather than being aggrieved or scoring points, is likely to be a society that ends up naturally supporting many of the bedrock institutions of progressivism.

Today’s Canada is not perfect, but it has lots to be proud of.

While critics and activists are right in stating that Canada has some shameful episodes in its past and some important economic and social problems to address in its present and future, it is worth acknowledging that Canada is one of the most prosperous, free, safe, and equal societies in the history of humanity. In fact, this is both a major cause and major effect of our much-celebrated diversity. Canada’s high quality of life makes us a top destination for immigrants from all over the world, and Canada’s immigrants have contributed greatly to the prosperity and vibrancy of Canada. Canada is arguably the most successful multicultural society in the world today–indeed, probably the most successful in history. And we punch above our population size in science and technology (think insulin and the Blackberry), culture and food (thanks in large part to our multiculturalism), and sport (especially hockey). So we should absolutely continue to strive to be better–to be more safe, more free, more prosperous, and more equal–but we should also permit ourselves to be proud of how far we’ve come, how unique our society is in the arc of history, and most importantly, to recognize and appreciate the institutions that have gotten us to where we are.

Some progressives respond to this argument with something along the lines of, “Canada (or some other western country) does not get a gold star just for becoming less unequal, discriminatory or hostile to certain groups.” It’s easy to see why people–especially members of marginalized groups–would feel this way. But if we decide that people are not allowed to take pride in their society until it achieves something that no society has ever achieved, where does that leave us, especially if taking pride in society is a prerequisite to investing in the kinds of institutions and civic engagements that could improve it?

Moreover, if we can’t take pride in the progress we’ve made as a society, it will be harder for us to understand how we’ve been able to make progress. Understanding how progress has been made in the past is key to making more progress in the future. This is especially true if our goal (an equal society that supports its most vulnerable members) is one that no society has ever fully achieved before. If the destination is so elusive, the road to get there is surely challenging, with lots of potential wrong turns along the way. Of course, taking pride in Canadian society does not mean we should be complacent either. It is just as important for us to recognize where we’ve gone wrong and understand why. But we can be proud of Canada without being complacent about its problems, and we can push for change without being ashamed of Canada.

Change also needs to have a carefully thought out destination and path (i.e. institutions), not just an origin. To draw an analogy: the desire for something faster than a car is not, on its own, a design for a plane. It may help to motivate the designing of a plane, but the design of a plane itself is a careful process that is built from the scientific method–a process that carefully notes and learns from its past successes and failures, and strives to understand and work with (not against) the laws of nature. For every possible design of a plane that works, is safe, and travels faster than a car, there are thousands of possible designs that perform much worse than a car on one or more of these dimensions, often catastrophically so.

Societal change is no different. It’s great to aspire to a better society than the one we currently have, and to push for change. But we have to be very careful about what we try to change society into and how we try to change it. On the left, there is currently far too much appetite for institutions and philosophies that have been resoundingly discredited by history. Marxism–which is the philosophical foundation of many of the academic disciplines underpinning modern progressive activism–has led to widespread poverty, repression, and violence in every place it has been institutionalized (because equality of outcome across people or groups is mathematically impossible to achieve without an autocratic regime, and human nature makes autocrats abuse their power). Similarly, ethnocultural segregation–which is the direction in which the recent trends of liberally problematizing forms of cultural exchange (as cultural appropriation), separating dorms and graduation ceremonies by race, etc. lead–has not once in history led to anything but ethnocultural conflict (and, as a result, oppression).

If you disinvest yourself from Canadian identity, you disinvite yourself from the conversation about how to shape it.

Finally, it is very hard to change a group’s identity from the outside, especially as an outsider seen as hostile or contemptuous. If someone goes around shouting “Canada is awful. Canada was never great,” they shouldn’t expect to be influential in how Canada’s identity evolves in the future.

And while there’s nothing wrong with having multiple identities, the harsh reality is that, at some level, not prioritizing the Canadian identity fosters the kind of distrust that damages the social fabric. As Justin Trudeau rightly says, Canada’s diversity is its strength, but if everyone in Canada identified as British, French, Chinese, South Asian, white, black, Latinx, etc. first and Canadian second, we would struggle to have the kind of national-level trust needed to build strong progressive institutions. This is exemplified by a recent study that found diverse social networks to be associated with lower trust among older Canadians, but higher trust among younger Canadians. Integration allows children of diverse backgrounds born in Canada to develop a shared, multicultural Canadian identity as they grow up, even if their parents retain more enclaved identities associated with their countries of origin. This study is consistent with a larger body of research on the complex relationship between ethnocultural diversity and social capital in societies over time. Ethnocultural diversity is often found to reduce social capital in the short term, but then social capital rebounds in the longer term as communities integrate and younger generations grow up together and develop shared identities. Once in place, these shared identities are enriched by the diversity of backgrounds.

With this said, I recognize that Indigenous Canadians have a better reason than the rest of us to not prioritize their Canadian identity. Unlike almost all other ethnocultural groups in Canada, who chose freely to join, Indigenous Canadians had Canada thrust on them colonially. Unfortunately though, this circumstantial difference is unlikely to change the human psychology and sociology of trust-building. Thus, Canada and its First Nations will probably need to eventually forge some kind of common identity to overcome the currently stark inequalities and sometimes tense relations. It is encouraging to see some momentum starting to build behind the notion of reconciliation, as well as specific steps aimed at getting there, but we still have a ways to go. If Canada and its First Nations cannot forge a common identity, the alternative may look something like Māori-white relations in modern New Zealand or black-white relations in post-Apartheid South Africa–where Indigenous nationalism and non-Indigenous symbolic displays of atonement would each continue to escalate, but where tensions would remain and integration and equality would remain elusive. I doubt either group wants this outcome. In the context of Canada 150, I, like our Prime Minister, respect the choice of some Indigenous Canadians not to celebrate, and I hope the rest of us can celebrate in a way that both takes pride in having a society that is the envy of the world, and also strives to do better.

In summary, patriotism is important to a healthy society. Patriotism catalyzes the kinds of trust and civic engagement that progressive and democratic institutions need to survive. Being patriotic does not mean we have to be complacent, and wanting more progress does not mean we can’t be proud of the progress that’s already been made. Being proud of our progress while also striving for more keeps us aware of both the institutions that have led to progress, and those that have led to injustices. So I hope all Canadians, including my fellow progressives, will join me in celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday. If progressives sit this one out, it would not only be divisive, it would also be a boon to conservatism. If most of the people willing to identify proudly as Canadian are conservative, then, like it or not, conservatives will get to define Canadian identity. As my colleague put it, conservatives will own the flag. And proud Canadians may be increasingly drawn to the conservative movement.

Update June 12, 2018: New evidence has cast doubt on the scientific integrity of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Thus, a previous reference to its findings has been removed from this post.

Update July 7, 2018: A new poll on patriotism across party lines has come out (see here). Its link has replaced the previous link in paragraph four.



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