Back when I was in school, one of the routine features of our social sciences courses was a unit on Canadian identity. The assignment was always basically the same: you were supposed to do a presentation where you introduced the other students in the class to your cultural background. Multiculturalism, we were told, is the Canadian identity.
I always found these units interesting in-so-far as I got to learn about other cultures, and irksome in-so-far as I had basically nothing to present. My mother’s family has been in Canada for seven or eight generations. One branch of that family is of Irish descent, another is of German, and there are rumours of Metis blood somewhere along the line. My father’s family is half-English, and apparently half-Danish – though the latter we didn’t find out until about ten years ago when one of his relatives started to do geneological research and discovered that they had anglicized their surname when they arrived in Canada.
In a way, then, it makes sense to say that my identity as a Canadian is derived from a lot of different cultural sources…but it’s not exactly “multicultural” in the way that word is used today. I never knew what to wear when we were supposed to come dressed in our cultural costumes, or what to cook when we were supposed to bring in foods from our culture of origin. I was just Canadian – but according to the text-book, that was basically an identity with no content of its own.
Now, for me that wasn’t a huge problem. For one thing, I’m not much of a tribalist: in-group flag-waving, especially when it takes an antagonistic form, has always bothered me. It didn’t matter if it is was rival Girl Guide troops chanting mildly derisive verses at one another, or the annual Sportsfest rally in highschool school where the opposing football team was ritually humiliated in effigy, or overt expressions of nationalist pride. I didn’t like it.
On the other hand, I did actually have a strong sense of Canadian identity coming in to those classes. I had learned from my mother what it meant to be a Canadian patriot: that you make fun of your politicians regardless of political affiliation (Americans cherish the legend of George Washington planting a cherry tree; Canadians cherish the legend of John A. McDonald going loopy and talking to trees). You read Can-lit mostly to complain about it. You also complain about Torontonians – even if you are one. You believe that eating french-fries with cheese makes sense. You’re sure your country is superior to America…but are too polite to say so. You know all the words to the Blackfly Song and “Canada’s Really Big.” You support the monarchy, provided the Queen doesn’t actually do anything. And of course you loudly proclaim that patriotism is dumb.
The thing is, the Canadian identity is sufficiently tongue-in-cheek self-deprecating that for the most part it is resilient to multicultural erasure. Stepping aside, making room for others, holding the door open, saying “sorry” when someone bumps into you, and being generally accommodating are all basic features of Canadian culture. We take pride in appearing to be humble, so when we step aside and hold open the door to other cultures that actually builds on our sense of who we are.
Diversity and multiculturalism in the American context seem to be more fraught, probably because overt patriotism is a larger part to the American self-concept. I suspect that to a large extent the rise of the alt-Right is exacerbated by a fundamental failure to effectively merge the need to respect diversity with the need for people to have a cultural heritage that they can take pride in.
The fact that whites are still a cultural majority, that while males still overwhelmingly hold power, and that white privilege continues to exist in nearly every facet of North American culture is not the issue: what the young men (and women) of the alt-Right are concerned about is not their objective position in society, but the validation of their cultural identity.
And that is valid. If the fundamental assertions of multiculturalism (that all cultures are essentially valuable and that a loss of cultural identity represents a traumatic blow) are true, then it really isn’t okay to teach kids that their culture is fundamentally violent, exploitative, bankrupt or functionally not a culture. The fact that white European cultures did, in fact, do exactly this to other cultures for hundreds of years doesn’t make turnabout fair-play. Yes, we have to be honest, realistic and repentant about the harm that has been done to minorities, and yes, we absolutely have to work towards equality and inclusion, but we have to find ways of doing this without sending the message that the celebration of diversity = hatred of white culture.
Now, this is not to exculpate the alt-Right. As David Mills so rightly pointed out in a recent FaceBook post, becoming a racist, a white-supremicist or a Nazi is a moral decision that people make, one for which they are responsible. Behaving like a walking manifestation of white America’s bruised ego is never a justifiable life decision. The Left is not to blame for young conservative white men choosing to do or believe evil in response to slights against their national heritage. The Left is certainly not to blame for the appalling failure of the Right to address (or even acknowledge) racism in their own ranks.
But we are responsible for making sure that we encourage diversity and cultural reconciliation in a way that includes everyone without erasing the cultural majority. If my experiences are typical, this is an area where we can improve – and if we want to effectively address the resurgence of white nationalism, it’s something that the Left needs to seriously consider.
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