Since we’ve spent some time discussing the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I thought it might be good to balance things out a bit by discussing some Canadian blindspots (in case you didn’t know, I’m Canadian). Personally I find nationalism of any stripe quite noxious, especially when it leads folks to criticize the atrocities of others whilst overlooking the horrors in their own backyards. Canadians in particular can be irritating when they take a superior attitude toward those south of the 49 parallel while remaining blissfully oblivious to the skeletons in their own national closet.
That’s why I like this excerpt from an interview with Noam Chomsky. In the interview Chomsky recounts how he educated “Mr. Canada” (the beloved Canadian broadcaster Peter Gzowski, d. 2002) on the darker side of one highly esteemed Canadian, Lester Pearson (however, truth be known, most Canadians today don’t even know who Lester Pearson is). Chomsky had appeared several times on the then popular CBC radio program Morningside with Gzowski and had noted the broadcaster’s penchant for using their interviews as a platform to criticize the United States. Eventually Chomsky got tired of the one-sided perspective and he decided to turn the tables:
Well, one time I really got sick of this, and I started talking about Canada. He said some line about, ‘I hear you just flew in.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I landed at the War Criminal Airport.’ He said: ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well, you know, the Lester B. Pearson Airport.’ And he says, ‘What do you mean, ‘war criminal’?” Lester Pearson’s the big hero in Canada [he was a prominent diplomat and Prime Minister from 1963 to ‘68]. So I started running through Pearson’s involvement in criminal activity—he was a major criminal, really extreme. He didn’t have the power to be like an American President, but if he had it, he would have been the same—he tried, you know. And I went through some of this. The guy got infuriated.
“Then I said something about Canada and the Vietnam War—Canada was always denouncing the United States during the Vietnam War for its criminal actions, meanwhile Canada was probably the leading military exporter in the world per capita, enriching itself on the destruction of Indochina. So I mentioned some of this stuff. He went into a kind of tantrum. I actually thought it was sort of funny, but apparently his listeners didn’t—when I left, after about ten minutes of listening to this harangue, the producer, sort of quivering, stopped me and said: ‘Oh my God, the switchboard’s lighting up, we’re getting thousands of phone calls from all over Canada.”
And apparently the phone calls were all just about the fact that this guy Gzowski was being impolite—I don’t know if people agreed with me particularly, but there were a lot of people who were very angry at the way he was going about it. (Understanding Power, 289-290)
Assuming that Chomsky’s recollections are reliable, I find Peter Gzowski’s behavior in this exchange both pathetic and inexplicable. Why react with hostility when somebody points out the evils and hypocrisy of your national heroes? Would you rather delude yourself with comforting propaganda than with the truth?
Certainly the Canadian project (I think of nation states as moral projects with varying degrees of success) has its own long list of egregious sins from residential schools to WW2 internment camps. And as Chomsky presciently observes, the only reason that Canadians haven’t done more damage is because they didn’t have more power. Why should folks be so insecure that they need to build up their own self-worth through a selective narration of their national identity?