The named is the mother of ten thousand things.

As an American, I’m pretty comfortable with nationalism.  Growing up in the States means growing up with it everywhere.  One expects one’s countrymen to routinely say things to the effect that the US of A is the single greatest place that has every been or ever will be.  It’s so common that you take it for granted- yes yes, city on a hill, beacon of light to all humanity, superpower, save the world, etc etc. Not that every single American is aflame with patriotic fervor every day of the week. Lots of us are skeptical of the national claim to Best Thing Ever status. Lots of us deconstruct our country’s exceptionalist pretensions. But in the States, there’s a refrain of USA! USA! USA! that thrums beneath everyday life like bass beneath dance music. After a while, you don’t even really think about it, whether it’s right or wrong, good or bad. It’s just there. The earth spins on its axis, the sun rises in the east, and everyone goes WHOO HOO FUCK YEAH WHOOP WHISTLE YAY during the national anthem.

Canada doesn’t have that baseline level of nationalist noise. If U.S. discourse about itself can be summed up as “AMERICA: BEST COUNTRY ON EARTH!!!!!!!!”, Canada’s is more like “Canada: maybe it shouldn’t actually be a country, except it would be sort of a hassle to break things up, and we’re not in the mood to fight about it, so whatever.” I don’t know where this collective ambivalence comes from. Maybe it’s a dominion thing.

Hockey is one of the few areas where Canadian public discourse ever reaches a point that might possibly, if you squint, be called “too nationalistic”, so it’s not surprising that it makes people uncomfortable. Every year at World Juniors time, as more and more Canadians put the weight of national pride squarely on the thin shoulders of teenagers, some writers take the opportunity to question the blend of nationalism and hockey.  Last year, Jeff Blair did it in The Globe and Mail.  This year, Adam Proteau took it to the pages of The Hockey News.  It’s not that these authors are against nationalism, exactly. It just makes them a little itchy. There’s just something… unseemly about it.

Of course, nationalism is unseemly. It’s a fundamentally icky phenomenon.  It is the association of traits with place, the idea that people from one patch of dirt are meaningfully different from, and perhaps better than, people from another place.  We know- or we should know, anyway- that that’s not true.  Your national identity doesn’t have fuck all to do with your character.

It is also, and perhaps more damningly, made up. As your high school history teacher would remind you, the nation-state is a European invention of the early modern period. For most of human history, people haven’t lived in nations. They’ve lived in tribes or towns, maybe independently, maybe under the dubious protection of some distant empire whose interest in local dynamics amounted to showing up a couple of times a year to take some money for the treasury and some men for the army.  There were hardly any nations- in the sense of bounded geopolitical entities that claimed to represent the essential traits of the people within their boundaries- anywhere until the 20th century, and now we treat them like they were somehow built into the fabric of reality.

Nations are just names. Names inside lines on maps, their black squiggles reflecting exactly as much about the underlying nature of humanity as the shapes of our lips or the colors of our hair or the number of glottal stops in our dialect, which is to say: nothing. These are superficial differences that tell us nothing about the soul of the individual beneath, and- like every gender, like every class- the variation within any nation far exceeds any average variation that may exist between them. But despite their superficiality, and indeed despite their unreality, these names are the mother of ten thousand things. More than ten thousand, probably ten million. The lines that have been drawn across the globe, between empires, countries, provinces, cities, and neighborhoods, have given rise to variations in everything from faith to fashion. And yeah, sometimes those variations born of names and lines have led to some really, really horrifying shit. But they’ve also led to exactly the diversity of human identities that ideas like multiculturalism, tolerance, and democracy were created to preserve. Such is the paradox of nationalism: we fight to preserve the very divisions that we’re most likely to fight about.

There is no harmless thing more deeply embroiled with nationalism and regionalism than sports. The arts claim to transcend boundaries, but sports celebrate boundaries. There’s a reason that the lazy sociological explanation for why sports exist is to say that they represent war in miniature: because the essence of sports competition is us vs. them. North side of Chicago vs. south side of Chicago. Toronto vs. Montreal. Canada vs. Russia. My place against your place, my people against your people, for honor, glory, and all the marbles. Sports fans don’t just tolerate this kind of division. We thrive on it. The more a team stands for our city or our culture, the more we love it. We routinely associate the meaning of a sports team with its ability to represent the people on this side of a line from the people on another side. Rivalries, which are based on an irrationally intense dislike of some other team of arbitrarily-defined Bad Guys, are something we actively seek out. Along with our blood bonds (“I bleed orange and white”) to Us, we cultivate our hatred of the Other like pretty pretty petunias of loathing. Nationalism (and its baby sister, regionalism), like violence, competitiveness, and public drunkeness, is just another in the long list of not-quite-right things that sports revel in.

If you worry that all this carefully-cultivated sports-hate can eventually explode into real hate, you’re not wrong. There have always been people who get their identities a little to closely mixed up with games, who are a little too eager to take the war metaphors as something more than metaphor. Hopefully, we can all agree that when it gets to the point where you can’t wear your team’s colors in certain cities without fearing bodily harm, shit has gone too far. Hopefully we can all agree that when Don Cherry implies that Russian kids have no place in the CHL and American players have no place on the Maple Leafs, he’s twisting nationalism into a toxic betrayal of the meritocratic values that sports, at their best, promote. There is a potential path from sports-nationalism to xenophobia, racism, and discrimination.

But it’s not a direct path, and what critics who see a necessary connection between “Canada rules, USA drools” and “xenophobia” miss is that national sports rivalry is designed to be safe. It can be one of the only kinds of totally damage-free mega-competition in the world, and since it seems like people need to compete about stuff from time to time, it’s good (maybe even… healthy?) to have artificial outlets for it. National and local rivalries in sports are fictional representations of real differences. If they’re anything like war, they’re fluffy wars that have been domesticated, neutered, declawed, and defanged. They’re war without consequence. It doesn’t matter how many times the US beats Canada in hockey or vice versa, no army is coming across any border to burn the rinks and salt the ice. The Habs and the Leafs can fight each other for a hundred seasons and neither will ever really destroy the other. The playing field is level, the rules are universal, and every year, everyone gets another chance. When Viking warriors died, they believed they went to a heaven where everyone fought to the death every day, only to be ressurected to feast at night and do it all over again tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, forever. Hockey isn’t heaven on earth. It’s Valhalla on earth.

The diversity of humanity, the ten thousand million different things that we are, is possibly one of the best things we’ve achieved as a species.  It’s part of what makes our lives worth living. But the diversity we love to celebrate wouldn’t even exist without some forces of nationalism and regionalism.  It doesn’t happen naturally and inexorably.  It happens because people participate in its creation and recreation, because people attach hazy but real things like customs, traditions, and histories to clear but made-up things like names and lines. When sports participate in this process, even when the participation gets a little bit rabid, a little bit irrational, they’re making human life more awesome.

Somewhere there is a Golden Mean, where we can preserve our local pride and local identity, the things that make our little pocket of the world different from others, the things that make us who we are and not who someone else is, without extending it into the realm of racism or xenophobia. Where we can trash talk and tease each other, and maybe even fight a little bit, while at the same time knowing that it is all, in the end, just a game.

Comments (7)

  1. I’ve been noodling around planning an essay on sports as entertainment vs sports as embodiment of tribal identity. Not surprisingly, you rendered most of what I’d been outlining totally superfluous. (I’d just add, a propos of nothing much in particular, that the NHL powers-that-be may have an unrealistic idea of the relative proportions of fans-as-entertainment-consumers and fans-as-tribe-members in their assessments of the extent to which fans will come back when they end this misguided, self-destructive lockout.)

    • If the nationalism of international representative sport is constructed, as national boundaries themselves are constructed, then the tribalism of local sports teams is very natural. Nobody starts their sporting career as a pro. Everyone pays to play at first, which means playing where you live, with teammates who also live where you live. Or as a fan, you support the team closest to you, the one you can see the most easily. And as a player, once you’ve risen to the top in the place you live, then, perhaps, you can venture out of your home and test your skills against other people in other places. But local teams are so inexorably tied to where they play that there’s a natural, powerful sense of community. The pride we feel for our national teams may come in part from patriotism, but maybe it also draws from the sense of tribal belonging we build for local teams.

      (Art can talk about place and reflect place, but it can transcend boundaries because it’s never bound to where it is made the same way that sports are. Sports need to happen in one fixed place.)

      I don’t tend to think about nationalism i(which may be very Australian of me in itself) but this article did bring to mind the matter of playing national anthems before games. Probably so traditional in the US/Canada that it’s not worth questioning, but here it’s something that is usually Just Not Done for sporting events between Australian teams. It’s something usually reserved for finals/playoff games and international games. There are a couple of hockey leagues here, though, who have adopted the practice of opening every game with the national anthem, and the reactions to it are kind of interesting. Some people love the ceremony, but I feel sort of uncomfortable about attaching patriotic trappings to an ordinary, regular-season game between two local teams.

      Maybe if Canada’s nationalism is uneasy then Australia’s is a little more like “eh, who cares, let’s all have a beer.”

      • Excellant point. I would only add the “soccer hooliganism” phenomenon and that in a certain ironically named US city the fans are notorious to those wearing the opponent’s colors.

  2. “nationalism is unseemly. It’s a fundamentally icky phenomenon. The idea that people from one patch of dirt are meaningfully different from, and perhaps better than, people from another place.”

    Perfectly said right there. I have an awkward relationship with nationalism and my Canadian identity, which is the same for so many Canadians. I love this country and am proud of this country, and yet, I often find it very uncomfortable to talk about it. Not sure why that is – but there is very often a profound discomfort here with expressing national pride. Perhaps it has to do with the age-old Canadian desire to define ourselves (in part) by our differences from Americans? Ergo, overt nationalistic expression = American? Not sure.

    “since it seems like people need to compete about stuff from time to time, it’s good (maybe even… healthy?) to have artificial outlets for it”

    Hmmm, good point. I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but humans are naturally competitive creatures, so it is good that we can express it in a limited environment. “Safe”, as you say.

  3. Which is why fighting in hockey is good too. Helps let off steam, avoids the stick-swinging, which is where real damage gets done.

    Also: Someday, yes someday, the Habs will be destroyed. The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

    #écrasez l’infâme

  4. Nationalism is a way for societies to create a fantasy that they are homogenous entities. The way to perpetuate this myth of a homogenous society is the rallying over a national cause (i.e. war or international sports tournaments). Furthermore the type of homogenous society it almost always promotes is one that is unique and superior to all others.

    This is all bad because it treats cultures as fixed entities and maintains cultural distances. And in today’s society maintaining cultural distance is often rebranded as “celebration of diversity”.

    The diverse aspect of a group that people choose to celebrate is a construct in and of itself. People regularly choose what to take from other peoples “customs, traditions and histories” and therefore they become as made-up as “names and lines”.

    The problem with this is that it is depoliticizing and promotes the vast inequities present in our society. For instance, people living in slums in a third world country are developing customs and histories out of the fact that they are impoverished. Celebrating their diversity inherently needs to ignore their disenfranchised socio-econimic state.

    I do agree with your final sentence though. Using sports as a vehicle to talk immense amounts of shit (i.e. the Sleeping Giant) make jokes is great and endlessly enjoyable.

  5. I think people naturally seek out companionship and protection and everything else that comes with being part of a community. It has always been about us and (vs.) them. If it isn’t nations, it’s cities. If not cities, then towns. And if it’s none of those it’s religion, or race, or the color of the clothes you’re wearing. The strange part about it all though, is that we’ve reached a point where we can recognize and discuss these issues. We can illustrate the good and the bad, and yet we allow the bad elements to persist. I go to a game, and I instantly hate people in “my” stadium wearing an opposing team’s jersey. And what’s more, my feelings shape my perception of that person. A guy getting wild in a King’s jersey is a comrade, that same guy in a Duck’s jersey is a douche.

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