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.