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Idle No More and Lies that Build Empire: Nationalism in Former Colonies


By Simon Jo-Keeling

Canada’s relationship to empire may be at the beginning of something excitingly different, thanks to the sudden fertility, since late in 2012, of Idle No More (INM). INM is an indigenous peoples’ movement focused on decolonizing Canada’s governance, environmental policy, economic system, and relationship with Native people. An aspect of the current situation in Canada which particularly interests me intellectually and ethically is how INM makes clear certain aspects of the ideology of nationalism. First of all, nationalism is largely a lie; second, it certainly builds empire: and third, nationalists in former colonies where settlers became numerically, economically, and symbolically dominant (e.g., Canada, the USA, Australia, Argentina) are forced to grapple with some challenges to nationalism which nationalists in other states do not.

An aspect of the current situation in Canada which interests me more intimately and holistically is the following tension about my roles in it; I was born into a very privileged social position – white, male, heterosexual, Anglophone, upper-middle class, physically able, Christian, urban, tall, thin, in the global North – and I went on to excel in school and complete a prestigious education. About my only trait that might qualify as an oppressed social position are my difficulties with mental health. I sometimes used to joke that I am a poster-boy for “the man.” On the other hand, I have – in different ways, for as long as I can remember – been trying to be an ally to the oppressed and to let go of my own privilege. When I began meditation practice in 2002, the contradictions, challenges, and opportunities of my position quickly became clearer and clearer. I will finish this essay by asserting the importance of (1) a calm, trained mind for uncovering lies and for developing ethical practice in the world; (2) ethical practice in the world for uncovering lies and developing a calm, trained mind; and (3) intellectual work for developing both a calm, trained mind and ethical practice in the world.

I take nationalism to be an ideology – an influential idea with implications for power relations that is at least partially misleading (at least partially a lie) – which states that the citizens of a nation-state are a meaningful group which has the right to, and the need for, independent governance. Commonalities in history, sociocultural practices, and personality among citizens are what make the group appear meaningful from the perspective of the ideology. One type of practice resulting from nationalism are assertions or questions about national “unity,” national “character,” national “identity,” and national “culture.” Of course, they take specific forms with respect to any particular nation-state. In Canada, one is accustomed to the following examples of nationalist discourse:

  • assertions that Canadian history, identity, and culture are about:
    • liking beer, classic rock, hockey, and camping
    • being polite, unpretentious, and “fair”
    • adapting to cold winters
    • peace-keeping
    • merging Francophone and Anglophone sub-cultures
    • settlers and indigenous people working as equal partners
    • a supportive welfare state
  • Europeans like us
  • concern that Canada is indistinguishable from the USA, or worse than it in every respect
  • concern over whether Canada has a national identity at all.

Outsiders may, of course, have different nationalist discourses about Canada, just as Canadian nationalists have discourses about other nations. Where are the lies in all this for Canada in particular and nationalism in general?

Possibly most important, both the general ideology of nationalism and Canadian nationalism in particular paper over the fact that nationalism is the latest in a string of ideas for justifying the state. A state is a political structure in which a small, governing class dominates a relatively large piece of land and a huge, obeying class of hundreds of thousands or millions of people. All states throughout pre-history and history have concentrated wealth in the hands of relatively few people, attempted to monopolize the use of violence, and required some or all of taxes, tribute, or corvée labor – unpaid work such as military conscription and jury duty – from citizens, all with the help of bureaucracy. There must be some reason that people put up with this, and holding control of the state by threatened and real violence seems always to have been difficult and expensive. Some form of justification is desirable, then, from the perspective of governing élites.

Nationalism developed in France and Germany in the 17th century to replace the, by then, flagging ideology of the divine right of monarchs. Nationalist discourse almost always makes the state seem either invisible, morally neutral, inevitable, or morally positive. This last point can either take the form of denying that the state is inequitable or of asserting that some kinds of inequality are morally neutral, inevitable, or morally positive.

Convincing millions of people to go along with all this has been greatly facilitated by the very robust “Western” ideology that humans are basically nasty and selfish, which means that, left to our own devices, we will tear each other to pieces in a desperate scramble in which each individual stops at nothing to get as much as possible of everything she or he wants. The only solution to this, if you believe mainstream discourse, is a massive law-making power which can compel people to behave properly. Religious institutions, too, not only states, have been justified on these grounds.

Fortunately, none of this is true. Some spiritual seekers have experienced compassion. People from numerous walks of life have experienced functioning, consensus-based, collaborative, equitable practices for meeting important goals. Any keen observer of what humans actually do can see that our motivations, mechanisms, and desires are far more complicated and varied than this story of selfishness reports.

Unfortunately, the lie makes many of us into empire’s unremunerated construction workers. What forms does this work take? To begin with, it becomes anti-national to disagree with any government decision. Ironically, a democratically elected government can use democracy against its citizens in demonizing dissent; it’s always possible for a nationalist to say that the government is acting for “the people” – it must be, because “the people” voted them in and “consented” to being governed – and by disagreeing, you are acting against “the people.” The frequency with which we hear this sort of thing suggests that it is an amazingly convincing discourse. What’s more amazing, though, is that something so incoherent can be taken seriously at all. Those who disagree with the government must be part of “the people,” mustn’t they? And yet, there are ways to construct some people as separate from “the people.”

Consider that voting is just another form of “might makes right.” All that happens in a vote is that the voters who are in the largest group get what they want and other voters are out of luck. All other factors being equal, the leaders of the largest army in a battle get what they want and the members of the other army (or armies) are out of luck. Therefore, it becomes useful for power voted in to justify itself so that it doesn’t seem like an abuse. One way to do this is to portray some citizens as pathological exceptions to what “the people” want.

This brings me to another major, empire building lie of nationalism: that all the citizens share a history, identity, culture, or personality. This is nonsense. Class systems create differences which are fundamental to how nation-states work. Many nation-states – perhaps most – have permitted or encouraged religious persecution, which they would not have to if the nation was actually unified in the way ideology suggests is should be or is. I can confidently assert that all nation-states have known divisions of gender based on biological sex.

Nationalist discourses about commonalities of history, cultural practices, and personality create norms which one upholds every time one participates in these discourses. A norm is an ideology which blends three different senses of the word normal. “Normal” can mean “statistically average, common, or typical.” It can mean “healthy”: this is what an M.D. means when she or he says, “your test results came back normal.” Third, the term can mean “good or preferable”: this is the sense intended when a socially nervous teenager asks her or his eccentric parent, “can you just act normal this one time?” A norm makes some bit of ideology seem normal in all three senses. When someone’s actions can be constructed as abnormal, it’s a lot easier to exclude them from “the people.”

An example would be the bit of nationalist ideology which says that Canadians are white. This particular bit of nationalism applies to many nation-states, including the USA, the UK, and France. Some Canadians are not white, obviously. This stereotyping is about power. It says that it’s not completely okay to be, for example, a Sri Lankan Canadian, an African Canadian, or a Native Canadian. Ethnic pluralism is a problem for nationalism because the citizens of a nation are supposed to have one common history and one common set of sociocultural practices. How can that be the case if the citizens have radically different backgrounds? It can’t be the case. That’s another way in which nationalism – any nationalism, not only Canadian nationalism – is a lie. How it builds empire is by legitimizing and normalizing the current balance of power in which white people are disproportionately present at the top.

There are also norms of economic ideology, of course. Here’s another example from Canada: currently the government of the province of Ontario is in a labor dispute with the public school teachers’ union. The government of Ontario is continually portraying pro-union teachers as going against the will of “the people.” Since they are part of “the people,” it must mean that they are aberrant. Aberrant how? They want the right to strike and take other workplace actions for better wages and working conditions. In this, the teachers’ union is going against the government’s capitalist economic ideology which says that power, wealth, and control should go to the managers and directors at the top, rather than to the workers at the bottom. If the teachers were to “win” this struggle of representation and become widely perceived as being aligned with “the people,” it would be a blow to nationalism because it would undermine the legitimacy of the state.

Both economic and ethnic components of nationalism are at issue with Idle No More. The first INM actions were triggered by the Canadian federal government’s attempt to make unilateral decisions about mining a piece of land which had been allotted for indigenous people’s control by treaty. This is an economic issue because, to the decision-makers in the government, capitalist ideology’s drive for continually increasing production trumps both the environmental destruction of mining and the legality of the treaty. It’s an ethnic issue because the Canadian government has a long history of blatantly disregarding the human rights of indigenous people which continues into the present. But more than this, it’s a neocolonial issue and, therefore, an imperial issue.

Canada is a former colony, which means that its nationalist ideology encompasses a different historical relationship with colonialism and empire from the nationalist ideology of, say, France, Germany, or Spain. However, Canada is a state in which the settlers almost totally took over. In this, it is different from most African states, for example, Cameroon. Cameroon has its own nationalist ideology with its own nationalist lies, but the governing élites are overwhelmingly “indigenous” Cameroonians. Indigenous peoples’ movements around the world, including INM, have pointed up a feature of the nationalism of former colonies in which the settlers took over: that the nationalist story must somehow encompass not only the “basic” nationalist issue of commonality amongst citizens, but also justify the fact that the normalized group (i.e., white people) came over from Europe without being invited and did quite a bit that was neither in the best interests of indigenous people nor consented to by indigenous people. In other words, it becomes necessary to say that colonialism either didn’t occur or really wasn’t so bad.

One way that the USA’s nationalism does this is by portraying Christopher Columbus as an exciting, well-meaning, curious explorer and intentionally ignoring all the reasons to consider him a money-grubbing, slaving, murderer. Canadian nationalism does this with statements such as the following:

  • Canada’s settlers were totally fair with the indigenous peoples and, therefore, were welcomed, ushering in a system which was better for settlers and indigenes alike
  • If there were any abuses by settlers, they all took place long ago
  • Indigenous Canadians are in such a mess because they can’t take care of themselves; they need white people to oversee them
  • White people won the fight; let’s accept reality and just get on with our lives

The first three of these are typical fare, probably familiar to anyone. The last may be shocking to some who haven’t become grimly aware of how little racism has actually changed over the past sixty years. I have personally witnessed, on several occasions, white Canadians denouncing indigenous Canadians’ agitation against the government for rights with comments like, “They lost! We won! Accept it and shut up!” To such people, sometimes might actually does make right. In any case, nationalist discourse attempts to make colonialism, empire, and settlers seem good by making them the norm.

INM is challenging all of this. INM is saying that capitalist production should not trample over everything else: that racism and genocide against indigenous Canadians are taking place today: that Canadians themselves still need to be decolonized: that the government of Canada is unjust: that indigenous Canadians are every bit as worthy as white Canadians: that the state cannot legitimately do whatever it wants: that Canada does not have a unified or common identity or culture: that colonialism was a crime. This is the truth-telling that aids in dismantling empire.

Confronted with all of this, the government has made practically no comment, despite a month-long hunger strike by one chief, Teresa Spence. Many nationalist, pro-government commentators portray INM participants as not “the people”, implying that they are pathological and aberrant: which is to say that they aren’t normal. Indigenous people on corporate and state media receive biased coverage and interviewing subtly geared towards discrediting INM. The function of this is to justify colonialism, contemporary white dominance, and – by extension – Canadian nationalism.

This is not just about capitalism and the wealth that could come from mining treaty lands. It’s bigger than that. It’s also about the viability of the Canadian nationalist narrative, which is in place to protect the legitimacy of the state. Of course the legitimacy of capitalism is at stake, too, because Canada is a capitalist state. The nationalism of settler-majority former colonies – all of them, not only Canada – is empire-building because it tells a story in which colonialism did not bring with it horrible abuses of indigenous people on a vast scale. This is a lie.

If you want to learn more about Idle No More, there’s lots to read at www.idlenomore.ca or at www.rabble.ca/issues/indigenous. Want to do something else? What that should be is up to you. Writing this article is something I’ve done, but the question remains, “have I done well?” I’m not sure yet; the responses of indigenous people who read this article could be the deciding factor. This is the crux of my struggle about action, knowledge, and mindfulness. I’m a settler and a part-time college and university professor with a pretty short activist resumé. Am I sufficiently de-colonized to have worthwhile comments on INM? I guess I’ll find out.

What I am pretty sure about is that I wouldn’t have come this far as a social justice ally had it not been for meditation and mindfulness, and my intellectual work. By the same token, I wouldn’t have come nearly so far in my intellectual work as I have without meditation and mindfulness, and some commitment to deepening my ethical practice. And finally – you guessed it – ethical practice and intellectual work have helped deepen my practice of meditation and mindfulness.

I began seeing myself as a social justice ally in childhood because my mother was actively and explicitly trying to raise feminist boys. (My father supported this.) Things accelerated in this domain for me in high-school thanks to my then girlfriend who was a feminist activist in the Riot Grrrl days. Ironically, I was always a little bit ashamed of occupying privileged identity categories; I suppose parts of me still are. Happily, my access to texts and mentors showed me that there is a role in social justice struggles for allies who try to give up their privilege. These issues remained very unclear for me, experientially, however.

Some years later, I began formal spiritual practice. After a while, I found that the clarity and steadfastness I was acquiring made it much easier for me to touch the maelstrom of emotions I had surrounding social justice, oppression, and privilege without losing my grounded calm. This made it easier for me to be humble and handle being confused or flat-out wrong. It also made it easier for me to decide what actions to take and not take because I could sense much better what would result from any given decision. I continue to become clearer, braver, and calmer. It’s largely thanks to meditation and mindfulness that I’ve been able to take the ethical actions I’ve taken.

Also since childhood, I was drawn to intellectual work. Things took off for me, though, when I tried linguistic and sociocultural anthropology during my bachelor’s degree at the University of Toronto. I went on to complete a PhD in linguistic anthropology at the University of Michigan based on field work in highland Cameroon. The way intellectual work informs ethical action is fairly obvious, but that doesn’t lessen its importance. Social justice inspired me right from the first day of my first anthropology course and kept on doing so through my first day as a teacher to today when it shows no sign of stopping. It has been a large part of “the point” of the long, tortured afternoons and evenings with difficult, abstract, scholarly texts. Throughout all of this, my intellect was also grappling with Vedanta and (primarily Theravada) Buddhism.

I have no doubt that my practice helped me through feeling intimidated by such writings. (Buddhist philosophy, not only linguistic theory, can be quite dense, too.) Meditation showed me, among other things, that if I made an honest attempt to grasp what I was reading, comprehension would come in time and, more importantly, that this comprehension would be good enough. I also learned from meditation how to handle the emotions of encountering ideas and arguments which I found terrible or evil. Afterwards, I then had to handle the emotions of discovering that I was right all along, or that I had been wrong. Both can be destructive if handled unwisely. Meditation, then, continues to guide my intellect to greater and greater sophistication.

Intellectual comprehension of Vedanta and Buddhist philosophy has helped my formal practice, but probably not as much as the other connections I’ve been describing in this section. Familiarity with such writings introduces one to a range of styles, experiences, and techniques. This can be helpful in knowing how to respond to challenges on the cushion or during moments of mindfulness “in the world”. Nevertheless, meditation and mindfulness seem to me to be primarily about letting of the intellectual part of the mind for a time.

Ethical practice and being a social justice ally, however, are massively important to meditation and mindfulness. If you’re not acting ethically, you’re either unaware, doing mental and emotional gymnastics to justify something you know is wrong, or are so deep into your afflictions that you justify your actions by enjoying the suffering of others and loathing their happiness. If you’re in the first situation, meditation and mindfulness might play a role in waking you up. If you’re in the other two, however, your mind won’t be able to settle very deeply or very comprehensively because it’s busy covering up truths about you, about suffering and the end of suffering, about how living beings are interconnected, and about social justice.

Ultimately, this is the basic issue of mediation and mindfulness and of “spiritual” awakening in general. We’re all struggling with this. It’s very important for awakening that you are able to think and feel very closely, sincerely, and bravely about social systems and your own decisions and actions within them. I have, many times, had a startling meditation session immediately following the realization that I had been blind about a social justice issue. In order to effect all of this, you have to at least be ready to attempt to wish that all beings have ease, health, happiness, and safety. Furthermore, you have to at least be ready to attempt to wish this from a place of profound humility (not to be confused with guilt or shame).

Taking a stand on events like INM actions and responding the next time the INM chapter in my area puts out a call for allies to take action has called upon my humility, my loving-kindness, my intellect and my mindfulness. Such decisions sustain my efforts to be ethical, mindful, wise, informed, and intelligent. In other words, they can be a way to deepen my meditation, or the result of some mindfulness work (on or off the cushion), or both. For me, intellectual nourishment, social justice, and formal practice are actually all one.

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