Law in Contemporary Society

On Canadian Romanticism & Global Constitutionalism

-- By JoshuaKoenig - 12 Mar 2017

"As Canadian As...?"

If you want to see the fear in the eyes of a Canadian, wait until the United States beats the Canadian men’s ice hockey team in an Olympic championship game. It’s only a matter of time. Stand outside of a crowded bar on Bloor St. and watch the funeral procession of patrons pour out.

In 1972, a CBC radio host solicited the nation for a Canadian variant of the famous simile “as American as apple pie.” The winning submission?

“As Canadian as possible under the circumstances.”

Living in the shadow of the greatest empire in human history is a disquieting experience. We feel every twitch and grunt of the elephant, our continental bedfellow. Trump’s rise to the Presidency has confirmed for many Canadians an unspoken truth regarding the contingency of our existence as a nation. There is a pervasive sense of conditional autonomy that operates on the psyche at a subconscious level. How much of our prosperity and sovereignty is dependent upon the good will of another?

Canadians live in one of the most materially prosperous societies in the world and we fill our homes almost exclusively with American consumer goods. Many of us reflexively mouth the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” but are lost when the words to “O Canada” transition from English to French.

There is a feeling of dislocation and melancholy that comes with living in a region so vast and empty. Placelessness follows from belonging to a nation with no obvious cause.

Why 'Canada'?

Then what is Canada’s raison d’Ítre?

Canadians do not aspire to national greatness. At minimum, we hope not to become a historical curiosity – a footnote at the end of some future text on the civilizational accomplishments of the United States of America. We wish for the opportunity to select our own ends, however circumscribed they may be by our geographic position. We fear that our national existence will be purposeless.

Berlin Speaks

Isaiah Berlin’s writings on Romanticism are instructive in the Canadian context. We are perceived by Americans not so much with contempt or arrogance but with willful indifference, if we are perceived at all. Our cultural goods are casually dismissed as derivative, feeble imitations; Leonard Cohen is a poor-man’s Dylan, Neil Young is indebted more to Redwood than Red Deer, Drake doesn’t make real hip-hop. Underlying the resentment of criticisms which portray our culture as shallow and unimaginative is a deep worry that they may provide an accurate depiction of Canadian life.

This resentment manifests itself in a Romantic view of Canadian character and identity which is juxtaposed with Americas. The archetype of the humble hockey player assumes an outsized influence in Canadian iconography. “Keep your head down.” “Act like you’ve been there before.” “Go to the dirty areas.” Hockey supremacy is associated with a purity of the Canadian spirit. This is contrasted with the decadent playing style of European skaters and the Americans who simply don’t know how to play the game the right way.

Political discourse resembles the post-game interview in its folksy say-nothingness. Nation-building becomes an exercise in creating dichotomy. The United States is a melting pot while we are a cultural mosaic. Americans live in gated communities and we leave our doors unlocked at night. Our politics are sane and, well…you know. There is a psychological need to build difference into our institutions. While historical fortuities have made the possibility of building a national identity in a vacuum impossible, building social institutions in such a way has consequences.

On the Canadian Identity

The Canadian political personality is bipolar. We oscillate between haughty condescension and extreme sensitivity to perceived slight. We look down at the political chaos in the United States with a sense of smug satisfaction. The Wall has become the ultimate symbol of difference for Canadians between our own political culture and that of the United States. We would never do such a thing.

Yet, I am not so sure. The concept of The Wall is not foreign to us. Our national life is the story of building a more tangible border. Even Canada, a nation led by a man committed to a “post-national” future, is subject to the urge to live within one’s own cultural horizons.

A Way Forward

The Romantic impulse in human nature is immutable and must be integrated into the project to develop a universal moral framework. Canadians are as dedicated to the construction of this moral framework as we are to the preservation of difference. We react to Trump’s election with horror, but not shock. The fear of becoming an anachronism as history marches forward is a familiar one to us. How do we develop solutions to transnational legal problems – dilemmas which are blind to the nationality of the individuals that they affect – without the exercise of coercive power appearing foreign, arbitrary, and biased?

A central challenge of today’s age involves the careful balancing of the urgent need to bind the community of nations together with the threads of the law against the imperative that legal institutions remain proximate to those that they are accountable to and reflect community values. Centralization, if it must increase, should be calibrated to guard against attendant rises in political alienation and disaffection. Citizens cannot come to feel that they have been stripped of their cultural and political agency by remote, unfathomable processes.

Canada may serve as an example that distinction is possible, even at the footsteps of the most powerful moral and political agent in the world. We may prove that membership in multiple communities does not detract from, but rather contributes to the sense of belonging and place that is an integral component of the human experience. Provincial, national, and global loyalties are not irreconcilable but, rather, complementary.

A global constitutional order must be based upon federal principles even as national borders blur and stretch beyond recognition.

Word (Draft #2): 974

This is a winning and effective essay. Perhaps it needed to be written by a Canadian who has to put up with the peculiar inability of New Yorkers to realize that they're not part of the US, either. And who has been temporarily separated from the bluetooth headset in which it was—no doubt—Drake, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell all the time.

But at the same time, it feels like another form of romanticism to me to be writing about Canadian identity while casting about to understand what kind of US lawyer you are paying plenty of money to become. Only in the last sentence have you an inclination to ask any question that isn't within the context of the national identity you are yourself in the process of enlarging. Perhaps there's a way to make the next draft itself a way forward, towards your also-Canadian professional development?


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r3 - 01 Jun 2017 - 04:15:12 - JoshuaKoenig
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