What’s in a nation? Not much

Why nationalism isn’t a good reason for making serious decisions about important things

Last week the mayor of a small town in Quebec mused openly about switching provinces, while next month Scotland will vote on whether to remain a part of the United Kingdom. In public and in private, Labradoreans regularly contemplate splitting off from the island of Newfoundland, while Newfoundlanders have deeply ambivalent feelings about their place in confederation.

More often than not, the same words are used to explain the perceived difficulty. It is usually phrased as a problem of one’s heart versus one’s head. The nation pulls on our heart, while logic and the reality of governance direct our heads.

I reject this dichotomy. You can follow your heart and your head. It’s not an either/or. But the key is to make sure you’re not mistaking the one for the other, or letting the wrong one make decisions about the wrong kind of thing.

There is no need to choose between your heart and your head. You can be a proud Newfoundlander while also recognizing the benefits of confederation. You can be fiercely Quebecois and want to move the border a few miles west. But each of head and heart has its place, and where things get difficult is when one starts to interfere with the rightful place of the other.

I’m proud to be a Newfoundlander. I’m proud that my son is the tenth generation of Critch to live here. But I’m also an atheist, a professor, a redhead, and a Tottenham Hotspur fan. No one of these allegiances is exclusive, and sometimes they conflict. In my mind, making decisions based on nationality would be like making decisions on the basis of hair colour and preferred sports team. To pick one of them over all the others to use in making serious decisions would be foolhardy.

In the end, nationhood only matters on an emotional level. I feel like a Newfoundlander, but I reject the claim that Newfoundlanders would be better served by being an independent country. Most Scots are proudly Scottish, and would happily cheer against the English national football team, but they recognize that they’re better off in the Union than outside.

I  feel like a Newfoundlander, but I reject the claim that Newfoundlanders would be better served by being an independent country.

And union is a harder case to make for Scotland. They’ve got a population almost ten times ours, and while the North Sea oil reserves are in the process of running out, they’ve got a much more sustainable economy than we do. They have more than a few pockets of agriculture and significant research and development in the lowland belt between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Most arguments in favour of Newfoundland’s independence are either willfully ignorant of the difficult realities we faced prior to confederation and would again face if we left, or are undermined by an optimism that runs well beyond the borders of naïve.

Labradoreans can decide for themselves whether they believe they’d be better served as a Canadian territory or as a significant part of Newfoundland. The folks of Blanc Sablon are making the same judgment. They can remain proudly Quebecois while no longer being a part of Quebec.

When it comes to practical matters – like who pays for what services, and where will they be placed – we shouldn’t allow our judgment to be manipulated by things that aren’t real. People are real. Places are real. Distances and climate and resources are real. Nations are something we make up, or something others have made up that we buy into. They make watching sports more fun, but that’s not a good reason for deciding who governs what and how. They’re not a good reason for deciding what to do with our lives or our public institutions.

So while you can follow your heart and your head, you should be careful to make sure that the right one is making the judgments that matter. And that’s almost never going to be the one that cares about nationhood.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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