The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Making meaning from a compromised national history

There are no simple stories, especially when they are true. Whether we’re talking about our personal stories, our religious myths, or national histories, the truer they are, the more difficult and nuanced they become.

It’s the last of these kinds of story I’ve been thinking most about of late, starting with the emotionally-charged debates surrounding the flying of the Confederate battle flag in the American South. For those of us who have no connection to the South, it’s a simple issue: the flag represents treason, sedition, slavery, and hatred – none of which are things to be celebrated in a modern democracy. Yet for those whose ancestors fought and died under that flag, it carries a very different set of meanings, bringing to mind pride, honour, gallantry and a lost national dream. Now, honestly, I don’t care what these white Southerners think; this is an open and shut case. Yet, much of the discussion – especially among progressives – surrounding this particular flag reeks of scapegoating: we single out the wicked one, destroy him, and go on our way without examining ourselves, seeing only the speck in our brother’s eye and ignoring the plank in our own.

I thought of this the other day walking past a home flying the Red Ensign, which was similarly a military flag that came to represent a nascent country, in this case my own. The Red Ensign is pointed to as the banner that unified Canadian soldiers fighting in the trenches and ridges of Belgium and France a hundred years ago, a formative image burned into our national identity as we remember places like Ypres and the Somme and Vimy and Paschendale and the courage and resilience of the young men who fought there. It is also a lasting symbol of our deep British roots, which gave us our proud history of Responsible Government, our parliamentary democracy, and much of our national character. (Our legendary politeness and wit are in large part remnants of our country’s British heritage.) Yet the flag’s very composition is also a recognition that this heritage is deeply tied to Imperialism, Colonialism, and white paternalism (if not open white supremacy): This was also the flag that was flying as our nation corralled the First Nations into reservations and stole their children, destroying communities, livelihoods, families, cultures, and languages in the name of Education, Crown and Country, and most disturbingly the Gospel. This was also the flag that flew proudly as we turned away Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis (an event that is particularly poignant today as images of dead toddlers washed up on foreign shores fill our omnipresent screens – those who have ears, let them hear) and forcibly detained Japanese Canadians – even those who fought under the very flag – during the Second World War. Why then is the Confederate battle flag a racist banner and our Red Ensign not?

I don’t mean to create a false equivalence between the two; there are degrees of horror and baggage and symbolism that prevent any easy or flippant equivalence. The use of symbols, like the telling of stories, is never purely logical and rarely simple. My point is simply that history is complicated, and despite how badly we may want to look back at the past and see heroes and villains, to do so is incredibly naive. And to look only at the self-serving versions of our national stories is dangerously so. If, as Solzhenitsyn so poignantly pointed out, the line between good and evil runs through ever human heart, how much more does it run through the spirit, philosophies, and worldviews of every nation in every age.

In what is surely a great irony, the true “burden” “white men” must carry today is the guilt and shame at those who looked and sounded just like us not so long ago by historical standards, men who had the scarcely believable audacity and hubris to think they not only had the right but the obligation to recreate the peoples of the world in their own image. And yet, no matter how much horror I feel about the Residential Schools and other colonialist misadventures, it would be too easy and too convenient to think that these were the wicked schemes of evil men. They were, by in large, the ideas of the progressives of their day, people like me, not only in their whiteness and maleness but also in their concern for alleviating poverty, illiteracy, and all manner of social ills. The road to hell is most definitely paved with the best of intentions. So what do we as Canadians (and particularly white Canadians like me) do with this deeply compromised heritage?  Do we again apply the scapegoat mechanism, point the finger at the Evil White Men, tear down their statues and cross their names from our history books, and thank God we are not sinners like them?  Do we circle the wagons and rise to the defense of our fathers, championing their leadership and their forging of our Great Canadian Nation, ignoring the devastation they caused? Or do we do something harder, like use their – our – story to learn humility and grace, to remind ourselves to be wary in assuming we have the answers for other people’s lives, to teach ourselves to listen, and remember that we too have blind spots just like them? To acknowledge our national sins, to repent, and move on hoping beyond all hope that we will do better?

The answer isn’t to fret or faint, to believe we must either whitewash our histories or throw everything away. I believe if we are to learn anything of value from our national stories, we must tell them with an honesty that is critical, receptive, and gracious, being neither afraid to celebrate our successes nor weep and repent for our failures, even as the two are often inseparable. A proper patriotism evokes what certain Church Fathers called χαρμολυπη, joyful-sorrow. It cannot be otherwise. I celebrate my country and culture, our bilingualism and multiculturalism, our sense of humour, our humility on the world stage, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (at least as it stood before Bill C-51…), the compassion of our social services, our historic commitment to peacekeeping and caution about war-making. (This argument would have been easier to make in 2005 than today, mind you.) But, I grieve and am angered at the horror of the Residential Schools and the lasting legacy of poverty in indigenous communities, and I am right to do so.

To celebrate what is good does not negate the bad; to acknowledge and weep over the bad does not negate the good. This is what it means to be human.

I once criticized the Residential Schools to someone who defended them. She got quite angry and said it was too easy to criticize after the fact, in hindsight, and that I should be careful because those who come after me will similarly judge me. The conversation has never left me, but not in the manner she intended. For, as Jesus said, we will be judged by the same measure by which we judge others. I hope in 500 years, when people look back at the experiment that was the North American democracies, they do so in horror, shocked at our hypocrisy, privilege, prejudice and injustice. And if by some strange happening, one of these people should stumble across a biography of my life or what I’ve written, I hope they will be similarly aghast at my lack of vision, my blind  spots, and inner contradictions. For, as Fr. Alexander Men so brilliantly said, “the arrow of the Gospel is aimed towards eternity” and “we are still Neanderthals in spirit and morals.” As far as we’ve come, we so clearly have so much further to go. But I also hope they will have the grace to see that amidst all that, I – we – were in our own faltering ways seeking Truth and Justice, and that despite ourselves, I – we – managed to push our culture a little further down the road.

It’s a lie to think we “stand on the shoulders of giants.” No, we stand on the shoulders of ordinary men and women much like ourselves, blindly scrambling and faltering as they made their way in a confusing and complicated world. That in no way diminishes their accomplishments; it only serves to make what they created, and what we are creating, what we as a civilization can create and what we as a species will create all the more impressive. But, we will never do anything toward creating a truly great and just society if we fail to examine the stories we tell ourselves.

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