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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

When two wrongs still don't make a right

April 15, 2009

Kate Heartfield
The Ottawa Citizen (Canada)
April 14, 2009

When the Fox News clip mocking Canadian soldiers
made it to YouTube, many Canadians were outraged.
Then people started pointing out that the clip
was from a 3 a.m. show nobody watches.

One website quipped, "Canada Mistakes Fox News'
Greg Gutfeld for Person of Influence."

But it had long since ceased to be about Fox News
or the Fox News audience, anyway. It was about
YouTube. Every time we watched that idiotic clip,
it bugged us. And our opinions about going to war
to protect the Americans might have shifted, just a little.

Thanks to the Internet, the nationalism of the
21st century will be a defensive nationalism --
in Canada as in India and China. It will be fed
by the inescapable awareness of what "they" say
about "us." That nationalism is going to have
real, and probably negative, effects.

Recently, I had the chance to chat with Anand
Giridharadas, the South Asia correspondent for
the International Herald Tribune. The whole
concept of "foreign correspondent" is somewhat
anachronistic these days. Giridharadas wrote
recently: "In the Internet age, we cover each
place for the benefit of all places, and the
reported-on are the most avid consumers of what we report."

Or, as he put it to me last week, "There's no
reporting behind a country's back."

This is true not only of newspapers, but of
movies too. Giridharadas was in Ottawa to give a
talk for the International Development Research
Centre called "Slumdog Renaissance."

In India, the reaction to the movie Slumdog
Millionaire has many layers. There's pride at the
success of the movie, but there's also the
standard resentment at any Western portrayal of Indian poverty.

I got a taste of Indian defensive nationalism
last winter, when I travelled there as a tourist
and blogged about the beggars in Delhi.

"India is progressing where as Canada/U.S.A. have
deteriorated in spite of few of us educated
people striving their best to make the country
progress with our hard work and have to read
silly editorials like this," read part of one long, angry e-mail.

"Yes I know the poverty is shocking to the
Western eyes, but believe me the country has come
a long way and even the poor in Delhi's slums
have a greater sense of confidence and optimism
than people living in the run down neighbourhoods
of North American (or Latin American) cities or
in the aboriginal reserves in this country," read another.

It hadn't even occurred to me that the blog post
would be controversial. The existence of extreme
poverty in India isn't a matter of opinion; it's a fact.

Giridharadas said India's elite grew up in a
world in which India was not an economic
contender. Now that it is, their sense of
self-image is wrapped up with India's success.

When Chinese readers get angry with me, they,
too, often bring up Canada's aboriginal people. This always bewilders me.

Of course Canada's government has treated the
First Nations abominably; few Canadians think
otherwise. What does that have to do with China's
actions in Tibet? Even if the situations were
equivalent, why even bring it up? Two wrongs don't make a right.

When foreigners criticize the seal hunt,
Canadians don't respond with, "Oh yeah? Well,
you've lost a lot of your habitat, so there!"
When the British magazine The Economist called
Paul Martin, who was then prime minister, "Mr.
Dithers," we shrugged and smiled. Why take
offence? We weren't the ones who were insulted.

But I've had to accept that some Chinese people
consider any criticism of the Chinese government
to be a personal attack. It might have something
to do with the lack of a clear distinction
between government and culture in totalitarian
societies. Remember when protesters across the
Arab world demanded that the Danish government
apologize for cartoons published in Denmark?

Canadians wouldn't dream of asking the U.S.
government to apologize on behalf of Fox News. We
did, though, demand an apology from Fox itself.
Canada does have its own insecurities.

We hate the fact that the Americans don't bother
to learn about us. We are sick of being called
boring and insipid. So when ignorant Americans
hit all those buttons as our soldiers were coming
home in boxes, from a mission Canada joined
because the United States was attacked -- well, it was too much.

One such episode won't make a difference to
Canadian foreign policy. But over time, knowing
exactly what everyone else is saying about us
could turn Canadians cool to the idea of
international co-operation. Why bother fighting
and dying if no one even notices?

Defensive nationalism could also prevent the
people of India from having honest discussions
about poverty. It could prevent the people of
China from demanding better from their government.

YouTube could, simultaneously, be a force for progress and a force against it.

Kate Heartfield is a member of the Ottawa Citizen's editorial board.

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