Watching the football matches in the Lviv fan zone reminded me of the first time I went to watch horse racing. If you don’t have a horse in the race, watching horse racing is downright boring. So you pick one, and win or lose, you have a great time cheering it on. Tonight, Spain and Italy compete for the Euro Cup. Right now, I have no horse in this race, but I’m going to pick one and cheer it on before kick-off.
Which brings me to the question of national identity, since the intersection of sport and national identity is what I have been studying in Ukraine. My last big project explored the way people in Canada visual express national identity. My research to this point has generated two conflicting views, and I plan to share this schizophrenia with you now.
On one hand, my research on the way Canadians express national identity led me to view the concept of national identity as irrelevant and, to a certain extent, arrogant. After all, have the imposition of borders to create political nations given us reasons to insist upon our differences? “Imagine all the people living life in peace” if there were no countries, if you will. Easy to say when you grow up in Canada at a time when the scariest thing a border-sharer might do is denounce you undiplomatically and (why do I feel compelled to say?) incorrectly as the door-opener for terrorists.
On the other hand, I believe national identity reflects the desire that people have to control their own decisions and their own destinies; to take pride in themselves and their families; to live productively and happily in peace. Last week I spent time in Adam’s home region of Transcarpathia, which, like Lviv, was located in Austria-Hungary before the First World War, Poland before the Second World War, and the USSR afterwards until Ukraine declare independence twenty-one years ago. I visited a farm house that has been passed down from father to daughter to husband to son during that time. The newest resident of the house is two months old.
The water spigot outside the back door taps a well of spring water. The shed out back houses tools and hay and the outhouse. Through the shed you can reach a field of fruit trees and vegetables. There’s a dog, of course. There used to be rabbits and a cow. You can see the green tops of the mountains all around you. All the people want to do here is raise their families and their animals and live quiet lives. What’s so important about this little part of the earth that four separate nations have claimed it in the last hundred years alone.
I don’t know that anyone on that mountain cares about national identity–what I’m used to Canadians calling nationalism and Americans calling patriotism. One political scientist calls the kind of feeling “benign nationalism,” ascribing it to Canadians, New Zealanders and Australians to separate it from the kind of nationalism that created Nazis. Adam Gopnik suggests exceptionalism as another category of this kind of national pride, although he way he describes it does not sound particularly benign. On the other hand, he’s right that sooner or later in this type of discussion, people bring up that Second-World-War “N” word.
Despite what I learned on the top of that Carpathian mountain, I also know that the problems of people in a particular time and place call for solutions specific to their circumstances. Ukraine was a nation before there were borders and passports. The people who made up that nation have rarely been able to control their own decisions and their own destinies, take pride in themselves and their families, or live productively and happily in peace. What I saw grow over the past month, though, was a special “we’re-in-it-together” kind of feeling that started among the young volunteers I met working for the city of Lviv and grew to encompass a whole city. A city in which cars now fly the national flag around town as if Ukraine’s own team were playing in the finals tonight. One city official said to me Friday night, “It’s a new kind of confidence. It’s the confidence of participating in something successful and knowing we could do it again.”
I don’t think the kind of feeling I am seeing in Lviv is arrogant or irrelevant. I think it is healthy and hopeful. In this time and place, identifying with one another this way is a good sign. I hope that this country can overcome its unique circumstances to help the men and women living here flourish in the way that they deserve.
On July 4, I expect to be home in time to celebrate Independence Day by putting out the American flag, flanked by the Canadian flag I’ve been carrying around since 1983 and the Ukrainian flag I am bringing home in my suitcase. We’re not confused, we’re just celebrating the similarities and differences that make up our family, our ability to control our own decisions and destinies, and live together happily and productively.
For now… Spain or Italy? Oh, and Happy Canada Day!