Go ahead and cheer for the home team

Politically, nationalism has become a dirty word.

It is associated with anti-immigrant European leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Italy’s Matteo Salvini. It has been appropriated by far-right politicians such as France’s Marine Le Pen and Britain’s Nigel Farage.

It is used disparagingly to refer to the beliefs of Donald Trump.

When Justin Trudeau spoke in France last week, the Toronto Star’s headline was “PM denounces growing threat of nationalism.”

It was something that the prime minister and his foreign affairs minister, Chrystia Freeland, have done many times before.

However, one lesson from the Raptor-mania sweeping Canada is that nationalism is a complicated business. It can be abused by right-wing politicians intent on aggravating ethnic divisions. But at base, it is a normal human emotion predicated on shared experiences.

When Canadians from places like Edmonton and Windsor and Vancouver root for Toronto’s Raptors in the National Basketball Association finals, most are not doing so out of misplaced affection for Canada’s largest city.

Nor are they doing so out of loyalty to the well-paid athletes who currently happen to play for the team.

Most, I suspect, are cheering for the Raptors because they are the NBA’s only Canadian team. They are cheering out of nationalism.

And when the fans belt out O Canada (not an easy task, given that politicians keep changing the words), they are expressing pride in their country.

There’s nothing inherently evil in that. Nor is it necessarily wrong when Hungarians or Italians or Britons, or the French do the same.

By definition, nationalists favour the home team regardless of the game being played.

In this country, sports nationalists tend to prefer Canadian basketball or hockey or soccer teams over those from other countries. Economic nationalists tend to prefer Canadian companies and workers.

In both cases, the choices may not be rational, in the purest sense of the word. The Oakland Golden State Warriors arguably have a better chance of winning the NBA finals than do the Toronto Raptors.

Similarly, foreign factories may produce goods and services more cheaply than domestic ones. But it’s very human to ignore the purely rational response and cheer for the local team anyway.

Nationalism becomes dangerous only when the criteria for membership become racially, religiously or ethnically exclusive.

The fact that nationalism is thriving in Europe is not in itself a problem. What’s worrisome is that, in too many cases, this nationalism is based on the notion of white, Christian primacy.

Similarly, Quebec nationalism is fine as long as Quebec remains open to all. The fear is that the province’s proposed law limiting the right of teachers and other public-sector workers to wear religious symbols has put this openness in doubt.

And then there’s the rest of Canada. The nationalism here has been largely benign. That doesn’t mean it will always be so. As Britain’s soccer louts have shown, even simple sports boosterism can become a nightmare if the conditions are right.

But so far, I don’t think Trudeau need worry too much about the malevolent effects of nationalism on Canadian society.

That some oppose his trade deals does not mean that Canadians have decided to flirt with the dark forces of isolationism and autarchy. That some criticize his handling of refugee issues does not signify that Canada has become suddenly racist.

Rather, these are signals that not everyone is sure Trudeau has done justice to the home team.

And as the Raptor experience has shown, there is in this country a real affection for the home team.

Thomas Walkom is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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