Countries die. Nations fade away. However great nations may be, they are not eternal.
Pierre Trudeau certainly thought so, some 30 years ago. Appearing before Canada’s Senate to condemn the proposed constitutional amendments of the Meech Lake Accord in the spring of 1988, Trudeau said: “If the people of Canada want this accord, and that is not beyond the realm of possibility, then let that be part of the Constitution. I, for one, will be convinced that the Canada we know and love will be gone forever. But, then, Thucydides wrote that Themistocles’ greatness lay in the fact that he realized Athens was not immortal. I think we have to realize that Canada is not immortal; but, if it is going to go, let it go with a bang rather than a whimper.”
T.S. Eliot, Thucydides, Themistocles and realpolitik, all in three pithy sentences. Those of us who are old enough can recall watching him on that cold March day, in awe that one man could say such a thing – that Canada could die! How could a country like this one disappear?
Was Trudeau right?
As with many things, he was. In the intervening years, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Yugoslavia and the U.S.S.R. have all slipped beneath history’s waves, supplanted by something else entirely. Replaced – in the cases of the U.S.S.R. and Yugoslavia – after monstrous and horrific things happened.
It could happen to Canada, too.
It was not arrogant for Pierre Trudeau to say what he said. It is arrogant, instead, to insist that a nation – which is mostly just the shared hopes, dreams and values of a people, a body of laws, and some squiggles on a map – is incapable of dying. Nations, like the people who constitute them, die.
The United States of America, for example.
Ascertaining the moment of America’s demise, as a forensic scientist might do, is subjective. It’s in the eye of the one doing the autopsy.
America died in degrees.
John F. Kennedy. His brother Bobby. Martin Luther King Jr. Watergate. The Depression. The Civil War. Slavery. Lynchings. Internment camps. McCarthyism. Iraq. Enola Gay. Vietnam. 9/11. All of these, and too many more, were grievous wounds. They deeply weakened the only democratic superpower – but they did not fully kill it.
For this writer – who lived in the United States, went to school there and can still recite the Declaration of Independence – two less historical moments help frame the end.
One was in the late 1960s, when my family was living in Texas and my best friend was an Hispanic boy, David. David and I did everything together but he mysteriously did not go to my school. I asked my mother why. She had no answer, so she asked the Stevensons, the Texas family who had taken these newcomer Canadians under their wing. Wasn’t the day coming, my Mom asked, when David and Warren would be allowed to go to school together?
Mrs. Stevenson, the sweetest and most generous person you could ever hope to meet, looked at my mother and said: “On that day, I will go down to the school with my gun.”
The other moment came much later, in 1993, when I was holed up in a cabin in Lake Placid, N.Y., trying to finish my book about racism in Canada and the U.S., Web of Hate. In the evening, to get a break, we went into town for a burger and beer at a place on Main Street. Midway through our meal, a guy walked in with a T-shirt with a swastika and the words WHITE POWER on the front of it. What was remarkable wasn’t him or his shirt, it was how the people greeted him like an old friend. “In Canada,” I said to my partner, “you don’t see that, so much. Here, they don’t care.”
The United States died – the United States was killed – on Dec. 14, 2012. On that day in Newtown, Conn., a 20-year-old man – carrying a gun that was legal for him to possess – gunned down 20 children between the ages of six and seven. He also killed six adult staff members. But it is those tiny victims we remember most.
And what was the response to that act of evil by the United States of America, the nation that likes to claim it is the greatest on Earth? What did it change, what did it do?
Nothing. It defeated any and all attempts to prevent the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School from happening again.
It was right then that the United States died. When you can let 20 six-and-seven-year-olds be murdered and do nothing to prevent it from happening ever again, you cease to be a country. You cease to be a people worthy of the name.
The United States didn’t die when Donald Trump was sworn in as president. In a nation where savageries like Sandy Hook could happen, over and over again, Trump is not an aberration.
He is its logical conclusion.
Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator.
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