Treason and Patriotism in Postmodern Society
by Mark Wegierski
Traditional notions of treason and patriotism have long been important in Canada but have been subject to enormous pressure since the beginning of the twentieth century. English-Canadian identity was ever bound up with the profession of loyalty to the Sovereign or Monarch. A person who failed to profess loyalty to the Sovereign or Monarch was deemed disloyal to Canada. On a number of occasions in recent Canadian history, Québécois nationalists in particular have been accused of treason. What follows is an examination of these accusations in the light of current thinking about what constitutes treason, in Canada and elsewhere.
Ideas of treason and patriotism seem to be most pronounced in traditional societies. The manifest showing of disloyalty to a country or nation, or its chief symbols, has often been met with severe censure or punishment. At the same time, making common cause with one’s nation’s enemies, typically in the forms of espionage, sabotage, or extremely vocal agitation, was often considered “high treason,” punishable by death or long and harsh prison terms. But looking at the history of the second half of the twentieth century and the first two decades of the twenty-first, it is clear that, for Western societies at least, “treason is not what it used to be.”
The questions of loyalty as between Church and State have always been particularly difficult. According to historian Edward Gibbon, the persecutions of Christians under the Roman Empire stemmed from the latter’s refusal to show even the slightest recognition of loyalty to the Emperor (e.g. by burning some incense before a statuette of the Emperor) which was interpreted by Christians not as a civic or patriotic ritual, but one of idolatrous recognition of the divinity of the Emperor. Christians were prepared to endure torture, even death, rather than submit to this ritual.
Much later, English Catholics and French Protestants were suspected of treason against their respective countries, and subject to the severest persecutions. The Huguenots of France – after such calamities as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre — were almost entirely expelled in the end – going into exile in Protestant societies. The brief Catholic ascendancy of Queen Mary in England was characterized by Protestant English historians as a period of bloody persecution. Yet her Protestant successor Queen Elizabeth carried out far more extensive persecutions. The so-called Test Acts introduced at a later period called for every person in the realm to receive communion in the Church of England two or three times a year, or be stripped of all civil and political rights. Very few sincere and devoted Roman Catholics would consent to do that — so these were a vehicle for deliberate, mass disenfranchisement. One of the best indications of the ingrained anti-Catholicism of the English or British state were its habitual, derogatory references to “Popery”, or “the Romish church” (with its “Jesuit spies” and “Spanish Inquisition”), seen as “number one enemy.” Nevertheless, Roman Catholicism in England attracted a long and illustrious lineage of intellectual apologists, such as Sir Thomas More, many of whom faced martyrdom.
The anti-Catholicism of the English or British state migrated to America. In virtually every era of America’s history, there were outbreaks of anti-Catholicism. Indeed, Roman Catholics have been under almost constant suspicion — whether from Protestant or secularist critics — of being “un-American.” Admittedly, one of the largest desertions from the U.S. army occurred during the Mexican-American War, when the Mexicans were able to raise the so-called San Patricio battalion from Irish Catholic U.S. deserters and prisoners of war. The U.S. army immediately hanged upon capture any identified member of this formation.
Joseph McCarthy is one of the most vilified figures in U.S. history. However, many of his contemporaries supported his crusade against “Communist traitors.” What precisely, then, was McCarthy’s crime? America was locked in a ferocious struggle with Soviet Communism. Should members of the U.S. Communist Party have been allowed to hold positions of high cultural and scientific influence or to worm their way into influential government departments? How much extra suffering was endured in the Eastern Bloc because some Western nuclear scientists of the 1940s and 1950s took it upon themselves to reveal what they knew about U.S. nuclear programs to the Soviet Union — presumably because they felt the U.S. was “unworthy” of exercising global power responsibly. Were these not legitimate security concerns?
McCarthy’s chief failing was to overplay his hand, which made him subsequently seem like an inquisitorial monster. Yet the social penalties meted out to most of these persons were inconsequential, e.g., “not being allowed to direct big-budget Hollywood movies for ten years.” Some of the people in question were out-and-out apologists for Stalin, professional deniers of the many genocides carried out by the Soviet Union. The left-liberal friends of the far left have been able to transvalue the meaning of McCarthy’s efforts to the point where “McCarthyism” has become a term of opprobrium. In reaction to the ever more amplified excesses of McCarthy, America became extremely skittish about properly identifying, condemning, and punishing treason.
This tendency was exacerbated in the Vietnam War era, because of the moral ambiguities of that conflict. What some Americans at that time saw as one of the most odious acts of treason in their history was Jane Fonda’s trip to Hanoi, where she manifestly “gave aid and comfort” to an enemy. The fact that Jane Fonda remains unpunished to this day for such manifest treason may be one indication of how far America’s self-conception as a nation has sunk. In some of the more recent spy-scandals, moles have done enormous damage to U.S. intelligence efforts, and actually betrayed other agents to death by torture, but have received little more than token punishments. In the case of Jonathan Pollard, because he spied on behalf of a U.S. ally, it is often considered that he did nothing wrong. But what if Israel took that highly-sensitive information and used it as bargaining chips to obtain concessions of various sorts from regimes hostile to the U.S., e.g., the Soviet Union? Pollard had a large number of very prominent supporters in the U.S., who continued to press for his release, and eventually got their way.
Britain, of course, has had its own problems. A book about the famous Cambridge spy ring was acerbically titled, “spies, lies, buggery, and betrayal.” The treason of the so-called “best and brightest” certainly attests to the decay of at least a part of Britain’s traditional ruling elites. John Le Carré, who was among the best-known writers of espionage novels in the world, was nourished on this kind of climate, and, although writing with enormous skill, maintained that there was no moral difference between the Soviet Bloc and the West. His writing has certainly played a part in “the relativizing of treason.”
Canada was so innocent of the realities of the Cold War that when Igor Gouzenko defected in 1947, many Canadian government officials thought he was simply a lunatic, and considered sending him back! The Soviets, conversely, considered him a traitor, and sentenced him to death in absentia. Should every citizen be bound by obligations of loyalty towards a state, regardless of its ideological complexion and political realities? Arguably no totalitarian state like that of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union can legitimately claim the unquestioning adherence of its population. In the case of authoritarian regimes, however, the admonition to reject and resist such a regime is less clear-cut.
In both totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, conflicts have inevitably emerged between loyalty to a nation, and loyalty to a regime, and over the degree of permissible collaboration with a regime while claiming to be serving one’s nation. One controversial case is that of Boleslaw Piasecki, the fanatical though intellectually able leader of a small, far-right party ONR-Falanga in pre-World War II Poland. After the war, he embarked on a painful strategy of collaboration with the new Communist authorities, which was perhaps an involuntary course, as his young son was under permanent threat from the Communists – and of course, he himself could have been shot – or tortured to death — out-of-hand. Indeed, his son was eventually kidnapped, and brutally murdered, allegedly in a “ritualistic” fashion. The father was persuaded for over a year that he might yet ransom his son. Yet, the accusation of gross, opportunistic collaboration is often made against Piasecki, especially considering that men and women of clearly greater stature endured torture and death rather than show any kind of allegiance to the Soviet-imposed system. And it was only rarely possible to withdraw into an apolitical life, even if one were so inclined. The Polish patriots were hounded by the Communist regime.
In an issue some years ago, the Polish conservative journal Stanczyk (named after the famous, sixteenth-century court jester of the Polish Kings, known for his political wit and wisdom), drew attention to the questionable actions of a few post-World War II Polish émigrés in the early 1950s, who signed an agreement of cooperation at the small Bavarian town of Berg with American military intelligence, in exchange for monetary compensation. In the opinion of the Stanczyk journal, such an agreement then fatally compromised the Polish-Government-in-Exile in London, England. If so much of the Government-in-Exile’s funding was dependent on U.S. goodwill, it could not convincingly argue for such initiatives as a nuclear-free zone in Eastern Europe, something which might have potentially had enormous importance for Polish survival had war actually broken out. It turned out, furthermore, that the signatories to the agreement diverted much of the funds for their private use, thus exposing the underground network of Polish patriots working on their behalf in Poland to unnecessary risks, suffering, and, sometimes, execution. Indeed, the journal sees the signatories of this agreement with the Americans as real traitors.
There is also some division of opinion expressed in the journal concerning Colonel Kuklinski, who was among the highest-ranking East Bloc personnel to defect to the West. Some argue that, after the breakthrough of 1956, the Polish People’s Republic was an authoritarian, not a totalitarian regime, and that the weakening of Polish military capability vis-à-vis the West was not an unqualifiedly positive action. It later emerged, for example, that in the late 1950s to early 1960s, U.S. military planners had conceived a strategy for fighting in Europe called “Plan Vistula”. While some Poles, when hearing the plan’s name, might naively think this meant an offensive drive to liberate Poland, what it actually entailed was the creation, through nuclear saturation bombing, of a “zone of death” of about 200 kilometers wide across the breadth of Poland, in order to prevent Soviet armies from quickly reinforcing their main lines in East Germany. This would have resulted in the deaths of at least 20 million Poles. So U.S. military planning of that time absolutely disregarded the anti-Soviet potential of the Polish population. It took a surprisingly long time for U.S. grand strategy to see the peoples of Eastern Europe and Russia as potential allies, rather than enemy assets, in the Cold War conflict.
The Soviet Union had always had an uneasy relation with Russian nationalism. During the NEP (New Economic Plan) period, the regime was able to diffuse some of the Russian émigré opposition by appealing to Russian nationalism, and by suggesting that it would soon transform itself into a “true organic conservative” regime. These émigré supporters called themselves “the Changing Landmarks movement.” Many of them were lured back to their homeland, and soon thereafter disappeared. The NEP and disinformation strategy gave the Soviet Union a breathing space before its next lunge into totalitarian darkness under Stalin. Indeed, the so-called kulaks (or more prosperous peasants) — who were the typical targets of massive campaigns of genocide under Stalin – had themselves largely come into existence as a result of the more relaxed period of the NEP. However, after Stalin’s death in 1953, the history of the Soviet Union moved increasingly away from totalitarianism in the direction of authoritarianism and Russian nationalism.
It is not only the claims to loyalty by totalitarian and authoritarian regimes that are subject to question. Certain liberal democratic regimes have moved away from the traditional content of their culture. There has thus emerged, the problem of “a tyranny from another direction”, not from the far right or far left, but from “the center.” Around 1998 in the United States, there was a debate centred on a symposium sponsored by the journal First Things, edited by Richard Neuhaus. Father Neuhaus (at that time a Roman Catholic priest, formerly a Lutheran minister) had once been a close aide of Martin Luther King, Jr. However, as the U.S. situation soured over the decades, Neuhaus became increasingly rightward-leaning. The main theme of the symposium was criticism of so-called “judicial usurpation”, i.e., the thesis that the various decisions of the U.S. Courts were driving the country in a direction undesired by the majority of the population. Laws supported by enormous majorities in the country were struck down by “activist” Courts, whereas any popular initiatives to change the direction of the country were also being immediately declared unconstitutional. Some of the symposium’s participants suggested that, if the popular will continued to be blocked, armed insurrection was not out of the question.
The responses of the so-called neoconservative wing of the U.S. Right to these ideas were unreserved and ferocious. The symposium participants were accused of an “anti-Americanism” comparable to that of the Sixties’ Far Left. It seemed to have escaped the notice of the neoconservatives that pointing out the apparently illiberal and undemocratic nature of the current U.S. system has been a staple of conservative ideas in the U.S. since at least the 1960s.
From a traditionalist and/or conservative standpoint, there is precious little democracy or popular will left in a regime dominated by the managerial-therapeutic system of mass-media, Big Tech, mass-education, mass-bureaucracy, juridical legalism, etc., which makes any kind of conservatism virtually impossible. In the 1990s, accordingly, some patriotic-minded Americans migrated to a burgeoning Patriot Militia movement. Left-liberals were quite happy to deploy the sharp coercive arm of the state (elements of the FBI, BATF, etc.) against their enemies. Ironically, when the former “Sixties’ rebels” (i.e., mostly Baby Boomers), more-or-less achieved control of the government in the 1990s, including its coercive instrumentalities, far less attention was paid to “CIA/FBI wrongdoing”. And today, left-liberals virtually worship the U.S. intelligence apparatus, which conservative critics have called “the Deep State”.
President Obama continued George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” abroad – in order to pacify neoconservative criticism – while pursuing an increasingly radical domestic agenda. No matter how many drone strikes and bombings he ordered abroad (to the applause of the neocons), the Left cheered him on, because it was getting what it wanted at home. Among Obama’s highly questionable actions in domestic policy were his support for the questionable methods of Attorney-General Eric Holder; the enactment of what amounts to an “administrative amnesty” for illegal immigrants – in a flaunting of Congress’s unwillingness to bring in such measures through legislation; and the nomination of divisive figures to the Supreme Court. Would resistance to the current U.S. regime still be considered treasonous by American patriots? What kinds of rejection and resistance may be seen as legitimate, and which as illegitimate?
In terms of any potentially emerging civil conflict in the Canadian context (i.e., Canada vs. Quebec), the position of the Canadian armed forces would be pivotal. Until the election of the Conservative government in 2006, Canada’s stance towards its military manifestly diverged from traditional notions of patriotism. The funding of the military had been punitively cut over the last four decades, to the point where defence spending had reached little more than 5% of the annual federal government budget. The Canadian armed forces were continually assailed and devalourized in the mass media, academic, and government circles. At this time, over half of the combat-worthy land forces were French-Canadian, and many of them might have been tempted to defect to the Quebec cause, so as to receive social respect, better pay, and up-to-date equipment. Most of the rest of the military were English-speaking Canadians of British descent. Liberal Canada had been waging a long war against British traditions in Canada, proclaiming itself a multicultural society, and aggressively devalourizing straight white males. Would they have defended this new Canada which had continually repudiated them? Stephen Harper’s subsequent revitalizing and re-valourizing of the Canadian military was one of the most important achievements of his government.
As the major global superpower, the U.S. perforce treats its military much better. Yet even there, one could see some obvious problems in the 1990s. To many U.S. soldiers and officers, Clinton had very little moral authority as Commander-in-Chief, because of his draft-dodging record. This was compounded by his penchant for sending U.S. troops on U.N. missions that many Americans perceived as having little to do with real U.S. interests. There was an interesting case where a U.S. soldier refused orders to deploy to the Balkans, claiming that U.S. troops were being put under foreign command and deployed overseas without Congressional approval — a manifest violation of the Constitution. He was quickly thrown out of the military.
George W. Bush gained considerable support when he talked during his presidential campaign of a more “humble” foreign policy. In the event — in the aftermath of ‘9/11’ — his Administration undertook the war against Iraq. This mis-deployment of American strength was characterised by some critics as a “Sicilian Expedition”. Likewise, the intervention in Afghanistan – however necessary in the aftermath of ‘9/11’ — developed into a multi-year (or possibly multi-decade) “nation building” undertaking, rather than a quick punitive strike. In his 2003 hatchet-piece in the “new” National Review, David Frum pointedly accused a disparate group of conservative and libertarian figures critical of unlimited foreign interventions by the U.S., as “unpatriotic”.
Canada is a society which, before the 1960s, was largely more conservative and tradition-minded than the United States, but which, in the aftermath of the 1960s, has become far more liberal and progressive-minded. It is important to ask how Canadian nationhood was traditionally defined. This is a question which many persons in Canada today are unwilling or unable to ask. Indeed, Canadian identity is today seen as a kind of conundrum or puzzle.
Up until the 1960s, Canada was conceived in far different ways than it is today. At the most basic level, Canada was conceived of as a British country. This was a combination of both British political traditions (Monarchy, Parliament, the British Common Law), and the fact that, for the last two hundred or so years, persons from the British Isles had formed the majority of the population. The obvious exception to Canada’s Britishness was the province of Quebec, with its large, French-speaking, Catholic population. As Lord Durham had presciently warned in 1840 (although his proposed, fanatically anti-French solution of complete assimilation turned out to be unworkable) this has led to a situation of “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state.” As a kind of response to the prevalent, dynamic, English-speaking culture, French Quebec had largely turned inward, centered on its Roman Catholicism and a largely rural existence. However, in the twentieth century, nascent Québécois nationalism expressed itself mainly in support of the Liberal Party, rather than what were characterized as the “Tory Orangemen” of the Conservative Party.
Once thought as solid as the rock of Gibraltar, the British imperial concept has melted away like snow. It has turned out that this notional system was more-or-less coterminous with the reign of Queen Victoria, and quickly dissipated thereafter. For Canada, the decline of the British Empire, the British Imperial idea, and increasingly now, even of the stature and place of the British Monarchy in England itself, has exacerbated the onset of a permanent identity crisis for English Canada.
Furthermore, the support the federal Liberal Party commonly received from Quebec after the federal election of 1896 (since the end of the nineteenth century) has ultimately allowed the Liberal Party to undertake a thoroughgoing reconstruction of Canada, in opposition to “the British connection.” Beginning in 1965 with the repudiation of the Red Ensign (Canada’s traditional flag, on which the Union Jack figured prominently), the Liberal Party was able to take Canada through a series of radical restructurings, culminating in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. The submission of all Parliamentary legislation to judicial review based on an absolutized written rights document is largely alien to British constitutional principles. The result is the undermining of the cornerstone of the British (and Canadian) system – the Sovereignty of Parliament. Indeed, the influence of the Charter – driven by an activist judiciary and legal apparatus which political scientist Ted Morton has called “the Court Party” — has unleashed a massive tide of multifarious social and cultural change in Canada that has yet to abate.
The question for an English-speaking Canadian traditionalist inevitably becomes — to which Canada is he or she expected to hold allegiance? Interestingly enough, the current Canadian Citizenship Oath refers only to allegiance to the Monarchy. Unfortunately, this is increasingly seen as a “dark relic” of the past, and will probably soon be replaced with an oath which will most likely call for allegiance to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and to “Canada’s diversity.” An English-speaking Canadian traditionalist, although a person who sees him or herself as the most ardent Canadian patriot, would have difficulty holding such an allegiance in good conscience. And, indeed, Canadian left-liberals would label persons ambivalent about the very latest aspects and interpretations of the Charter — those who refused to accept this newly-imposed Canadian identity — as “un-Canadian.”
The situation for Québécois nationalists is rather different. Certainly, they hold little respect for the institutions of the old Canada. Much like the case of Irish nationalism, Québécois nationalism is invariably republican. At the same time, the Québécois nationalist also probably holds the legal framework and institutions of the new Canada in contempt. Ironically, the Canadian system of provinces has allowed an enormous degree of autonomy for the province of Quebec, in which the French-Canadians are today guaranteed a large majority of power. Indeed, apart from the Anglophone (English-speaking), Allophone (non-English, non-French-speaking), and Aboriginal minorities in the province, there is no “pro-Canada faction” in Quebec. Rather, there are, generally-speaking, fédéralistes and “non-separatist nationalists,” who think French Quebec’s interests are best served by remaining in Canada, and the Québécois separatists or nationalists or sovereigntistes, who think that Quebec can do better outside of Canada.
The attitude of the new Canadian elites today to Quebec separatism is clear — it is close to “enemy number one.” To these elites, Quebec nationalism is seen as a dangerous tribalism, an atavism, “the fly in the ointment” that threatens to disrupt the dream of the multicultural, new Canadian state. The new Canadian elites are not averse to enlisting some of the traditional disdain of English Canadians against Quebec, as a weapon to be deployed against the Québécois. On the other hand, the congenital reluctance of these elements to uphold any serious definition of Canadian nationhood has meant that many actions that would have traditionally been considered treasonous, e.g., the circulation of written materials by a member of Parliament urging military personnel to join a secessionist cause, have met with only a tepid response. According to English-Canadian ultra-traditionalist criteria, a Quebec separatist party would in all likelihood not even be permitted to sit in Parliament. Indeed, the standpoint of most of the English Canadian right wing is to stand strongly against Quebec. They are often the ones who are the most likely to fling the accusations of treason against the Québécois separatists.
Yet, a more thoughtful English-speaking Canadian traditionalist would be able to see that enlisting oneself in the new “war” against Quebec separatism, might well be supportive only of the new Canadian ruling class. As Ray Conlogue argues in his book Impossible Nation: The Longing for Homeland in Canada and Quebec (Stratford, Ontario, Canada: Mercury Press, 1996) as a result of the fundamental transformation carried out since the 1960s in Canada, — French Quebec is a manifestly real nation — without a state; whereas Canada has descended into being merely a state — a soulless apparatus — without a solid national definition. For Canada today, the province or the region might be the best place to build a sense of identity simultaneously more respectful of Canadian tradition, and distinct from the American.
It transpires that the distinctions between treason and patriotism in current-day Canada are not as stark, and are somewhat more complex in the weight of meanings and consequences which they carry, than has been the case in more traditional societies.
Sociologist Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher