Myodicy, Issue 20, December 2003

Mad Cow Nationalism

by Theodore Plantinga

We haven't had much to cheer about in Canada of late. For quite some time, many of us had the sense that we were in decline and that the world was paying less and less attention to us. Like Rodney Dangerfield, we worried that we do not get the respect we deserve. We used to win some sort of first prize designation from a United Nations agency that did surveys on quality of life, and we did make quite something of that award, but it slipped out of our grasp in recent years. We do win the occasional gold medal in a high-profile sport at the Olympics, but major sports victories are few and far between. There are a couple of professional sports leagues in which teams based in Canada compete with teams based in the United States, and it was on one of those leagues that we used to focus our feelings of national pride -- the National Hockey League. A Canadian-based team, the Montreal Canadiens, used to dominate that league and still enjoys the enviable distinction of having won more championships than any other team. Still, it has been a number of years since a Canada-based team has come out on top in the annual competition for professional hockey supremacy. There are sports writers who tell us that the reason is basically financial: the teams based in Canada do not have pockets deep enough to compete with teams based in the USA.

For just as long as we have struggled with our Rodney Dangerfield anxieties, we have worried about gradually losing our sense of national identity. Many of us fear we no longer have a clear sense of who we are. Perhaps we represent no more than a minor variation on the US cultural identity, which remains strong. We are told that we are gradually falling into line with a made-in-the-USA homogeneity that leaves us only with a diminished regional consciousness of ourselves. The National Post and the political party that used to call itself Reform and then morphed into the Canadian Alliance have quietly encouraged us to acquiesce in this merger of our cultural identity with that of the United States. We became defeatists -- if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

But there may be a new day dawning. Just in the last five years or so, we have seen signs of a renewed awareness of who we are as Canadians. There have been various indications of the re-emergence of a Canadian spirit of independence. Part of the change -- especially as concerns our relationship with the USA -- has to do with the challenge faced by the entire civilized world after 9/11. We sensed that we need protection -- more of it. But how were we to get it, and at what cost?

But there is more to the revival of the Canadian spirit: I am convinced that it is also due in part to how Canada, as a small country, can best deal with the "hardball" approach to trade and international relations manifested by President George W. Bush. One reason for the political success of Jean Chretien, our Prime Minister from 1993 to 2003, who won three successive parliamentary majorities, was his willingness to take distance from the USA and its overbearing ways. Many Canadians saluted his decision not to commit Canadian forces to the war fought in 2003 to bring about regime change in Iraq.

There's more to the story. Our recently reviving spirit of nationalism has also been stirred and bolstered by an unlikely source of help -- the mad cow. Mad cow disease (or, more properly, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also called BSE) has brought us together in a curious way that no one could have predicted. It has hurt our economy, but at the same time it has given us a renewed sense that we are all Canadians.

When a single instance of mad cow disease was found on a farm in Alberta in May of 2003, the world responded quickly. It seemed that in no time our beef exports to various countries were blocked. Leaders in the United States were quick to cut us off, citing the danger to the health of their own people as their reason for acting. Cynics suspected that American beef producers could now benefit by moving in on markets that had been supplied heretofore by Canadians. It appeared that with one stroke of the pen, Canadian beef had become a menace, a health risk for Americans.

If it was so dangerous for Americans to eat Canadian beef, it would follow that it is also dangerous for Canadians to do so. A detached observer would presumably draw some such conclusion, but Canadians seemed to be able to resist the inference: what we saw instead was that many Canadians rallied around our local beef industry and made a point of eating Canadian beef, assuring all who were willing to listen that the local beef is perfectly safe. It quickly became the patriotic thing to do. Premiers of various provinces (not just Alberta) were photographed and filmed eating Canadian beef.

It was an anxious time, but there was also excitement in the air. It felt a bit like the excitement that comes of watching one's national sports team confronting the team fielded by some other country. I was reminded of when Canada's national women's hockey team defeated the US national team for the Olympic gold medal in 2002. In that same year, of course, the Canadian men's team also defeated the American men's team for the gold medal, but our men's team includes quite a number of the world's best professional hockey players. It was an expected triumph. The women's win the day before was much less predictable and therefore more heart-warming.

Those two gold medals in hockey gave us a boost and rallied our flagging national spirit. But now it is becoming apparent that mad cow disease, along with the national passions and rivalries it evokes, also has the potential to stir our sense of national identity. In a roundabout way, mad cow disease has proven to be a good thing -- at least, for certain Canadians. Many a cloud turns out to have a silver lining.

The latest chapter in the saga is that a single instance of mad cow disease was discovered on a farm in the state of Washington. The logic applied in the Canadian situation has been transferred to a new case. Many countries around the world, including such major trading partners of the USA as Japan and South Korea, were quick to close their borders to US beef.

Perhaps a few Canadians rubbed their hands in glee at thought that the Americans, who had been so hard on us over mad cow disease (while perhaps also punishing us for taking issue with the US position on Iraq) could now get a taste of their own medicine. Canada had lost a great deal of money because of the mad cow problem, and now the same thing would happen to the USA. But most Canadians were somewhat more magnanimous: their thought was that they would not wish the mad cow problem on their worst enemy, let alone our good friends and neighbors to the south, even though they are perceived as being rather hard on us during the current Bush presidency.

It is too soon to tell whether mad cow nationalism will manifest itself in the United States as much as it has in Canada. Perhaps the USA has so many other factors serving to bolster its national identity that it does not need to rely on the mad cow. But it is striking that many of the same leaders who perceived grave dangers to American health in Canadian beef after a single mad cow was found in Alberta are now assuring the US public that the risk to public health from the fact that one instance has been found in the state of Washington is minimal. It appears that we will see a partial repetition of Canada's mad cow nationalism in the assurances from political leaders that American beef is still safe. Some years ago, we witnessed the same sort of thing in Great Britain, where there were a number of cases of mad cow disease, leading to drastic measures to deal with the problem.

For years we have been hearing that nations are obsolete and borders don't mean much anymore: people no longer identify with countries. Instead we have become citizens of the world, even while we maintain strong ties to our local community. If all of these claims were credible, labels like "Canadian" or "American" or "British" would no longer mean much. But nowadays these labels are applied to beef, and significant consequences follow (Canadian beef bad, American beef good -- until recently).

To the distress of farmers in other provinces, the mad cow found in Alberta tainted Canadian beef in general -- not just Alberta beef. Farmers in other provinces were also under the gun and were badly damaged by the economic fallout from the Alberta case. And so it has occurred to me that we might be able to minimize the economic damage that results from such situations by raising the alarm in more narrowly defined terms. What if we had thrown up our hands in horror at the prospect of consuming "Alberta beef" rather than "Canadian beef"? Couldn't the other provinces then have closed their borders to Alberta beef while continuing to export beef to other countries? Why couldn't cows carry provincial passports, so to speak? Likewise, in the USA, could the problem not be defined in terms of "Washington beef," whereas "Oregon beef" and "Montana beef" could still be considered perfectly safe? There was a time when people in the USA identified largely with the state in which they lived (think of General Robert E. Lee, a proud Virginian) and insisted on referring to the country as a whole as "these [plural] United States," but such state-based nationalism seems to have faded away: perhaps the Civil War finished it off. So now we seem to be stuck with the notion that the mad cow in the state of Washington has tainted American beef in general -- and not just beef in the state (or states) in which it was bred and raised.

In the early stages of the latest mad cow scare, it crossed my mind to wonder whether "North American beef" might not all be suspect. If, indeed, there is so much traffic over the Canadian-US border (the biggest trading relationship in all the world in terms of the number of dollars), would Montana beef not be endangered by a mad cow finding in Alberta? After all, Montana is a lot closer to Alberta than Quebec. And before long there were reports in circulation that the Washington case was indeed linked to the earlier Alberta case. Those reports were later confirmed by testing.

If we had followed the North American route in terms of labeling beef, the Alberta situation would have been the problem of both countries, and perhaps of Mexico as well. It seems to me that such an approach would have been in the spirit of the Free Trade Agreement (we're in this together). Then the recent mad cow finding in the state of Washington would be the problem of both countries. But for some reason, nationalism does not extend to these regional trading blocs.

Of course Europe also has mad cow experience. We hear a great deal about European integration of late, but on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean the mad cow threat gave rapid birth to mad cow nationalism and its enemy, which we might call mad cow xenophobia (distrusting beef from elsewhere). When mad cows were found in England, people in other parts of Europe were soon throwing up their hands in horror at the prospect of consuming "British beef." Yet there did not seem to be much worry about "European Union beef." Indeed, European Union partners like France were resolute in terms of slamming the door on British beef -- to the point of creating a lot of hard feeling. Perhaps it was realized that when these larger political and economic unions are created, the danger of guilt by association grows. Because it is still quite credible to think of the United Kingdom or Great Britain as a separate country, it makes intuitive sense to speak of the danger of British beef. And so, switching to the Canadian case, it might not have been credible to advertise the Canadian problem as having to do with "Alberta beef," as opposed to "Canadian beef."

The point of this homily is not to make light of the suffering and economic damage undergone by others. I have so far resisted making the admission that I do not regard myself as endangered by Canadian or British or American beef because I am of the vegetarian persuasion and eat no beef whatsoever. Even as a vegetarian, I sympathize deeply with food producers who are devastated by the economic consequences of this disease.

The connection between nationalism and mad cow disease has been in my mind for quite some time. Much nationalism I regard as foolish, and even dangerous. In an athletic setting, it is a fine thing to cheer for the home team. But when the home team loses in the championship game in front of the home-town fans, I believe we should quickly get over our disappointment and sense of loss and salute the champions for the skill and determination they displayed in getting to the top. Sometimes the spirit of cheering for the home team becomes a rabid nationalism that eventually translates itself into ill will toward neighboring countries, or even animosity; when such a thing happens, we are on the wrong track altogether. There was indeed an element of Schadenfreude in the way the latest revelation about beef woes in the USA was received and processed. I must confess that it was not altogether absent from my own mind and heart. In the long run I would like to respond to such situations in Christian terms, reminding myself and others that it is much better to bear one another's burdens (see Galatians 6:2) than to rejoice in another's woes.

The safety of the food supply is a collective concern, and therefore a matter for government involvement. But food safety is essentially an environmental issue. The environment and the food chain are the collective responsibility not just of provinces or states but of nations that interact so extensively in this era of free trade. And so I suggest it is time for countries that are closely associated in trade, such as the United States and Canada, to take joint responsibility for responding -- both on the economic level and the food-safety level -- to such a danger as mad cow disease. I would like to see a day in which such labels as "Canadian beef" and "British beef" and "American beef" become obsolete.

Here in Canada we have been through some frightening times in recent years when it comes to water safety. There have been issues especially in the provinces of Ontario and Saskatchewan. During that time, there was great sympathy throughout the country for the people in the immediate region where the water supply had been found to be unsafe. People in other parts of the country were well aware that the safety of our water is a fragile issue, and that problems that were manifesting themselves in some faraway region could easily occur in our own area as well. There was a kind of solidarity in the suffering that had resulted from the water problem, and also a solidarity in terms of the national determination to do better. This sense of solidarity seemed to me a healthy thing, whereas I find something almost childish in the way various people react to the recent findings regarding beef.

I hope we can avoid hysteria. More specifically, I hope we can avoid the impulse to enjoy seeing the Americans squirm, in retaliation for the attitude they took toward us when we were found to have a mad cow in our pasture. Finally, I hope we can find a deeper source to sustain our nationalism than pride in our own food supply or disdain for the food supply of our neighbors. [END]

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