I listened to an episode of Ideas, a CBC radio show that focused on Dave Williams, Canadian astronaut who has spent more hours space walking than any other astronaut. As the show is wont to do, this episode was a celebration of Canadian accomplishment with the question, “What does it mean to be Canadian?” providing an undertone.
At least twice in the interview Williams expressed how proud he was to be on the space walk, operating a Canadian-made piece of machinery vital to the space station, with the Canadian flag emblazoned on his left shoulder.
In contrast to Williams was American Charles “Scorch” Hobaugh, who operated another piece of machinery necessary for spacewalks, but from inside the space station. As Hobaugh described the exact same events, he expressed repeatedly that his proudest moments lay in the fact that there was no nationality in space. It was Americans, Canadians, Russians, etc., working side-by-side for hours, absolutely relying on each other for their lives, with no consciousness of nationality, only a shared purpose.
Is one sensibility (nationalism or human unity) a better sensibility than the other? No. But each sensibility reflects the country of origin. Americans, with our “We’re number one!” attitude, coming from the one remaining superpower, pay attention to the remarkableness of everyone pitching in, pulling their weight, and getting along. Canadians, with that ever present sense of being overwhelmed by their American neighbors, pay attention to the remarkableness of being treated as an equal and necessary partner.
I will go farther and say that each sensibility is an expression of the same underlying phenomenon. The powerful society is not used to having to cooperate with others; the weak society is not used to being an integral part of the process. While Ideas may be an ongoing exploration of what it means to be Canadian, this episode revealed as much about what it means to be American.