January 31, 2014 11:48 am

Skating on thin ice

‘This love of the native landscape can be entirely innocent. Often, though, it segues into anti-immigrant feeling’
Man showing off his forearm with mountain landscape©Luis Grañena

The Canadian $5 bill of the past decade shows scenes of winter sports: children, mostly, sledging, skating and playing ice hockey on a frozen pond. “The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons,” says the accompanying text from Roch Carrier’s 1979 short story “The Hockey Sweater”: “The school, the church and the skating rink – but our real life was on the skating rink.”

That bill is being replaced by a $5 note featuring an astronaut. However, pond hockey still trumps space exploration in the Canadian psyche. Canadians worship their country by communing with its winter landscape. So do many Scandinavians, Swiss, Austrians, Dutch and others. This love of the native landscape can be entirely innocent. Often, though, it segues into anti-immigrant feeling. The deep nationalist sentiments that will be released by the winter Olympics in Sochi help us make sense of the immigration debate now raging across many countries.

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Simon Kuper

I hate to sound like a 1930s fascist but the love of any country is mixed up with its landscape. Every nation worships it in its own way. Americans often do it through road trips. The French drink their landscape in the form of wine. The Japanese have cherry blossoms, and the English the village cricket ground. For Finns, a peak national moment is jumping naked into the lake behind your garden after a family sauna. In each country the landscape is supposed to express some unchanging national essence. These experiences, as much as any war, are the stuff of patriotism.

Cold countries typically do their worshipping through winter sports. Hockey – preferably played on a pond on the prairie – is Canada. That’s why Stephen Harper, the prime minister, has spent a fair chunk of his premiership writing A Great Game, a book about Toronto hockey a century ago.

Skiing and skating are even older ways of communing with the landscape. Indeed, these pursuits were redefined as sports only in the age of competition and measurement. Here’s a collective Norwegian memory of cross-country skiing: after a day out in the freezing cold, you return to the mountain hut your grandfather built, brew a cocoa on your portable stove, and feel the hot liquid flow to your fingers and toes.

Sometimes natives wield these happy collective memories against outsiders. The nativist idea is: I commune with our landscape; you don’t belong here. When Sarah Palin ran for US vice-president in 2008, she presented herself as an Alaskan “hockey mom”; she also kept calling Barack Obama a “community organiser”. The underlying meaning: “hockey mom” is coded indigenous white, whereas “community organiser” is coded black.

It’s easy to mingle love of the native landscape with anti-immigration sentiment. I notice it in the Netherlands, where I grew up. When some Dutch people cycle down the local high street now, they see mosques, telephone shops for calling African countries and Dutch-Moroccan teenagers hanging around. Their urban landscape is no longer familiar. These changes make Dutch traditions such as skating all the more appealing. When the canals freeze, and everyone is out skating from village to village, it can feel as if globalisation never happened and we’re all back in 1960, or in a 17th-century Dutch painting.

In most of Europe, anti-immigration is the last political position that still inspires enthusiasm. In Sochi itself, ethnic Cossack vigilantes have been going around deporting central Asian workers (many of whom built the Olympic sites). Anti-immigrant parties are winning the argument in most countries. No wonder, because they have an emotional story to tell: Eden defiled by foreigners. (This is the metanarrative of the Daily Mail, for instance.)

Pro-immigrants need to counter with their own emotional story, says Drew Westen, psychologist at Emory University, Atlanta, and author of The Political Brain. They can’t just keep spouting numbers: the X billion that immigrants supposedly add to the economy, immigrants’ role in staffing health services, and so on. Pro-immigrants need to evoke emotion too. This cannot be emotion about suffering immigrants, because unfortunately few natives care about suffering immigrants.

Rather, to build on Westen’s argument, pro-immigration folk must also pose as protectors of national symbols – skating, hockey, skiing. But they need to insist that the threat to these symbols isn’t from immigration. They should say, immigrants can also commune with the native landscape. On the Canadian TV programme Hockey Night in Punjabi, commentators call a puck an “aloo tikki”, after the Indian potato pancake. One day the children of Polish immigrants will play English village cricket.

Instead, it’s other forces that menace national landscapes and traditions. Climate change threatens skating on Dutch canals and skiing in the Alps. Technophilia did for Canada’s $5 hockey bill. And Matti Goksoyr, historian at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, identifies another threat: commercialisation. Cross-country skiing is increasingly staged not in wild nature but in arena-like venues, convenient for TV. Sochi’s hyper-modern courses, Goksoyr grumbles, “will be even more like a motorway for skiers”. Now that really is something to get worked up about.

simon.kuper@ft.com; Twitter @KuperSimon

See Robin Lustig’s Observations from Sochi

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