Oh Nationalism: Excerpts

What constitutes a nation? If it is language, then we have multilingual nations, if it is history then we have seen nations getting divided over the period of time, if it is ethnicity then most of today’s nation will cease to exist; some nations exist on the idea of religion, but many do not.

According to Jughashvili’s National Question: “a nation is not a racial or tribal, but a historically constituted community of people;” “a nation is not a casual or ephemeral conglomeration, but a stable community of people”; “a nation is formed only as a result of lengthy and systematic intercourse, as a result of people living together generation after generation”; and, in its entirety: “a nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.”

What then, essentially constitutes a nation? Perhaps all of these attributes, or perhaps none. The reason is simple – those who believe in the idea of a nation, justify it by extending the boundaries of its definition so that their own nation finds a comfortable position, which makes it even harder to decide the boundaries. However, that leads us to a major concern. Is the whole idea of ‘nationalism’ based on a ‘false consciousness’ which leads people to believe in an ‘imagined community’?

Elie Kedourie (20th century British historian) believed that. According to him, ‘Nationalism is a doctrine invented in Europe; it holds that humanity is naturally divided into nations, and pretends to supply a criterion for the determination of the unit of population.’ Among the critics of ‘nationalism’, most authors’ simplistic view is that it is a result of direct manipulation of ‘masses’ by ‘elites’.

As a matter of fact, we must understand that a ‘nation’ is an idea, which is not restricted by its geography and therefore, should not be seen same as ‘country’ which represents a self-governing political entity and has geographical boundaries. At this point, it sounds like a noble idea, which arises because of the natural tendency of humans to show belongingness to their motherland, but the reality is different.

Most nations today, do not represent a mere cultural identity, but a political structure, and all the fundamental attributes such as language or ethnicity, have taken a back seat. In this scenario, when people of a particular nation, have a state or a country of their own (which the academicians call as nation-state), the ‘nation’ is further guided by the political ideologies based on the self interests of that particular nation. Looking through this context, the ‘nation’ is a body of people to whom a government is responsible through their legislature

We see nation as a union, an identity, an emotion to be proud of, but the truth differs; it is highly likely that the union is more of a political association and the ‘emotion’ part is only being utilised as a mechanism to drive the political motives. Therefore, ‘nationalism’ which was supposed to be a shared feeling towards a group (based on culture, ethnicity or geography)  has been manipulated well, to the extent where this emotion can be strengthened in individuals to have a tighter grip on them.

Nationalism is an effective tool to serve the interests of a nation, however, as one may observe, it narrows the world view, – and that has troubled the intellectual minds throughout our history. Rabindranath Tagore supported the idea of – fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity – in his book Nationalism, and going by the same argument, I believe, we need to analyse the idea of nationalism through a different lens.

If you are an American, you would be glad, how you have mushroomed your nationalism across the world; and despite the fact Theodore Roosevelt once warned you, “the things that will destroy America are prosperity at any price, peace at any price, safety first instead of duty first and love of soft living,” I am certain that you would not care for it.

If America has ever bombed another nation (occasionally in world-wars, more frequently in peace times), tried to suppress Islamic nations, gone to the point of creating Islamic terror and then ending it in style, and misused the state machinery to participate in unjust acts – it was all for the glory of American nationalism, and what could possibly be wrong with that?

Why America? Take any other country, and you will find many similarities, both in terms of intentions as well as functions. Just like many powerful ideas in history, the idea of nationalism is a strong one, touches human emotions intensely and encourages an individual to work for a cause that will benefit some but not all.

Today, we are surrounded by institutions that give us identity, strengthen our community and above all, shape our beliefs – while (almost) forcing us to take pride for our belongingness to them. Then slowly and gradually, they involve you in their own misconduct, while ensuring that your standards of right and wrong get diluted enough to understand the difference; and you become a part of them in each and every act.

A nation is a part those institutions; and an important one, because it has somehow managed to become the predominant identity, ignoring all other identities, which is a dangerous thing. Yes, this identity gives you pride, but it is the same identity that forces an individual, a group or a society to go against those who challenge it. And no matter whether that particular individual or group is aware of it or not, but there have always been (and there will always be) people at the top, who have taken (and will take) advantage of a common man’s vulnerability that has been cropped inside him along with the identity.

It may sound odd, but truth-be-told, there is nothing new in it. Religion has been there for a long time, and so did many communities, classes and castes. So, this(nationalism) is just an old disease with new symptoms.

 

Note: Above excerpts are taken from “Oh Nationalism: An Essay Questioning the Idea of a Nation”. To read the complete essay, please click here: Oh Nationalism!

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