Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Moral Complexity of Nationalism

Barnett Rubin at Informed Comment has a piece entitled Against Holocaust Denial, Against Naqba Denial that ought to be required reading for anyone who pays attention to 21st Century geopolitics. Though the principal focus of Rubin's post is the (extraordinarily well articulated) history of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, he manages to highlight the painful tension that underlies the very notion of nationalism everywhere, and provides powerful insight into who we all are as members of political communities.

To be sure, I don't accept everything implied by Rubin's analysis. In particular, I am more forgiving, even supportive, of the Zionist project than he. I do, though, take to heart the tragic contradiction at the bedrock of modern nationalism that his account illuminates; namely, that nationalism, taken to its logical conclusion, is both abhorrent to liberal morality and necessary to its exercise.

Allow me to explain. The story Rubin tells, of genocide, migration and ethnic cleansing, of a catastrophic chain reaction of misery from Spain to Russia to Jerusalem to Tehran, lies at the heart of the modern world. The creation - still in progress - of the political communities in which we all reside has necessarily involved the disruption of that same community for others. The nations of Western Europe were midwifed by the oppression and expulsion of national minorities and the forcible suppression of local culture. Through a complex interplay of private enterprise and state policy, Provence, Bretagne and Languedoc became France, Piemonte, Sicilia and Napoli became Italy, and dozens of tiny duchies, principalities and bishoprics east of the Rhine became Germany. As old continental and colonial empires - which had been ethno-linguistic melting pots, composed with no thought to nationalist logic - faded, even more dramatic events preceded the formation - again, still in progress in many places - of modern nation-states. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire set off nationalist powder kegs across the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Within a few decades, the hellish tides of the Second World War swept across the continent, leading to history's greatest genocide, as well as to unprecedented population movements as Soviet troops cleared conqured territories of ethnic Germans. Meanwhile, the great European colonial Empires gave way to the resistance of nascent national movements worldwide, and in the wake of their retreat left a state system grafted onto polygot mosaics of ethno-linguistic and religious communities. As in Europe, this often led to conflict to resolve the tension of states and political communities that were alien to each other. Millions of refugees flowed back and forth across the borders of India and Pakistan, fleeing the violence and chaos that accompanied partition. Jewish and Arab inhabitents of British Palestine violently tore their land asunder, bringing one of the modern world's most intractable conflicts into full flower. Sectarian divisions flared up in new states across Asia, Africa and the Middle East as people sought harmony between the bounds of geography and those of identity.

I won't belabor the point further. Suffice to say that the conflict in Israel and Palestine is but one example (albiet a very instructive one) of the fundamental conflict of liberal nationalism. With its notions of individual freedom, liberalism does not sit well with a conception of political identity that, to quote Benedict Anderson, is "both limited and sovereign" in the sense that nations can by definition never be universalized (we cannot imagine a scenario in which the whole world is French) and must find political expression in a sovereign community. Nationalism necessarily includes some, excludes others, and thus limits the freedom of all.

On the other hand, from a practical perspective, a liberal society requires that its members have a basic level of affinity with one another, a kind of loose bond of political kinship that can serve as glue for the social contract. Since the industrial revolution, nationalism has proven to be by far the strongest adhesive. Jerry Muller's recent Foreign Affairs piece Us and Them: The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism should be required reading for anyone interested in a brief exposition of nationalism's enduring vitality. Even one of the founding lights of the modern study of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson, the British socialist who famously labeled nations "imagined communities" was spurred to write not out of a belief that progressive ideologies like socialism would trump nationalist feeling, but out of puzzlement at nationalism's enduring power even within (what was at the time) the communist world. The fact is that nationalism is a uniquely effective social glue, perhaps a necessary one if the freedoms promised by liberal champions are ever to be exercised.

Coming back to Rubin's piece, the question becomes what is to be done going forward. Europe presents both a compelling and unsettling model to follow. On the one hand, European populations seem to be slowly-but-surely recasting their political community based on shared value affinity and history that goes well beyond their own national groups. On the other hand, as Muller argues, that transformation may only be possible in an environment where the separatist nationalist project - the desire to give every nation a state and every state a nation - has largely succeeded. It should rightly bother us that this success rests on some of the greatest atrocities - murder, ethnic cleansing and conquest - in the history of mankind. Need the route to the transcendence of our more parochial national attachments be paved in misery and soaked in blood?

I answer with a qualified "no." Even if the kinds of actions that were once employed to bring about ethno-nationalist unity weren't as ethically problematic as they are in this day and age, the major movements of global population that emigration has brought about in recent years make the creation of nationally homogeneous societies impossible today. One needs only to look at the problem Japan is having with an aging populace to see that state policies of ethnic stasis create as many problems as they prevent. Still, this only further illuminates the need for ethnic polities to be honest about the contradictions of their own pasts, and to recognize the necessity of carving out space - within and without state borders - for nationalist aspirations to operate. Sometimes this will happen through the devolution of power and the recognition of group rights, problematic as this can be for true liberals. Other times this will mean a re-fashioning of a dominant national identity to include the history and ideals of those formerly confined to "otherness." This is something that, on balance, the United States does exceptionally well, and with enlightened leadership is something that we can help other societies to achieve.

Nationalism in the 21st century needn't be the immiserating, bloody mess that it was during the 20th. That will only be avoided, though, if we are honest about our collective history, honest about the tensions that exist within our own ideals, and honest about the fact that neither is going away any time soon.

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