January 30, 2007

Nation and History

It seems absurdly self referential to go back to a discussion which seems to have ended- but I'm going to do this anyway. Matthew Sinclair is one of the more acute bloggers out there- so I'm sure he will not mind it when I come back to him on a post he wrote concerning nationalism and history and an article I'd written in response to something that again he wrote concerning the way that we teach history.

The argument between me and Matthew seems to resolve itself into a question about nationhood and Matthew has two critiques of my position- the first is that he argues there is a reality to the principle that there are nations and that their history is continuous- he argues that

I do not think that, in order for history to contribute to this sense of nation it need be a caricature... There are other events which might give us pride; there is plenty in the history of a nation as great as ours to celebrate even while acknowledging subtlety. For example, it is right and proper to acknowledge that there was hardship and sometimes cruelty in Britain's making of man's economic fortune in the Industrial Revolution but that does not obscure the importance of Britain's contribution to world prosperity. We do not require saints to inspire us; mighty achievements will do. Although not bound by blood or personality myself, Cromwell, Cnut and Churchill are all part of a great shared historical endeavour. If we can teach British children they are a part of that endeavour too they might show spirit worthy of such a heritage.

There is a problem here. The great shared historical endeavour Matthew discerns actually isn't present. I don't know enough about Cnut to say but I would have thought that he would have beleived in a Danish kingdom which included England not an English one. I do know about the Normans- who had no real sense of being part of an exclusive English history- for them the title of Duke of Normandy mattered as much as the title of King of England. Oliver Cromwell's sense of England was as a godly nation, an Israel that the Lord would lead to aid in the salvation of human kind. He beleived in English law as the creation of a benign Providence. Churchill of course beleived in Britain, and England as a part of Britain, and a British empire that neither Cromwell nor Cnut had heard of. Their ideas of England were very different and the way that they wished to form the nation was- I would dispute the idea therefore that they were engaged in a common historical project.

But that isn't the heart of Matthew's criticism- the heart of Matthew's criticism lies in his earlier paragraphs where he accuses me of materialism:

Gracchi contends that history's ability to build identity is questionable by posing the question of whether I can relate to Cromwell's crimes as well as his achievements. He quite sensibly points out the problems with my playing the eternal soccer fan crying "we won" when I played no part in the game. However, I think that he is taking a rather unfortunately materialistic view of the nature of nations. If our nation is merely one big nexus of social contracts then can we expect self-sacrifice in its name? Can we expect people to do more than pursue their narrow self interest within such a nation?

Nationalism motivates people to stand by their nation and fellow citizens by appealing to instincts of group loyalty hardwired into our nature. Even if we wished to avoid it we would likely only replace it with other loyalties such as the loyalties to extended family which it is it is thought impede democratic development in large parts of the Muslim world. There is a famous psychological study which found that, even if separated only by the modern artist they found most appealing, people still displayed significant loyalty to their group. Now, we can either have this national bond be based upon a heroic narrative, the sense of an old and grand project or a new and exciting one as in the States

I've separated out these two ideas- because the first is to do with historical truth and I disagree with Matthew there but the second is to do with political expediency. Forget whether its true or not, is nationalism a useful lie that enables the state to exist in a more coherent and peaceful form. Matthew here might have more of a point and I've often wondered about whether historical truth and the way it corrodes our belief in the unique nature of the society that we live in makes us politically more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of fortune. My answer though is below but it isn't really worked out in a particularly formal way and I'm willing to abandon it.

The problem that Matthew it seems to me conjures up is one of human nature- what really motivates us is not what we beleive but what we feel and I would agree with that. We all exist in a world where we feel great emotions about other people- storms of feeling that come upon us or mere quiet inclinations towards a person. Most of the time, we can recognise that there is a difference between this kind of emotional connection and a rational calculation of that person's merit- its why for instance you always find people in love asking whether its wise for them to be in that relationship. I wonder whether our relationship to a nation or a state is a bit like that- there may well be no rational reason why we would feel nationalistic but that doesn't mean that we won't.

The problem with nationalism is that it leads like most emotions to some incredibly stupid judgements- I don't need to go through them- it also as Matthew points out leads to heroism, self sacrafice and the whole business of politics. If we remind ourselves that it is an emotion and not rational then it may be that we can guard against the one and use it to sustain the other- like someone who is in love, who tries at the same time to make sure he or she isn't only focusing on their lover but on their other friends as well (despite what their emotion tells them to do) but who also allows the emotion to change their make them kinder with their lover- we can call in the emotion of nationalism as a mercenary on our better side, to help us be heroic but we can also recognise its irrationality.

History therefore shouldn't in my view be enlisted on the side of nationalism- partly because to do that is to teach a lie and partly also because it teaches us that nationalism is right. Rather we should deal with nationalism like we deal with love- through art, poetry and all the ways that we can use to convey emotion. History is a study of what people thought, wrote and did in the past- it isn't a servant of our own feelings about our identity.

Incidentally on the same theme both Vino and Not Saussure have also written interesting articles reflecting on my dispute with Matthew- I've left comments on both their blogs reflecting on the issues they raise.


F said...

I totally agree with you. Sadly nationalism still exercises a certain grip on modern mentality. It is a fairly recent phenomenon that shouldn't be taken as universal or 'eternal' manifestation of human nature. It is therefore untrue to say that nationalism is necessary to require 'self-sacrifice'. However, we will probably never be in a position where the army is required to defend the nation as the main threats are climatical changes, terrorism and so on. Beside, before nation-states they didn't have any problem recruiting (across countries) to fight wars. Nations are presupposed on the basis of defining the 'I' vs the 'Other'. We might need to feel closer to our group but, given how small the world is, shouldn't we feel close to our race (the human race!)? To say it with Virginia Woolf, "As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the world".

ThunderDragon said...

Nationalism is indelibly interwined with history - it is through history that national identity is developed. Without history, and the use of it, (both in creating and forgetting) nationalism would not exist.