01 December 2009

Jewish Nationalists Clash with Palestinians

Some of you may be interested in this evening's New York Times report concerning a clash between Jewish nationalists and Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

One thing that intrigues me is the fact that American news outlets seldom refer to the Israeli/Palestinian struggle in nationalist terms—although that is clearly one dimension of a very complex conflict.

30 November 2009

The Swiss Vote

Over the weekend, Switzerland voted to be the first country in Europe to ban the construction of minarets on mosques. While one might accept the result as a simple example of religious xenophobia or fear, it has implications for those of us interested in nations and nationalism as well.

Traditionally, Swiss identity is tied to the country's mountainous geography and to the ability of its heroes— such as Wilhelm Tell—to repel invasion attempts. Yet, even as the nation's geography allowed for unfriendly outsiders to be kept at bay, so too the country prided itself on a diverse linguistic, cultural, and religious composition. The oft-stated pride in diversity grew from the historical evolution of Swiss nationalism—a story that is actually about ongoing and often heated debate concerning whether to celebrate diversity or to banish it. If the country was said to be inclusive, the claim was audible because a specific group hoped to obscure the anti-cosmopolitan rhetoric of those anxious to keep out those they found to be undesirable.

Briefly, the Swiss Confederation was founded in 1307. Initially, most patriotic organizations imagined the country as inclusive, focusing debate on the most effective way to improve life for the people of Switzerland. By the 1770s, however, an anti-cosmopolitan backlash developed against foreigners and foreign travel. From that point forward, inclusive and exclusive national identities competed for supremacy. Even when an "inclusive" vision of Swiss identity was dominant, below the surface Catholics and Protestants did not trust each other. Catholics were perpetually fearful that the government would undermine their cantons. Various factions debated everything from national holidays to the development of cultural institutions to the very foundation date of the Swiss nation. The entire story was one of constant and on-going debate—a saga that is brilliantly detailed by Oliver Zimmer in his book A Contested Nation: History, Memory, and Nationalism in Switzerland, 1761-1891 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

It seems entirely reasonable to understand the recent referendum result in light of the long-term dialogue about the meaning of being Swiss. The country has long been multicultural because it housed groups from various religious and linguistic backgrounds. Italian, German, and French speakers cohabitated, as did Protestants and Catholics. Sometimes all got along peacefully, other times conflict was rife. Today, more ethnic and religious groups are represented, but the old divisions remain and the perpetual debate about national identity persists. The Guardian's video-taped reactions by a number of down-beat Swiss citizens reflects this debate. Over the weekend, a plurality of voters adopted an exclusive view of Switzerland; those interviewed seek a more inclusive vision.

For those of us who study national identity, it is necessary to not only acknowledge the ongoing debate about identity, but to make it central to our understanding of nations and nationalism. Although all nations present a rhetoric of unity to the world, below a surface of equanimity always lies debate. Rather than trying to understand a single "imagined community," scholars need to explore the perpetual process of re-imagining the nation.

22 November 2009

Republican Attacks "Widening" in Northern Ireland

The story in Northern Ireland was a heartening one. Loyalists and Republicans sat down to discuss their differences. Yes, they were in separate rooms and at opposite ends of a hall, but they were sitting and talking. Eventually, the two sides agreed to the Good Friday Agreement and (although there were some significant bumps in the road) the general trend was toward reconciliation. The Provisional IRA surrendered its arms. Then some months later, the various Protestant paramilitary groups did the same. The Troubles appeared over.

On the surface at least, the transformation was profound. At the bottom of the Shankill Road in Belfast, for example, tourist authorities installed an informational sign encouraging visitors to explore an area that I was once instructed by Northern Irish Tourist Board officials not to wander alone. Even the Shankill-area murals, once featuring men with AK-47s in intimidating poses, seemed to reflect an altogether new reality.

You can see what I mean. I took this first photo in September 2002—a UVF mural just off the Shankill.

I shot this second photo in June 2009. While it certainly contains plenty of violence, the end of the narrative suggests a more peaceful future. Where once violence was justified, now it is time to talk.

I do not want to imply that there were not hints of continued distrust, anger, and hostility. For example, in one Loyalist neighborhood, I found some rather less helpful and constructive things scrawled on the walls.

It takes time, I told myself. Sectarianism and nationalist strife does not just go away with a peace agreement. It is not easy to escape from a cycle of hate and retribution. Not easy to suddenly decide that a group you've detested for your whole life is "okay." Not possible to erase lessons learned at home: passed from father to son, mother to daughter. Indeed, men of violence, who gain a sense of power from their actions, are not likely to easily give up the confidence that comes from knowing how easy it is to take a life.

Unfortunately, the news from the North is not good. Even as I was departing the North last spring, a Catholic man was beaten to death in Coleraine, Co. Londonderry. This past September, police defused a 270kg bomb, apparently planted by the Real IRA in the South Armagh/North Louth border region. Today, the news from Northern Ireland includes the grim prognosis that "Republican terrorists 'widening attacks across Northern Ireland.'"

Naturally, Sein Fein denounces the violence, as does the DUP and virtually every other mainstream political organization. Those involved with the new wave of violence—the same group who brought you the Omagh Bombing—are acting outside of any larger political framework. They attack because they can and because it makes them feel powerful.

Mao Tse-Tung reportedly once said: "The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea." If you take away the people, the guerrilla has nowhere to move. The most effective way to fight terrorism is to remove popular support. Not only does a dearth of support make it difficult for terrorists to hide, it makes it impossible for them to replenish themselves by gaining new fighters. The great hope for Northern Ireland is that this new wave of violence will not draw in more supporters—as I am sure the Real IRA and their fans hope it will. The public must respond with disdain and with utter and complete intolerance for a return to the bad old days. The alternative is unthinkable.

15 November 2009

Labour Pulls Off a Win

Despite predictions to the contrary, the Labour Party managed to win Glasgow North East by more than 8,200 votes. The victory smashed the hopes of a Scottish National Party anxious to upset 75 years of Labour dominance in NE Glasgow.

According to the Guardian, nobody expected an SNP win, but Labour's margin of victory was substantially larger than expected. One result is that some activists are asking "did the party almost entirely extinguish any talk of independence on the doorsteps of Glasgow North East?"

Naturally, others suggest that SNP inroads into Labour territory show a gradual erosion of Labour hegemony in Scotland. It may not happen tomorrow, they suggest, but the trend is toward Scottish independence.

A general election beckons.

11 November 2009

Racism and Chinese Identity

For quite some time, most Chinese evidently imagined themselves to be relatively homogeneous and monocultural. Now, as China opens more and more to outsiders, interracial marriage and thus multiracial children are a greater and greater part of life.

Lou Jing is a young woman of mixed race. Her mother is from Shanghai, her father an African-American who (apparently) remains unaware that he fathered a child while in China. Hoping to become a TV newscaster, Jing became a contestant on an American Idol-style game show. Her skin color made her an immediate celebrity and the subject for some nasty racial attacks.

As National Public Radio puts it, the experience is forcing many Chinese to confront whether they imagine "race" to be a component of the national identity. The story is well worth a listen.

The Battle for Glasgow North

The battle for the Glasgow North parliamentary seat is shaping up to be quite interesting. The seat was a reliable "safe" seat for the Labour Party over the past 74-years. No more. The party's national troubles over the economy, foreign wars, and the scandal over the bad behavior of a sizable number of MPs this past spring leave Labour in a politically dangerous position.

As a result, the Scottish National Party, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, and even the British National Party are all hoping to make a good showing. Evidently some polls show the BNP with a possible third place finish—an unheard of result in Scotland for a party that is usually seen as an English racist party.

John Harris provides a nice video report for The Guardian.

Quebecois Nationalists Protest Royal Visit

A group of Quebecois nationalists converged on a royal visit to Montreal, Canada today. You can find video coverage on the Guardian website.

23 October 2009

Moral Relativism

Antonia Senior of the Times of London suggests that moral relativism makes it difficult to fight against groups like the British National Party. While I think that blaming the academy is every bit as tired as straight-up moral relativism, the article is still interesting.

More on the BNP

Adding to my post yesterday, Nick Griffin added to his remarks on Question Time by saying that London has been "ethnically cleansed." You can read more here. At least he makes classifying the BNP very easy.

The British National Party

The British National Party's (BNP) leader, Nick Griffin, appeared on the BBC's flagship news show, Question Time today. [A full account, as well as several minutes of film footage, are available on the Guardian website.] While the appearance generated considerable protest—some 1,000 protesters convened outside the BBC studios—here at The Nationalism Project, we found ourselves wondering about taxonomy.

The BNP often draws fire as racist and is frequently equated to the Nazis; indeed, Griffin is well known as a Holocaust denier. Despite recent claims that the BNP would soon abandon a racial qualification for membership, the party seems to represent a clear example of "ethnic nationalism." Whereas "civic nationalist" groups such as the Scottish National Party (SNP) base their political platform on economic, and occasionally cultural, issues, the BNP offers an array of political arguments that are racial in tone.

Of course, from an academic perspective, it is often difficult to classify nationalisms. On the surface, it is easy enough to declare that the BNP represents ethnic nationalism, the SNP civic nationalism, Siol nan Gaidheal cultural nationalism. But where should such a matrix stop? If the SNP includes some cultural content, does that make it a cultural nationalist group? How much racial content is necessary before a group becomes "ethnic?" Do nationalist parties need to be classified according to a Venn diagram? What of liberal nationalism, ressentiment nationalism, and exclusionary nationalism? Are there a nearly limitless number of sub-genres of nationalism? At what point does endless classification become useless from a scholarly, let alone a popular, perspective?

Such questions may not seem relevant when discussing a group like the BNP. Their rhetoric speaks for itself. Yet the dialogue put forward by parties such as this one virtually begs for us to develop a clear classification system. While few parties will actively state: "We're racist!" the public needs to see past such rhetoric and to fully understand what it is looking at. To foment such understanding, scholars need to agree upon a language for analysis. The philistine dialogue taking place in the United States about "socialism" (which apparently means widely different things to different people!) should not be applied to nationalism. The stakes are all too painfully high.

22 October 2009

Nationalism Project updated

Over the past several years, The Nationalism Project underwent relatively little revision. Assistant Editor Catherine M. Burns did excellent work updating journal articles and adding conferences, we added a new section called "new books," and I completed an overhaul of the site's appearance—but that is more or less it.

As a result, the links section grew dated and a host of other issues cropped up.

All that is now changing. Several weeks ago The Nationalism Project enlisted the help of Aaron Mitchell, a talented undergraduate at the University of New England. Mitchell is a double-major in political science and history. Over the coming months, he will be working with Catherine and myself to bring all TNP content up-to-date and to add as much new material as we can locate.

If you are aware of information that is missing from our site, please let me know via email at: egzuelow@uwalumni.com. We're anxious to make sure that The Nationalism Project remains the most up-to-date and comprehensive nationalism studies resource available on the World Wide Web.

03 October 2009

What Does It Mean to be a Patriot?

CNN commentator Roland S. Martin just published an editorial in which he rips members of the current opposition party in America, the Republicans, for laughing giddily over the failure of the United States to win its 2016 Olympic bid. The gist of Martin’s argument is that the loss of the Games was not a defeat for Obama (who campaigned vigorously) or for the city of Chicago (a city that Republicans seem to hate), but rather for the United States.

He writes:

What the critics don't see is that Obama's loss on the Olympics is America's loss. Any red-blooded American who loves to see the American flag raised and the national anthem played when one of our own wins a gold medal should blast the Republicans' giddiness over the loss.

He goes on:

So, to all the critics happy about us losing the 2016 Games, turn in your flag lapel pins and stop boasting of being so patriotic. When an American city loses, like New York did in the last go-round, we all lose. And all you critics are on the same level as the America haters all across the world.

You should be shouted down for not backing your own country. The next time any of you bang out a press release about "Buy American" or "Support our troops," remember this moment when your cynical, callous and small-minded brains happily rejoiced when America lost the 2016 Olympic Games.

The partisan tone of this exchange is part of daily life in the States these days. Liberals celebrated when former-President George W. Bush suffered defeats. Conservatives now openly embrace any perceived failure on the part of the Obama administration. Both sides claim that their respective opinions are "patriotic."

My question is simply this: what is patriotism and how do we identify it? Can both sides, so diametrically opposed to one another, really be patriotic? If so, what are the implications?

It strikes me that each side is using "patriotism" for political ends. Is patriotism really just a political symbol, to be utilized as is one's want? If so, should we bother studying it in terms of national identity or should we relegate it to the arena of political rhetoric?

Is anybody familiar with useful studies of patriotism and politics? I'd like to see more concerted study of so-called "patriotic" organizations and their political use of the "American" label.

02 October 2009

Crayfish and the Nation

Immigration has long been a major concern among ethnic and (among some) civic nationalists. These people imagine that incomers will steal jobs and infect gene pools. Immigrants are often presented as a disease, a virus infecting the body politic.

According to the Guardian, British National Party legal officer Lee John Barnes now takes this old saw to a new level of obfuscation in comments about an invasive species of crayfish that is causing considerable trauma to British ecosystems. The British paper quotes Barnes saying:

The North American Crayfish is the Mike Tyson of crayfish. It is a diseased, psychotic, evil, illegal immigrant colonist who displaces the indigenous crayfish, colonises their territory and then reproduces until it totally devastates the indigenous environment and indigenous crayfish. I am saying nothing governor.

But theres (sic) a phrase of his [George Monbiot] that I believe should be the motto of the Eco-Xenophobes everywhere. I intend to use it more and when I do I will accredit it to George Monbiot; DEATH TO THE USURPERS!

The equation of immigrants with invasive species and the desire to kill “usurpers” did not escape the Guardian which judged the remarks to be a “subtle” way to get around laws “on incitement of racial hatred.”

There is certainly nothing new about such rhetoric. It took little time at all for the emerging pseudo-science of race, which developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to merge with nationalism. Scholars such as Eric Hobsbawm and Michel Winock recount the transformation of early nineteenth century “liberal” nationalism into a more sinister identity. By the twentieth century the ties between race and nation were even stronger—witness the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazis) and their maniacal desire to eliminate race enemies or Lebensunwertes Leben. While living in Europe some years ago, I was struck by the degree to which “nationalism” and “racism” were often merged in peoples’ minds. To be a nationalist was, at least for some, to be a Nazi.

As the late George L. Mosse pointed out some years ago, “race” and “nation” are far from the same thing (see Nations and Nationalism, Vol. 1, Part 2), but sometimes it can be very difficult to separate them. Today, globalization and fear—of terrorism, economic malaise, and a host of other things that go bump—make immigration a major issue in many, many places, often resulting in violence. Racist parties are now active in countries where such politics was once largely unimaginable. What students of politics should keep in mind is that the political debate about “immigration” is usually a debate about “nation” and “race.” Understanding one element in this trinity demands understanding the other two.

When teaching a course about nationalism, I once asked a group of students about the biggest threats facing the United States. About half of the students immediately and without hesitancy said: “immigration.”

I asked them: “How many foreign-born immigrants are in the United States?” They responded: “Lots, maybe as high as 50%.” [The answer is actually about 12.9% and this includes all immigrants, both legal and illegal.]

I asked them why this bothered them. “They’re forcing their religion and their language on us, destroying our culture.” The students continued that if allowed to continue, immigration would turn the nation of immigrants into a decimated shell, a pale reflection of its former self.

What strikes me is how quickly the students unknowingly connected national identity and immigration (the students staunchly denied that “race” played any role in their opinions). While not remotely surprised by their thoughts, I nevertheless find myself wondering whether it is possible to separate race, nation, and immigration into discreet topics for discussion and study or whether they must be taken together. Would the debate exist in a post-national world? Were racial “science” relegated to the dustbin of history, would my former students take a much different view of the world around them? Put another way, nationalism paints popular perceptions even when it goes widely unremarked, just as surely as Barnes probably cares little about crayfish.

27 September 2009

Touring the National Past

England’s Guardian newspaper reports that the Chinese government in Beijing launched an initiative four years ago to promote “red tourism” in the interest of “reinvigorating” the “national ethos.” The article details a daily reenactment of the struggle to defend the city of Yan’an during the civil war between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao’s People’s Liberation Army. For a nominal fee, tourists are treated to explosions, troop movements, and even some of the surviving Communists who, rather like Native Americans employed by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, relive past glories on the "battlefield."

Many Chinese visitors, such as Ma Xiaoyu, remark that the spectacle gives them a “patriotic” feeling. Officials gush that this is exactly the response they’re looking for, the event helping to “consolidate their faith in pursuing the road to socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

The article tells its story with an air of incredulity, noting that Mao’s China was no warm and fuzzy utopia. Millions died as a result of the Great Leap Forward, we learn. Tiananmen Square was obviously a horrific blight. The on-going crackdown on dissidents and other human rights abuses is a perpetual horror. Surely, the article seems to argue, the darker side of Chinese Communism deserves some mention as well?

I rather doubt that anybody is terribly surprised that the Chinese government fails to acknowledge its mistakes at tourist sites. Propaganda is not designed to bolster the opposition! Yet, at the same time, it is worth pointing out that even the most biased of national tourist sites cuts both ways—even in countries with tight controls on popular expression. One cannot offer a single narrative without prompting others to challenge it.

In fact, the real story of tourism goes far beyond the “trivial” daily experience of Disney-like theme parks or nearly identical “heritage” centers. Tourism is about selling national distinctiveness, nationalist narratives, and authenticity. Tourism developers must determine what they want to present, but even as they do so they prompt others to develop counter-narratives.

Consider a tale from considerably closer to home. Writing about Scotland in his book National Identity: Popular Culture and Everyday Life, geographer Tim Edensor tells the story of a recent addition to the Wallace Monument at Stirling. William Wallace (“Braveheart”) was a thirteenth century Irish “freedom fighter” who was anxious to defend Scotland against the advances of the English crown. Little is known about the historic Wallace except what can be gleaned from often much later documents. In 1995, Mel Gibson’s Oscar winning film “Braveheart” inspired Scottish audiences and even resulted in a noticeable spike in the polls for the Scottish National Party that is sometimes referred to as the “Braveheart Effect.”

Anxious to inspire memory of Scotland’s brave struggle, a new monument to Wallace was added to the Stirling commemorative complex. It looks very much like Mel Gibson and inspired considerable controversy in the pages of Scottish newspapers.

So, what matters about this? Simply that the act of creating a monument for the purpose (one imagines) of inspiring future generations of independence-minded Scots quickly sparked a debate about how the Scottish past should be understood. The monument itself speaks in a “language” that makes sense as long as Braveheart continues to be a popular film. Visitors cannot help but understand what the statue says.

Yet what does it say? Does it celebrate a famous Scottish hero or an American-born Australian actor? Does it make Scottish history come alive in a vibrant and living way (as the artist and funding organizations no doubt hoped) or does it make a mockery of the past? There are myriad answers.

The story in China is no different. Those of us with an interest in nationalism, in tourism, or simply in developing a deeper understanding of the world around us would do well to think not in terms of simple, straight-forward narratives about what is or is not presented at tourist sites or battle reenactments, but rather about the complicated discourse that hangs like smoke over a pool table in a shady bar around such tourist products.

21 September 2009

The Politicization of Grits and Salmon

In the past two days news stories in England’s Guardian newspaper and on the CNN.com website point to a disturbing trend: the decline of history education at the K-12 level.

According to the CNN story, a disturbing percentage of Oklahoma school children cannot identify the first American president. The statistics cited suggest that only 23% of students can identify George Washington. Only 10% of students know the number of Supreme Court justices. A mere 14% correctly identify the author of the Declaration of Independence and a measly 11% know that U.S. senators are elected for a six-year term.

Meanwhile, the Guardian newspaper, reporting on a recent study by the Historical Association, notes that history education in Great Britain is on the wane. “Three out of 10 schools no longer teach history as a standalone subject to 11- and 12-year olds, and teachers say medieval history has been squeezed out. There are fears,” says the paper, “that children are being left with ‘huge gaps’ in their knowledge. The study of 700 history teachers’ experiences in almost 650 secondaries identified one school that admitted that it taught the whole of the key stage three curriculum—designed to span the first three years of secondary school—in just 38 hours.”

As a history professor, this disturbs me and my concern goes far beyond the nationalist bluster of CNN’s commentator who is evidently very worried that others are “smoking us” in the classroom. History imparts a range of exceptionally important skills. It teaches students to do research, to make connections, to read critically, to assimilate and make sense of knowledge, while at the same time offering them context, allowing them to find themselves in time. All of this matters tremendously and we collectively loose out if history education is lost.

But there is another question that deserves our consideration: the implications of declining history education for our sense of national identity.

Last spring I was interviewed by Josh Levin of Slate magazine for a piece that he was doing on the collapse of the United States entitled “How is America Going to End?” Levin was struck by a growing number of separatist groups in the South, in New England, and beyond. His question was also influenced by the work of a Russian political scientist named Igor Panarin who predicts that the United States will break into six new countries during the summer of 2010.

When asked, I told Levin that I did not foresee the demise of the United States in the near future. More precisely, I argued:

that "loud voices" like Perry's bolster the country's strength. The fact that we can debate our country's legitimacy is a sign of national health. For the United States to fall to pieces, Zuelow says, it'll take more than a demagogue on a PA. Americans will have to come to believe they're no longer Americans.

… There are regional and ideological differences in the modern United States: People in the Deep South and the Pacific Northwest eat different foods, have different accents, and (generalizing broadly) have different lifestyles and values. But as compared with a place like the USSR, a constructed nation with immense regional diversity, the United States is bound together tightly by its shared origins, a common language and culture, and a widely held belief in the country's mythologies (American exceptionalism, self-reliance, and social mobility). In times of perceived danger, Americans pull together. After 9/11, Zuelow says, "I don't care where you were in the country, the response was We've been attacked. … It wasn't, We eat grits and We eat salmon."

While I might point out that the United States are every bit as constructed as the USSR was (all nations are), I nevertheless stand by my statement. But here’s the rub. For people to collectively imagine that they are part of a nation, they must also feel that they have common culture, common language, and, perhaps most importantly, common history.

Modern historical scholarship is rooted in a nineteenth century nationalist impulse and much of K-12 education is about teaching kids to be part of their nation. We present history to schoolchildren precisely because it teaches them to be citizens. It helps them to imagine themselves as part of a collective, as having interests in common.

As Joseph Moreau demonstrates in his recent book Schoolbook Nation: Conflicts over American History Textbooks from the Civil War to the Present, much of the debate over school history texts centers on precisely how we want kids to imagine their national community. In fact, the precise character of the nation is something that should always be debated. If we stop discussing who we are, then we cease to be part of a national community. [For a more in depth discussion of this argument, see my book Making Ireland Irish.]

If history education declines, what then happens to students’ sense of national belonging? Indeed, if the only education they receive about who they are is from media coverage in which one group maligns the other and vice-versa, what message do they take away? History education provides a vital context for such debates. It teaches that while we may disagree, we are also connected. What happens if the “connected” part disappears?

Let me close by saying simply this: if history education is lost in primary and secondary schools, I am not certain that I can stand behind my quote in Slate. If history education goes by the wayside, grits and salmon might take on more political significance than any food has a right to shoulder.

I’m curious about your thoughts.

Welcome to The Nationalism Project Blog!

If you’re reading this, the chances are that you are aware of The Nationalism Project (TNP), now roughly ten years old and probably the most heavily trafficked nationalism studies resource on the World Wide Web.

I first had the idea for the site during the mid-1990s but did not launch TNP until starting graduate school and after a meeting with Rudy Koshar and Thongchai Winichakul. My initial thought was to do an online journal, but through the course of our conversation it became clear that such an undertaking was unrealistic and unnecessary. Instead, Thongchai suggested a “clearing house” for nationalism studies information. That is exactly what The Nationalism Project is about.

This blog represents an extension of that mission. Although the reflections posted here are mine and mine alone, the goal is to promote dialogue about nationalism-related issues and concerns. Just as on the main website, my goal is not to forward any specific political position. Rather, I would like to raise nationalism-related questions as they occur to me and to encourage you to respond.

Thank you for using The Nationalism Project and I look forward to your responses to this new undertaking.

Sincerely, Eric G.E. Zuelow