Wednesday, February 14, 2007

History and Nationalism, continued

Gracchi responded again last week to our ongoing debate over historical nationalism. There are three points in his analysis I would particularly like to challenge or subvert: Firstly, that we have little in common with historical members of our nation. Secondly, that history is a poor vehicle for imparting national identity and literature, for example, might be a better device. Thirdly, that nationalism is best understood as an emotional instinct which should be kept under the firm control of reason.

On the first question, what do I have in common with Cromwell or Cnut? I do accept Gracchi's analysis that the answer is almost nothing. Certainly, I do not share Cromwell's vision for the United Kingdom/England. As such, I do accept that nationalism is necessarily a social construction rather than something arising out of a common objective, nature or value. However, this is just as true for those around today; what do I have in common with your average teenage mother from Stevenage? I'd expect I might enjoy a conversation with Cromwell or Cnut rather more.

If nationalism were simply a bond between those who have something in common it wouldn't be as interesting or nearly as real. Gracchi challenges me to come up with a coherent concept of Englishness but I think the fact that one ideal can bring together a group of such incoherence is its strength. Nationalism provides for a common interest and a reason to compromise between people with otherwise vastly different interests and backgrounds. Now, if this bond can mean something real between people alive today with nothing in common why can it not mean something between people from different time periods? Why is the age in which we live impossible for national feeling to bridge when differences of race, class, politics or gender are not?

With Cnut the fellow feeling would, as Gracchi points out, be somewhat one sided as it seems unlikely he saw himself as English in the modern sense but for less extreme examples like Cromwell I see no reason why some common feeling should not exist. Now, Gracchi contends that this might lead to a finessing of history as it is made subordinate to the requirements of building nationalism but I honestly think that you can take the good with the bad. For example, if I am willing to acknowledge that there is a bond of nation between myself and Gordon Brown that does not imply a glossing over of his failings. All I require of history teaching for the purposes of building a sense of nation is that it take care to include British successes in order that people can feel pride in and enjoy their nationalism as it connects them to the great achievements of British history. This would not seem to cause the problems faced by Marxist historical analysis as I am only looking for inspiration rather than attempting to impose a narrative.

On the question of whether literature can function as a substitute, I found Gracchi's chosen examples illuminating. Both Robin Hood and Arthur are, I believe, understood to be myths based around actual historical figures. Aren't they examples of the problem Gracchi is attempting to confront, the corruption of history to contemporary ideals? It seems almost certain they are far more distorted pictures of historical events and characters than anything that a modern conservative curriculum along the lines I am proposing might contain. I think these examples illustrate that historical inspiration has always been central to our sense of nation. One would hope that the more widespread study of dedicated history will prevent folk memories of events being as innaccurate in future but that does not diminish the importance of a national history to a nation's future. History will not be the only source of national identity, whether we now have some common purpose is worth considering as well, but it can make, and has made in the past, a worthy contribution.

On the final question of how reason and nationalism should interact I think that Gracchi is rather overly confident in reason's reach. I think that it is rather philosophically difficult to answer the question of why someone should sacrifice for others or why they should accept a democratic decision they feel to be utterly wrong. So long as most do not make a priority of the effort needed to consider these kinds of philosophical questions isn't it necessary that they should have the shortcut that nationalism offers? Do we think that people will turn to their philosophy books if not able to identify with others in the relatively simple terms of nation or will they look to other unreasonable divisions?

In discussing whether nationalism deserves a measure of blame for the carnage of the First World War, I have to return to the argument that nationalism is competing with other, often more pernicious, group loyalties and that history has a particular function in making nationalism more competitive through examples of noble and great achievements that people want to be associated with. The alternative to nationalism is probably not more reason but more of other group loyalties. While nationalism may have made it easier for the First World War to be as destructive as it was religion, race and even reason can certainly fill that gap; some of the most destructive conflicts of the twentieth century were ideological.

Anything that inspires great passion is necessarily dangerous but keeping nationalism within an emotional sphere would not seem to make it more accomodating to reason. Indeed, the best way to ensure that nationalism does not turn to madness would seem to be to ensure that it is founded upon pride in great contributions to the common good rather than on an emotional statement of them and us.

1 comment:

Ian Appleby said...

Matthew, my apologies for having missed this instalment from my recent contribution to your debate.

I think one of the problems with any given nationalism is that it is such a vague notion: you state that its power to unite incoherent groups is its strength, but you don't articulate what that "it" is. "Britishness" (or whatever national identity) is so vague that everyone understands something different by it. Hobsbawm stated that the power of national symbols and anthems derives from this very emptiness: everyone stands for the national anthem, but what does that anthem stand for?

Obviously, I agree with you that national identity is a construction, nor do I deny that it does, notwithstanding, have a power to draw people together, or even inspire them to lay down their lives. It's that latter fact, in conjunction with the inevitable creation of out-groups, that makes me think we should be extremely cautious in wielding it.

My apologies, also, for the somewhat unstructured nature of this comment; as I keep hinting darkly, I will doubtless be returning to this topic at my own place.