Nationalism?

March 10, 2004

Later today I will be teaching a class on National Unification in Europe in the third quarter of the nineteenth century - Italian and German Unification, and the change from an Austrian Empire to the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Both changes are wrapped around in nationalism, a conservative nationalism unlike the radical nationalism of 1848. In the same years, in 1861 to be precise, the majority of the citizens of the United States responded to an attempt to split the union with revulsion and with a determination to maintain the honor and integrity of the nation - North as well as South were nationalists in the American Civil War.

But what exactly is nationalism? What does it mean to be a member of a nation? The United States is easy, but goofy, for we are a nation defined by allegiance to a written document and a set of principles contained in that document. If you swear loyalty to the Constitution, renouncing any allegiance to any foreign prince or potentate (I know, they changed the oath recently, but I like the old one) then you are an American.

In contrast, European nationalism has long been defined by culture and language more than by allegiance to a political system.

Now I am going to get muddy as I wrestle with the points I will be making in class in a few hours.

Although members of all countries become citizens by being born within a set of territorial boundaries, I do think that there is more to a nation than a group of folks born within the same bit of land. Furthermore, the ideal types I just laid out are not exclusive. Helen commented a couple of days ago about walking past the American embassy in Stockholm on a cold winter day and having the Marine sentry smile and wave at her. For her, that smile and wave, that casual friendliness, is a crucial part of American culture. "That one gesture made my morning. Sometimes it makes me want to cry when I think about how friendly Americans can be. I waved back and smiled, feeling great that one Marine had made my heart warm just a little bit."

The point of the anecdote is that while the American nation is defined by ideas as much as by territory, the people who live within these borders have worked out a culture and a set of assumptions. More, contra Huffington, the American culture is like the English language - it accepts all sorts of loan words and loan concepts and works them into the mass. We have a closed strain in our thought, the minds of the Pat Buchannons of the nation show it, but we also have an openness and a willingness to embrace outsiders and foment change. We grumble about it, because change is always hard, and yet we live in a dynamic society and would feel stifled without some of those freedoms.

The point I seem to be groping towards is that nationalisms can be inclusive and exclusive, they can be like English with its hordes of loan words or like French where a national committee vets every new expression before approving its use. Free trade in words, like free trade in goods, benefits those with the vibrant and growing position - as we feel threatened we shut down access to our culture.

Nationalism is, at essence, the assertion that some group of people have something in common. It is a claim of unity. That unity can be ideological - the US Constitution - or geographic or linguistic or cultural. Strong nationalism, like German and Hungarian nationalism in the late 19th century, combines several of these aspects. And, nationalisms tend to be inclusive about the things that don't matter, but very jealous about the things that appear to threaten their core unity.

Thus while Americans are friendly, grinning fools some would call us, we do not define ourselves as the nation of friendly people. Similarly, while most Americans speak English and all immigrant groups move away from their old tongue and towards English within two generations, we are not defined as the folks who speak a dirty hybrid of Old German and Middle French with loan words from everywhere. Thus nativist impulses in America tend to founder because they are an attempt to redefine the nature of the nation. If we tolerated a change from a Catholic to a Protestant nation we can absorb a great many Muslim or Deist or Hindu immigrants so long as they accept the norms of our national civil religion (see extended entry).

In contrast, a nation defined by its state church, state language, or common culture has a much harder time accepting and integrating immigrants, and immigrants have less of an incentive to assimilate to the norm. Thinking about it this way, I am no longer surprised that many in Europe are terrified about Muslim migrants from Turkey and Algeria and elsewhere, terrified about imperial English taking over the language, terrified about American mass media taking over their culture, and both terrified and intrigued by the possibility of creating an essential unity among Europeans to replace the essential unity found within the various nations of Europe.

And, for this afternoon, it reminds me why the Magyars in the late 19th century were so jealous about other ethnic groups trying to cut into the national space that they had made for themselve within the Hapsburg Empire.

I think I can work up some good class questions from this rant, thanks guys.

Anti-Catholic civil religion in the extended entry.

Why yes, this is a bigoted quote. It comes from Lyman Beecher, A Plea for the West, 1833 - a sermon that inspired mob riots and that kicked off the rise in American anti-Catholicism before the American Civil War. For the le plus change, le plus la meme chose department, replace Catholic with Shiite and see if it affects the discussions about the future of democratic rule in the Middle East.

Oh yes, and note that Beecher is making his argument about the Civil consequences of religious belief - American civil religion generally holds that so long as a religious supports peaceful relations and the rule of law it is a valid religion, so if you want to destroy your enemy you have to prove that they are a threat to the republic, not just folks who pray with the wrong accent.

Did the Catholics regard them selves only as one of many denominations of Christians, entitled only to equal rights and privileges, there would be no such cause for apprehension while they peaceably sustained themselves by their own arguments and well doing. But if Catholics are taught to believe that their church is the only church of Christ, out of whose inclosure none can be saved, - that none may read the Bible but by permission of the priesthood, and no one be permitted to understand it and worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, - that heresy is a capital offence not to be tolerated, but punished by the civil power with disfranchisement, death and. confiscation of goods, - that the pope and the councils of the church are infallible, and her rights of ecclesiastical jurisdiction universal, and as far as possible and expedient may be of right, and ought to be as a matter of duty, enforced by the civil power, - that to the pope belong the right of interference with the political concerns of nations, enforced by his authority over the consciences of Catholics, and his power to corroborate or cancel their oath of allegiance, and to sway them to obedience or insurrection by the power of life or death eternal; if such, I say, are the maxims avowed by her pontiffs, sanctioned by her councils, stereotyped on her ancient records, advocated by her most approved authors, illustrated in all ages by her history, and still unrepealed, and still acted upon in the armed prohibition of free inquiry and religious liberty, and the punishment of heresy wherever her power remains unbroken; if these things are so, is it invidious and is it superfluous to call the attention of the nation to the bearing of such a denomination upon our civil and religious institutions and equal rights? it the right of self-preservation, and the denial of it is treason or the infatuation of folly

Posted by Red Ted at March 10, 2004 11:28 AM | TrackBack