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News Nationalism and Self-Sacrifice

  1. Apr 6, 2005 #1


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  3. Apr 6, 2005 #2


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    Benedict Anderson on Nationalism and Self-Sacrifice

    The great wars of the twentieth century are noted for the extent of the bloodshed involved. Situations such as those that arose on the western front during WWI baffle the human mind. Without any progress being made, with no obvious point to the battles or even the war, why would soldiers engage in such futile actions sure to lead to many deaths, including their own? Benedict Anderson, at the outset of his book Imagined Communities, states:

    • These deaths bring us abruptly face to face with the central problem posed by nationalism: what makes the shrunken imaginings of recent history (scarcely more than two centuries) generate such colossal sacrifices? I believe that the beginnings of an answer lie in the cultural roots of nationalism.

    (Anderson 7)

    For Anderson, the nation is not a true community in that its members never interact directly with most of its other members. In fact, there is often little that connects the members of a nation to one another other than their nationality. Three questions must be answered to understand Anderson’s book. What is it that constitututes nationality? How was (is) it created? And – the final question – why are people so easily willing to sacrifice their lives for these creations? Ultimately, it is this final dilemma that we seek to explain.

    The answer to the first question, though simple prima facie, has posed problems for many would-be theorists of nationalism. Three apparent paradoxes are raised: 1) Though historically they are very young, nationalists experience their nations as something ancient and sacred. 2) The spread of nationalism to the point where every member of the human species now is, de facto, a member of one. 3) Nations wield great influence and political power without having any philosophical theoretical grounding, and nationalism, though it produces wonderful literature, has never produced a great nationalist philosopher. (Anderson 5). Anderson proposes his definition of a nation: “it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” (Anderson 6) Nations are imagined in the aforementioned sense that no one member of a given nation will ever interact with or meet most of the other members. They are limited in that no nation (in contrast to certain religious communities) has ever conceived of the possibility of encompassing the entire world, and sovereign in that it is imagined as a free, self-determining political body, resulting in the modern-day organization of states around these bodies.

    The resolution to paradox 1 (objective modernity v. subjective antiquity) is the answer to the second question: How was nationalism created? Though Anderson spends the bulk of his book answering this question, our main purpose is to answer the last question and so this section will consist only of a brief summary. The thesis of the book is presented on page 3:

    • Nationality . . . nation-ness, as well as nationalism, are cultural artefacts of a particular kind. To understand them properly we need to consider carefully how they have come into historical being, in what ways their meanings have changed over time, and why, today, they command such profound emotional legitimacy. I will be trying to argue that the creation of these artefacts towards the end of the eighteenth century was the spontaneous distillation of a complex ‘crossing’ of discrete historical forces; but that, once created, they became ‘modular,’ capable of being transplanted, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, to a great variety of social terrains, to merge and be merged with a correspondingly wide variety of political and ideological constellations. I will also attempt to show why these particular cultural artefacts have aroused such deep attachments.

    The discrete historical forces referred to are the waning of previous religious communities and dynastic realms, along with common language and print capitalism, in particular the advent of the newspaper. Religious communities provided the historical precedent of an imagined community that, though far different from a nation in its nature, also inspired a sense of comraderie. Their waning, along with the waning of the old dynasties, provided the opportunity for a new type of community to imagine itself as sovereign and limited in a way that dynasties were and religions were not. Language provided the medium through which the imaginations of nationalists could operate. In fact, it was not spoken language, but written language, that allowed one to imagine oneself as a member of a larger community after the advent of print capitalism and the newspaper. At that point, for the first time in history, it became possible for a person to read the same thing simultaneously with others he would never meet, giving them both a common experience in popular media. Two people, who may have lived in different regions, descended from different tribes, with no other connection, now had a link to one another. Of equal import was the fact that two people who lived in the same region, under the same king, could now come to see each other as members of discrete communities that did not overlap with each other.

    With a basis established in what nations are and how they came to exist, we can now answer the question of why they inspire the almost tragically absurd sacrifices that they have over the last hundred years or so. An answer is hinted at immediately before the question is asked:

    • Finally, [the nation] is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.

    (Anderson 7)

    The mind of man works in metaphors. Horizontal comraderie is a brotherhood of people that are not actually brothers; in fact, who may not be related at all. Nonetheless, the same feelings are conjured up in each case: as we are willing to die for our families, and we are willing to die for our nations, for our ‘brothers in arms,’as it were in war. It is pointed out in chapter 9 that nationality is often demonized as an artefact that primarily creates separations between people, making one group the “other” that is so easy to dehumanize to the point where their lives no longer have worth. Nationalist art, literature, and sentiment, however, are not characterized so much by hate of the other, but rather by love of one’s own. (Anderson 141). Though nationalism can become marred by racism, it is in its nature to inspire patriotism, the love of the fatherland. What cause is there to die for more noble than love? The knights of the past had their codes of honor, the mercenaries money, conscripted armies nothing more than helplessness. Today soldiers die for each other, as metaphorical brothers, because they perceive themselves through popular media and nationality as having the same metaphorical father.

    The family structure is something that is generally perceived to be pure. It is not an invention of human thought, not a cultural artefact. Most importantly, it is not chosen. One is born into one’s family through nothing but fate and, in most cases, cannot help but feel a certain genetically programmed love for those who shared the same fate. Through the metaphorical workings of the human imagination, this same love, a pure form of love not driven by lust or interest but by brotherhood, can be felt by any Croatian for any other Croatian, any Irishman for any other Irishman, any Arab for any other Arab. Thus, a slightly more highly evolved form of the altruism that can cause a prairie dog to risk a 50% chance of dying for a child, a 25% chance of dying for a brother, and a 12.5% chance of dying for a cousin, can cause a Russian to lay down his life for “Mother Russia.” As Anderson states:

    • Dying for one’s country, which usually one does not choose, assumes a moral grandeur which dying for the Labour Party, the American Medical Association, and perhaps even Amnesty International can not rival, for these are all bodies that one can join or leave at easy will. Dying for the revolution also draws its grandeur from the degree to which it is felt to something fundamentally pure. (If people imagined the proletariat merely as a group in hot pursuit of refrigerators, holidays, or power, how far would they, including members of the proletariat, be willing to die for it?)

    (Anderson 144)

    And later on the same page:

    • Here we may usefully return once more to language. First, one notes the primordialness of languages, even those known to be modern. No one can give the date for the birth of any language. Each looms up imperceptibly out of a horizonless past.

    This explains the paradox of why nationalists perceive their nations to be ancient, though they are in fact at best a century or two old. A thousand years ago, one German speaking tribe would have felt no brotherhood with another, simply because they shared no common experience, nothing to link them together in their imaginations. After the advent of print capitalism and the popular media, they did. The great literature was no longer written in classical languages like Latin, Greek, or Arabic. They were now written in vernaculars like German. Newspapers circulated that were written in German. This allowed the two tribes to share in an experience both of literary mythology and of the everyday vagaries reported on the front page, to the exclusion of all who did not read the language. Though the bond between them is historically very young, the language is very old. As language has facilitated this bond, they perceive the bond itself to be very old.

    Language takes on an almost sacred quality. Like the passing down of family heirlooms, an Armenian family living in Los Angeles will insist that its children learn Armenian, often going to Armenian schools and speaking only Armenian in the house. Although the language is of no practical utility in their new land, it serves to keep alive the metaphor in their imaginations that others who speak the same language, read the Armenian language newspapers, and learn the Armenian history and mythology, are brothers in an extended family created by fate, rather than the merely chosen brotherhood of Americans. In an opposite but analagous manner, young Americans grow up being taught how their nation was the first ever conceived through common ideals, an individuality-driven, chosen brotherhood of those who believe in the natural rights of all men, rather than the merely fated alignment of Armenian with Armenian, regardless of belief. The question then arises: Does this make an Armenian any more likely than an American to lay down his life for his nation? Empirical data may be difficult to obtain that can confirm either possible answer, but one would imagine that if it is yes, the difference between probabilities is not much. Perhaps Anderson has here underestimated the power of the human imagination to create bonds where there are none. Perhaps he has underestimated the longing that humans have to lose one’s ego, the virtue that is seen in giving oneself up to something greater (if so, he certainly hasn’t by much). As such, perhaps the mind can create a metaphorical family through common ideology nearly as easily as through common linguistic descent, something touched upon in his treatment of religious communities and creole nations, but never fully developed.
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