15 June 2009

Compulsory Nationhood: “Cultural Imperialism” Part 2

What with nationalist parties both extreme and petty making such gains in Europe recently I’ve dusted off an old ramble on their bizarre modern creed.

What country was Otto von Bismarck born in? If you said a country beginning with G that he is famous for creating and that therefore, by definition, didn’t exist at the time, dock yourself five points. You tried to define another, historic region in terms of your own, modern, nationalist one. You do it all the time. We are taught that for over a hundred years, France and England fought bitterly over land in France, but in reality, the fight was between French and English (or rather Norman) kings and their private armies, as that was largely how these things worked back then. We see Columbus and Da Vinci as Italians and Kafka as a Czech, despite these places not existing during their lifetimes. We sometimes use the phrase “in what is now” to pay lip-service to historical accuracy, but the idea of the nation state is so deeply entrenched that when we look at history, we can’t help but draw our modern borders on a sheet of mental tracing paper and tape it over the map. This notion is deeply entrenched in Western culture, and more so than ideas of free-market capitalism or republican democracy – while we’ve slipped into dictatorships, protectionism, monarchies and planned economies, no country in Europe has abandoned nationhood except to allow the secession of further nations. Even the Soviet Union and its allies quickly slipped into Nationalism, often more so than the capitalist lands. Since having the idea of nationalism, the West has both expected and forced everyone else to adopt.

Let’s start with the Middle East. Ba’athism has been largely Arab-led and often anti-Imperialist national movement, Iranian nationalism draws on the country’s long history, Turkish and Kurdish nationalism are similarly home-grown. However Ataturk consciously copied European republican values, and Ba’athists drew heavily from European Fascists and proto-Fascists such as Fichte (fatuous as comparisons between Saddam and Hitler always are, they are rooted in truth). The European concept of nationhood has essentially spread to this region by the book rather than the sword, but there are notable exceptions. Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, three of the countries most marred by inter-ethnic and sectarian conflict were all invented by Europeans: French imperialists, British imperialists and a largely Austro-German colonist movement respectively.

Africa is a more straightforward example. Its conflicts and corruption are quite often blamed on “tribalism”. Africans bring their problems on themselves by favouring petty tribal divisions over loyalty to their unified country’s governments. Is this not imposing our standards? Africa is supposed to abandon its own irrational divisions between human beings, and start using ours. And these are very much our irrational divisions – Africa’s national borders were drawn by European imperialists at the height of European imperialism, and have remained as Africa tried to integrate itself into the international community. It is quite obvious then that this is imperialism, but in light of what has happened Rwanda and the Sudan, is it such a bad thing to force Africa to abandon its savage ways and join the twentieth century? Well, look at Germany and Yugoslavia. Little is different – national borders were drawn by the Belgian and British crowns, Bismarck and the League of Nations, and encapsulated several tribes within them. And just as the ruling Sudanese Arab tribe slaughtered the Black Sudanese tribe within its borders, so the ruling Aryan German tribe slaughtered the Jewish German tribe within its rapidly expanding borders, so as to adapt the real, living German population to the invented idea of the German Nation. How many of Africa’s difficulties with ‘tribalism’ are down to the inherent backwardness of the system and how many are down to its incompatibility with the nationhood it was actually forced at actual gunpoint to adopt? I’m honestly not sure where to start with that one. But I imagine having a state with starkly split ethnic identity – or rather a government whose jurisdiction is arbitrarily extended over several disparate self-identifying groups – can’t be healthy, especially when one group acquires power over the other. Ethnic cleansing is an extreme example but provoking distrust for and favouritism among the government would be more banal problems. This is hinted at in articles by the BBC and New York Times, and this African writer says pretty much the same thing (though I’d advise him that lemonade is sweeter than lemon juice). And I know that, despite the horrific and brutal ethnic conflicts that have scarred the continent since independence, primitive African tribalism has caused far, far less division and bloodshed than our modern, civilised model for arranging tribes.

There are of course exceptions – the racism of Imperial Japan was not, as far as I know, imported from Europe, South American Bolivarian nationalism and the USA’s flag-wavers were far more a reaction against “old” Europe, indeed the latter inspired our values far more than it aped them. But cultural imperialism even penetrates into post-Imperial Europe: in our dealings with ethnic and religious minorities. We expect them to “integrate” to the culture of their adoptive nation. Very often, this is stupid and petty, for example Norman Tebbit’s infamously stupid “Cricket Test”, and in Germany, a match against Turkey in the recent European Cup was considered an “Integrationstest”. We’re so fascinated by female Muslim hair that we constantly discuss how to make them show it us. However we also focus on practices that even the most tolerant Islington liberal would not accept: female circumcision, violent homophobia, honour killings, brutal Sharia punishments and so on. The focus of these debates is seldom feminism, sexual liberalism or human rights, but in terms of integration and the culture of the host nation. Rather than expecting foreigners’ oppressive traditional values such as chastity, manliness, honour and piety to give way to our modern, liberal, secular ones, we expect them to be sacrificed for petty national loyalty. We do not expect them to take on our values of tolerance, equality and individual rights, but one single value of the homogeneous nation state. Naturally, we use the contrast between illiberal and reactionary aspects of immigrant cultures and our own civilised sensibilities to drive the debate, but we tend to do so to further our demands for assimilation, rather than openly using integration as a means to promote our progressive values.

When it comes to things like human rights, open government, religious freedom, women’s liberation or outlawing child labour, we hum and haw and wring our liberal hands about imposing our cultural values on other parts of the world. Yet for some reason the most divisive, irrational and consistently destructive cultural value in European history, our arbitrary method for dividing people into peoples, has got under the radar and imposed itself indelibly upon much of the world.

Part 1

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