Posted tagged ‘nationalism’

Complex belonging

October 22, 2018

So here’s my dilemma. I was born in Germany – or more precisely, what was then West Germany, or then as it is nows the Federal Republic of Germany. My father’s family was at one point Polish, originally from the Kashubian region. Several of my ancestors were soldiers in various armies, latterly Prussian and German. I have French ancestors. As for me, I have lived in Germany, Ireland, Britain (England and Scotland). I have both Irish and German citizenship.

I read literature and poetry of Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland and France – and in translation of other countries. I am highly interested in European, British, Irish and American history – right now I am reading (again) about the American Civil War and its political, social and cultural implications.

Why should you be interested in any of this? Well, there’s no compelling reason why you should be. But a background like mine raises several questions relevant to current political and cultural debates. After an era in which multinational identities were celebrated, things are somewhat different now. Politicians in a number of countries are calling their voters to the flag, to identify emotionally with their country of residence and citizenship. The American ┬áconcept of ‘exceptionalism‘ is itself no longer particularly exceptional, as other countries also see themselves as occupying a special place in global affairs. Nationalism, if not of the 1930s variety, is back in vogue and is visibly affecting geopolitical developments.

I do of course accept obligations of loyalty. The country where I live and work provides me with a variety of benefits and protections, and I owe it a duty of support. The countries that issue my passports have a justifiable expectation that I will show some allegiance. But I also see myself as a member of humanity, not entitled to look away when people in other countries are in need, and certainly motivated to know about other nations and cultures.

It is still my belief that the world has gained immeasurably from the retreat from nationalism after World War 2. It was never a total retreat, but still a defining aspect of later 20th century thinking. But in our current era of conspiracy theories we are now told that this was only ever the preference of political, social and economic elites, who employed it to abuse their power.

Nationalists are right in this sense – that human progress still requires a sense of belonging. Losing that produces dysfunctional and unstable societies. But losing a global outlook carries with it the risk of a return to the tensions and suspicions, and indeed the quest for grandeur and superiority, that wrought such destruction in the last century. That is a risk we should not take.

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The significance, or otherwise, of national identity

April 6, 2010

Although my family moved to Ireland when I was seven years old, we returned to Germany in 1968. By the time I returned to Ireland I was 20 years old, and came with the experience of progressive political debate in Germany. I was therefore taken aback to discover that, in Ireland, the term ‘nationalist’ was often used in a positive sense, in particular when referring to the anti-unionist community in Northern Ireland. At the time the idea that nationalism could be anything other than totally reprehensible was inconceivable to me; it had, after all, been at the heart of the movement that caused the horrors of the Second World War.

Of course I came to understand what had made nationalism (however understood precisely) attractive to people in Ireland, but I have never lost the gut feeling that an major focus on national identity can be very dangerous, with a trajectory (at least if not properly managed) to xenophobia and racism. However, some have argued that nationalism may have value in a different context, as a protector of citizens’ rights in the face of large global corporations wielding excessive power, or of supra-national political associations that may threaten to overwhelm traditional cultures and customs. In this sense, some of those who have opposed the development of the European Union have sometimes argued that a properly understood nationalism can provide a counter-balance. For example the late British Labour politician, Peter Shore, suggested in a pamphlet in the 1980s that nationalism could and should be seen as a progressive, potentially leftwing force protecting the rights of people in individual countries within Europe.

This kind of argument has had a renewed outing over recent years as the debate in Europe has intensified about how far the EU should go and what political roles it should assume. And yesterday in the Irish Times Michael Casey, a former board member of the IMF, suggested that it might not be long before national identity would disappear completely in a globalised world.

All of this is a very interesting, but also very tricky, issue. On the one side there is the understandable and quite justifiable desire to ensure that the sources of real decision-making that affect our lives, in politics and economics, are not moved to such a high level that ordinary citizens can never hope to influence these decisions. If all law-making, for example, were to move to Brussels, then it would be carried out by a parliament that we never get to elect in any real sense; candidates in EU elections don’t stand on an EU-wide platform, so we never get to assess a proposed legislative programme. But on the other side there is the continuing and serious risk that using nationalism as the basis for such a critique also opens the way to racism and an unwillingness to experience, understand and tolerate other cultures.

In truth we have not really developed a mature understanding of how globalisation can be harnessed but also kept in check, and what philosophical or ideological perspectives can be used in this debate, without the risk of creating a fractured society along the way. I don’t believe that globalisation – whether as a political, economic, cultural or demographic phenomenon – could or should be reversed, but I do believe that we need to ensure that it does not mean the disenfranchisement of citizens. There is still a lot to be done before we have cracked this problem.