Thursday, June 14, 2012

Nationalism, regressive and less so

I've thought about this a lot in the wake of 9/11, trying to figure out why the country went insane. I think that nationalism has been a positive force in many cases when the countries in question are ones that have been oppressed by others, or are peoples within larger states who do not have a voice. However,  it's been extremely regressive in countries that are either the currently or in the past dominate others. Speaking ex cathedra here, you could even look at the two phenomenon as separate things connected by common external features but differentiated by internal ones. Clearly, the nationalism that welled up in the United States after 9/11 was regressive nationalism on the part of an oppressor nation.

None of this is to say that mutually oppressed peoples can't do terrible things to each other in the name of nationalism, but there's a difference between the "nationalism" felt by the French during the Algerian war and the nationalism of the Algerians themselves in their fight for freedom. There's a difference between the "nationalism" felt by the Belgians during the decolonization fight in the Congo and the national unity promoted by Patrice Lumumba. Similarly, English nationalism based on praising the British Empire, and wanting to see something like it fly again, is different from Kenyan or Indian nationalism.

Taking it  even further back, the nationalism of the Third Reich was quite different from the nationalism of the Czechs and Slovaks after the first world war. In Nazi Germany, like in the United States, nationalism was based on a reaction to the shattering of a national myth, to the myth of national superiority. Germany and Austria had ruled over the peoples of central Europe, up to the borders of the Russian Empire, and thought of themselves as the superior, cultured, race. The loss of face in World War I surely couldn't have been explained by the two empires simply not being good strategists and militarists, it had to be the product of a stab in the back caused by international conspirators.  Their founding myth of an oppressing nation was shattered.

With 9/11, surely they didn't hate us because we've fucked up the Middle East and try to dominate the globe, surely they did 9/11 because they hated our Freedom, that principle of our founding myth that says that we're a country full of liberty that's the greatest nation on earth. We're a place where freedom reigns and anyone who works hard enough can rise to the top. We never intervene around the globe, sticking our noses into other peoples affairs, we're the good guys. So instead of seeing 9/11 for what it was, an attack by religiously motivated yet, ironically, highly educated people who combined a liking for ultra-conservative Islam with a critique of American empire, for them 9/11 had to be an attack by Islamists who simply hated the idea of Uncle Sam because of his existence. He, we,  were out there, serving as a beacon of freedom to people who the Islamists wanted to oppress.

That is our "stab in the back" story, the one that formed the Tea Party and Birthers movements around itself because the American people couldn't accept that parts of their deeply held belief system about themselves and the country that they live in were lies,  and that the U.S. has in the past and currently does intervene to stop countries from being free if they want to be free in ways that aren't friendly to foreign investment, foreign investment coming from the United States and its corporations.

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