Pearsall has been posting for a while (here, here, and here) on European attitudes towards immigration, ethnic minorities, and, connectedly, on European senses of national identity. I share all of his concerns, particularly about the level of misinformation which characterises British debate about immigration. I'm not sure that it is the most egregious campaign of deliberate misinformation perpetrated by the right-wing press - for a variety of reasons, I think that dubious honour goes to the moral panic over crime rates that inevitably rise regardless of what any respectable statistical analysis claims - but it's got to be fairly high up the list. I do have a residual worry about Pearsall's account of national identities though, particularly in 'Things Americans don't understand about Europe'.
The claim in particular that I'm not happy about is
"European societies are still, beneath the veneer of modernity, essentially tribal societies. The borders between the European nation-states as they stood in the aftermath of World War II were essentially boundaries between highly homogenous ethno-lingual societies."
Conceding this - which he later repudiates, pointing to a more or less continuous history of groups and individuals moving from one state to another since time immemorial - gives half the ground to the anti-immigration nuts, by allowing them to legitimate their construction of a national identity which is substantially ethnically based. Alright, it's only descriptive, in that it merely points to an alleged fact of ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, rather than to a moral claim about the proper basis of a given national identity, but allowing the right to say 'this is how it is' is allowing them to go a long way to adding 'and you can't change it, so don't try'.
What I think is interesting about this is how deep the myth of these pre-existing national identity is. Pearsall contrasts these European identities with a thinner more open American concept of national identity, which, because it is more inclusive, makes it much more difficult to run a divisive, anti-Other, line in political discourse, because no one is Other: after all, we're all Americans. I think this understanding of American national identity is itself flawed, and probably part of what Americans understand it to be to be American. What the comment illustrates a failure to understand are the historical processes by which national identities are formed, a tendency to reify those identities as if they were something outside of the more general historical process.
For example, British national identity, insofar as such a thing exists, rather than English, Scots, and Welsh national identity, for example, is substantially the product of eighteenth century Protestant individualistic liberalism, portrayed in opposition to the Catholic absolutism of the Continent, where the plain-speaking English are seen as God's chosen people, leading the way out of darkness into the light of a rational, just and godly commonwealth. It also has tropes about decline after a semi-mythical Victorian era, related to the slaughter of an entire generation in the fields of Flanders, and the impotence and waste of the interwar years, which, when combined with the idea of being the bearers of the standard of freedom, gives rise to an idealization of the second world war where we fight on against all odds, plucky and undaunted, despite the improbability of success. This is just not a deeply ethnically based conception of national identity: although it does have ethnic aspects, those have gradually faded, and have tended to be tied to a set of particular, more central values which are not of themselves ethnic.
This is far from the whole story - there are distinctive political, class and (sub)national narratives which contribute to, alter, and, on occasion, outright reject, the narrative which a primarily English establishment has often been able to create, control and promulgate - but the point is that all notions of national identity are the result of an attempt to give coherence and meaning to a set of historical experiences which create a society by giving it access to a store of shared meaning which others do not have. These stores of meaning can be contested, and are constantly being reshaped and re-evaluated, but basically operate to tie a group of people together by encouraging them to see their pasts as bearing a common meaning. Conflicting groups, struggling to gain the adherence of the population, to mobilise them, to legitimate their goals, compete over the precise meaning of particular events in the narrative, and shape them to their purposes, allowing for quite proper differences over exactly what it means to be British. For example, the Conservatives saw in the eventual victory in WWII a legitimation of much of that which had gone before, whereas the Labour Party saw it as a vindication of their claims that Britain deserved better, despite their basic agreement about it as a struggle against the illiberal, repressive regimes of the absolutist continental Europeans, typical of the plucky Brits, with their national mission of flying the flags of liberty, restraint and decency.
When thinking about American national identity more generally, we can explain it by reference to the historical experience of Americans, just as we can with European identities. It has many of the same Protestant roots as British national identity, although it tends to be based in a more radical Protestantism because of the vision of the New Jerusalem, the City on the Hill which would be a shining beacon to the corrupt Old World which drove the first British settlers in New England. The doctrine of manifest destiny, which still has a significant place in American foreign policy - its role as the bringer of democracy to the world, for example - can certainly be seen in this light, as can the tendency to see America as the home of freedom from superstitious notions like those of thick concepts of national identity. Again, events since then have had their effects: the influx of Catholic Irish and Italian settlers has partly muted the Protestantism, although not the religious tone more generally, for example.
Pearsall's specific complaint against European and particularly British national identity was that its thickness meant that it was much more contested and that it was much less inclusive, meaning it was much more divisive. I'm not able to offer the same perspective on American national identity as Pearsall is on British national identity because I haven't lived in the States, as he has in Britain, but it doesn't seem to be any less substantially contested. He gives the example of people in Britain being hostile to the Union Jack, and contrasts this with the self-understanding of the child of Dominican immigrants to the States, who feels aggrieved that the British are not appropriately appreciative of the role Americans played in WWII, a conflict that happened before any of his ancestors moved to the States. I think that Pearsall just misunderstands the role that the Union Jack plays in British national discourse here, and that the comparison isn't particularly helpful.
The Union Jack belonged to a particularly jingoistic strand of nationalist conceptions of British national identity with associations with colonialism, even before it was appropriated by the National Front. I see no reason that my conception of my national identity should be sullied by association with the white man’s burden, xenophobia and outright racism: I can be British, and have a strong sense of British national identity, without buying into a particularly romanticised version of that nation’s past or racism. Indeed, the national flag just does not occupy the same place in British, and I think European, national life that it does in the States: just as no one has the flag on their lawn, no-one burns it. The idea that America is the saviour of the free world, to whom the Europeans ought to be grateful, however, is a fairly uncontested and central aspect of American national identity, related to the original settler’s self-understanding as superseding the world they had left behind, acting as a guiding light for it, and one would expect any American, especially one who had been in the Armed Forces, to endorse this militaristic aspect of that identity.
The problem with this tendency to reify national identities, to fail to see them as constructed in this way, is that, like seeing European states as quasi-tribal, it concedes too much ground to the nationalist right. Rather than see nations as built around common stores of meaning, which are not exclusive, but rather open, capable of alteration and adaptation to new experiences, it sees them as built around pre-existing notions, which cannot be altered and so will exclude some. Once this is admitted, it is a very small step to arguing that those excluded from that set of notions, which could be thickly ethnic and linguistic in a way that a sense of national identity generated by historical processes could not easily remain, should be excluded from the nation itself. Doing that means saying that a thick, often ethnic, concept of national identity is a proper pre-requisite of living together in a nation at all, which is exactly the idea that the nationalist right appeals to. I’m not saying that Pearsall does this, just that it is worth noting that national identities are the result of an often quite deliberate process to create national identities, and are inherently contestable, and that doing this is the best way of heading off the nationalist challenge, because they cannot see national identities in this way, on pain of losing the coherence of their view. Nation states are probably the best way of instantiating our need to have some form of governance that exists at the moment, because national identities do tie us together, but not in the way that nationalists, and perhaps Pearsall, think they do.