Saturday, March 05, 2005

History And National Identity

A while ago, I wrote a response to a number of posts at Pearsall's Books on national identities, which Pearsall has now written a response to. My initial disagreement with Pearsall, as he correctly identifies, was that I thought he was conceding too much a generally essentialist account of national identity. I argued that saying "[t]he 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" conceded "half the ground to the anti-immigration nuts, by allowing them to legitimate their construction of a national identity which is substantially ethnically based". Pearsall says in response to this that "national identity is not a fixed concept, that it is respondent to historical change" but that "while I see these identities as things that change over time, I think that they move more sluggishly than reality", and that because European nation states were relatively ethnically homogenous, at least after World War II, there are lingering quasi-tribal ideas of national identity at work in most European states.

This is undoubtedly true: the way in which anti-immigration politicians have been able to whip up a moral panic, aided and abetted by large sections of the press, about a rising tide of funny-coloured people scrounging off our generous welfare system, spreading disease, committing crime and just being a bit weird would not be possible without such an idea. I think I may have actually slightly misrepresented my disagreement with Pearsall, because, insofar as this is what he is claiming, I don't disagree with him. What I disagree with, I think, is the failure to challenge these ideas, the acceptance of dubious historical claims that they rest on and, because of that, the granting of a right to make moral claims about who is and is not entitled to be a member of a state.

For example, in my original post, I talked about a basically non-ethnic process of formation of a British national indentity, stretching back roughly to the Glorious Revolution. What I was trying to get at was that the attempt to impose, in Britain and thus a fortiori in most other European states, even an ethnically based account of the formation of national identities - that even if the explicitly essentialist parts of an ethnic account were dropped - was simply historically inaccurate. Ethnic differences, certainly in an overtly racialist sense, but also in linguistic-cultural sense, simply played a fairly minimal role in the processes of the formation of national identity. For such differences to have played a genuinely important role, they would have to have been prior to the processes to which they were an input to: there would have had to have been some people who were French, or German, or whatever, who constituted a nation before there was a state to go with that nation. Unless that's the case, then it looks like what constitutes a sense of national identity is the sense of shared history, embedded in linguistic and cultural tropes, substanially created by the experience of living in a state together, of living in a social and political system the experience of which is more or less the same across a large territory. The formation of nations is significantly the same process as the formation of nation-states.

We can see this if we think about the Cote D'Azur. A lot of the French Riveria was part of the kingdom of Piedmont - itself a French, not Italian, name - which stretched over what is now north-west Italy and parts of south-eastern France. In the 1860s, when Italy was being unified by the kingdom of Piedmont, in return for French military support, the king of Piedmont seceded western parts of his kingdom to France. Nice and the area surrounding it, which had been part of Piedmont, where people spoke a wierd pidgin of French and Italian, became part of France. If you go to the old centre of Nice now, you can still see street signs written in this pidgin. Yet presumably the vast majority of the indigenous inhabitants of Nice would quite happily describe themselves as French, even though less than a hundred and fifty years ago, they were apparently members of another nation, the Piedmontese, and spoke a quite different language.

The same point could be made about Alsace-Lorraine. Dogs, presumably originally from Alsace, are also called German shepherd dogs, but the people all speak French and presumably think of themselves as French. Although Pearsall correctly points to a number of occasions on which serious intra-state violence has been committed by one ethnic group against another in Europe, the fact is that the majority of the time, after the violence about which state the territory belongs to dies down, ethnic groups have tended to be integrated into the nation the state has created. I don't know whether this is true or not, but it seems likely that excluding the break-up of the USSR, the sixty years after 1945 have seen the fewest changes in European borders since the beginning of there being anything like decided borders between political authorities. If there have been all these changes in which political authority groups were subject to, then there must be some successful processes by which they have been integrated, given that most of Western Europe is not riven by ethnic divides. The social, economic and legal pressures to learn a common language, a national educational system and so on created by the largely nineteenth century creation of nation-states seem plausible candidates.

The same thing of course applies the large numbers of intra-European immigrants, particularly those in the huge migration from the Mediterranean to the North that went on between the mid-nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth, with a break between the wars. But if this is true, that nation-states create nations, the acquiescing to the idea that there is some absolute existential threat from immigration makes no sense, except at the extreme margins. Europea nations might have quite tribal senses of identity, but those senses can change, adapt, and we have no reason to believe that they will not do so in such a way as to integrate current flows of immigrants unless we allow them to. Obviously, the common culture of Christianity and the fact of relatively similar skin colour have made integrating the groups that have arrived so far comparatively easy. There is a genuine problem, but it is far from being insoluble.

Assuming that it is is a bit like making the mistake that I think Russell Arben Fox made a while ago when writing on Rousseau. Creating a group to live under some collective arrangement is not prior to the legitimation of that collective arrangement, both because collective arrangements create groups, and because legitimation is a matter of whether the collective arrangement treats those subject to it adequately. Nationalists, as distinct from patriots, don't understand that. Rather than pandering to them, we should be pointing it out.

A coda: I've just been thinking, looking at the comments on Pearsall's post, that part of the disagreement might actually stem from ideas of national identity. Perhaps, because part of American national identity is the escape from the corrupt, tradition- and history-bound old world - all the city on the hill stuff - the explicit role that history does play in European national identities seems rather worrying for Americans. Equally, for some Europeans, because of the way in which they see their national identity bounded by contingency, by historical accident, and so see national identities as malleable, changing things, the certainty of American national identity, what can seem like a blindness to its historical roots, makes it seem very odd. Maybe. I might have been captivated solely by the rather pleasing symmetry of the idea, but...

1 comment:

Pearsall Helms said...

So, in the end we (more or less) agree.

*taps nose*