Christian Caryl

When You Close Your Eyes and Think of America, What Do You See?

Why nationalism can be a force for good. (But beware of the dark side.)

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What makes a nation? Is it a bunch of people who speak the same language? Or is it a community that shares a territory, or perhaps a particular set of cultural memories? Or is it something to be defined — as Donald Trump would apparently have us believe — by religion? (And thus, implicitly, by the exclusion of people who adhere to a different one?)

I’ve been thinking about this ever since I heard the news that Benedict Anderson, the remarkable scholar who wrote so eloquently about the rise of nationalism, has just died at the age of 79. I remember coming across his book Imagined Communities back in the 1990s, when I was living in recently reunified Berlin, and I can still recall how it struck me with the force of revelation.

Anderson rehabilitated the role of nationalism at a time when many on the left (he spent much of his life as a Marxist) still vilified it. While he clearly rejected extreme nationalist movements, he argued that “imagined communities” of national belonging offer vital compensation for the loss of identity imposed by modernization. The Industrial Revolution and the transformations that followed it eroded old sureties (monarchy, tribe, religion); nationalism was a powerful way of filling the gap. People have a powerful need to identify with larger groups, Anderson observed, and there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that.

Yet the part of his book that made the biggest impression on me was that word “imagined.” Contrary to ethnonationalists like the Nazis or Emperor Hirohito’s Japanese, Anderson recognized that ethnic identity doesn’t have any basis in allegedly timeless and objective traits like “blood” or “race.” A formidable scholar of Southeast Asian languages and cultures, he showed how the founders of post-colonial Indonesia confronted the problem of building a “nation” where none had existed before. Part of their solution was to create a new national language out of the lingua franca that had been spoken for generations over their far-flung archipelago. (The mother tongue of most Indonesians at the time of independence was actually Javanese.) As Anderson writes:

Thirty years ago, almost no Indonesian spoke bahasa Indonesia as his or her mother-tongue; virtually everyone had their own ‘ethnic’ language and some, especially people in the nationalist movement, bahasa Indonesia/dienstmaleisch [the common tongue of administrators under Dutch colonial rule] as well. Today there are perhaps millions of young Indonesians, from dozens of ethnolinguistic backgrounds, who speak Indonesian as their mother-tongue.

The fact that this new national identity was largely the result of a conscious engineering effort by a small group of nationalists didn’t make it any less “real” — just the opposite, in fact. Nations, Anderson argued, are based above all on shared stories, narratives broadly accepted by the group. That’s precisely what gives them their amazing power — for good as well as bad. And, perhaps most importantly, “blood” and “race” are things that don’t change. Stories do.

That’s an important insight, and I’ve seen it borne out again and again. About the same time I came across Benedict’s book, I found myself invited to a dinner with a bunch of Azeris. Some of the guests had grown up in the old Soviet Union; after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, they had become citizens of a new country called the “Republic of Azerbaijan.” The others had grown up in Iran, which actually has a bigger Azeri population than the republic.

You might have thought that they’d be happy to see each other. They all thought of themselves as “Azeris.” Their people — just like the Germans — had been kept apart by the dividing lines of the Cold War, and now these dinner guests had their own modest chance to reunite. Yet when it came right down to it, they didn’t seem to have that much in common. Initial protestations of mutual affection soon gave way to heated arguments.

“They’re so different,” one of the ex-Soviet Azeris whispered to me (in Russian, so the Iranians wouldn’t understand). “We speak the same language, but they’re really Iranians.” He later told me that his counterparts from across the border seemed a bit like rubes, pious Muslims with little knowledge of the larger world. When I asked one of the Iranians, he confessed that the ex-Soviets struck him as arrogant and crude, clearly lacking any sense of traditional subtleties: “more Russians than Azeri.” Despite their many similarities, their long experiences in different societies had sundered their sense of a common narrative. As a result, they had little sense of organic belonging. They shared a language but not much else. (The irony that this awkward reunion took place in Berlin, which had only just gotten rid of its wall, wasn’t lost on anyone.)

Or take the Japanese. As I saw during the years I spent in Tokyo, the Japanese are indeed remarkably homogeneous ethnically and linguistically. Yet in the decades since 1945, in the space of just a few generations, they have completely upended their own notions of how to organize their community politically, making a radical shift from a xenophobic feudal autocracy to a liberal parliamentary democracy.

In short, they’ve completely reimagined what it means to be Japanese. (During my five years there, I never came across a single person who wanted to go to war with another country — rather a departure from the 1930s and ‘40s, when many segments of the population positively welcomed armed conflict.) In the years ahead, the Japanese may have to tweak their national narrative again to allow for a broader degree of multiculturalism that they’ve so far managed to buck. Until now they’ve resisted substantial immigration, but their rapidly declining birthrate and their aging society mean that they may have to give way if they want to preserve their standard of living.

I’ve also seen plenty of failures of imagination. The old USSR signally failed to create a new “national idea” that transcended the myriad identities of its people. Similarly, in post-2003 Iraq, I watched as an entire country dissolved into a mist of competing ethnic and sectarian identities. Many Kurds and Shiites assured me that we were merely seeing that Iraq had been an “artificial state” all along. That was an entirely natural response to the vicious policies of Saddam Hussein, who believed that he could forge a nation only through terror. Yet I also ran into quite a few Iraqis (often of mixed backgrounds) who still counted themselves “Iraqi nationalists” and who yearned to preserve the country as a unified state. Time may have well run out on that idea; I suspect it will only gain a new lease on life if Iraq’s rulers can figure out a story that’s based on the consent of its people — Shiite as well as Sunni.

I suspect that Anderson would have observed that all nations are artificial; some just manage to forget the messiness and loose ends involved in the process of construction. The epigraph to Imagined Communities quotes Daniel Defoe’s poem “The True-Born Englishman,” which describes the tribe in question as a “Mongrel half-bred Race,” a composite of the wildly varied populations of the British Isles over the eons. One suspects that those Victorian imperialists who loved to preach about the innate supremacy of the English didn’t enjoy the read.

Donald Trump, for one, doesn’t seem to have grasped Anderson’s point. Surely no country is more artificial than the United States, which is unified only by a few simple ideas and a handful of legal documents and where virtually every family tree in the population started somewhere else in the world. Yet the peculiar narrative that Americans have managed to build on this seemingly modest foundation has held its own remarkably well. Contrary to Donald Trump, our national identity isn’t defined by blood or soil or religious creed; we aren’t a nation of timelessly “ethnic Americans.” I would like to think that our story is bigger than that — and a bit more imaginative. I suspect that Anderson would have agreed.

(The photo above shows immigrants taking the U.S. citizenship oath in 2014.)

Photo credit: John Moore/Getty Images

 Twitter: @ccaryl