The Other N-Word

Well-meaning Westerners, including Americans, should stop suggesting that nationalism is imaginary. It's real, powerful, and here to stay.

Donald Trump’s election to the presidency of the United States and the first acts of his administration have been the most recent and resounding indication that the world is experiencing a nationalist resurgence. In both the United States and Europe, there is a powerful backlash against unrestricted immigration, most notably when integration in terms of culture, values, and identity seems to be problematic. Muslim immigration, in particular, has been singled out, because of concerns over its alleged cultural alienation, militancy, and involvement in terrorism, both actual and potential.

Meanwhile, the European Union — celebrated only a decade ago as the paragon of a post-national future — has experienced massive waves of refugees, the Brexit vote, internal pressures in some member countries to leave the EU, the rise of far-right anti-immigration parties, and separatist movements seeking independence from some of the European countries themselves. Asia and Africa are experiencing even more powerful ethnic and national pressures.

The resurgence comes as a surprise to many, not least because of the widespread view — promoted by the modernist school in the study of national phenomenon — that nationalism is recent, superficial, and contrived. This view dominates college education, where Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities tops students’ reading lists, as Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” did a generation earlier.

Indeed, reflecting the post-1945 climate of ideas and ethics, this trend has been closely intertwined with a growing tendency among some left-leaning liberals to question both the significance and legitimacy of the very idea of the nation. This widespread dismissiveness of nationalism misunderstands how the world works — past, present, and future.

A crowd of soldiers in stands at attention beneath a reviewing stand where Adolf Hitler delivers a speech at the 1936 Nazi party rally in Nuremberg, Germany. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

In my book (with Alexander Yakobson), Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism, published in 2013, just before the current national resurgence, I discussed how ethnic and national sentiments are evolutionarily engraved in human nature in the form of people’s propensity for affinity, solidarity, and mutual cooperation with their perceived kin-culture communities. These attachments, permeating social life and extending beyond family to tribe and ethnos, became integral to politics when states emerged millennia ago. Ethnicity has always been political and politicized, because people have always been heavily biased toward those whom they identify as their kin-culture community.

None of this is to suggest that any particular national identity or ethnicity is a given, unchanging quantity. Identities changed throughout history and will continue to do so. Still, ethnic and national identities, though they are always in flux, are also among the most durable, and most potent, of human cultural forms. They often span centuries and even millennia.

These realities have gotten lost amid a drive to expose chauvinistic national myths and naïve anachronisms, a very necessary project by itself. And yet, while myths abound in the nationalistic discourse, modernist countermyths have been created at a nearly equal rate. That nations are “imagined communities” does not mean they are arbitrary inventions, nor does invented tradition imply wholesale fabrication. The fashionable shibboleths that dominate in the social sciences obscure that social phenomena — including nationalism — tend to be both deeply rooted and constructed. There is nothing mutually exclusive here.

The doctrine of popular sovereignty, the dominant political legitimation principle in modern times, is regarded by many as the source of the national phenomenon. But national sentiments of common identity, affinity, and solidarity among the people long predated the modern era. Indeed, popular sovereignty has given free vent to national sentiments as much as it contributed to them. The people’s will, once spoken, has been revealed to be unmistakably pro-national. This is why free government and national self-determination appeared as two inseparable aspects of the progressive agenda during the 19th century. In the wake of World War I, they were together posited by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson as the basis for a new — just, democratic, and secure — world order.

During the 20th century, liberals became understandably concerned about the horrendous manifestations of chauvinistic and aggressive nationalism. It is hardly a coincidence that nearly all the founding fathers of the modernist school in the study of the national phenomenon — historians and sociologists such as Hans Kohn, Karl Deutsch, Ernest Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm, and Elie Kedourie — were immigrant refugees from the horrors of the 1930s and ’40s.

Other cognitive problems have contributed to our contemporary misconceptions concerning nationalism. Scholars have lacked the theoretical tools to comprehend the deep naturally evolved roots of the ethnic and national phenomenon. For much of the 20th century, the idea that human nature had anything to do with social realities was an anathema to historians and social scientists. And that which we lack the means to comprehend we do not see even if it is staring us in the face. Repeatedly confounded by the ferocious “atavistic” irruptions of ethnic and national forces, theorists and commentators have nonetheless dismissed them as the outcome of “manipulation” or as epiphenomenal.

Furthermore, ever since Immanuel Kant (if not Plato), both the rational and the moral have been equated with the universal. Thus, many fail to realize that the space of loyalty and benefit sharing from the individual to humanity is curved rather than flat. It extends, as Aristotle saw, from family to wider kin-communal circles, real or perceived, and to their political expressions, such as city-states, national kingdoms, and, indeed, multiethnic empires, which usually centered on an imperial people or ethnos.

In our times, when national rights have been secured domestically and genuine foreign threats seemed to have practically disappeared, it is hardly surprising that national sentiments have been taken lightly or even viewed disparagingly in Western liberal democracies. National self-determination remains a central political idea, founded on the liberal principle that people are entitled to choose for themselves. At the same time, the moral status of national affinities and loyalties has come to be viewed as deeply problematic, in the same way that their source has remained a mystery.

As is said about good health, some things are missed only when they are gone. National identity and sentiments in the West have seemingly disappeared from the eye, having become largely implicit, liberal, and nonaggressive — transparent or “banal,” as some scholars have dubbed them. And yet they are anything but nonexistent. As liberal, prosperous, and peaceful countries like Canada (Quebec), Belgium (Flemings versus Walloons), the United Kingdom (Scotland, Brexit), and Spain (Catalonia, Basque Country) have discovered, ethno-national divisions easily acquire great political salience. And the response across the West to nonintegrating immigrants has made that all the more apparent.

Migrants and refugees await rescue by the Italian Red Cross with the help of Libyan coastguards, on Nov. 4, 2016 off the Libyan coast. (Photo credit: ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)

Mass illegal immigration has become a cardinal political issue in both Europe and the United States and has accelerated the ideological polarization and radicalization of opinion and attitude on both sides of the debate. Liberals have increasingly come to frame the world in post-national, cosmopolitan terms, where universal and individual rights should reign supreme. The humanitarian crisis of millions of people fleeing areas of war and crossing perilous seas and borders adds its weight. Furthermore, left-leaning liberals in particular have been gravitating toward the view, to which they were already inclined, that any restrictions on immigration are unjustified and unjustifiable, as it is immoral to deny free access to a better life to people from the poorer and less fortunate parts of the world, such as Africa, Asia, or Latin America. Thus, the legitimacy of national sentiments and preferences has eroded further.

Coming to the fore in the context of growing alienation and hostility between conservatives and liberals in the United States, the immigration issue has become a symbol and battle cry in the escalating dynamics of the broader ideological war. It has thus pushed both camps to radicalize their positions and harden their convictions. Liberals have increasingly tended to label national sentiments and preferences, as well as restrictive immigration legislation and policies, as racist and fascist. On the other side, immigration has become a central element in the conservative-led backlash against what they view as the tyranny of political correctness, which attempts to frame major political and moral issues as being beyond the pale of legitimate discussion. Different sensibilities and perspectives on universalism-particularism, law and order, and national security frame the debate.

I have no pretense to authoritative judgment on the many complex policy issues entangled in the debate. My purpose here is more general. I hope to diffuse some of the mystery surrounding the sources of national identity and affinity and why they matter to people. This may also moderate attitudes as to whether preferences and policies that express such sentiments (“within reason,” however defined) should be sweepingly dismissed as illegitimate bigotry.

Central to the debate has been an alleged contrast between a supposedly benign civic nationalism, believed to be based solely on common citizenship and shared political institutions, and a negatively viewed ethnic nationalism, based on descent and shared historical and cultural lineage. In reality, however, there have been very few nations, if any, whose existence has been divorced from ethnicity — that is, which did not share cultural and at least some kin affinities. Civic nationalism too — indeed, civic nationalism in particular — generates assimilation into the ethno-cultural community, either as an explicit “republican” requirement, as in France, or as a tacit assumption, as in the United States and Britain.

The ultimate test of shared nationhood is indeed the self-perception of the population in question, 19th-century theorist Ernest Renan’s so-called daily plebiscite. Theoretically, this self-perception is infinitely malleable. However, in actuality people overwhelmingly choose to live together in a political community with those with whom they share culture and, most often, also some sense of common kinship. “Constitutional patriotism,” in social thinker Jürgen Habermas’s phrase, is generally expressed toward one’s own patria, precisely because that particular patria happens to incorporate such shared sources of identity and solidarity.

People wave American flags as they ride in a parade in Alameda, Ca., on July 4, 2016. (Photo credit: GABRIELLE LURIE/AFP/Getty Images)

Certainly, the United States is very different from the old nations of Europe (or Japan, China, and other old nations around the world) with their dominant historical, ethnic core and much stronger kinship sentiments that bind the political community. The American nation was created by immigrants, its population is multiethnic, and immigration remains central to the nation’s experience, ethos, and identity.

But it would be a mistake to conclude on this basis that the United States is an exclusively civic nation or that its people are united only by citizenship, allegiance to their adopted country, and adherence to its Constitution. In actuality, America’s national identity is far more robust than that.

While sometimes retaining a distinct sense of their origin and cultural roots, especially during the first generations after immigration, America’s various immigrant communities also take on a great deal more cultural baggage over time. Most notably, they replace their language and much else. Within a few generations, they merge into a shared, amalgamated American culture, to which they also variably contribute. Typically, from the third generation onward, intermarriages among the immigrant ethnic groups rise steeply, as differences of culture and identity lessen and the common denominators become a much stronger reality. The rhetoric of multiculturalism and multiethnicity, justified and commendable as it may be in expressing new norms of respect for diverse group heritages in the public sphere, should not obscure the more fundamental reality: There exists a very distinct American culture and identity, widely shared by the large majority of Americans and characterized by a common English language and all-pervasive folkways. These encompass mores, symbols, social practices, public knowledge, and a sense of common historical tradition; popular tastes, images, and heroes; music, sports, cuisine, public holidays, and social rituals.

That this has been a fusion culture, drawing from many immigrant sources and traditions, is incontestable and is much celebrated as a wellspring of richness and creativity. The point, however, is that this fusion, ever-changing like any culture, is quintessentially American, widely shared by the American people and projected beyond the United States’ borders as distinctively American. Indeed, the Americanism of American culture is deeply felt around the world, regarded either with approval or disapproval. Americans become very conscious of their cultural identity whenever they encounter the outside world. This common American culture far transcends the political-civic culture that many theorists have posited, naively, as the exclusive binding element of the American nation.

Certainly, throughout American history ethnic communities have often maintained ties with the old country and people. Some of them have also carried out lobbying activity in Washington for them. Moreover, since the 1970s a surge in the quest for roots in terms of origin and tradition has been very noticeable and much celebrated, even, indeed most typically, among people three generations or more after immigration in the United States.

Still, the cultural identity of the so-called hyphenated Americans past the first generation or two is overwhelmingly American, with the search for origins and tradition playing a symbolically important but mostly secondary role. American history and tradition become theirs at least as much as their consciousness of distinctive roots, in most cases much more so, with some strong variations such as the experience of slavery for African-Americans. Americans would say as a matter of course that they won the War of Independence, or World War II, even if their forefathers had not yet arrived in the United States when these historical events took place.

Was singer and actor Frank Sinatra, American-born to Italian immigrants and retaining some lifelong ties to the Italian community, including, supposedly, to the Mafia, ethnically more Italian than American? And what about actress Jennifer Aniston of the popular television series Friends, who is American-born to a father of Greek descent and a mother of Scottish and Italian descent? The doctrine of a “melting pot” that dominated until the middle of the 20th century has since acquired a bad name in the academic and public discourse, as being oppressive and leveling. However, cleansed of its less tolerant aspects, it has very much remained the reality of immigrants’ integration into American society.

Conventions of speech in the United States identify ethnicity with minorities, origins, and “shared blood.” But however strange to the ear, there are plausible reasons for referring to the American national community in ethnic terms. It has been suggested that immigrant ethnicities should not be labeled “minorities,” because there is allegedly no dominant ethnicity in the United States. People of British descent constitute only a small part of the American people, and even the broader category of European “whites” is quickly losing its majority status. More plausibly, however, the majority identity in America is actually American. It tends to bridge over original ethnic identities, and after several generations it often replaces them, as people lose touch with their (often mixed) countries of origin and ancestral identities.

A man holds a sign during a rally in support of immigrants workers around the Trump Tower in New York on April 08. (Photo credit: KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)

America is unlikely to cease being a country of immigration anytime soon. Indeed, the last decades have seen the greatest influx of immigrants to the United States in a century, proportionate to its population, let alone in absolute numbers. The advantages to the country in terms of both economic prosperity and international power of an openness to the world are overwhelming.

At the same time, the notion that in principle it is illegitimate for a country to impose restrictions on immigration — that is, establish criteria and policies that limit and regulate immigration — is being powerfully challenged on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, both Canada and Australia, quintessentially liberal and multiethnic countries, have put in place very strict immigration regulations. Faced with the reality and prospect of a global exodus from the developing to the developed world, this reaction is almost inevitable.

Economic considerations are part of the picture, and they mainly concern the immigrants’ contribution to the economy versus their socio-economic costs as a potential underclass — considerations that naturally invite, or should invite, a nuanced assessment. Security, in terms of both crime rates and involvement in terrorism, is another salient issue. Despite some ideologically motivated attempts to brush them aside, the crime data are often real and unpleasant, though much more so in Europe than in the United States. Crime rates in general are lower in Europe, and immigrants from the Middle East and Africa in particular are implicated in criminal acts at a far higher rate than their share in the population. As for terrorism, its significance, as opposed to its perception, is hotly debated among experts. But nobody disputes that terrorist attacks of all sorts have a huge psychological effect on people and public life — and the psychology of the public matters.

The most sensitive and contentious question is whether it is legitimate for a people and nation to seek to preserve their core culture, most notably when they feel it is threatened by large masses of immigrants whose integration into their adopted country is slow and problematic and whose values are often illiberal. This question has recently been thrust upon the nations of Europe most forcefully, and in some form or another it has preoccupied America throughout its history. For the past half-century, the preservation, protection, and, indeed, active promotion of the cultures of minority groups have been widely championed, as part of an effort to defend the rights of the weak against the crushing dominance of the majority. But with the swing of the pendulum, are majority national cultures entitled to equivalent rights? Does multiculturalism, for all its blessings, have any limit? And, to pose a question explored in a recent book by Liav Orgad, what are the precise rights that a political majority can be said to enjoy?

Protestors from the PEGIDA movement (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident) attend a rally in Leipzig on January 11, 2016. Supporters of the xenophobic far-right movement PEGIDA gathered to mark the first year of the local chapter LEGIDA, as public anger runs high over the Cologne assaults. / AFP / TOBIAS SCHWARZ (Photo credit should read TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images)

This is not a normative article. I am not trying to prescribe the “right” moral answers to the above questions, particularly because I do not believe that, beyond some broadly shared moral notions, contentious questions of value have objective and coherent answers. What I do want to emphasize is the limited efficacy of even the most strongly held ideological creeds when their proponents are oblivious to, ignore, or try to suppress major elements of reality.

This, of course, does not apply solely to national sentiments and preferences. Major spiritual ideologies throughout history, concerned by the excesses and pains of sexuality, have endeavored to curb or suppress it to the point of denial, with very limited success. Indeed, is sex a good or bad thing, given that it often involves endless frustrations, broken hearts, and rape? Surely, the answer must take into account the fact that sexuality is one of the deepest and most cherished human propensities and make a distinction between its benign and malign forms.

The collapse of communism, an ideology enthusiastically embraced and worked for by many but which goes against some deeply ingrained human propensities, is another, more recent, example. There may be good reasons — both moral and pragmatic — for the abolition of private property. They are at least as good as the reasons for the abolition of ethnicity and nationalism, except that all of the above express deep human preferences toward one’s own.

Ethnic and national identities are subject to great historical variation, of course, and can be socially shaped and adjusted. But attempts to write them off entirely are futile and potentially harmful. Indeed, they can be hugely counterproductive, as they might generate a strong reaction, like the one we are experiencing today with respect to the question of national identity. Denying the deep roots of national identity and sentiments, or rejecting their legitimacy in questions of legislation and policy, are ideological precepts that may resonate widely but are unlikely to win the people’s acceptance.

New citizens wave U.S. flags before being sworn in during a naturalization ceremony on Liberty Island in New York on Oct. 28, 2011. (Photo credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

This is not an invitation to xenophobia, racism, and national bigotry, which are very real and ominous threats that have been on the rise in recent years. As mentioned above, the United States has benefited enormously from immigration and a general openness to the world, and it stands to benefit more. The golden path, advocated by Aristotle, still has much to recommend it. This applies also to the absorption of immigrants — to the pace of the process, the numbers involved, consideration of benefits to the economy, prospects of their integration into American society, and, indeed, humanitarian circumstances.

Much the same is pertinent to American foreign policy, where a lack of proper understanding and appreciation of the nature and significance of ethnicity and nationhood has been a contributing factor to some recent debacles and humanitarian disasters. The precept that nationhood equals citizenship is very far from being universally applicable. The notion that different ethnicities in a country should remain together and count as a nation even if they do not perceive themselves as such, or do not get along, is partly derived from the erroneous view that nationhood and ethnicity are entirely different concepts. Contrary to American parlance — and best efforts — the Iraqi people, the people of Iraq, and the people in Iraq are not synonymous terms. The same applies to Syria.

The alternatives to an existing nation-state are sometimes horrendous, as we saw in Yugoslavia and see now in the Middle East and, indeed, in so many other places, most notably today in Africa and parts of Asia. Still, creating a sense of common nationhood where none exists is a far more difficult and uncertain undertaking than has been assumed as a matter of course since 1945. Indeed, keeping different ethno-national groups within the same state against their will may well prove more costly in human terms than the acceptance of national separatism. Whether in each particular case one chooses to support self-determination or the preservation of the territorial integrity of the existing state depends on one’s assessment of the risks involved and probably also on one’s worldview.

Ethnic and national affinities have deep roots in the human psyche and have been among the most powerful forces in human history. They have had an emancipating effect, and they are a major source of social solidarity, while also having a chauvinistic and aggressive aspect. To make the most of the former and contain the latter, a proper understanding of the phenomenon is crucial. Ethnic and national affinities are not merely a phase, a manipulative invention by cynical state authorities, or an inexplicable and insufferable atavistic relic in a liberal, cosmopolitan, and universalist age. While always subject to change, ethnic and national identities are not going away any more than are other deeply rooted and changing human associations and relations, such as the family. The news of their demise has been premature.

Top photo credit: SPENCER PLATT/Getty Images

Azar Gat holds the Ezer Weitzman professorial chair at Tel Aviv University’s School of Political Science. His book (with Alexander Yakobson) "Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism" was published by Cambridge in 2013, and his "The Causes of War and the Spread of Peace: But Will War Rebound?" will be published by Oxford this summer.