Emmanuel Macron’s ascension to the Élysée somehow seems to suggest that the tide of nationalism has been halted. The hope is that Merkel will win her election in the autumn and the firm hand(s) of Europe, will continue to guide it to multilateral bliss. But in the past few days a mob lynched off the head of young boy in Northern India, where vigilantes are using sectarian violence as a means to assert a homogenous national identity. As I write this, a majority of white men spend their time reveling in the fact that the weakest, poorest of their people will not have access to basic health care, again in the name of reclaiming the lost American identity. And a Prime Minister just threw a billion pounds at a Nationalist party so that she could secure a majority vote in parliament. She is tasked to chart the destiny of her people to a more closed, inward looking and isolated society.
All of the above may seem unnecessary links or comparisons. Perhaps they aren’t really comparable or connected. But everywhere I look, I see the scepter of nationalism, nationhood, assertion of identities as the new norm. Events that would seem like a thing from the past, are unravelling before us. And what really boggles my mind is that I really don’t get it. Maybe it’s me, but I don’t understand the basic structures of our modern societies, how and why nation states are built and what justifies the recent resurgence of this idea, that seems to have some sort of popular support that acts as a bulwark for this ideology to resurface and thrive (I argue that it never went away really and perhaps was dormant, at best).
Nationalism no longer remains within the confines of self-governance or right of self-determination. The morphed idea of nationalism seems to be rooted in this construct of othering: this us vs. them debate. You either fit in or you are an outcast. There is identity of language, culture, ethnicity, race (yes people still use that as an identifier), country and customs and my god an endless list of separators. I feel surrounded in this quagmire of what appear fake, meritless distinctions, utilitarian at best
Just last weekend, in my adopted province of Quebec celebrated its national holiday, remembering the long-gone St. Jean Baptiste. In following the celebrations and being completely detached from such a religious, colonial fête, I began wondering what nationalism really means. Quebec’s history for example, in the past one hundred years, has seen a shunning of the church and its stranglehold over politics and the populace. There was a conscious effort to redefine the social structure, which was separate from any religious subjugation. Tied to that was this resurrection of the French identity, which became a founding pillar of this new self-proclaimed forward thinking society. Yet I asked myself, how is it that the national holiday of a proud secular forward thinking society still celebrates a Saint? Is it just me?
After much reflection, I came up with three basic comparisons, which hopefully help us comprehend the fundamental principles in this ‘Us vs. Them’ debate:
Race vs. species:
I understand that not everyone took Race 101 in college. People use the words interchangeably, synonymously, liberally and conservatively. However, I crave the proper usage of the word ‘race’, and even then the human race (a species of people) had its own variations and contemporaries historically, depending on the anthropologist you read. So, my question is that from a nationalistic prism, where does the human race belong? Where is our collective nation state? Can the answer be this planet? Well, not really, because we share it with many others, plants and animals and birds and sea creatures and bugs and billions of living beings. If the idea of nationhood is tied to a (close to) homogenous whole sharing one piece of land, by definition the sharing of this planet is abhorrent to the idea of nationhood. So then, where should humans go seeking this unattainable utopia of nationalism?
Citizens vs. aliens:
Oftentimes the colour of my skin brands me the outsider, the alien, one who had to action the process of belonging. It’s not by default, it’s certainly not by birth, more by design. In that design, I have hoops to jump through, criteria to meet and hopefully that alien to citizen journey will eventually be completed. However, while attempting this transition, this journey to the promised land, I am forced to wonder, where my citizenship really is? Is it in the new home that I crave to make my own, but will require me to be something more/someone else to be able to belong? Or is it with the one that I left behind and now know little of, for it is slowly getting lost in the past?
Us vs. them:
This is the most generic of the lot, but goes to the heart of what we are debating. The othering of everyone but myself leaves me alone and isolated. The categorization that we were here first and thus this makes it our land is fundamentally flawed, for no one lives long enough (individually) to make such a claim. And if longevity is the only determinant, then why should history be short sighted? Why should we accept that someone’s few hundred years old history takes precedence to thousands of years? Better yet, no one has any claims to the ‘real’ ancestors, who walked these lands hundreds of thousands of years ago and if there exists a claim, wouldn’t it be commonly shared by everyone and equally?
In evaluating the us vs. them debate, I realized that the phenomenon is not rooted in difference. It’s not about me vs. you, instead it really is just about me. The othering debate is a product of something more insidious. And there can’t be just one factor at play.
It is undeniable that this idea of majority oppression is real. This self-victimization of being wronged is manifesting itself in the form of our electoral choices (and of course social violence) all over. But what is this new wave of nationalism? Where is this fear of the majority coming from? I sat and wondered for weeks, reading through pages upon pages of commentaries, and theories abound on the subject. But in the end it was clear — the loss of power and control is what is causing this. The anxiety of a loss of control, a threatened power structure. As the status quo gets stirred, however mildly, the ‘other’ becomes unacceptable. Things are never a threat when the status quo is maintained and the majority rule applies.
Let’s do a quick run through our recent history. Colonization ended less than a few decades ago (that’s if we don’t count Canada’s continued ties to the British crown). Segregation was a reality till the late sixties (that’s if we ignore continued violence against blacks and minorities). New found nationalism includes discrimination of gay people by the likes of Putin and Erdogan. Friendly public relations are the supposed response to a genocide that has lasted centuries. My point is that we merely assumed that the world was moving to a place to equality, this idea of a globalized world where humans could see each other just as such and live as one community. How can that even be possible? The commonality of the human species has no standing before the rather important identities of ethnicity, religion, even race. We have to build more borders and stricter check points before letting aliens in. We must split into smaller homogenous societies to preserve our glorious pasts. We have to use the Cow or the Rabbit or even sea creatures to further the agenda of a cultural identity for a country. We must promise peace and acceptance of all on the one side and support imperialist armed repression elsewhere. And last but not the least is that we must continue to starve the many to feed the few. Nationalism and the desire for a nation state far exceeds affordable living, clean drinking water, healthcare and real tangible equality. Humans are replaceable, but our identities are not: they shall survive for all eternity and must be preserved at all cost. If festering seeds of division is the only way to do it, then why hesitate?
Disenchanted sarcasm aside, to me the idea of nationhood comes with the obligation to give and the privilege of being part of a larger whole. The part that requires giving and shouldering responsibility is to other fellow creatures that abound this planet. The part of the privilege of being part is to benefit from what others can offer. But given my rather uninformed view of nationalism and what it means to belong to a nation state, I think it’s time I began looking for another world where non-nationalists like me can inhabit. And while I’m at it, I’ll probably take my cats with for they don’t fit in this world either.