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Nationalism and Beyond

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Nenad Miscevic

Part Two. Identity, Culture, And Tradition

Chapter seventeen. Recapitulation: nationalism against culture

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1Let us take stock. We started with the following questions: Do people have a duty to promote their ‘ethno-national culture’? Is love for one’s ethno-national culture morally superior to an interest in foreign cultures? Should each state ‘rightfully belong’—at least ideally—to a single ethno-cultural community, and serve the particular culture of that community? Should ‘ethno-national cultures’ be kept alive in a pure form by administrative means, in order to prevent the ‘interbreeding’ of various cultures? The tough but even-handed nationalist, ‘John the Lavinian’, answers all four questions in the affirmative. Note that his willingness to universalize his advice—that is, to extend it to all ‘peoples’—does not change the rather radical content of the advice itself.

2Let us summarize the main criticisms of the value-based arguments. In order to defend nationalism based upon cultural considerations, the nationalist has to put forward views of culture that are extremely implausible and have unpleasant direct consequences. His proposals also suggest—in a more or less indirect, but completely foreseeable way—more extremist interpretations that might have catastrophic consequences if acted upon. I assume that one is responsible for such direct consequences, and that one should also be careful about foreseeable indirect consequences. I do not want to burden the theoretical nationalist, or the nationally minded philosopher, with ‘guilt by association’, but to point out our normal standards of responsibility when handling dangerous and explosive items, or risky energy sources, since nationalism is certainly one of them.

3We have thoroughly criticized the fundamental nationalist assumption that culture is primarily national. As a brief recap of criticisms of this ‘monoculturalist’ view, neither high nor popular culture is spontaneously centered around the nation; cultural life is typically less than homogeneous, and there are many circles and traditions which are either smaller or larger than national ones. Rural popular culture is most often microregional; urban culture is nowadays rather transnational in average-size towns and clearly mixed in cities. High culture is also mixed: poetry and belles lettres in general follow the lead of language, whether it is linked to the nation or not. Given that it often is, literature is the prime carrier of national cultural identity, and nationalists forget that it is only one segment of high culture. Many other activities within high culture do not necessarily or most frequently carry clear national traits in the case of the vast majority of nations. Often the national label (such as ‘Danish’ painting, ‘Albanian’ sculpture) is just a convenient umbrella term for an activity and its products in the given area of culture. Finally, there is a deep uncertainty about the naturalness and ‘authenticity’ of the ethno-national framework. It is not clear whether ethno-national traditions as we know them from old nation-states are constructions that post-date the creation of the nation-state, instead of being its condition and raison d’être.

4We have also noted that the nationalist appeal to cultural proximity within the ethno-nation manifestly misconstrues actual cultural relations: the wish—even obsession—to distance oneself from the neighboring ‘culture’ essentially includes the suppression of many traits that are in normal cases common to the culture(s) of neighbors. We shall return to the consequences of this in a moment.

5Remember that it is not that the nationalist simply wants a trait to go on: say, for the Lavinian language to be spoken for at least the next one hundred years. He wants the descendants of Lavinians to speak Lavinian. Now, this wish has no title to a universal rule: if John wants the descendants of his co-national Pauline (whom he only knows by name) to speak Lavinian, this in itself does not put any constraint upon Pauline, not to mention her descendants. Not even Pauline is in a position to exercise paternalistic care over the choices of the members of her ethno-nation, possibly including the choices of future generations.

6The direct implications of the assumption involve teaching history of culture as a collection of insulated national packages, and organizing cultural life around narrowly national topics. Talk about the ‘centrality of national culture’ encourages the idea that in each big or small ethno-national country one should concentrate upon the local historical achievements in high culture. In Croatia there was a four-year course in Croatian philosophy, and we had exams in ‘Croatian psychological identity’; in France, as well as in some Central European countries, analytical philosophy is considered suspect partly on the grounds of its being ‘Anglo-American’. Examples of narrow-minded, downright disastrous attempts at inventing a specifically ethno-national high culture can be multiplied at will. The same over-general idea of the centrality of national culture often in practice encourages a disastrous linguistic purism.

7The assumption naturally gives rise to even more problematic views. We have quoted Margalit’s metaphor to the effect that comparing cultures is out of the question: a dog, winner of a dog show, should not thereafter be entered in a cat show. If cultures are really incommensurable, their mixing is indeed contrary to nature. Now, an immediate consequence of such a view can be to restrict the transmission and creation of culture to the ethno-national tradition (more or less narrowly conceived), together with suspicion of everything ‘foreign’, and, in more competitive situations, an aggressive ‘cleansing’ of one’s cultural heritage of foreign admixtures. Given that most contemporary cultures are mixed, the cleansing would end up crippling the culture that has become its target: like a jealous lover, the serious nationalist sometimes ends up mutilating or killing the object of his love in order to keep it pure and unalloyed. In short, abstract talk about the ‘incommensurability’ of traditions encourages extremist readings, and these in turn give rise to extremist recommendations. The link is indirect, but clearly recognizable. In the case of racism it would be immediately acknowledged; just try the same dogs-and-cats line with race, and you will see the result! What sort of timidity and misplaced respect prevents us from recognizing it in the case of nationalism?

8Let us now turn to an important issue that we have left dangling. Our nationalist assumes that the protection of culture in a relatively pure form justifies and even commands state intervention, and thereby strongly recommends that the state should be centered around a given cultural tradition. Is this ‘statist’ assumption warranted? Not really, at least not in liberal-democratic societies. It may be warranted in oppressive societies, such as the great multinational empires were for the most part; there, the complete political independence of smaller ethnic communities has been the only way to protect the basic rights of their members. But these cases are not central to the contemporary nationalist line on culture and tradition. For liberal-democratic societies—the prime target of the latter—this line has little chance of being accepted, since traditions there are freely formed, continued and discontinued, as circumstances arise. If there is a dominant majority language, it is perpetuated by the school system anyway, and special measures of ‘protection’ or ‘linguistic self-defense’ are hardly needed; it is much more important to give minorities their due. People normally, and without state encouragement, read literature in their mother tongue; normally show interest in novels that deal with their own town, region, or country; listen to pop music in their own language as well as in some foreign ones. Writers need not be encouraged to write about home topics by means of state support; one can rely upon the interest of home readers for that. Good thinkers tend to create their own ‘schools’ of thought, smaller or larger, to which interested people are spontaneously attracted. Of course, a sub-community might decide to perpetuate its ways of life, some of its members may decide to write in the dialect spoken around them, and many more may decide to read what has been written. It can negotiate some form of state support if the enterprise seems valuable to a larger public, or look for private support, or both. So, in most cases, there is no special need for a new state just for the protection of one culture, and different cultures can coexist under the umbrella of a single state. Moreover, when the purity of a culture can be maintained only by state intervention, it is unclear that the state has a right to intervene. In a democratic society, a culture becomes threatened when its members lose interest in it: a culture based on religion will be seriously threatened by the spread of atheism; a conservative culture is threatened when a new generation of intellectuals searches for new ways, or simply becomes enthusiastic for a different culture, and there is no interest among the public in maintaining the old forms. In such cases, the competing contrary rights of the creators and/or consumers of culture very often make state intervention deeply problematic.

9There is a further difficulty for the nationalist. Vigilant state protection very often directly threatens the culture it is meant to protect. Good ‘national’ art and philosophy for the most part cannot be created by a conscious effort. The point is glaringly obvious: good love poetry in English is mostly written when an English-speaking poet falls in love, not when he or she sits down to ‘make a contribution to English culture’. Good philosophers are obsessed with philosophical problems, not with the goal of contributing to their ‘national philosophy’. In short, good ‘national’ culture is essentially a by-product. One cannot create it on demand, any more than one can fall in love on demand. Now, once state officials are taught the idea that they should ‘foster national culture’, what they typically do is, first, lavish money on national history (which might be a good or a bad thing, depending on the circumstances), and secondly, channel the money for contemporary production to works that are overtly and recognizably national. The latter move is almost always deleterious. Take art: good contemporary art is very often ironical to the point of sarcasm, iconoclastic, irreverent and rebellious on principle. Deciding to foster works of art that are recognizably ‘national’ and consequently to diminish or withhold support to the rest is doomed to failure: such a move selects the worst art and eliminates the best. A nationalistic cultural policy in Britain would never have supported a Benjamin Britten or a Bertrand Russell. (Of course, some of the most irreverent and shocking art of the moment will be seen in a few decades by future nationalists as ‘great national art’, but this happens only after the event.)

10The impossibility of creating ‘national culture’ on demand vitiates the efforts of even the most intelligent and benevolent state officials. When the officials are not benevolent, or not intelligent, or both—as sometimes happens in particularly unfortunate countries—the effects are much worse than just a lack of funding. Remember the example of Béla Bartók who collected folk songs all over Hungary, which at that time was large and ethnically mixed. In the 1920s he was severely criticized in the daily newspapers by his nationalistic colleague and boss for having published the songs of the Romanian minority: after all, Hungarians are the ‘rightful owners’ of the Hungarian state! He almost lost his job at the Budapest Academy of Music, and was forced, first into silence and a kind of ‘internal exile’, and later, when things got worse, into actual exile to the US. Hundreds of lesser-known artists and thinkers in other European countries have been forced to follow similar paths. This is what the nationalistic ‘state protection’ of national culture can come down to: the outright destruction of the culture that is supposed to be protected. The phenomenon is not limited to small nations: German nationalist politics was constantly destroying culture in Germany throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

11Ill-founded statism, the misinterpretation of proximity, and misconceived ‘monoculturalism’ thus vitiate all of the arguments discussed. Notice that they are not the property of non-invidious nationalism; they are shared with the invidious variant, and are usually put forward as excuses for its excesses. We have charitably discussed them in the non-invidious context, since they have greater appeal there; still, their intrinsic invalidity remains, whatever the context.

12Each of the arguments discussed also has its own weaknesses. They remain even if the statist thesis is weakened to some kind of cultural autonomy, and even if the nationalist tries to pay lip-service to cultural pluralism.

13The arguments from the value of traditions as conditions of human flourishing, including the understanding of values—prominently of moral value—although it rightly stresses the importance of tradition, goes much too far in making tradition our unique window on value, and in making values dependent upon particular tradition(s) within which one might have come in touch with them. It underestimates the closeness of moral codes, representing relatively close peoples as having different, even incommensurable ‘thick’ moralities, and thereby encourages diffidence and moral isolationism.

14The chief argument from identity misconstrues the notions of cultural and national identity by likening them to—to the point of confusing them with—personal identity, in order to suggest that such ‘identities’ (in a wide and somewhat metaphorical sense) should be as unique and fixed as personal identity. It unwarrantedly ties the strength and stability of one’s identity to the strength and rigidity of one’s ethno-national framework. Finally, it argues for the primacy of non-chosen belonging, which is morally unacceptable if taken literally, since it clashes with the value of autonomy.

15The argument from proximity has two weaknesses: it rests on the problematic assumption that distance justifies neglect and even discrimination, and, more importantly in the present context, it misrepresents the actual configuration of nationalist conflicts.

16Now, the appeal to culture, tradition, and identity is the pivot around which the whole contemporary theoretical defense of nationalism turns; if it is too weak to support it, as I have tried to show, and if its weakness is due to its defects—which also have dangerous consequences—then one should seriously contemplate the possibility that things stand in exactly the opposite way: that the creation and preservation of a decent cultural life and of fruitful and interesting traditions, the richness of cultural identities, and the autonomous flourishing of people demand that nationalist advice be firmly rejected, and isolationist fantasies about encapsulated cultures of an essentially ethno-national character be relegated to the junkyard of cultural politics.

© Central European University Press, 2001

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