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Nationalism and Beyond

Nenad Miscevic

Part Two. Identity, Culture, And Tradition

Chapter fourteen. Is national identity essential for the identity of persons?

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1Whereas the appeal to culture and tradition is an old weapon of the nationalist, the notion of identity is a relatively new invention. It originated in social psychology (with Erik Erikson as the contemporary classic) but has managed to become the magic word in political and social debate at the start of the new millennium. All sorts of movements appeal to identity, and the issues of ethno-national identity in particular keep attracting the hearts and minds of millions, setting the framework of the debate, even for the most ordinary matters. An Indian writer, an immigrant to the US, has written a (fine) newspaper article on his doubts and concerns about his child’s names: for instance, what will the life of a boy named Narayana Nambudiri be like in an average American neighborhood? The article is anthologized in a book of readings dealing with ‘names and identity’ (Crasta, 1993, 35). No wonder the debate about national identity includes political and philosophical celebrities. Given the popularity of the topic, I shall introduce it with a choice of quotations and short paraphrases, and then give the floor to our nationalist persona. This time, he will have a hard time reconstructing the essentials of a complicated, labyrinthine debate. (Remember that the lines of thought we shall systematize here are often presented by actual writers in an entangled form.) All the authors concerned discuss the national identity of persons, not the identity of groups. The issue is, what does one’s national belonging contribute to one’s identity as an individual? Suppose you are in need of an identity. Should you turn to the national leader to provide you with one? The nationalist denies that this is the right question: your identity is already determined by your national belonging. You do not choose it, you endorse the one you have, and it shall determine who you are.

2Let me start with the American politologist Gertrude Him-melfarb. She formulates her defense of patriotism and denunciation of cosmopolitanism in dramatically broad terms: “Above all, what cosmopolitanism obscures, even denies, are the givens of life: parents, ancestors, family, race, religion, heritage, history, culture, tradition, community—and nationality.” None of these are, in her opinion, accidental; all are essential to a given individual. And all of them enter the identity of individuals, which is “neither an accident nor a matter of choice. It is given, not willed.” Trying to reject any of these traits brings ‘costs to the self’. Moreover, “the ‘protean self’, which aspires to create an identity de novo, is an individual without identity” (Himmel-farb, 1996, 77).

3According to the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit, “Belonging to a national form of life means being within a frame that offers meaning to people’s choice between alternatives, thus enabling them to acquire an identity” (Margalit, 1997, 83). The American philosopher Oldenquist puts it thus: “The social identity they [that is, ‘people’] feel with their group often is a strong and defining element of their personalities.” (Oldenquist and Koller 1997) And here is the Quebecois philosopher K. Nielsen, who starts from a person’s need for selfidentity or self-definition and ends by urging the need for a nation-state for each ethno-national group:

Self-realization and a sense of self cannot be sustained simply by creative activity or an identification with humanity. Development of human powers, Feuerbachian species-being, indifferent to particular culturally specific self-definitions, is probably impossible, but, even if possible, it is not sufficient to provide anything like an adequate self-definition... We are, to put it crudely, lost if we cannot identify ourselves with some part of an objective social reality: a nation, though not necessarily a state, with its distinctive traditions. What we find in people—and as deeply embedded as the need to develop their talents—is the need not only to be able to say what they can do but to say who they are. This is found, not created, and is found in the identification with others in a shared culture based on nationality or race or religion or some slice or amalgam thereof. Given this nature of our human nature, national consciousness and the forging and sustaining of a nation are extremely important to us whoever we are. Under modern conditions, this securing and nourishing of a national consciousness can only be achieved with a nation-state that corresponds to that national consciousness. (Nielsen, 1993, 32)

4Another Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, has proposed, with some reservations, a linguistic argument in favor of national identity (Taylor, 1993, 33-34). He describes it as deriving from Romanticism and shows a lot of sympathy for it, but in the end he wisely declines to endorse it himself. According to Taylor’s reconstruction it has five steps. The conditions of our identity are indispensable to “our being full human subjects”. Now, the crucial pole of identification is “language/culture and hence the linguistic community”. The availability of linguistic community is indispensable to being a full human subject. Of course, one has a right to demand respect for one’s condition to being a human subject. By implication, one has a right to demand respect for “the conditions of our linguistic community being a viable pole of identification”. Let me finally make explicit the last step, implicit in Taylor’s chapter title, ‘Why Do Nations Have to Become States?’ (Taylor, 1993): the condition for community being a viable pole of identification is that it should become a state.

5I shall assume that the notion of identity used by our theoreticians involves at least the following aspects: identity is an all-or-nothing matter. It encompasses essential, vitally important traits and is partly a matter of what you are, independently of your choice, partly a matter of your identifications. One is born a female, but can identify oneself with one’s womanhood to a larger or smaller extent. Call a trait or a belonging one identifies with the ‘pole’ of identification: being a woman, being of Indian origin is such a pole. Some philosophers, notably Charles Taylor, limit identification to ‘moral’ items (but it is unclear how far the ‘moral’ is supposed to reach). It is useful to distinguish two aspects of identification, one more affective, related to the ‘heart’, and the other to the ‘head’. The affective identification with a trait (say, being a Lavinian) involves endorsing it and starting to care about its furtherance (for example, becoming a ‘good Lavinian’), and about the commitments one associates with the trait (a good Lavinian never swears!). Notice that such care can involve deep emotional ties, a cathexis, as psychoanalysts would put it. The ties make the trait salient, and guide the desires of the identifier. Of course, coming to care about the trait and the associated commitments may involve some nonvoluntary steps (being born a Lavinian, falling in love with a very patriotic Lavinian person), and some chosen, voluntary decisions (avoid non-Lavinians!).

6Now, an achieved identification with a trait (quality, membership, role) should encompass at least the following attitudes:

  • Acceptance of the (alleged) fact that for a long time it has influenced one’s powers and liabilities, and in this sense it has ‘created’ one as one now is (firmly believing things such as ‘The reason I am so decent and civil is that I am an Englishman’, ‘The reason I do not harass women in the workplace is that we, the British, care about decency’).
  • Deep care for the trait and, when the trait is positive, about its preservation. It also involves a picture of what kind of commitments the trait carries with it, and the willingness wholeheartedly to assume such commitments.
  • Readiness to enhance the effectiveness of the trait (if such a deed is in one’s power) in the future (for example, a readiness to dress even more in accordance with one’s belonging, to monitor one’s speech and bring it in line with ‘what one is’, and the like).

7Here is a schematic drawing:

8Call the attitudes towards the trait just depicted ‘identificatory’. Of course, the trait (one’s belonging) and the attitudes towards it (one’s being proud and happy that one belongs to this particular community) enhance each other, forming a self-perpetuating loop. The more you are proud to belong, the more you belong, and vice versa. In the case of a durable identification there is a loop of mutual reinforcement between the trait and the attitude. A mature identity is thus a stable one: one’s loyalties are fixed, they form part of one’s self-image, which is itself a stable, durable one, not exposed to the whims of fortune. After thus having sketched at least some features of identity (in the sense used in the debate) let me give the floor once more to our nationalist:

Most people agree that a lasting and stable identity is a necessary condition of the flourishing of each human being, and of the very possibility of particular political choices for individuals. Now, John’s identity is largely independent of his will; on the contrary, it is a condition enabling him to have a determinate will at all. Now, what kind of identity is central to human beings? Well, they need to belong to a unified and given (that is, non-chosen and nonvoluntary) comprehensive community, and to participate in its life in order to acquire and maintain a lasting and stable identity. In order to have a stable and mature identity, a person must belong to a solid community, not of his own choosing. Tradition-based communities are ideal identity providers. This dovetails nicely with my previous statement about tradition.
Remember that tradition encompasses actions and roles (performer of such-and-such acts, participant in such-and-such a practice with such-and-such a status). It constitutively determines the roles available within them, that is, a role has its identity only within a tradition. The roles empower their holders (an umpire has the power to decide about excluding a player from a game) and they carry with them a set of values and duties, also determined by the encompassing tradition. Traditions typically constitutively belong to a larger social framework, most prominently an ethno-national one. Among all the traditional, historically developed candidates, it is the best and most reliable framework for cultural traditions. By being born into a national framework, an individual acquires his or her first and most important belonging. As the Israeli philosopher Yael Tamir says, “national identity is best cultivated in a small, relatively closed and homogeneous framework, which neither wishes nor needs to reach beyond the members of the nation” (Tamir, 1993, 131); it should be noted that Tamir is aware of the importance of macro-regions, but does not focus upon them. Being a member of such a framework makes the insertion into most typical traditions within it morally obligatory, and at the same time it facilitates the insertion and makes it natural. Now, stable identity traits have to do with such a belonging and with the roles determined by the traditions flourishing within the national framework. Roles and associated properties are among the most important potential identity traits for each person. Therefore the almost natural, initially non-chosen kind of belonging is the central provider of identity traits. Also, full participation in the tradition makes possible the understanding of traits and roles with attendant significance and values/norms. Participation, by disclosing values and norms, underpins the affective attachment necessary for identification. Typically, general loyalty to a tradition underlies the acceptance of the particular norms that figure within it.
Let me illustrate this with a diagram:

This, then, is the connection between the psychological and cultural identity of a person and the traits of the ethno-national culture it belongs to. The best candidate for an identity-forming and identity-protecting community is the (ethno-)nation, a traditional, historically formed community, with a non-voluntary criterion of membership. National belonging is independent of the will of the person in question, since having a particular will depends upon having such an identity. The value has to be protected. But identity is an important value in anybody’s view. By providing one and protecting it, the ethno-nation itself inherits some of the value in question, together with the right to be protected.
This concludes my general defense of the nation on the basis of the identity of its members. Let me add a slight complication. There are two ways to account for the importance of the (ethno-)nation in relation to identity consideration. The simplest account ascribes identity-forming power to ethno-nationhood itself, to the ‘national form of life’, regardless of the particular traits that constitute it. In the case of the Bosnian Croatian ‘national form of life’ (grounded on religious difference with the Muslims) and that of the Quebecois (grounded linguistically) the implication is that both can equally well provide their members with the required identity. If pressed, the defender of this second way might reverse the order of explanation: some traits (for example, language) are valuable because they belong to the ethno-nation, rather than vice versa (the ethno-nation is valuable because it protects language, which has an independent value).
An alternative account proposes that certain traits—language, moral code, customs—can play the important role of providing identity for individual human beings. Their role is independent of their use in nationalistic or similar contexts, and derives from their general anthropological relevance. (For instance, language is valuable as such, since it is an important ‘pole of identification’. The other is a community of values.) Now, since the ethno-nation incorporates and protects the trait, it is assumed to inherit its identity-related value. Finally, the nation-state inherits the value from its role in fostering and protecting the ethno-nation. If successful, such a proposal then offers a genuine explanation of why the ethno-nation and its state are valuable to individuals, starting from the independent value of the traits they both enhance and protect.
Whatever detailed account you choose, the overall story remains the same. The preservation of a given ethno-national culture—in a relatively pure state—is a good independent of the will of the members of the culture, which ought to be assured by adequate means. But, in order that such a community should preserve its own identity and support the identity of its members, it has to assume (always or at least in most cases) the political form of a state. Therefore, once the state is in place, its citizens have the right and obligation to favor it and their own ethnic culture in relation to any other. They can and should indulge in loving it and in hating its enemies.



9The line of thought just presented is very appropriate for the contemporary framework of political thought, since it grounds the value of the ethno-nation upon individual needs, the need for identity, in this case; on the other hand it is favorable to the nationalist since the value in question is community-dependent, and not at the mercy of individuals’ whims. Nevertheless, I do not think that it fulfills its promises.

10Before proceeding to a detailed discussion, let me note that I find it difficult to believe that serious and civilized pro-nationalist authors literally mean what they say, or seem to say, about national identity. Take the two key claims, that non-chosen identities are much more important—in point of fact as well as morally—than chosen ones, and that among the former national identity is paramount. On a literal reading that would entail that loyalty to non-chosen identities (race, gender, nation) should for the most part prevail over loyalty to chosen ones. Now, how about crucial decisions in one’s life, say marriage, choice of friends, choice of career and place(s) to live: is it possible that the loyalty to race and nation should here play a role, indeed a paramount role? Is it possible that a civilized person should think that it is morally bad to marry a person of different race or ethno-national belonging? Should Jews have only, or for the most part, Jewish friends and avoid the ‘Gentiles’ if possible, even if these are their colleagues with whom they share professional interests, artistic tastes, and so on? No decent intellectual would claim this nowadays; so what does our nationalist really mean by his view that loyalty to the non-chosen identity should prevail? Under what circumstances? What should it be allowed to dictate? Let me then charitably assume that our nationalist does not literally mean to advise you to avoid friends of other race or ethnic belonging; he restricts this to special circumstances, which he does not care to specify.

11I now pass to the general issue of the importance of national and cultural identity. Let me first try to fend off a possible misunderstanding. It should be stressed that one’s national-cultural ‘identity’ is not the (numerical) sameness of a person. Little Kai, a Scandinavian, can move to Canada and become, culturally and politically, a Quebecois; thereby he has not ceased to be the person he is. One should distinguish between cultural (psychosocial) identity, which is ‘identity’ in a wide, metaphorical sense, from the literal sameness of a living person. Recognizing that the former can be flexible and changing without jeopardizing the latter, as the experiences of conversion and sincere changing of sides show, even deeply held cultural identifications can be meaningfully given up without loss, even with profit. Saul, the Jew and Roman citizen, becomes Paul, a Christian and future martyr; but the whole point of the conversion is that it is the same person who undergoes the change, and that Saul is not being literally replaced by another. Traditionalists, like MacIntyre, sometimes confuse cultural identity and sameness of person, deriving from this confusion the idea that cultural identity is sacred and untouchable. So, we should keep in mind the difference between the literal sameness of the person or the self (which is, in this banal sense, numerically one), and the pluralism of cultural identifications, resulting in a plural and changing cultural identity (in a non-literal, metaphorical sense). The seriousness of cultural identity does not consist in the fact that it is not literal sameness. It is the psychological importance of identification that makes cultural identity crucial. Let me explain. If one identifies with a trait one is prone to ascribe to it factual importance in one’s past biography and actual decisions. Equally, one tries to act in accordance with the trait and its normative commitments, and to develop these commitments. All this gives enough seriousness to identification, without any need to develop the trait into something that is literally necessary for sameness of person.

12Let us turn to the more practical weaknesses of the nationalist line. First, a quick reminder about the race/nation analogy with which this book began. One kind of belonging that is certainly dramatically non-voluntary and normally quite manifest is racial identity; still, no one in his right mind would today claim that states should be run on racial principles (see Gutmann and Appiah [1996] for an excellent discussion). Why is this so often forgotten in the case of the nation?

13Furthermore, our nationalist claims that solid communities and institutions form stable persons. But military barracks are not known for building stable and strong persons, although these can be said to be solid and stable institutions. In short, there is probably no positive correlation between the rigidity of the trait and the stability of identification. A solid and stable institution can produce feeble and neurotic persons, while flexible traits can support stable identification. The whole idea is just a misplaced analogy that feeds further misunderstanding. The same holds for the stability of traditions. The misplaced analogy between the stability of the ‘whole’ (nation) and the stability of the ‘part’ (individual) should not mislead us. Stable identity traits are not necessarily connected with the roles determined by a national tradition. More generally, the whole idea that tradition, national or other, constitutes the roles is wrong. Traditions are most often constituted by actions and roles, and not vice versa. Equally, not all causal, teleological, value-related, and normative properties carried by roles are either constitutively determined by tradition or essential to the roles themselves. (Remember that being a full member of a practice is not the only way of properly understanding the roles and properties in question. One can arrive at understanding by empathy/simulation, rational commonsense reconstruction, theoretical (scientific) reconstruction, and the like.)

14Another of the misunderstandings fostered by this ill-conceived analogy is the implied view that ‘identity’ in the requisite, non-literal sense is an all-or-nothing matter. Personal identity is: I either am or am not Nenad Miščević. But national, cultural, or professional identity is not: I can be a philosopher more than I am a sociologist; and at the time Yugoslavia was still one country, I could have been more of a Croat than a Yugoslav. It is not clear why such partial identifications are worse than total ones; they certainly produce less fanaticism and intolerance than the latter.

15For many people, voluntary belonging is the central provider of identity traits: membership of a union, a party, or a club can fill one’s life with as much meaning as one’s membership of a race. Non-chosen roles and associated properties are not the most important potential identity traits. Everyday experience shows that people both change their identifications during their lifetime, and that mutually incompatible identifications take turns in dominating one’s life at various times: a football fan will have no problems identifying with his home team when it plays against others in the national league, with the national team when playing against foreigners, and with chosen, close foreigners when they play against distant or particularly disliked ones. These remarks take care of the accusation that multiple identifications make for a ‘weak self’. On the contrary, they make part of the ordinary richness of life and opportunities. The ‘mixed self is a rich self’.


16Let me now discuss the crucial nationalist thesis which states that the best candidate for an identity-providing community is the (ethno-)nation. A person typically belongs to several, often concentric cultural/geographic domains: for instance, micro-regional (say, Yorkshire), macro-regional (northern Europe), and global (Europe or the Western world). One is typically a member (full or potential) of various comprehensive communities (statist, such as Great Britain or the Commonwealth, religious, such as the Protestant Church, and more), which at least to some extent compete with the (ethno-)nation for a person’s allegiance. It is prima facie unclear why the nation should have such a special role in building an individual’s identity, in comparison with all kinds of more localistic or universal, or simply incommensurable competitors. Mere assertion certainly cannot replace argument, and mere assertion is what one gets from quite a few pro-nationalist authors. I would like to develop and vindicate this initial suspicion.

17First, we have already stressed many times that as far as culture goes it is typically not constitutive for a tradition to belong to some determined social/ethnic framework. Frameworks are blurred, often taxonomized pragmatically, and it is very questionable that there is a unique natural taxonomy.

18Secondly, being a member of a framework (say, Indian or French) by birth does not make insertion into the typical traditions of the framework obligatory: autonomy takes precedence over mere factual belonging. It often facilitates and makes natural the insertion into such practices, but people often enter practices that are not part of their native tradition.

19Thirdly, the very idea of non-chosen, non-voluntary belonging as the crucial identity-conferring and -supporting trait does not go well with the definition of nation proposed by the authors that defend the idea. The motivation behind the primacy of non-chosen traits is presumably their firmness and objectivity: chosen traits are volatile, subject to one’s whims; the non-chosen ones are more solid and ‘real’. Remember then D. Miller’s statement which we endorsed in chapter one, that nationality is “essentially not a matter of the objective characteristics that [people] possess, but of their shared beliefs”. This view is typical of contemporary defenders of nationality (A. Smith, K. Nielsen, Y. Tamir). Now, if national belonging is not objective, if it is grounded in subjective belief, what about the primacy of the non-chosen? The only non-chosen item left is belief: it is presumably formed in a non-voluntary manner. But this is quite disappointing: most beliefs, above all the most banal ones, are non-voluntary. It is not up to me whether to believe that it is raining if I clearly see the rain pouring and feel it on my face and hands, to believe that two plus three equals five, and so on. If this is the only way non-voluntariness enters the matter, it is utterly banal; it is definitely unclear whether non-voluntary association of this variety is more important or more basic than the voluntary kind.

20The suspicion increases when we look at the contents of beliefs that enter into the constitution/construction of nationality. Take the first few in Miller’s list:

a belief that each belongs together with the rest; that this association is neither transitory nor merely instrumental, but stems from a long history of living together which it is hoped and expected will continue into the future; that the community is marked off from other communities by its members’ distinctive characteristics. (Miller, 1992, 87)

21Note that what grounds the nation is not its members actually belonging to each other, or having distinctive characteristics, but their merely believing that this is so. Can mere belief ground one’s identity, and, more importantly, ground serious moral obligations, and defeat the usual moral demands of impartiality? Hardly. Something is wrong either with the idea that national belonging is special because un-chosen, or with the definition.

22Let us, however, be charitable, and forget for the moment the unsuitability of the nationalist’s definition for his own purposes. Suppose that the traits in question are more real than he himself claims, and consider more closely the further options offered by the nationalist: either the national form of life as such is the identity provider, or it is some underlying trait, such as language, common history, customs, values, or a common religious denomination. Bear in mind that various ethno-nations distinguish themselves by various combinations of various underlying traits, as we mentioned and illustrated with examples in chapter one. Start then with the view that particular traits provide an individual’s identity and consider, for vividness, one candidate trait of nationhood, say the common language. It is a very sensible proposal, supported by authorities such as B. Anderson and C. Taylor: linguistic identity is indeed important for many people, although to a large extent on an unreflective level. (Even this might be exaggerated upon a closer look. Consider how many people in each country speak a dialect rather distant from the standard idiom. Some of these dialects—for example, the Croatian dialect spoken in the northwest of Croatia—are at least as close to the neighboring dialect of the officially foreign language [in this example Slovenian] as to the standard idiom. The identification of dialect speakers with the standard idiom is markedly non-spontaneous.) However, it has one major defect: it is not general enough. In all the cases in which language is not the central distinctive trait, it fails to justify the ethno-nationalist program. Worse, it suggests that in all these cases ethnic identification itself is defective, lacking the central feature. This concerns Austrians/Germans/Swiss Germans, most Arab nations considered in relation to each other (modulo the difference between Suni and Shiite denomination), Serbs/Muslims/Croats, to list only the examples that happen to be most familiar. Benedict Anderson, who takes linguistic belonging as basic, dedicates almost half a chapter (chapter three) of his classic Imagined Communities to Latin American nations; these nations were among the first non-European ones to adopt the nation-state model, but they are indeed a glaring and massive counterexample to the linguistic thesis. Their main initial enemy was Spain or Portugal, with which the respective colonies shared a language; the main later enmities were of course those between new nations which spoke the same language. (Anderson never notices that his own writing offers a counterexample to his main thesis.) Similar considerations apply to the would-be attempt to choose denominational identity as central; an obvious non-starter, incapable of differentiating between a vast number of, say, Catholic ethno-nations in Europe. (Let me briefly mention the community of moral values, since we have already noticed that nations are just too small to be carriers of a particular morality.)

23There is worse. Suppose one takes a low-level trait (language or system of common values) as the identification-providing trait meant to justify ethno-nationalist preferences. Then each of many exceptions (linguistically or valuationally indistinguishable national communities) constitutes a counterexample to the nationalist thesis. If language is indeed so deeply important for identity, but Muslims and Croats share a language without sharing a national identity, then national identity is shallow. If a system of values is deeply important for identity, but Quebecois and Anglophones share values without sharing an ethno-national identity, then the latter is indeed shallow. The situation is desperate for our nationalist: the more he insists upon the centrality of a trait, the more he becomes vulnerable to all the instances in which national identity does not encompass the trait; they all become glaring counterexamples to his claim.

24The point is universally valid: given the multiplicity of belongings, the choice of one or two traits as carrying the burden of identity provision discriminates against all cases in which they do not play the central role, thus exposing the theoretician to an avalanche of counterexamples. (Add the wealth of potential, hitherto unrecruited traits; if a Black American community managed to secede and form a nation, it would presumably initially share language, religion, basic values, and centuries of history with the rest of the US, plus race with Black Americans who did not join the secession. Assuming it is an ethno-nation, it would be a counterexample to taking language, religion, basic values, and common history separately or jointly as necessary conditions for a stable identity.) Any such choice certainly fails and this clinches the issue. Still, let me mention a desperate attempt at escape. Why not just take all traits and ascribe to them the identity-providing power? The whole point of the nationalist’s choice of low-level properties as identity providers is that there is a hope that they provide identity independently of their role in building the nation, so that the nation then inherits from their legitimating power. (For example, language is independently essential for people; therefore, by protecting a given language, the actual or would-be ethno-national state legitimizes itself.) Also, the traits are supposed to have a special identity-providing power, stronger than the power of, say, gender or professional belonging. But then the burden is to explain why just the traits—and all of them—that contingently happen to be useful for rallying individuals and for nation building should independently have this exceptional identity-providing force.

25The foregoing consideration leads us to the second possibility. Our nationalist can ascribe identity-providing power to the ethno-national ‘form of life’ as such, regardless of particular features that underlie it in particular situations. In this version it is the higher-level property of nationhood that carries the burden. Note that the burden is heavy: the nationalist line of thought demands that the relevant trait—that is, nationhood and its form of life—should be a decisively more successful identity provider than any of its competitors to which state-political status is being denied. The proposal has several weak points.

26First, it is unclear that mere nationhood, independently of its constituting traits, can have much explanatory power. People do identify themselves as French or Slovenians in virtue of living in France or in Slovenia, having grown up with French or Slovenian as their mother tongue, and so on. It is these underlying traits that form one’s habits, provide foci for cognitive and affective interest, hope and care, and explain people’s behavior. Secondly, even if we grant mere nationhood some clout, it faces many competitors. Take micro- and macro-regional belonging and loyalties. Considered in isolation from their underlying traits they are just as relevant and attractive as candidates for identification as the national ones. To illustrate, being a German (nation), being a Bavarian (micro-region), or being Germanic (macro-region), taken in isolation from the particular traits that constitute each of them, seems to offer equally attractive foci for identification. There is nothing special about being a German-as-such, in contrast to being Bavarian-as-such, that would a priori make the German—that is, the national—option preferable for young Hans in his search for a stable identity in comparison with the Bavarian—regional—one. Hans can equally well choose the cultural, all-Germanic option, identifying himself indiscriminately with a macro-culture which has produced Goethe, Beethoven, Berg, Schoenberg, Brentano, and Hegel, without weeding out the specifically Austrian, non-German part. Moreover, on the subject of forms of life, regional particularities have more title to be thus described than relatively bland national ones: there is a typical Bavarian form of life, hardly a typical German one, that would have to unify the lifestyles practiced in Munich, Hanover, Berlin, and Paderborn. Being German corresponds to no particularly salient unit, apart from the contingent fact that there is the German state.

27To summarize, the nationalist initially has two ways in which to formulate his crucial premise, as a claim concerning either the higher-level property of nationhood (the national form of life as such) or some chosen lower-level property (language, values). The first option runs counter to the Competition Truism, in that there is no reason to give primacy to contingent nationhood in contrast to equally contingent micro- or macro-regional belonging and loyalty. Each is a priori equally entitled to a role in providing a solid, stable identity, if there is a need for such. The second option runs into trouble as well: any choice of a few (allegedly) independently identification-forcing low-level properties will exclude others, expose itself to an avalanche of counter-instances, and thus fail by lack of generality.

28The line of thought proposed by the nationalist does not succeed in establishing the primacy of national identity. Up to now I have charitably assumed that our nationalist does not take the primacy of national identity to be absolute. Still, one should point out that the general rhetoric of the primacy of the unchosen, and, above all, of national identity, can do a lot of political damage. There is no reason why nationalist politicians should follow the custom of us theoreticians and read the claim in a much more restricted meaning. On the contrary, they jump at the welcome opportunity and draw exactly the nasty conclusions we would like to avoid. If one’s national belonging—and unchosen belonging in general—is literally one’s fundamental moral fate, then people should in all seriousness give their allegiance to it in matters of family, friendship, career choice, choice of place to live, and the like. Indeed, in many countries of southeast Europe mixed marriages (Albanian-Serbian, Greek-Turkish, Croatian-Serbian) are viewed with the utmost suspicion: marrying outside of one’s ethnic ‘kin’ is considered morally wrong. Children from such marriages are often routinely suspected of divided loyalties if not of an outright propensity to treason. Civilized nationalist theoreticians should think twice before proposing formulations that seem, if taken literally, to condone, if not to recommend such practices.

29Let me end on a more constructive note. Is there a positive moral that can be learned from the nationalist in matters of identity? I believe there is. Many people do care about their national belonging, and this should be respected (the nationalist just exaggerates the issue, and makes national belonging the main pillar of an individual’s identity). Indeed, at the minimum, one should not unjustifiably be put in the position of having to be ashamed of one’s objective belonging to a given social category, that is, one should be enabled to carry the trait in question with dignity. This does not concern ethnic belonging only, but most non-chosen belongings about which an individual cannot do much. This gives us the link with dignity and recognition (categories put forward by Taylor and his followers), that is, with the demand that belonging to a given category should not clash with a person’s self-respect. Non-voluntary belonging should be socially recognized, and not devalued.

30The nationalist is also right in pointing out that the possibility of identifying oneself with a group or a tradition (that is, the possibility of acquiring a subjective identity), and of being able to vary, modify, and correct such an identification, is an important good for human beings. Where he goes astray is in not recognizing the fact that the plasticity (flexibility) of identification is essential for flourishing, moral maturation, and development. People are fallible and have to be given a second chance: our Don Giovanni from chapter thirteen deserves an opportunity to correct his unconditional identification with an antiquated macho moral framework. The nationalist equally fails to recognize the richness of human nature and possibilities which seeks expression in the variety of ties considered relevant or important. Now, the actual conditions of developed societies are such as to guarantee these things to a considerable degree due to political, cultural, and technological possibilities. There are unfortunate and sometimes unjustified limits, but on the whole, this pluralism is an acquisition to be defended and expanded

31What is then the political framework for such a pluralist cultural self? The political community should offer opportunities to develop one’s identifications in a free and spontaneous manner (both in the positive direction of acceptance of what is given or negative in the sense of the right to exit); this demand derives from the value of liberty. National identity is one among many, and has a right to be protected only to the extent to which its individual bearers actually care about it. Thus the proper framework is the liberal one. (It is compatible with the ultra-moderate pro-national view, which demands a prima facie right—not a duty, at least not a strong one—to the preservation of national traits, and does so on the liberal basis of the choice of interested individuals.) The opposite, traditionalist-communitarian, and, more narrowly, nationalist view of identity—centered around uniqueness and the claim of ‘no identity without a political entity’—is an important theoretical obstacle to the fulfillment of the task. The view is theoretically wrong, and suggestive of morally dubious practices, so it should be rejected.

© Central European University Press, 2001

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