20 December 2007

The Goodness of Nations

Benedict O.G. Anderson

Public Lecture Series Hosted by Dr. Xolela Mangcu In collaboration with The Public Intellectual Life Research Project University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa 13 September 2006

If one looks at the immediate historical origins of nationalism, in the last quarter of the 18th century, one realizes that it arose in the context of a wider popular involvement in projects of emancipation. Jefferson’s famous Declaration of Independence speaks in the name of “The People,” but this people has as yet no name. The French Revolution had a huge impact in Europe, the Americas, the Caribbean, and later in Asia and Africa, precisely because of its universalist message, not its local “Frenchness.” In the 19th century nationalism typically was found in popular movements against emperors, monarchs, and aristocracies, and nationalists in different regions regarded themselves as “brothers” in a common struggle. The same was true for much of the decolonizing twentieth century.

Nkrumah, Nehru, Tito, Touré, Sukarno and U Nu had all grown to manhood under imperial rule of different kinds, and felt their affinities keenly, even when they did not like each other much on a personal level. Only after World War I, however, did the nation-state become “normal” across the globe with the initiation of the League of Nations.

At the same time, however, nationalism now has a long enough history for anyone to recognize its dark side. Almost all modern nations are divided along the lines of class, religious affinity, ethnicity, gender, ideology and generation. Many of them have behaved very badly at times, to their own members and to neighbours, and have fallen under the control of corrupt, cruel, and/or incompetent leaders. Why then do nations continue to have enormous emotional power, even in the age of globalization? How can they be felt as Good?

Some intellectuals have sought to explain this emotional hold by describing nationalism as a kind of secular religion, marked by the same unquestioning belief that the “religious religions” often command. But this view is unsatisfactory. Nations want to be members of the United Nations, along with perhaps 200 others, therefore with quite modest and local claims.
They wish to be recognized and respected by “other nations,” which, like them have a lot in common, in spite of local idiosyncracies. A United Religions seems quite unfeasible, however, because each religion makes strong claims to “absolute truth,” and most believe they have a global sphere of action. It is not that the nation lacks a utopian horizon, as I shall explain later, but that this horizon is intrahistorical. No nation looks forward to happiness in Heaven, or torment in Hell. What it fears is quite earthly: the possibility of extinction through genocide.

It in this historical-utopian framework that I would like to suggest to you three loci for the goodness of the nation, though you may initially find them pretty strange.

The first of these is the Future. The nation-state form is the first in human history to be fundamentally bound to the idea of Progress.
Prior to the rise of nationalism people were accustomed to the idea that dynasties and empires rose and fell. Peoples merged with others, got assimilated, and sometimes were killed off without much notice being paid.
It is useful to look at a map of the Roman Empire at its height, stretching from the borders of Scotland to the southern marches of Egypt, from today’s Portugal over to Iran. How many peoples mentioned by Roman historians and statesmen have either changed their names or disappeared. In fact, only a very few, which do not include the Romans themselves, have survived. But the Nation’s face is turned to a limitless Future, and it expects, under the banners of Development, to keep moving ahead. What is Good about this?

We can get an answer from a strange passage in a famous lecture given 110 years ago by the great German comparative sociologist Max Weber. Most of the talk was devoted to the horrible mess into which his country had fallen. The dominant nobility had lost all ideas and energy, and thought only of clinging to its privileges. The complacent middle class was sunk in mindless consumerism and political opportunism. The workers were politically illiterate and incapable of providing national leadership. After this gloomy analysis, however – analogies to which one find in the press of many countries today – he suddenly said something quite astonishing. “If…we could rise from the grave thousands of years from now, we would seek the traces of our own being in the physiognomy of the race of the future, Even our highest, our ultimate terrestrial ideals are mutable and transitory. We can not hope to impose them on the future, But we can wish that the future recognizes in our nature the nature of its own ancestors. We wish, by our labour and our being, to become the forefathers of the race of the future.” Let me quickly quickly explain that Weber does not use the “racist” word Rasse, but rather Geschlecht, which can mean gender, ancestry, lineage, and race in the loose way that permits Germans to speak of the human race (menschliche Geschlecht).

The horizon here is uncounted thousands of years into the Future. Weber is thinking about a Future-Germany, which may have no nobility, middle class, or workers, and may share no late 19th century ideals and hopes. But this Future-Germany imposes profound moral obligations on living Germans. They must be worthy of the Future, so that they can be recalled honorably as remote ancestors. At the same time, these uncountable Future- Germans are part of Germany. Though weirdly put, what Weber said is actually replicated all the time in every nation’s discourse. We are constantly asked so save the environment and national treasures for “future generations.” We pay taxes for schools we will not attend, for projects that will only mature after we are dead, support armies unlikely to fight in our lifetime. If war comes, we may be asked to lay down our lives not just for our fellow-citizens, but for the unborn. Yet between us and the unborn there is a central difference. Most South Africans can think of many fellow-South Africans that they hate or despise, according to their social and political situation: die-hard racists, superviolent tsotsis, merciless corporate bosses, corrupt politicians, etc. etc. For such people, sacrifices will not willingly be made. But unborn South Africans have none of these characteristics, or any others than futurity, even if one could imagine among them descendants of those one currently dislikes. This is exactly why one can willingly make sacrifices for them.

The other side if Weber’s coin is just as interesting. He says that the Future asks us to be worthy ancestors. He himself was deeply ashamed of his German contemporaries. This shame is basic to the Goodness of the Nation. If we are incapable of being ashamed for our country, we do not love it. It is a shame that can be very valuably mobilized. You will all be able to think of your own examples. What comes to my mind are those mothers in Buenos Aires who year by year held quiet demonstrations in the Plaza de Mayo on behalf of all those young people who were “disappeared” in their thousands by the military regime of General Videla. These mothers wanted justice, of course, but what they tried to arouse was a general shame among their fellow-Argentinians, a shame in the face of unborn Argentinians. Hence, a good nationalist slogan is always “Long Live Shame!”

You will not, I think, be surprised, if I now turn to the uncounted numbers of the National Dead. National history books usually foreground heroes of whom everyone is asked to be proud. Of course, there always national villains too, though they are fewer. Most striking, however, is that the anonymous collective dead are never wicked. Chinese and Korean nationalists have been outraged by the regular visits of Prime Minister Koizumi to the Yasukuni shrine commemorating all the Japanese who died in modern wars, and one can understand why -- given the real horrors inflicted on the two countries in the first half of the 20th century by Japanese imperial forces. But if one enters the shrine one gets another kind of impression, for it is full of unfinished diaries and pathetic letters written by young peasant conscripts who died fulfilling what they believed was their national duty.
Living Japanese see these letters and diaries as moral challenges to live up to the obligations implied by the youngsters’ sacrifices.

In other national cemeteries, a different kind of Goodness emerges. The inscriptions on the graves are typically very short, often just a simple name. The viewer is told nothing sociological at all – parentage, region of origin, religious affinity, marital status, and so on. He will not learn how many enemies a dead man killed, or whether he treated his wife cruelly, abandoned his children, or went to prison for a crime. On could say that National Death has cleared his moral books. And it makes no difference if the war in which he died was a good or bad war. The most moving monument to the National Dead in the USA is Maya Lin’s austere memorial to those Americans who died in what is now generally accepted to be the “very bad” Vietnam War. What the monument leaves out, of course, are the 3 million or so natives of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in whose deaths those dead Americans played their own small part. When I recently read about President Mbeki attending the memorial commemorations for the Boers who fought and died in their war against the British Empire, it seemed to me that a similar process is at work in South Africa. His gesture points forward to a time in the future (two generations?) when even apartheid will be remembered as a “national tragedy,” which must be simultaneously remembered and forgotten by all South Africans. By then, maybe, young Afrikaners will have learned to be attached to the Apartheid Museum and that of Soweto.

To summarize the argument so far, the Goodness of the Nation can only be understood by remembering that the Nation includes the ghosts of the dead and the phantoms of the still unborn, who are, for different reasons unqualifiedly good. But do living members of the Nation not make some contributions? I believe they do. The most obvious example are “collective children.” The word “collective” must be emphasized. First, because understood collectively, they can be regarded as the avant-garde of the unborn still awaiting their turn at human life. But collectivity also allows us to set aside all the faults of real and individual children whom we know personally or read about in the newspapers: spoilt, lazy, bullying, ungrateful, disobedient, drug-addicted, even criminal. Second, however, is their peculiar political status as “minor” citizens. It is of course impossible to prevent youngsters under 18 (or 19 or 21) from learning about politics from TV and the chatter of their elders, or from participating in riots and demonstrations. But the key thing is that they can not vote. From one angle, this could be regarded as a deprivation. But from another, it protects them collectively from responsibility for, and contamination by, the everyday squalors of even democratic political participation. They have no votes to be sold or bought, they are not part of national armies which may be repressive of the citizens, they have no incomes, so no chance to cheat on their taxes. If they happen to be racists or vulnerable to mean ethnic prejudices they can not legally act upon them in the electoral process. They can not be blamed if this horrible politician is elected, or that horrible political party takes power.

A kind of benevolent fiction is at work: “our kids collectively” are always good, not least because at every minute they are gaining new infant members, and losing others to murky adulthood. It is the same type of fiction that is observable in the field of sexuality. In spite of the fact that children develop sexual feelings very early, and start menstruating or ejaculating in their early teens, modern nations draw a firm and arbitrary line between adult sexuality ( citizens can marry only at these ages, may have non-marital sexual relations at others, etc). After 16 or 17 the children become, so to speak, overnight “sexual voters,” responsible for the consequences of their sexual behavior: not before.

And adults? Even here there are possibilities of a kind of Goodness. The rise of the Inter-Nation Olympic Games historically occurred close to the arrival of the League of Nations. They seemed like a harmless substitute for war. But television changed everything, giving a new kind of importance even to intra-nation athletics. The enormous amount of watching time devoted to sports shows us the modern importance of a continuous parade of perfect national bodies – healthy, strong, fast, powerful, elegant, beautiful and often “winning.” These young men and women are read as synecdoches of the Good Beauty of the Nation, which is why reports of doping and steroids feel so calamitous. But these young beauties pass us like glow-worms at night. We do not see what happens to brain-damaged boxers after they retire from the ring, or the ruined knees of tennis-players and footballers. (New beauties arrive to replace them.) Just as we do not see the Marlboro man when he undergoes chemotherapy. In this way mortality is kept at bay, and the Nation remains young, strong, and lovely.

Another site of Goodness occurred to me some years ago in the United States. If you are old enough, you may remember the calamitous Iraq-Iran of the 1980s. The US traumatized by the Iranian Revolution’s seizure of hostages in the American Embassy in Teheran, became a close ally of Saddam Hussein, and armed him to the teeth – also with the poison gas that he later used against rebel Kurds. By the time of the Gulf War, this lethal friendship had necessarily been forgotten. At that moment I was struck by newspaper photographs showing American warplanes on which the pilots had scrawled in large letters Saddam Bend Over! In popular language, this meant, we are coming to sodomize you. Not long afterward, Bill Clinton was elected president, with huge popular support in many quarters, but also arousing violent hatred amongst rightwingers, who eventually impeached him. But there were never any bumper stickers reading Bill Bend Over. Why not?

Here it is good to remember the style of personal address which characterizes social movements and national discourse. It is the language of Brothers and Sisters. Leaders of modern nation-states can not address those they lead and rule as “my children,” as monarchs and clerics were wont to do in the past. “Brothers and Sisters” has nothing to do with a citizen’s age, marital status, class position, or ideology. But does have lot to do with ideas of equality and family intimacy. My own belief is that this form of address is underpinned by a metaphoric incest taboo. Brothers and sisters are supposed to give each other unconditional love, but one from which anything erotic must be excluded. This is, one could say, the highest form of Love, and thus a great Good. The meaning of this in the political life of the nation is that citizen solidarity is that good, austere kind, from which sexuality is absolutely barred. Individual citizens can have any kind of “private” sexual life that they want and can legally get away with, but in the public arena this is out of the question. An American citizen can advertize his eagerness to sodomize Saddam Hussein, but he can not do the same for his own president. He can be a public beast overseas, but not at home.

In this light, it is not surprising that most nations identify their country as the Motherland. This is, metaphorically, the mother to whom we – all of us – owe our existence, our permanent gratitude, and our austere devotion. She in inaccessible to us, but she looks after us all, with a love that is impartial and transcends anything sexual. So she too forms a source of the Goodness of the Nation.

It is quite possible that readers may find the argument of these pages too abstract and philosophical. So let me switch registers for a few closing remarks.

No book on nationalism is more down-to-earth than Michael Billig’s wonderful Banal Nationalism. What he wishes to stress is that nationalism is above all a matter of everyday Habit, dull, only semi-conscious, and absolutely ordinary. It is the powerful, almost unseen glue that keeps the members of complex and large societies from behaving much worse to each other than they otherwise would do. If I could be allowed to extrapolate from Billig to speak of South Africa – but not South Africa alone - I would mention the following. First, the television weather reports which, day in day out, incessantly nationalize Nature by showing “South African weather” extending up into the stratosphere, and quite distinct from the almost invisible Namibian, or Mozambiquan weathers. Second, South African newspapers, which like national newspapers everywhere, have separate sections every day for National News, and foreign or international news. Third, “international sports” in newspapers and on television, which nonetheless quietly exclude any sports in which South Africans do not ordinarily participate. Fourth, logo-maps – maps giving merely the outline boundary of the country without any written information, but instantly recognized by South Africans, who would probably not recognize the logo-map of Burma, Hungary, or Uruguay. These logomaps one sees everywhere, but barely notices. Like the oxygen we are barely aware of breathing, but can no do without.

Though Billig’s work is often extremely funny, he is not writing to “debunk” nationalism, which in fact he regards, in the tradition of the great Norbert Elias, as a profoundly civilizing process. He believes, as I do, that it is a mistake to over-value the significance of “human rights,” in contrast to the national rights of citizens. “Human rights,” with its abstract universalist valence, is too easily used as a mask for opportunist military and economic interventions by world powers, and too simply used to override local custom and tradition. It is also a doctrine, which, with all its real value, still has a missionary, topdown smell to it. The rights of citizens make more modest claims, but they come from, as it were, the bottom up, and require for their realization real citizen activity. And they were central to the original self-emancipatory thrust of early nationalism.

I do not wish to single out the US in any special way, but I have worked there on and off for over 40 years, so can speak from long personal observation, even though I am not an American citizen. When I arrived as a student in 1958, racial segregation was still largely unchallenged, “red Indians” were visible only as villains in Hollywood Westerns, women could get divorced only with great difficulty, while abortion was illegal and dangerous; gays and lesbians were terrified, semi-secret minorities regularly abused by the police and other authorities. Today, the legal structure of segregation is gone and Martin Luther King has his own National Day, red Indians have become, instructively, “First Americans,” and are on the gentle offensive; for women divorce is quite simple and abortion mostly legal, while there has been a huge increase in the number and visibility of female politicians at all levels; gays and lesbians are already allowed to marry in some states, and the number will surely increase. If one asks for an explanation of these changes, “human rights” will be quite useless. In every case, the process of emancipation has been based on the claims of American citizenship. “As an American citizen,” Mr X or Ms Y can not be treated as anything less than any another citizen. Here, locally, we are back with another old source of the Goodness of the Nation. But this has nothing to do with American peculiarity, South Africa’s Constitution is even better.

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