Thursday, 25 June 2009

Walker Connor on the appeal of nationalism

Extended quotations from Walker Connor, Ethno-nationalism: The Quest for Understanding (Princeton University Press, 1994), 196-8, 202-6:

For the sake of clarity, we begin by noting that nationalism and patriotism refer to two quite distinct loyalties: the former to one’s national group; the latter to one’s state (country) and its institutions. For people, such as the Japanese, who possess their own ethnically homogeneous nation-state and for staatvolk, such as the French, who are culturally and politically preeminent in a state, even though other groups are present in significant numbers, the fact that nationalism and patriotism are two different phenomena is usually of little consequence. For such people, the two loyalties tend to blur into a seamless whole. But in a world containing thousands of ethnonational groups and less than two hundred states, it is evident that for most people the sense of loyalty to one’s nation and to one’s state do not coincide. And they often compete for the allegiance of the individual.


We know from the comparative study of nationalism that when the two loyalties are perceived as being in irreconcilable conflict - that is to say, when people feel they must choose between them - nationalism customarily proves the more potent. You have been privileged in your lifetime to witness one of history’s most vivid illustrations of the relative strength of these two loyalties: the very recent case of the Soviet Union, wherein a beleaguered Soviet President Gorbachev only belatedly discovered that a sense of loyalty to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (what, for seventy years had been termed Soviet patriotism) was no match for the sense of nationalism demonstrated by nearly all of the peoples of the Soviet Union, including even the Russian nation. And obviously, events within what, until recently, was known as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia certify that Albanian, Bosnian, Croatian, and Slovene nationalism has each proven itself far more potent than a Yugoslav patriotism.

To understand why nationalism customarily proves to be a far more powerful force than patriotism, it is necessary to take a closer look at national consciousness and national sentiment. What, for example, is the nature of the bond that both unites all Poles and differentiates them from the remainder of humanity? Until quite recently it was the vogue among prominent writers on nationalism to stress the tangible characteristics of a nation. The nation was defined as a community of people characterized by a common language, territory, religion, and the like. Probing the nation would be a far easier task if it could be explained in terms of such tangible criteria. How much simpler it would be if adopting the Polish language; living within Poland, and adhering to Catholicism were sufficient to define membership in the Polish nation were sufficient to make one a Pole. But there are Germans, Lithuanians, and Ukrainians who meet these criteria but who do not consider themselves Polish and are not considered Polish by their Polish fellow citizens.

Objective criteria, in and by themselves, are therefore insufficient to determine whether or not a group constitutes a nation. The essence of the nation is a psychological bond that joins a people and differentiates it, in the subconscious conviction of its members, from all nonmembers in a most vital way.

With but very few exceptions, authorities have shied from describing the nation as a kinship group and have usually explicitly denied any kinship basis to it. These denials are customarily supported by data showing that most nations do in fact contain several genetic strains. But this line of reasoning ignores the dictum that it is not what is but what people perceive as is which influences attitudes and behavior. And a subconscious belief in the group’s separate origin and evolution is an important ingredient of national psychology.

In ignoring or denying the sense of kinship that infuses the nation, scholars have been blind to that which has been thoroughly apparent to nationalist leaders. In sharpest contrast with most academic analysts of nationalism, those who have successfully mobilized nations have understood that at the core of ethnopsychology is the sense of shared blood, and they have not hesitated to appeal to it. Consequently, nationalistic speeches and proclamations tend to be more fruitful areas for research into the emotional/psychological nature of nationalism than are scholarly works. Too often such speeches and proclamations have been precipitously dismissed as propaganda in which the leadership did not truly believe. But nationalism is a mass phenomenon, and the degree to which its inciters are true believers does not affect its reality. The question is not the sincerity of the propagandist, but the nature of the mass instinct to which he or she appeals.

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Unlike most writers on nationalism, then, political leaders of the most diverse ideological strains have been mindful of the common blood component of ethnonational psychology and have not hesitated to appeal to it when seeking popular support. Both the frequency and the record of success of such appeals attest to the fact that nations are indeed characterized by a sense - a feeling - of consanguinity.

Our answer, then, to that often asked question, ‘What is a nation?’ is that it is a group of people who feel that they are ancestrally related. It is the largest group that can command a person’s loyalty because of felt kinship ties; it is, from this perspective, the fully extended family.

The core of the nation has been reached and triggered through the use of familial metaphors which can magically transform the mundanely tangible into emotion-laden phantasma: which can, for example, mystically convert what the outsider sees as merely the territory populated by a nation into a motherland or fatherland, the ancestral land, land of our fathers, this sacred soil, land where our fathers died, the native land, the cradle of the nation, and, most commonly, the home - the homeland of our particular people - a ‘Mother Russia,’ an Armenia, a Deutschland, an England (Engla land: land of the Angles), or a Kurdistan (literally, land of the Kurds). Here is an Uzbek poet referring to Uzbekistan:

So that my generation would comprehend the Homeland’s worth,
Men were always transformed to dust, it seems.
The Homeland is the remains of our forefathers
Who turned into dust for this precious soil

A spiritual bond between nation and territory is thus touched. As concisely stated in the nineteenth-century German couplet, ‘Blut und Boden,’ blood and soil become mixed in national perceptions.

It is, then, the character of appeals made through and to the senses, not through and to reason, which permit us some knowledge of the subconscious convictions that people tend to harbor concerning their nation. The near universality with which certain images and phrases appear - blood, family, brothers, sisters, mother, forefathers, ancestors, home - and the proven success of such invocations in eliciting massive, popular responses tell us much about the nature of national identity.

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