So, it seems that the people of The Ukraine have finally succeeded in ousting Fmr President Yanukovych, and altering the foreign policy tenor of their country. The ignition point for the ‘Ukrainian Revolution’ seems to have been Yanukovych’s refusal to move Ukraine towards membership of the EU (undoubtedly at Putin’s behest). Meanwhile, in the UK there is an ongoing simmering debate on whether the UK should remain within the EU. The fastest growing political party in the UK (UKIP) promotes EU withdrawal as its central policy. UKIP seem to have a 6th sense of the motivating concerns of many UK people.
It’s interesting that on one side of Europe people are fighting to get into the EU, whilst on the other side of Europe some people are fighting to leave the EU. Both movements say that they represent the ‘national interest’, as many political movements around the world do to justify their claims. It often seems that the people who can make the strongest claims to be acting in the national interest are those whose ideas are most likely to succeed. So called ‘New Social Movements’ currently seem to have less traction than they once did, unless they can make a claim for the national interest.
In the UK the debate concerning Scottish independence is also just a conflict for the definition of nationality. It is this very opportunity to define nationality which is so powerful in political movements. The success of the French Revolution was that the 3rd Estate redefined national identity: they renamed the Third Estate the National Assembly, they established the Tricolore as the national flag, and Le Marseillaise as the national anthem. Most importantly they redefined what it meant to be an individual in relation to property, the state, the monarchy and religion. They redefined what it meant to be French.
Here, in Thailand, the ongoing political conflict has seen people permanently on the streets since November 2013, both sides claiming to act in the ’national interest’. One side reminding us that they are constitutionally the democratically elected government of the nation, the other side claiming to speak on behalf of the nation’s people (and taking the national flag as a symbol of protest). The violent political situation is intractable, people have been killed over it, and it is embroiled in the complexity of competing lexicons. Intractability produced by those very competing lexicons of national definition.
This concept of national identity is so strong in the head and heart, yet it is so weak in the rational objective sense. For what is ‘the nation’ if nothing more than an imagined community, a fantasy of group membership, a mere projection of an idealised tribe ? What connects me to others who happen to have been born on the same piece of dirt as me ? , and how is such a connection in any way historical ? To make an argument for shared culture would seem to ignore the significant cultural plurality inherent to any society, any observed commonality is merely the desired projection of reductionism. We pick and choose cultural commonality in order to boost our self image and self esteem.
Yet how deeply embedded, and seemingly ‘natural’ such national identity is. The following sentences make sense to us:
- He was a true Brit.
- She embodied the spirit of America.
- It’s a monument to our national identity.
- It’s the heart of the nation.
Now replace the nation with an individualist concept (e.g. the karmic self), the sentences no longer really make sense, and in some ways could be described as absurd. Nationalism, like religion, provides answers to the apparent futility of suffering by providing a bond with current, and former, members of your nation. Suffering is not only concurrently endured, but historically linked and justified. In many ways positive psychology (& philosophy) does not provide the same sense of destiny.
The claim of ‘national interest’ is a claim towards the individual’s self identity, their constructed sense of who they are. It’s the most powerful form of persuasion: “let me tell you who you are, what you should think and believe”. It’s a very crude invitation to join a constructed in-group, and in order to do this we must construct and reject some out-groups.
It seems much healthier to reject those who want to tell us who we are, who seek to paint our self identity for us. The axiom of Positive Psychology, “Be Yourself”, melts in the heat of nationalist identity. Nationalism could be the outward cry of those lacking self esteem, a map for the directionless, or a ready made photo for those unable to paint their own picture of who they really are. We all want to write our own story, but the nationalist identity helpfully provides us with a ready made history, allowing us to get on with the more important things in life, like shopping and watching TV.
National identity, and nationalism, is essentially a crisis of individual confidence, and an easy resolution to the individual’s cognitive dissonance.
Whilst there remain people unable, or unwilling, to look inside themselves to confidently build their own self identity, there will always be those who will willingly do this for them. They come waving their flag, proffering a helpful handy takeaway guide of who you are, these people will continue to hold sway over the many wandering and wondering souls.