Nations, Nationalisms, And The Natal Crime

Patriots and nationalists of many stripes are often committed to the view that a certain kind of nation-building violence was inevitable, and written into the very idea of the nation, into the national fabric as it were; the sanguine acceptance of such violence is ostensibly worth taking on as the price to be paid for the ‘gift’ of the nation–perhaps a home for a perennially wandering people, or a linguistic and cultural and religious community of one kind or the other, perhaps identified with a distinctive geographic location. Such acceptance has always had the uncomfortable implication that an acute incoherence is built into the citizen’s cherished moral creed of the nation and its politics. Its foundation is wrapped up in a holocaust that is part of its national origin, the burden of which all in the nation seem willing to accept with varying degrees of self-awareness.

Nations and their nationalist defenders deploy, in their political rhetoric, tropes that speak to virtue, to the earthly realization via their nation, of otherwise unrealizable moral and mundane goods; this does not preclude their insisting that their citizen defend in their name, all manner of moral atrocities. This incoherence is built into the heart and soul of the nation–and thus its citizens–so that it can force a peculiar and and distinctive dissonance on the part of its subject, rendering them internally incoherent and divided–and reliant upon the psychic support provided by the now valorized and seemingly immortal and indispensable nation. (There are parents who send out their children so ill-equipped, morally and otherwise, to deal with this world and those in it, that the child is soon driven back into the arms of its parents.) The arch critics of nationalism  insist all nations have violence written into their fabric because the nation can only come to being through some act of a national will to power that necessarily involves crushing the ambitions of other aspirations like family life or religious observance or local association. Cults are said to ask their devotees to discard all previous ties; the nation requires that all other commitments take a secondary place in the hierarchy of alliances and duties; the nation must do violence to these other competing claims. The nation is the mother of all cults.

Defending the indefensible is one of the many burdens that nationalism forces us to take on. Perhaps that explains, at least partially, the intensity of wars fought in the national interest: they are continuations of the violence that preceded and heralded them, an expression of acute discomfort, of horror, at the secret that is to be kept; these wars enable the maintenance of an appropriate distance from the scene of the natal crime. They are disavowals of the national crime, made more plausible by accusatory screeds hurled at another–perhaps a kind of ‘reaction formation’ on a  national level.

An entity that sought, and received, the blood of many to water its foundations will not hesitate for it again and again. Our history bears adequate witness to these demands.

A Tale of Two Independence Days

Today is July 4th, Independence Day in the USA. That is some forty-one days distant from another Independence Day, August 15th, which will be celebrated in India. I have not ‘celebrated’ August 15th for many years. It meant there was a political speech being telecast live; prime ministers spoke of national achievement and sacrifice; I tuned out. It meant the national television channel would show documentaries on ‘freedom fighters,’ men and women whose service to the ‘nation’ always put  mine to shame. It meant I would be reminded, yet again, of the words of a stirring speech by the most un-Indian Indian to ever be Prime Minister. I never saluted a flag, never sang the anthem on August 15th. (I sang it on many other occasions, always standing to attention when it played.) The ‘freedom struggle,’ despite the best efforts of history books, national broadcasting systems, and political parties, remained a dim portion of the past I shared with my ‘fellow citizens.’ I knew about, and vaguely sensed, Independence Day, but it passed me by every year, without fail.

I never failed to find Nehru’s speech moving though. And I never failed to appreciate the day off from school.

On August 15th, 1987, I caught a flight to New York via London and left ‘home.’ I cracked the expected joke for anyone that cared to listen and humour me: I was free at last, gone over the black water, over the oceans. On December 1st, 2000, in down-town Manhattan. I took the citizenship oath for my newly adopted nation. There were many others present that day, a veritable United Nations of origins, saying the magic words out loud. Then, my American passport handy, I flew off, to another land, elsewhere, Australia, to live and work there for  two more years. I was very confused about nationality but I was not confused about travel documents. I needed them; some of them made life way more convenient, they meant easy passage through airports, friendlier customs and immigration officials the world over. Getting a visa to go to India felt like a small price to pay for that convenience.

So now, Independence Day comes six weeks earlier, with a bigger number attached to it. (Sixty-five back in India, two hundred and thirty-six here.) I live in New York, in Brooklyn. I teach American pragmatism, Dewey in New York City. This is a less sober holiday, more of an open invitation to hedonism. There’s more beef being cooked,  for one thing. (I will celebrate July 4th, in all probability, as I have for many years now, by attending a barbecue.) There are fewer reminders of freedom fighters, but more flags are visible.  I still don’t salute a flag, I still don’t sing the national anthem. (I stand to attention for the Star Spangled Banner in sports stadiums but don’t place my hand over my heart.) The English are still dastardly, that much hasn’t changed. (There is a greater fascination with the Royal Family though.)

And I still appreciate the day off. Nations are  good for holidays at least, a small compensation for their otherwise immense burdens.