Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Breakaway Republics and Nationalisms

I thought I would move up the discussion of nations, nationalisms, and disintegrating empires up from the South Ossetia post into a new place. I've always been rather unconvinced with nationalist arguments against separatist groups, although I realize that the chaos caused by a national schism is almost always violent. Here are my rather unpolished musings on the subject as I tried to brainstorm examples of relevance. It seems to me that if the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were all about the rise of nations and the decline of empires, we are now dealing with the beginnings of some kind of post-nationalist moment.

Related to Spain, for example, I think that the Spanish government should allow those regions who claim to have their own language, culture, etc. split - they'll be tiny and economically weak, and I bet they'd come back to Spain eventually. Or else perhaps the way Europe is going is toward a complete reorganization of its borders so that all ethnicities and linguistic groups will relate via the European Union rather than to national governments.

Western Europe's old empires weren't all that different from its modern national boundaries (with obvious exceptions in the territory disputed in the two World Wars), but in Eastern Europe and in the Caucuses, the situation is obviously different with the historical Ottoman Empire and Russian Empire looming large.

Some places, like Lebanon, build incredibly delicate systems where sectarian identification divides up political rule - and then they just stop taking censuses for fear that new numbers might disrupt the existing order.

Others, like South Ossetia, emphasize their Russia-loving Ossetian majority over the Georgian minority. If so, why does Georgia want them so much?

Others look to the impossible question "who was here first?"

In China and Taiwan (or Chinese Taipei as Taiwan agreed to be called in the Olympics), it's a question of dueling political parties and how China and Taiwan both have connected past history to their national myths.

I think that as an American, it's hard to understand what's so difficult about living in a pluralistic society, and perhaps this is where my disconnect lies. So many Americans take diversity (even if it's just lip service) as our central identity. Yet the perennial controversies associated with immigration show that there are still fundamental knee-jerk ethnic ideas of who is and cannot be an American. I think there are like 90 history books written on this subject, so I'll just stop there.


Laura said...

Re: being American and having trouble understanding the difficulty of living in a pluralistic society - I think this is very true, despite our own struggles with the divisions in our society. I'm thinking about the term nation-state, which (correct me if I'm wrong, Gale) originally signified the trend toward defining the state (physically and figuratively) based upon nationality - that is, shared culture, language, "ethnicity," - rather than earlier models of, I don't know, empire or feudal kingdoms or what have you. But in the U.S., nation no longer defines state. Rather, nation=state and state=nation. There is no nationality apart from one's membership in the state of America. Obviously, this was always part of the process of building nation-states, but the process of assimilation and nationalization via state membership is so much more visible and continuous in the U.S. than it was during the initial consolidation of nation-states.

This isn't the case in, say, Russia. Despite its history of empire, Russia, like England or France, has undergone a nation-state consolidation process, and many populations that were not part of 9th century Rus' are now considered Russian. There's a saying that goes "My mother's a tartar, my father's Greek, but I'm a Russian man." (It rhymes in Russian - Mama - tatarka, papa - grec, a ya russkii chelovek.)

But there were nationalities that never were subsumed in the nation-state-building process, and people of these nationalities, while Russian citizens, are not Russian. The Russian language actually accommodates this distinction: the adjective russkii refers to nationality, while the adjective rossiskii refers to state or citizenship status. So, Putin is russkii, but he was (is?) the head of the rossiskii federation. And an ethnic Bashkir is a rossiskii citizen, but is not russkii.

When I was down in the Caucasus, some ethnic Balkarians asked me what my nationality was. When I said American, they thought I was crazy. American, they said, is not a nationality. It is a citizenship, but not a nationality. To them, saying I was nationally American was like saying I was rossiskii, which is not a term that applies to nationality. But I don't have any other nationality. American is my citizenship and my nationality. Nation and state are one.

It's tempting to say that Russian natsionalnost' simply corresponds to ethnicity, so that russkii would simply line up with American notion of ethnicity and rossiskii with American notions of nationality and citizenship. But I don't think that's quite right either. Our conceptions just don't match up. We talk about national heritage - Mexican, Northern European, Polish - and we talk about ethnicity - Latino, African American, and maybe national heritage also gets mixed into ethnicity, it's murky. But there are no other nationalities that exist within the nation of America. Like I said, nation=state; state=nation. Or at least it seems to me. (Anyone have any thoughts about how American black nationalism fits into this? Or sovereign Native American peoples? Hmmm...)

gale said...

Thanks Laura - it's very insightful to know how Russians think of their nationalism and their citizenship. When we only know the American system, it makes it hard to conceptualize a different way - I suppose not unlike the people you met who couldn't understand you.

Similar patterns exist in Europe - until recently German citizenship has always been a question of blood; French citizenship since the Revolution has been one based on agreeing to the abstract principles of the French nation (something like American citizenship, actually).

I recently read an article about post WWII human rights dealing with Germans expelled from Poland, the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, etc. They go to West Germany and integrate into German society. Interestingly, for German-Germans (and this is still true), the expellees are seen as the "price" Germany had to pay for the war. Their punishment. Of course, this is all problematic since its the expellees, not West Germans who were the ones ejected from their homes.

But - the point is that you could be a German Pole in a way that is totally different than an Irish American, even if these terms seem to be the same.

Joyce Cheng said...

I love this discussion. I'd point out the obvious fact that the U.S. is the only country on this planet whose history is basically the history of immigration, and where citizenship does not require or imply any particular ethnic, religious or even linguistic allegiance. (There are lots of American citizens who cannot really carry a conversation in English, like my father and many others. Yet they manage to live here, pay taxes and do businesses.) The only peoples who can claim a historical ownership to specific plots of land would be the indigenous American tribes; the rest of the population consists of all immigrants. I think that it is the charm of this country, which is unfortunately not possible anywhere else where settlements go back hundreds and thousands of years - that is, settlements PRECEDE the notion of nationalism by hundreds and thousands of years.

The problem with nationalist movements of the 19th century is that the bureaucratic state does not match up exactly with the indigenous experiences on the ground, so that much social, cultural, psychological construction had to go into making them match. The tiny ethnic and linguistic communities (like the Balkan groups) are clearly at a disadvantage, while modernized monarchies (not empires) that had consolidated a medium-sized territory long before the French Revolution clearly come out advantageous, including France herself. France therefore never had any regional independence movement that threatened its unity as much as those of Spain. Even though savage Brittany was more Gallic, unruly Corsica was more Italian, Alsace-Lorraine was more German, the most fervent regionalist movements in these places all ended up on the side of France, sometimes even became its most fervent nationalist. For example, Maurice Barrès was a late 19th-century fierce regionalist writer against the universalist French state until he realized that the French left did not care about ethnic or linguistic identities of the minor peoples. He therefore turned right-wing and nationalist, joined the reactionary journal *L'Action française*.

I appreciated Laura's example of the Tartar-Greek Russian man, though I would not put it the same way as she does, namely that in the U.S. state=nation. In fact, it is the opposite, I believe that we are more similar to France in that we distinctly separate state (citizenship, passport, taxes, suffrage) and nation (in the sense of "naître," being born into something that you didn't choose, like a linguistic, racial, ethnic and religious culture). In France, to say that "I am a Briton" means that my family makes great galettes and we are silent, stubborn and hard-working; it does not mean we are not French citizens. In the same way, it is perfectly common for Americans to affirm that "I am black," "I am Hispanic," "I am Catholic," none of which has anything to do with one's citizenship.

I don't think I am being particularly "patriotic" by saying that this is a unique country where traditional modalities of defining one's social identity - ethnicity, language and religious practices - seem to be combed out of the hair of state citizenship. The disadvantage of this is clear: I think that when Laura says that as Americans we don't know what it means to live in a pluralistic society, she's largely referring to the fact that our family's languages, religious practices and cuisines will slowly become diluted. After five generations, there might be few differences between a Jewish-American and a Korean-American: they all cook spaghetti and do barbecue. This makes for a boring culture, yes. At the same time, I am not unhappy have gone to high school in Covina, California, where my classmates Akash (Muslim Indian) and Sheetal (Hindu Indian) debated their religions as means of flirtation, because a difference that led to bloodshed in the country of their parents is now a matter of conversation.