The contingency and construction of national identity
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The contingency and construction of national identity

One thing I find fascinating about the literature and scholarship on nationalism and ethnicity is the extent to which it is accepted that such identities are politically and socially constructed. That is to say, without the deliberate efforts of states and state-like entities, national identities would not exist, or perhaps not exist in their current form. You need indoctrination, propaganda, primary school education, national anthems, flags, parades, independence day celebrations, and military service, and voila, suddenly everyone’s a Frenchman.

Obviously, this is a bit of a crude synopsis of the literature. But I would argue it’s a basically accurate picture. Very, very few social scientists ascribe to primordialist views of identity.

As I said, it’s fascinating that this view enjoys such widespread acceptance. Not because I think it’s wrong (I don’t; I think it’s completely right, like most other social scientists do). No, my fascination stems from the inability of this view to have seeped into the popular imagination.

Perhaps the point can be made better by pointing to how this is different to other similar findings. Think about the Democratic Peace theory. Or the states-that-trade-don’t-fight theory. Or terrorists-aren’t-crazy-people-motivated-by-72-virgins theory. Or states-balance-because-of-capabilities-and-threats theory. Each of these beliefs have found their way, one way or the other, into newspaper reports, op-ed columns, and the wider public. People are aware of them and cite them in causal conversation (often unwittingly, but the point remains). On the other hand, I literally can’t recall any mainstream journalist or intellectual espousing the view that their national identity is all made up, and not some ontological given.You’ll never see Tom Friedman cite Benedict Anderson or Ernest Gellner, that’s for sure.

Another way of saying this would be: the distance between academic beliefs and popular beliefs is much wider when it comes to the question of national identity than most topics.

Of course, this raises the question of why this disjuncture exists as it does. The cynical answer would be that states have been so good at policing the discourse and indoctrinating their citizens, that those citizens are unwilling and unable to grasp that they’ve been told lies upon lies about who they are, and why they are who they are. I don’t know if that’s true though it strikes me as plausible.

It’s no coincidence that I’m writing this post on March 23. I’m sorry, but I find all this patriotism stuff quite silly. I don’t celebrate August 14, March 23, or any other date the state deems important. It makes no sense to me, though of course I can perfectly see why others would disagree. I’m not claiming my national identity box is completely empty. If it was, I wouldn’t care about cricket beyond its sporting importance, or wouldn’t care about Pakistan being a better place to live tomorrow than it is today, and I assure you that I do. But it’s probably emptier than most people’s.

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