The usefulness of nationalism to states
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The usefulness of nationalism to states

Here’s an excerpt from a really great essay by Eric Hobsbawm titled “Mass-Producing Traditions: Europe, 1870-1914” in an edited volume titled The Invention of Tradition. In this essay, Hobsbawm focuses on the instrumental uses of “tradition”; that is, how leaders birthed traditions and symbols (such as flags, national anthems, and statues of leaders) for the express purposes of building loyalty to their states:

Quite new, or old but dramatically transformed, social groups, environments and social contexts called for new devices to ensure or express social cohesion and identity to structure social relations. At the same time a changing society made the traditional forms of ruling by states and social or political hierarchies more difficult or even impracticable. This required new methods of ruling of establishing bonds of loyalty. In the nature of things, the consequent invention of ‘political’ traditions was more conscious and deliberate, since it was largely undertaken by institutions with political purposes in mind. Yet we may as well note immediately that conscious invention succeeded mainly in proportion to its success in broadcasting on a wavelength to which the public was ready to tune in. Official new public holidays, ceremonies, heroes or symbols, which commanded the growing armies of the state’s employees and the growing captive public of schoolchildren, might still fail to mobilize the citizen volunteers if they lacked genuine popular resonance.

I think this is broadly accurate, though I’m pretty sure the public would have “tuned in” to any broadcast which cast some people as Others and some not. Human beings are a tribal species. We like being in groups, and we like delineating who belongs in those groups and who doesn’t. That these boundaries were constructed on a national basis rather than something else is an interesting, contingent development, but by no means was it inevitable. In a sense, Hobsbawm isn’t giving states enough credit here.

But this essay is great precisely because it traces the evolution of things like anthems and flags which we assume have been around forever but in fact are very recent additions to our social and political landscape. The “invention of tradition” is exactly the reason I can’t take it seriously. As Jan Pettman notes, “one of the paradoxes of nationalism is that an identity frequently celebrated and authenticated through reference to the past is judged in scholarship to be modern.” The state and its agents tell me to sing the national anthem with pride, to look up at the flag, to believe in the joy of August 14 or September 6 or March 23, to be moved by statues and memorials and mausoleums…but I can’t. It’s all patently fake to me. All of it: stamps, flags, uniforms, fighter-jets-as-roundabouts, carefully crafted histories, myths of suffering, parables — all of it. They’re not going to massage and coerce me into being patriotic, though I commend their efforts.

There is one exception to this rule, however. I took a trip to the Gilgit-Baltistan area a few years ago with a friend and his dad; we went to Chitral and Gilgit and Hunza, all the way up to the border with China, at Khunjrab pass. I saw a lot of military graves in that area, which makes sense, since it was seven years after Kargil and the Northern Light Infantry was drawn from the area. I must confess that seeing those graves and those headstones — with dates indicating that many of these soldiers were younger than I was at the time (23) — was one of the few times I felt powerful pangs of patriotism. I am sure there is a good psychological or anthropological reason for this exception, but I don’t know what it is.

The bottom line, for me anyway, is that the rise of nationalism in the modern world is no accident. States have learned that few things are more useful than a sense of nationhood when attempting to inculcate loyalty and obedience amongst its citizens. And I don’t know about you, but I hate being treated like a puppet.

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