Saturday, October 06, 2012

A shallow identity

A final installment of the chapter on nation and ethny in my e-book.

A final problem with a civic identity is that it is shallow compared to a traditional one. All that connects me to my conationals in a civic nationalism is a common set of political institutions and values. There is not the same depth of connection that comes with belonging to a larger tradition, one in which there is a sense of being a distinct people, sharing a history, kinship, religion and culture through time.

Michael Ignatieff, who I quoted earlier as a strong supporter of civic nationalism, admits that traditional nationalism's "psychology of belonging" has "greater depth than civic nationalism's".

Similarly, two academics from the University of Melbourne, Brian Gallagan and Winsome Roberts, have worried that civic nationalism is too insubstantial. They have described an Australian identity defined solely in terms of shared political institutions and values as "hollow, lacking in cultural richness and human content." They are critical of "an empty and flaccid citizenship based on abstract principles that lack the inspirational power to represent what it means to be Australian."

In contrast, Professor West has written of a traditional ethnic nationalism that,
...the sense of identity is so strong that it is an inseparable part of the personalities of most of the individuals in the group. People are born and raised to conceive of themselves as being a part of the nation, and rarely lose that self-conception in the course of their lives. There is a feeling of pride and a deep sense of loyalty associated with it.

When explaining why many Anglo-Australians want to retain links to the UK, the writer David Malouf explained that it has to do with a traditional kind of identity:
it has to do with family .. identity in that sense ...It is a link of language, too, and of culture in the sense of shared associations and understanding, of shared objects of affection, and a history of which we are a branch - a growth quite separate and itself, but drawing its strength from an ancient root ...

The fact is that the part of ourselves in which we live most deeply, most fully, goes further back than one or two generations and takes in more than we ourselves have known

According to Professor Anthony Smith a traditional national identity,
... is felt by many people to satisfy their needs for cultural fulfilment, rootedness, security and fraternity ... Nations are linked by the chains of memory, myth and symbol to that widespread and enduring type of community, the ethnie, and this is what gives them their unique character and their profound hold over the feelings and imaginations of so many people.

So why then accept the loss of such deep forms of identity? An English journalist, Janet Daley, believes that in giving up the "hereditary baggage" of "homogenous local cultures" people get to experience "the great secret of individual self-determination". Even if this creates "social unease" and makes a society "perpetually unstable" it is what is required for a "free society".

That's the liberal position in a nutshell. It's a belief that the overriding good is individual freedom, understood to mean that the individual is liberated from whatever cannot be self-determined, such as the "hereditary baggage" of a traditional national identity.

And this is where opponents of liberalism have to take a stand. There is no reason why we have to understand freedom this way, nor why freedom can't be upheld amongst other goods that are important to people. After all, if being Korean or Nigerian or Danish is part of who we are, then if we are going to be free we have to be free as Koreans or Nigerians or Danes. Otherwise we will experience freedom as a loss, as a diminishing of self rather than as a liberation.

The author D.H. Lawrence understood that it was not liberating to lose your communal identity. He believed that,
Men are free when they are in a living homeland, not when they are straying and breaking away...Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community...

I'll let the English writer Paul Kingsnorth have the final word. He considers himself a progressive but doesn't see a loss of traditional identity as an advance:
It has long been a touchstone of "progress" that place, and attachment to it, is an anachronism...Barriers are broken down by the mass media, technology and trade laws. Rootless, we gain freedom, placeless, we belong everywhere. Yet placelessness and rootlessness create not contentment but despair...

The rising tide of this global progress, we are told, will lift all boats. The trouble is that some of our boats are anchored; anchored by place, tradition, identity, a sense of belonging...

...the citizens of nowhere ultimately inhabit an empty world ... Disconnected from reality, they can make decisions that destroy real places, to which people are connected, at the stroke of a pen.

The rest of us can join the citizens of nowhere in their empire of the placeless, or we can build new relationships with our own landscapes and our own communities. We can build on our pasts or dismiss them...


  1. Individual freedom is limited by biological constraints. Death is an obvious example of a limiting factor on individual freedom, but there are others as well.

    Say I want to become a woman? How do I do that? Well, I get a sex change, take hormone tablets and get breast implants, have my genitals removed and have a labiaplasty. It still won't make me biologically a woman.

    Say I want to become... say, a black man. How do I do that? I can't really do it at all. Even if I was to paint my skin dark, or even tattoo it dark all over, I still would not be, in biological terms, a black man.

  2. Mr. Richardson wrote,

    "if being Korean or Nigerian or Danish is part of who we are, then if we are going to be free we have to be free as Koreans or Nigerians or Danes. Otherwise we will experience freedom as a loss, as a diminishing of self rather than as a liberation."

    That struck me as a uniquely incisive and powerful blow against liberalism. Well put.

  3. Bartholomew, thanks.

    (I too think it's an important point.)