Where Does Nationalism Really Come From?

It was indignity that drove the Germans, Chinese, and Americans to want revenge.  The Germans almost had their revenge in World War Two, after having been humiliated by the settlement after World War One.  Many Chinese today now want their revenge against the West and Japan for their “century of humiliation,” from the Opium War up through the unequal treaties, the “carving up” of China, and the occupation by Japan.  The Americans have certainly had their revenge.  A revolution born in passionate opposition to a king and the very idea of the nobility has resulted in a world where everyone wears jeans and the movies spread “the American way of life” to every corner of the globe.  If, unlike the Germans and Chinese, Americans seem hardly aware of a repressed desire for revenge, this says more about the psychological blinders of dominance than it does about the effects of such dominance on the less powerful.  The contemporary world cannot be understood without understanding how indignity and disrespect have led to nationalism.  By what mechanism does this happen?  Where does nationalism really come from?

Let’s say you’re a moderately left-of-center Chinese-American male living in Shanghai.  You might become more conscious of your race than when you lived in America.  You might notice how in business meetings Europeans are unsure of where you’re from and shake your hand with a bit less vigor and enthusiasm when they think you’re from China.  You might take careful notice of the sexual dynamic in bars and parties, the white men apparently entitled to their Chinese women, the Chinese women obliging in this attitude, and the Europeans all the more condescending to the Chinese men who allow this without objection.  They might think that you pimp for them too.  Sometimes, in bars, they think you’re service staff, especially if their English isn’t good enough to understand you or recognize a native English speaker when they hear one.   Europeans like to tell you that your English is very good.  Americans almost never get you wrong, and are generally very sensitive to issues of race and ethnicity, given that immigration has been part of America’s self-understanding for most of its history.  Europeans tend to praise Obama to no end simply on account of his race, presumably recognizing that an African-American is an American, yet often don’t grasp that a Chinese-American is an American too.  All of these complicated feelings might lead you to feel jilted.  After all, Chinese-Americans are also taught in school that they are part of Western civilization, and only in the rarest of cases (if we examine their values) can we say that Chinese-Americans are not Westerners.  The colonial Americans also felt jilted.  In the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), they fought with the mother country against the French, taking French North America east of the Mississippi.  They felt proud to serve the Crown.  And how did the British thank them?  They imposed the Stamp Tax in 1765, making the colonists pay for what they thought had been clearly understood to be their patriotic sacrifice.  This made clear to them that the British did not truly accept them as equal citizens, leading them to demand representation in Parliament to make this so, thus inflaming the passions that would lead to the American Revolution.  They felt jilted.  Their indignation radicalized them, and this helped create a nation.  They knew from then on that it was only their fellow colonials who truly recognized who they were.  In much the same way, our Chinese-American in Shanghai might come to better distinguish “us” from “them.”

As Greenfeld argues, nationalism ultimately comes from a desire for equal dignity and respect.  If one group doesn’t give you that dignity and respect, then another group might.  The colonial subjects of Western empires around the world came to this realization in the 20th century and fought to define for themselves that group that would give them dignity and respect.  According to Greenfeld, the roots of nationalism lie in the affirmation of ordinary people as citizens equal to the aristocracy, thus making them identify with that collective that would affirm them, i.e. the “nation.”  Note that in this sense nationalism is not just relevant to international affairs, but also generalizes to how groups define themselves against one another within societies.  Many second-generation Muslims in Europe feel alienated from mainstream society and come to identify with Islam and the nations of their parents.  The working classes in many advanced democracies feel looked down upon by national elites and come to identity more strongly with the nation, since membership affirms their fundamental equality with those elites.  Whether in the context of international or domestic society, people gravitate toward that group that would affirm their dignity.  The working classes become xenophobic for the same reason that nations want revenge.  Before we judge their attitudes as “ignorant” and “closed-minded,” however, we might first examine the ways that we who judge already have our dignity affirmed, and therefore see less need for such affirmation.  Nationalism is a coping strategy of the weak.

We see this weakness play out in China today.  In the recent anti-Japanese protests, most participants have been of the working class, the losers in the economic reforms of the past 30 years.  These ordinary Chinese are often lost at sea in the newly competitive labor market, no longer able to enjoy the dignity and respect of relative equality with the rest of their co-nationals.  They see themselves as having been “screwed over” by the new elites, a great many of whom have gotten very rich through personal connections or other illicit or unjust means.  Every few months, the Chinese blogosphere explodes with yet another case of a rich official (or son of such an official) who insults an ordinary citizen and tries to get around the law.  For the Chinese working class, nationalism is thus a way of saying to the elite that despite our relative poverty “we too are just as good as you,” since we’ve all been equally insulted by the Japanese, and when “push comes to shove” and the dignity of the Chinese nation is at stake, “we’re all in this together.”  On the other hand, some of the recent protesters have been of this elite.  Some of them have international experience, e.g. employees at multinational companies, managers at such companies who have gone abroad for work, or graduates of foreign universities.  Their nationalism stems not from a desire to be equal to other Chinese, but a rejection of those foreigners who look down upon them or insult their sense of self-respect.  Some have had enough of being bossed around in a foreign language at the workplace.  Others had prepared for years to study abroad, thus bringing honor to their family and themselves when accepted, only to experience condescension abroad when they ought to have been enjoying the fruits of their success.  These elites feel jilted.  Many had always wanted to be accepted as equals by foreigners.  Nearly all had expected to experience the same degree of respect they had experienced in China, as winners in the economic reforms.  Much like our Chinese-American in Shanghai or our 18th century colonial American, they cope with this entirely unexpected sense of powerlessness by rejecting the “other” and coming to identify with that group that would affirm their dignity — the Chinese nation, as represented by all the other protesters outside the Toyota factory or the Japanese Consulate, elite and working class alike.  While in these specific instances the venom of both groups is directed toward the Japanese, the underlying psychological dynamic has little do with Japan, but arises out of anger toward any group that does not affirm their dignity.

Buried in the American consciousness is a similar sense of weakness and fragility.  There are obvious similarities between China’s rise today and that of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.   Just like in China today, the American elite sent its children abroad to study, and upon return, the mark of a “cultured” American was the ability to speak differently, in French or in British English.  These elites looked for affirmation from Europe, not from their fellow Americans, many of whom despised foreign ways, just like many of today’s ordinary Chinese.  Much like China cannot help but define itself in terms of a schizophrenic relationship with the West, mainstream American culture developed an identity both defined by and opposed to Europe.  In contrast to the perceived “sophistication, extravagance, yet crushing poverty” of Europe, the Americans would define themselves in terms of their “directness, simplicity, and material prosperity.”  Less obvious are the deeper psychological similarities with Chinese nationalism and the nationalism of other rising powers.  As alluded to above, America was born out of yearning to be accepted as equal by the British — and by implication, the best of European civilization.  America was not thus acknowledged in its early years, and despite admiration from liberals in Europe, Americans continued to be prickly and insecure about the value of their own “civilization” throughout the 19th century.  Perceived lack of such acknowledgement, and the sense of indignity this implies, helped motivate the Americans to become stronger and more powerful on the world stage.  If the Europeans, for whom the Americans in fact had fundamental respect, would not acknowledge the value of American ways, then the hope was that someday they would, and the United States would thus attain vindication for all of the slights, insults, and condescension of its early years.  Most of us have forgotten all of this.  Two world wars separate us from this world.  Certainly, most Americans today have little inkling of the revenge fantasies of their forebears.  Unlike much of the world, they can’t see that the satisfactions of American power delight them like a child’s delight in a dream come true.  Much like the Chinese dream of anti-imperialist retribution, this dream was born of weakness and the need for “adult” affirmation this implies.  Much like our elite Chinese protester or Chinese-American in Shanghai, this dream was enabled by a fundamental respect for the “other” that made them feel jilted by those who would refuse to acknowledge them.  Greater sympathy for the weak and their psychological needs might better illuminate the origins of nationalism.  Seeing ourselves as they see themselves might better excavate and make explicable the archaeology of their “irrational” indignation.

This entry was posted in IDEAS and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply