Culture & Society

  • Issue 99 / May - June 2014



    Hearts and Minds for a Country Nation and the Construction of Self Identity

    Donald A. Beecher

    The topic is both risky and troubling because nation, per se, as it is defined in traditional ways, is no longer operative in pluralistic societies, at least not without significant adaptation. A redefinition of nation therefore becomes our challenge. We can start with Noam Chomsky's belief "that humans are innately endowed with a desire for community and a drive for creative free expression" (Pinker, 301). Arguably, as a species, we are systemically hardwired to seek emotionally grounded affiliations of all kinds, not only because we are a gregarious species, but because we are a weak species. We depend upon others for our own material well-being and our security. Rambo-types intrigue us because they are nations unto themselves, autonomous and all powerful. But they are, for the most part, Hollywood fantasies. Real people, by contrast, build themselves largely in relation to others, who they are to us and how we feel about them. This has everything to do with the dialogic self, the sense of identity built by living successfully in communities, in meeting expectations and winning the approbation of others.

    So when it comes to self identity, in what kinds of groups are we most likely to flourish? And if the sociological truism holds that we bond first with those who confirm our identities by being most like us, how large is that group likely to be?

    Steven Pinker, in The Blank Slate, states that "The universality of ethnocentrism and other forms of group-against-group hostility across societies, and the ease with which such hostility can be aroused in people within our own society" is one of the greatest obstacles to the extension of identity communities.

    Still, for an opener, you can see self and group formation at work in high school cafeterias as clusters of the like-minded create an identity by excluding outsiders, largely through gossip, sometimes around matters as trivial as a dress code, or who owns the latest electronic gadgetry. In effect, they are behaving like little tribes or nations. The fascinating part is the emotional drive to belong, and the fear of exclusion, even from groups arbitrarily defined and ephemeral, including those created in cyber space. These same principles pertain to the 700 gangs which form the social fabric of south-central Los Angeles. Yet, arguably, this same group-making process, through intellectual imagination, might be extended all the way up to the world nation or global community, with each echelon defined by shared interests, activities, values, and memories. A nation, among them, is a mutuality of thinking among persons sharing common purposes. Yet as a principle of social cohesion, it is also emotional, allegiance-oriented, exclusionary, and collectively administered. There is no nation without those who are not members. Nations may also entail chauvinism, loyalty tests in time of threat, and hostility toward non-members. Karl Deutsch famously defined a nation as "a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbors." In his view, national groups lie to themselves about who they are as warriors or victims in order to justify their aggression. They can act as gangs. That is an unnecessarily dark view of the national experience, but it gets much brighter as we go along.

    According to the traditional dictionary definition, a national bond arises, not only because people share a common geographical territory, but because they practice the same mores, speak the same language, worship the same gods, fight common enemies, participate in the same identifying rituals and traditions, share a common stock of stories and a common history, and are often related to each other through blood ties. Cohesion around sporting events and beer preferences is merely a parody of bedrock national identity, although in a self-effacing manner, Canadians like to start there. But it is inversely conceivable that diverse peoples with diverse allegiances may somehow share a common territory without a sense of national identity, because most of those listed characteristics typically defining a nation are simply not shared by the members of pluralistic societies. So if such populations are to find an identity center for themselves in a nation, they really have only three options.

    One is to redefine themselves around more vague, generic and inclusive categories of nationhood. Another is to impose uniformity through the melting pot, the Lord Durham solution, through enforced and universal education, imposed official languages, an official history, and official social rituals in the search for a common brand of allegiance. A third is to choose a new concept under which they can unite themselves as a secular community and forget about being a nation altogether. In my view of Canadian practice, we are currently pursuing all three solutions at once. The third option entails falling back upon the universals of our humanity. We might simply acknowledge the common desires and instincts of all humankind as members of the global village, and we might view Canada as a piece of this village in which we listen to each other's first national stories in a spirit of good will. Is that not the mandate of the Canadian ministry of multiculturalism? To be sure, it would seem only right that we remain free to express the national imperatives of our birthplaces, our mother tongues, our religions, and our respective ethnicities, yet such practices appear to obstruct the formation of a specifically Canadian national identity-or maybe not? The point is very much up for discussion.

    Let's return for a moment to the second option, the nationalist teach-in for all citizens. While recognizing diversity, national governments may also recognize the value in proactively promoting a national brand, but it is a challenging enterprise, because a meaningful nationalism cannot be bought with jingoism, cheerleading, and trinkets, or bread, circuses, and revisionist history. Identity as a mind-state entails a combination of pride and duty that is somehow earned and experienced, who knows exactly how? It is something we instinctively desire, yet identity arises only when we feel emotionally drawn to the collectivity of minds, values, and practices that constitute a nation-the argument becomes circular. We may well wonder how such emotional allegiances may best be fostered. It is a point to which I will return. But it must also be lamented that nations may also include stories of failure; in fact, our literature is full to overflowing with them, and they are studied in our university classrooms with empathetic attention. From that perspective, a lament for our national failure to create a national home for new Canadians may be our most common and unifying characteristic; it is an obsession among our literary critics.

    There are many stories to choose from, but I am most immediately reminded of a touching personal narrative written by Elena Maccaferri and translated by her sister as A Bench on Which to Rest. Maccaferri came to Canada from a small village above Bologna, lured to a better life by an Italo-Canadian who promised marriage, but failed to meet her at the dock upon her arrival. A hard and lonely life followed, until she was at last found by a man who had also come from her village. She went on to raise children here, who grew up Canadian in soul and spirit, but Elena could never find a true home away from her native mountains, and was overwhelmed by nostalgia. At last, when her children were grown, she returned to Italy, only to discover that all she once knew had vanished. Canada had found no place in her emotions, but had succeeded only in alienating her even from her own children.

    Thomas Henricks stated that "for the most part, people experience personhood in the terms that their host societies offer them." But that does not always happen, and when that host society somehow fails to offer acceptable terms around which personal values can flourish, the story becomes tragic, as it was for Maccaferri. It was a crisis in personal identity in relation to a nation. And while I'm telling stories about the inability of a host nation to inspire allegiance, I'll mention another, which goes back to my bachelor days as a young Carleton professor. I had just exhausted my resources on a six-bedroom fixer-upper in Ottawa south with rooms left over to rent out to students. In that little community we had a mysterious roomer who never joined in our collective kitchen exploits and conversations. That was not a problem in itself, but his place in the household came to a strange crisis, nevertheless, when one afternoon a couple of the other students found him in the kitchen counting out huge piles of change. He explained simply that if the laundromat owners were so stupid in their choice of coin boxes, they deserved to be robbed. In no time I had a report upstairs, and went down for an account of my own. It was a sad litany: that his father had come to Canada with promises and expectations, and that to his mind this country had ruined him, giving him only custodial work to do. In his disappointment, he had trained his children to blame the entire country, giving them carte blanche to recover his losses any way they could. The laundromat theft had been conducted as a grievance against the nation. Any Canadian was thus a fair target, and revenge could be taken indiscriminately. What bizarre turns the idea of nation can take; it is a reminder that dialogue can help.

    ***

    When social groups are organized around adhesion to extended clans or tribes, as they were among the First Nations of the New World, we have an early example of the tribal-nation as a tight working survival community sharing a single culture, and calling for unflinching loyalty. But it was only after the long hiatus of the Dark Ages, and a pre-Renaissance period characterized by city states and assorted feudal principalities that the modern nation emerged in conjunction with the political institutions that framed the autonomous state.

    The sixteenth century was the first great age of nation building, with England leading the way under the Tudors. And what an experiment it was. A poem I teach nearly every year is entitled The Faerie Queene, written by Edmund Spenser. It was, unabashedly, a national epic which, by chivalric and allegorical example, set out to teach its readers the great civic virtues upon which the new nation could build, including loyalty to the queen and a sense of duty in the cause of right and justice.

    Of course, there is nothing like war and the threat of invasion to quicken a sense of common cause and rouse a sense of national fervor. This is simply a by-product of the craving for self- protection which can only be realized where there is a feeling of all-for-one and one-for-all. Canadians still construct some of their strongest moments of national identity through recollections arising from the First and Second World wars. They are noble stories in which we all can share, dealing with a nation coming of age through the baptism of sacrifice. And we have been reminded at times that the nation expects such matters to be treated with ultimate respect and honor. On these occasions the self is lost for a moment in the experience of the nation, and in that regard it is an experience of extended identity, a national ritual that contains the self within the group. The spiritual philosopher, Fethullah Gulen, extends that loss of self in a nation into a hope for a collective future: "Any nation that liberates itself from the deadly web of selfishness and egoism, stereotyping, excessive entitlements, fear of the future, long-lasting hatred and hostility, and at the same time respects the freedom of ideas and beliefs, while turning away from oppressors, as well as giving rights to the innocent, will surely experience long life." That requires not only self-investment, but collective monitoring and the mastery of the dialogic self in each member. Such a nation must seek to amplify the positive qualities of experiential identity at the national level. But how to extend that experience to the optimum level of respectful allegiance is a challenging formula to meet.

    We are, in fact, discussing a rather elusive state of mind. What is it like to experience an ideal national allegiance? How will it feel to be a participating member? One part of our nature seeks a spontaneous glow of unconditional brotherhood in a community of homogenous values. Another part realizes, intellectually, that we have a mutually beneficial contractual arrangement with fellow citizens only at a legal and organizational level. The German terms for these, often employed by scholars, are gemeinschaft for the former, and gesellschaft for the latter. The contrast can be understood historically. In the Middle Ages, rural populations spent their entire lives within view of their parish church steeples; their thought preoccupations were concerned with fixed or received views invested in work, rituals, and customs which remained unchanged throughout generations. Such communities had little need for debate or discussion, because everyone knew what the others were thinking. These were societies entirely integrated through common religious festivals, language, history, and traditions. These were experiential quality nations generating a sense of gemeinschaft.

    Renaissance societies worked outwards from this communal base toward new identities based on restraint in a secular, legislated, legal, and impersonal society. This new order we might call a second experiential quality of nation, conceived as a partnership or a social contract to promote political and economic order. Both the communal nation and the legal nation are principles of group organization and experience, but they do not share a common ethos. For better or for worse, the modern plural nation has been compelled to redefine itself as a society regulated by law, charters, and citizenship-a gesellschaft. My point is that as societies foster libertarian individualism, much of that intuitive and communal sense of the first experiential quality of nation disappears. We have heard much, since the nineteenth century, about alienation, solipsism, existentialism, the anxieties of modernity, the breakdown of the nuclear family, rapid mobility, and transnationalism.

    The longing for a tribal structure in size and cohesion prevails even in modern societies. We might try to replace that feeling at the national level through an equitably administered legal society, through education, and through health and welfare support. But that returns us to the awkward crux. Does a true sense of brotherhood and identity emerge only when there are collective bonds that include language, religion, customs, food and festivals, and life on a village scale? States may structure themselves around welfare nets, global educational systems, and the legal protection of opportunity for all, but there remains intense anxiety over the oneness of our collective national experience.

    Donald A. Beecher is Chancellor's Professor at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.
    (Editor's note: A follow-up of this article will be published in the next issue.)

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