Culture & Society

  • Issue 100 / July - August 2014



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

    Donald A. Beecher

    We can speak of an alienation that comes with the contractual culture of the modern state. Nevertheless, such states can represent a set of principles worthy of our allegiance. The self in the second experiential quality of nation was also redefined by opportunities as well as constraints, set out and guaranteed through laws, charters and constitutions, giving birth to the contractual citizen through rights as well as duties. In a pessimistic light, this arrangement amounts to the Hobbesian containment of our selfish instincts, but more positively viewed, it is one of the hard-fought glories of rational man. Members are called upon, in their hearts and minds, to honor administrations, respect majorities, support public education, utter opinions through a free press, and tolerate other religions, while enjoying the privileges of freedom, protection, and the common good. Without these conditions, the concept of the contractual nation would be bankrupt. Such conditions did not arise sui generis, but were the insights of the philosophers of the long Enlightenment from Locke and Montesquieu to Rousseau, Franklin, and Jefferson. Admittedly, national identity has now become more abstract, a vague gratitude for an open economy, fundamental values of fairness and respect, and a safe and regulated place to live and realize our potential. For such a nation, our hearts may swell, even though, in itself, it is no longer the first quality or gemeinschaft nation of our ancestral environments.

    Coming to the Canadian experience, which has no doubt been hovering in the backs of our minds, with a nation requiring so much intellectual mediation, we may well worry that as the memory of the parties who fought on the Plains of Abraham fades into the background of the national consciousness, only homo economicus may survive, who looks to the nation only to optimize consumerism in the quest for status, rationalized as the summa of self actualization.

    And we may justifiably worry that the universals of human nature which have obstructed utopian visions will continue to haunt the national dream, among them nepotism, inequality of intellectual and social potential, and the quest for dominance through violence, which is also embedded in our genes. And by the way, on the score of economic man, you'll be amused to know that the most sophisticated instrument for the study of national identity, called the National Identity Scale, is not the work of academics or Statistics Canada, but of marketing agents. You can google it. Their goal is to profile all of our nationalist sentiments, loyalties, and proclivities in order to target our purchasing inclinations. How ironic is it that interested parties are seeking to brand us as consumers by profiling our diversities of national feeling?

    There are other obstacles to national experience and identity worthy of mention. The word itself is derived from "natio" which essentially means birthplace, taken from "nasci," to be born. We may well wonder whether our place of birth is our life's destiny. He or she who swears an oath to the Queen in a citizenship court is making a vow that is tantamount to a religious conversion. Yet where people are born remains a huge part of their identity. A group of Canadian nationalist academics back in the 1970s, in a narrow spirit of mind, confirmed that very belief by stating that anyone not born in Canada lacked a true national experience and should therefore be barred from all positions of influence within our university systems. What a doctrine to impose upon an essentially immigrant nation, eager to recruit talent from abroad to maintain its national dream!

    Yet that issue will never ultimately die, because we will never ultimately agree about how we construct identity and fashion allegiances, who is really in and who is not. How malleable are we, and how much baggage from our pasts is too much when it comes to forming a new national community? And how much superiority can the native born claim for themselves?

    Something once said by George Bernard Shaw cuts both ways: "There is nothing that can be changed more completely than human nature when the job is taken in hand early enough." The gist of it is that we are indeed malleable, but only when we are young. Each of us here is as apt to speak Japanese as any child born in Japan, had we been born there. Yet nothing makes learning Japanese more difficult than first speaking English, because we were born here. So is birth tantamount to the only nation we can experience? How much plasticity do we have? Can a second language ever equal a first? That debate is likewise yours to discover.

    The topic of memory in this context is also significant. It is not possible to dwell on all its complexities here, for memory is both key to the construction of t he self and key to those common experiences that define national identity. But self and nation entail different kinds of memory. A self is a point of view concerning its own lived history. National memories are preserved through books, paintings and pictures, letters, and journals housed in national archives and libraries. A nation emerges only when historical memory becomes personal memory, when the story of a people is internalized, inviting us to feel for and with those who created our national past.

    Can a nation shed this component and still be a nation? I ask in innocence. Perhaps we can thrive together on current events. But if we require a deeper historical memory, how is it to be framed and disseminated? It is a real challenge for educators, who must referee among the embarrassing facts, the touchy opinions, and political correctness. Can we even afford an embattled Canadian history? Or do we beat our breasts and construct it as one long trail of colonializing abuse and ethnic misunderstanding? After all, two of our three founding peoples are conquered nations, and much of the history of Canada has been devoted to assuaging the loss of those former identities.

    The Quebecois have a dearly-held sense of themselves as a first experience quality of nation centered on birth, language, a common history and culture, and at one time a common religion, yet they too must seek to embrace the contractual, legal, and secular components of a modern pluralistic society. The most intense intellectual debates within Quebec today are concerned with this very question. There is a lot of nostalgia in la belle province, and who can blame them? At some level, we all crave the kind of oneness they hope to find in a society still tenuously held together by a common language and traditions, made urgent by a history of perceived subjugation and collective hope.

    Meanwhile, it is easy to imagine how irrelevant those confrontations must seem to newer Canadians who have no stakes in that conversation and can only hope for a second order gesellschaft nation or retreat into former national feelings; our historical solitudes go in many directions. Yet this part of our national experience cannot and should not be pretended away. And thus, how do we shape the collective memory of Canada? An attempt will be made in the transformation of our National Museum of Civilization into a Museum of National History, which I think we all recognize as an effort in nation building, in selectively representing the Canadian past in ways which will instill national pride in all its citizens. But whether this new institution will represent a faithful and comprehensive history or a cheerleading version of it remains to be seen. Behind it all is an admirable goal, to give our national memory a monument or shrine to make visible who we are, and to make it accessible to all the people.

    I have thrown up a lot of obstacles to the realization of national identity in modern diversified societies. Unfortunately, I cannot resolve all the stressors and dilemmas which I have raised. I would be bigger than God if I had a band-aid for all our national divisions, and I would be a menacing tyrant if I had the power to imprint nationalist universals by fiat in the mind of every citizen.

    What I would venture is that we all desire to be members of a national communityÔÇöto participate personally in that cluster of ideas which not only holds us together but distinguishes us from all other nations, and to experience it as part of our extended personal identity. It is a level of the self that is big, but not too big, and still within imagining. National sentiments are strong when Canada does well in international ratings concerning our financial fundamentals. We are justifiably proud of our social welfare net, our peacekeeping objectives, or when planes fly overhead in formation, or when we take Olympic medals or win the World Series.

    But we sense there is even more pro patria to be felt through education, historical consciousness, generous feelings toward our fellow citizens, and openness to dialogue and exchange. Emotions cannot be coerced, but when we feel them, they can help form the bonds that hold us together. In Canada, a dialogue among cultures has replaced the monolithic orientations of older and more traditional societies, which is now as it must be, but it is an ongoing experiment all the same, with an uncertain outcome. That brings us back to the intercultural and interfaith dialogues sponsored by such organizations as the IDI (Intercultural Dialogue Institute), which are vital to the shaping of our national ethos; we become one in sharing our differences and in understanding just how those differences still pertain both to our common humanity and to our national aspirations. In that regard, we can champion Fethullah Gulen's great commission when he urges that "Each person who loves his or her country has to be a proper representative of that nation. Every member should invest in its values and put energy and aid into its development, and follow this pathway throughout life." It is a great reciprocity conducted by granting identity to others and assuming an informed identity for ourselves.

    A nation is dialogic. It is made by thinking it together. My purpose has been to think about the self and its experience in the context of nation, and how buying in cognitively adds to our experiencing of the self as a thinking participant. I can't imagine a working nation without conditions like respect for law and the rights of others, respect for democratic institutions, and fiscal integrity. And here we get into the hard points for discussion. We need working languages to avoid our own Tower of Babel; thus it seems reasonable that we foster the two official languages of Canada as efficient vehicles of communication. We need citizens with religious sensibilities, even if they are confirmed atheists, but we must be wary of guiding ourselves in matters of the collective secular nation by religious principles more specific than generic ethics and civic morality; the French Revolution got that right. We need residents who imagine the common good and respect the dignity of life by instinct. And I would add my support for extending the historical consciousness of the nation, because Canada has had a rich history in its scant 400 hundred years of urban settlement. Canada has been pluralistic from its inception, yet we have forged a sense of a single dominion historically grounded and tied to a precious social and political formula based on reason and the spirit of order and cooperation. Yet I think we can remain true to our inspiring cultural diversity through discussion and sharing. Upon such a heritage, minds can build a nation.

    I seem to recall that it was a beer company that branded us with a bit of national self-affirmation through its "I am Canadian" campaign. It was a "good feeling" ad. But Gulen said it more eloquently: "It is vital for citizens of a nation to say, 'this is my country.' The altruism of today will lead to the happiness of tomorrow's generations." And all this we do with our brains and minds in the most remarkable and mysterious of ways are, as a cognitive philosopher, are matters of eternal fascination to me. Nation-building we accomplish only by synchronizing our minds. We build an invisible yet compellingly real national community just by thinking in a collective way. Nation, in that sense, is a cognitive and emotional opportunity for the construction of the self, and clearly as a collective idea, nation has its adaptive value as a point of view from which we exercise our interests in the world. That alone gives grounds for the instauration of national bonds.

    Donald A. Beecher is Chancellor's Professor at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.
    Editor's note: The first part was published in the previous issue #99.

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