Why Nationalism Keeps Surprising Us by Slavica Jakelić

December 28, 2020

Lepore, Jill. This America: The Case for the Nation, New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2019        

The twentieth century had its share of historians who, aghast at nationalism, abandoned writing national histories because they didn’t want those histories to become part of nationalist projects. Similarly incensed by nationalism, a considerable number of twentieth-century social theorists studied nationalism in order to expose it for its constructed nature and modern origins. What these two groups of scholars often had in common was a belief that nationalism would soon die away, to be displaced by a cosmopolitanism that expressed (as many contended) the better angels of our nature. And when nationalisms rose again in all their ugliness and tragedy in the 1990s, Western observers saw “those” nationalisms as a problem of the less developed, non-Western world, where it was “blood and belonging,” in Michael Ignatieff’s influential rendering, and not the civic ideals, that bound people together.

Such modernist assessments and prophecies about nationalism were not only misguided; they are among the chief reasons why nationalism surprised us at the start of this century—stunned us in all its potency, especially as it surfaced in Western democratic societies that had purportedly left the passions of nationalist politics in the rubble of their darker past. It’s possible to think of Jill Lepore’s book This America: The Case for the Nation as one scholar’s attempt to prevent the ugly forms of nationalism from surprising us again. Hers is a critique of the false predictions that sullied historical scholarship, but even more it is an illuminating essay about why American historians can’t abdicate their professional responsibility and stop writing national histories.

Lepore starts her book with the words of Stanford historian Carl N. Degler—his 1986 warning that, unless historians provide “a nationally defined history, others less critical and less informed will take over the job for us.” Degler’s admonition was prescient, Lepore writes, because three decades later we are living in a world led by those “less scrupulous people,” the world of Orbans, Putins, and Trumps, who stepped into social and political crises to offer exclusionary, fear-driven tales about their nation’s history, present, and future.     

Lepore’s book (a continuation of her earlier, much longer volume These Truths: A History of the United States) offers a convincing argument for why the articulation of a common narrative of the American national history is not an impossibility, but a necessity. For nations to be possible, she rightly contends, they need stories that bind people together. Only such shared stories can enable citizens of any nation to act in solidarity with one another regardless of their class, gender, racial, ethnic, religious, or ideological differences. But as Lepore correctly recognizes, when a nation tells its story in the twenty-first century, it must include not only what it wants to remember, but also what it wants to forget—all the violence and injustice done in the nation’s name.

As a result, Lepore’s history of “this America” demonstrates that articulating one narrative of a nation does not have to be a hegemonic endeavor or a denial of pluralism. This is a significant achievement. I have written earlier on this blog that to grasp the potential of nationalism against populist nativism, it’s critical to pluralize our understanding of nationalism, to think of it and study it as irreducible to the nation-state. Lepore does precisely that. She considers the usual suspects and events in the creation of the US as a nation and a nation-state, but she especially looks at nationalism as the stuff of narratives and of public disputes about those narratives, disputes that have been there from the beginning of the modern American nation. Consequently, Lepore gets so much right: her “new Americanism” (a historical as well as a political project) is deeply aware of the ways in which the American past binds as well burdens Americans—it stands as a constant reminder that the promise of inclusion was always accompanied by the most radical form of exclusion and violence. When she talks about American civic ideals, Lepore sustains the value of pluralism or, to use Jason Springs’s smart phrase, the centrality of “healthy conflict” for what America is and wants to be. The commitments of Americans to one another, Lepore asserts, are due not only to the strength of their universal ideals but to “the force of their disagreements.” This is America at its best.        

Yet, while there is much to agree with and admire in Lepore’s book, in terms of its premises and its achievements, reading This America left me puzzled. This is partly because of the startling, never-probed assumption that “Nationalism is a by-product of the nation-state.” It is also because Lepore deploys Orwell’s distinction between nationalism as motivated by “hatred” and patriotism as “animated by love,” as if patriotism is a benign force of history that enables the separation of the “democratizing” and “civilizing” missions from the Western imperial and colonial projects! Most of all, I finished reading This America perplexed by its unequivocal affirmation of civic or liberal nationalism as a rational, value-driven form of nationalism compatible with patriotic sentiments, posited as that which can redeem nations from being hijacked by unscrupulous populist politicians, today and in the future.

Scholars have long disputed the old civic-ethnic adage upon which such assertions of liberal nationalism rest (promoted in particular since Hans Kohn’s work on the topic); they critiqued the civic-ethnic binary because it entails worrisome Western-centric parochialism and the “analytic bifurcation” shaping much Western sociological theorizing (to employ here Julian Go’s valuable terminology). But what was, and still is, most perplexing about “civic vs. ethnic nationalism” discussions is that they gloss over the visceral and embodied elements of national identity that are always entangled with one’s commitments to civic principles: the love of one’s language and land, the attachments to the national flag and anthem—and all those quiet and “noisy” rituals involved in their celebrations and their contestations.

If there is anything that this populist age teaches us, it is that in the face of social changes and uncertainties, it is the visceral parts of one’s national identity that are awakened from the sites of “banal nationalism”—to be felt more strongly, to be agonized over, to be declared as non-negotiable, to be mobilized against some perceived “other.” Nationalism will keep surprising us all unless we start paying attention to the affective, embodied attachments to a nation, those (as Edward Said astutely observed) “most collective of collective sentiments” and “the most private of private emotions.” If, however, we start working toward their reflexive formation, toward seeing them as reconcilable with, and even emboldening of civic principles, then, perhaps, we might envision national identities which, while embedded and particular, are also expansive and self-critical. Then, maybe, we might arrive at identities we urgently need for this century, if it is to be any different from the one we left behind.

Slavica Jakelić is the Richard Baepler Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Valparaiso University’s honors college, and a Senior Fellow of the Luce Project on Religion and its Publics.

Image Credit: Liveright (image appears on book’s cover)

Solidarity Beyond Naivete by Slavica Jakelić

December 11, 2020

If the 2020 pandemic is not to become “another tragedy of history from which we learned nothing,” Pope Francis warns in his newest encyclical Fratelli Tutti, then we need to turn away from the world as it is, fragmented and “bereft of a shared vision” for the human family, toward the world in which we participate in the “universal aspiration” for a “community of belonging and solidarity worthy of our time, our energy and our resources.”

What theologian William Cavanaugh rightly identifies as the radical message of this encyclical could easily be interpreted as an instance of the pope’s idealism, but he is actually moving us closer to a more realist, more embedded, and thus more ethical kind of humanism. The radicalism of the pope’s humanist stance then does not arise from the fact that the idea of solidarity is at the heart of Fratelli Tutti. In affirming solidarity, Francis is reflecting and joining, rather than challenging, a big part of the Zeitgeist. The operative battle cry of activists and academics (who are often the same people), “solidarity” is nowadays invoked by all who work for racial and gender justice, for the rights of Palestinians or the rights of migrants and refugees.

Neither are Francis’s appeals to dignity and solidarity new in the context of Catholic thought: they are staples in the rich history of Catholic social teaching, and the pope’s own reflections on them productively build on the post-Vatican II view of personhood. (Prior to this council, it ought not to be forgotten, the church’s understanding of personhood was anything but universal.) To be sure, the pope’s emphasis on the dignity of each human person and solidarity with all members of the human family is driven by the drama of our moment. Francis is outraged by the realities of the world that deny dignity to the most defenseless among us: he is incensed by the ugliness of resurrected nativist and populist nationalisms; he is offended by the indifference of Christians toward the suffering of non-Christian migrants; he is grieved by a culture in which the elderly and the poor die alone in the chaos of the global pandemic.

But just as much as Francis emphasizes the dignity of each person and solidarity with those most vulnerable among us, he also recognizes the lasting power of particular identities in how our dignity is embodied. Francis’s humanism is a twenty-first century humanism because it is not naive, and it is not naive because it complicates how we should think about the relationship between the ethics of identity and the ethics of solidarity.

Much of Western thought establishes a separation between our attachments to particular communities and our universal ethical commitments. We have long been told—by thinkers as radically different as Ferdinand Tönnies, Émile Durkheim, Jürgen Habermas, Richard Rorty, Alasdair McIntyre, Judith Butler, and David Hollinger—that our ethical obligations to those with whom we share language, nationality culture, religion, and history are different from and in conflict with our obligations to those with whom we don’t share much except our fundamental humanity (or, in Butler’s terms, the precarity of our embodied lives).

Francis thinks otherwise. If we are to reconstitute our fragmented world into a whole, he contends, we must recognize the dignity of, and be in full solidarity with, the migrants searching for a better life—not only by recognizing their right to migration, but also by shaping the conditions for their “right not to emigrate,” to remain in their homelands. Western societies are obligated to “welcome, protect, promote and integrate” migrants by virtue of their human dignity, but this “same intrinsic dignity” also requires us to create a world in which all can “be agents in their own redemption.” And this, Francis leaves no doubt, is possible only if every country can “grow in its own distinct way” and “develop its capacity for innovation while respecting the values of its proper culture.” There is no dialogue, and there is no solidarity, Francis asserts, if we don’t know who we are, if we do not love our “own land,” our “own people, our “own cultural roots.” To cite Vinson Cunningham’s wonderful reflection on Francis’ theological vision in Fratelli Tutti, “If Nazareth had had a soccer club, Christ might have been a regular in the stands rooting for it.”

Other reviewers have noted that the idea of solidarity framing this encyclical reflects some of the vision contained in the African idea of Ubuntu: they emphasized that it involves service and caring for the vulnerable; it points to “envisaging and engendering an open world;” it carries an awareness “about the common home, our planet;” and it affirms a “universal love that promotes persons,” not only our own group. But if these pieces of Francis’s thinking about solidarity are meant to move us beyond the mentality of borders, if they are meant to help us tackle the grave errors of populist nationalisms and nativisms, then we must also recognize (in Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s words) “the dignity of difference”—the dignity of our roots. “We forget,” Francis writes, “that ‘there is no worse form of alienation than to feel uprooted, belonging to no one,’” quoting remarks he made a couple years earlier on his trip to the Baltic states. The Pope rejects abstract and authoritarian universalisms, and he sees them especially in the hegemonizing forces of late modern capitalism.

Over the last several months, scholars critiqued the (so easily avoidable!) gender-specific language of the encyclical; they called on Francis to acknowledge that the ideals of dialogue and solidarity he professes challenge power constellations in the very church he seeks to shepherd. These critiques are needed and they are meaningful. They also prove that, just like any other human institution asserting or longing for universality, the Catholic Church can deliver on that promise only if it recognizes and affirms the dignity of differences within. Yet, Francis’s encyclical is radical because it is a signpost for how we might tackle such challenges, and for how we might start one of the most difficult and most important conversations we ought to have at the beginning of the twenty first century—the conversation about the proximity and reciprocity between the ethics of identity and ethics of solidarity, between our particular attachments and our universal ethical commitments.

Francis challenges us to have this conversation by focusing our attention on all those living on the margins, on the borders, in and between societies, in and between social institutions. And in so doing, he not only goes against bifurcated Western thinking about the particular and universal grounds of ethical responsibility; he also goes against those thinkers for whom all types of universalism are suspect on decolonial grounds. Fratelli Tutti is radical because it exemplifies Francis’s conviction that, if the church is to remain true to herself, it must surprise, and it must surprise everyone.

Slavica Jakelić is the Richard Baepler Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Valparaiso University’s honors college, and a Senior Fellow of the Luce Project on Religion and its Publics.

Photo by Julie Ricard on Unsplash