It has been remarked that a person's cultural background is influential in the way that they look at and interpret the world around them. The word 'nationalism' brings to mind the hordes that attended rallies in support of Adolph Hitler as he made his rise to power, fame and infamy. The nationalist group defines its focus in terms of geographical identity which may, or may not, include elements of religion, ethnicity or race. Rhetoric is a form of communication whose purpose is to persuade the audience to the presenter's point-of-view by utilizing an appeal to authority, imagery and tone appropriate to the state of excitement surrounding the event o condition.
Cultural attributes may serve as an identifying marker for nationalist groups and, or, religious fundamentalists. The Islamic revivalism is an example of the religious community and ethnic stratification has come together for the purpose of asserting political power. Nationalism may be seen as an inappropriate combination of ideas that are inextricably meshed with notions of loyalty, authority and historical reasoning.
Chris Hedges, in War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, is and has been a war correspondent for the past twenty years in such varied locales as in Israel / Palestine, Lebanon, Cyprus, Algeria, Iran, Iraq the Falkland Islands, El Salvador, the former Yugoslavia, Guatemala, Nicaragua and northern India. He writes of war as being a nationalist phenomenon that allows the dismissal of critical and moral restraint that is replaced by an 'imagined' reality of patriotic fervor - all in the name of 'the myth', the nation and 'the cause'. He tells his audience that "war is not a uniform experience or event," rather, it is as Anderson purports of nationalism, which is a cultural artifact of a particular kind. To be understood the history as well as emotional underlayment must be addressed and understood (3).
Nationalism is said to be less identified with cultural autonomy than with idealistic issues such as racism and expansionism. The nationalist group defines its focus in terms of geographical identity which may, or may not, include elements of religion, ethnicity or race. Cultural attributes may serve as an identifying marker for nationalist groups. The essence of the nationalist thought is the distinction of difference: the separation of a 'them' in terms of an 'us' and defined in terms of moral judgment.
The nation state is itself "imagined" as a social community because the members are connected through cultural identities rather than proximity and, or, knowledge of the individual. Communities, therefore, they are defined according to the shared belief that constitutes the imagined commonalties (Anderson 6). It is a phenomenon George Orwell referred to as 'groupthink' where all identities are dichotomized into an 'us' and 'them' mentality.
It becomes a matter of good (us) against evil (them), right (us) against wrong (them) and here (us) against there (them). Such a duality brings about antagonism in the face of the fear of exploitation.
In recent years, there are those who speak of a clash of civilizations, a clash between Islam and "our" modern secular (or Judaeo-Christian) democratic values and culture. Those who contrast Islamic civilization or culture with the modern Western culture conveniently slip into an "us and them" mentality that obscures the diversity of both sides. Most Muslims are not Islamic political activists. In fact, such activists constitute only a minority, albeit a significant minority. Moreover, the United States has an obligation (or so it seems from reading Hedges' account of the war in the Middle East) to distinguish between a violent minority, bent upon the overthrow of governments, and a majority that, given the opportunity, will work within the system to bring about change. Even more difficult, of course, is distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate uses of violence.
Ideology of any sort comprises the habits of behavior and belief that combine to make any social world appear to those who inhabit it as the natural world (Billig 37). This marks war as a nationalistic event, compelling to the point of possible addiction. There's an intensity of emotion during times of war that is not available in peacetime. Political, religious and ethnic differences become the compelling reason for the survival of the nation state. Often, the relationship between the religious organization and the association with a national identity lends itself to the misconception that fundamentalism and nationalism are the same. The religious group may gain a certain level of power and thus instill the religious overtones in a more powerful manner, which may be misconstrued as nationalistic fervor and defined as a threat to the 'other'.
Billig cites Renan as providing an insight into the way nationalism evolves. That is, once a nation is established, it depends on a sort of collective amnesia for its continued existence. National identity is embedded within the routines of living and it is the intellectual elite or historians, specifically, that are most involved in the creation of a national amnesia. However, the amnesia fits an ideological pattern that redefines he nationalism into a social value of phenomenon (Billig 38). Nationalism is thought to both create and strengthen nation states. Nationalism is also thought to be psychological. This means, according to Giddens (referred to in Billig 39), that nationalism is an occurrence that 'happens' with extraordinary emotional intensity at extraordinary times. This is what Billig denotes as "hot" nationalism and is not to be included with events such as national holidays that are 'routine' and 'banal'.
Another way of viewing nationalism, as exemplified in War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, is of the 'repressed returning'. That is, as a reaction to political inequality. The importance of identity is related to and confirmed by the subjective feeling of being an endangered minority. Minority groups have a strong sense of alienation from the majority and may express and exhibit a feeling of separateness based on special status or superiority. Symbolic artifacts such as insignia and badges, and observable patterns of behavior often develop as a means of recognition and as symbols of solidarity. The insertion of artifacts into the political arena serves to provide a focus for identity.
In the United States, the most powerful artifact available is the flag. Hedges points out what was obvious to most Americans - that, only hours after the attack on the World Trade Center, flags began to appear in every context imaginable in a spontaneous show of patriotism, which many define as a socially acceptable form of nationalism. In truth, patriotism is, as Hedges points out, "a thinly veiled form of collective self-worship" that allows for the nationalistic distinction between an 'us' (the attacked and wounded) and 'them' (the enemy and perpetrator). Hedges relies on the Freudian distinction between Eros, that "propels us to become close to others, to preserve and conserve, and the Thanatos, or death instinct, the impulse that works towards the annihilation of all living things, including ourselves" (PG). The 'rhetoric' of patriotism masks an underlying nationalism albeit one that is defined and connoted in positive terms whereas nationalism is connoted in the negative.
The moral issues of social interaction and the rights of government have evolved into the twenty-first century in ways that are subtle and discrete. They are especially evident in times of political crisis, such as the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Most people are aware that there are moral undertones to the event, however, they are not able to identify the specific aspects that are troubling.
The emotional stimulus provided by a patriotic 'event', especially one of the magnitude of September eleventh, begins with a certain type of euphoria, leading to righteous indignation and anger. It is not until much later that this initial bonding between members of a given 'community' gives way to the realization that action in the form of war brings agony and dissolution of the parameters of normal behavior. The cost is much higher than the financial --it becomes a moral cost beyond what the fervor of patriotism can cover. Wars continue, however, because they fulfill a basic human need for purpose, meaning, or a reason for living.
The rhetoric of patriotism continues to be a path toward war simply because of the collective ability to forget, imagine and, or, redefine the world in terms of the self or community. The acts of terrorism from September eleventh had the effect of creating fear - however, the consequence of submission was not automatically incorporated into that reaction. In fact, the opposite was true: the United States has chosen to confront and eradicate the 'enemy' (which is fear, through terrorism, as much as it is the political regime of the Taliban).
The War in Vietnam was the first war to be actively protested by a large amount of the American public - it was also the first war where the United States walked away defeated. The implications of this war on individuals, families and government policy has been deep and far reaching. It brought the issue…