Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A new era for nationalism?

Diversity is one of the “virtues” of post-modernism, many would claim. We LIKE celebrating diversity, hoping that a clearer understanding of each culture’s idiosyncrasies will help to bring us closer and reduce the probability of conflict (or, at least, intense conflict).

To a degree, it might be true. But my personal experience tells me that the actual “celebration of diversity” can often lead to the very opposite: re-emphasis of the differences. This can be easily observed at International Festivals/Fairs, just to give an example. Although there are many nations and/or cultures presenting their “specialties”, each one of them goes out of its way to make sure theirs are better than the others', particularly if there are “historical enemies” (internal, external, imperial, etc…) among them. The banal objective of the event is to boast about the “harmony” of so many representatives of different backgrounds within that institution (be it a university, an organization, or a country), but inevitably it leads to a break in that harmony – even if only temporary – as each group goes searching for that which separates them from “the others”.

Interestingly enough, I found this phenomenon in line with what Weaver had suggested (last week’s readings): the idea that one understands and learns more about their own culture through interaction with others. I see this usually happening when people leave their country/culture, as they find themselves in an alien environment and try to define their own identity based on the differences from others that they can recognize. Indeed, it is very difficult to understand, know, and appreciate your own culture while you are immersed in it, as you take it for granted (Weaver). Coming back to the international fair example: the event allows one to ponder more on what is that defines the identity of their country/culture, and makes them emphasize that difference, not bringing them closer to the others, but rather taking them further away.

This theme is ever-present in the nationalism-diaspora discussions, as diasporas have become the space where nationalism (and should I say, chauvinism) is pretty much intact, and is even encouraged, while the “homeland” nation-state (if such exists) undergoes the transformations Castells referred to. They LIVE among “the others”, experiencing the differences between cultures on a day-to-day basis, which constantly reminds them of the need to focus on these differences, in case they wish to retain their identity. These communities are much more “imagined” than the territorial nation-state-based communities, as they do not have the degree of formal institutions for “socialization” that are usually available within the nation state. Thus, they keep emphasizing the “mythical” and idealized image of their homeland, which at times results in cultural rigidity and distortion of the real “essence” of the homeland (i.e. of what it has become over the years they were away), at least among the core members of the community.

Over time, this causes a break between the diasphoric community and the homeland, as each one develops separately, and as interests and understanding of “the national objectives” begin to diverge. This is particularly so, when the diasphoric community(ies) have the ability to exert any palpable influence over international affairs, without serious regard as to what is the perspective of the homeland. This is clearly evident in the case of my own “nation”. The Armenian Diaspora has developed a significant political presence in many parts of the world, making the issue of the Armenian Genocide as CENTRAL to “Armenianness” (quite naturally: because it is the central pillar of their identity, and the major reason they ended up in such a big Diaspora in the first place). However, the government of the Armenian state has been trying to improve the relations with the Turkish state over the past couple of years, and is currently facing much more pressing issues, such as economic hardship or the problem of Nagorno Karabakh, which are not given sufficient importance by the mainstream Diasporan discourse. Rather, many in the Diaspora view the Armenian government and the Armenians of the homeland as “traitors”, which, in its turn, fuels their Diasphoric chauvinism further. And just as discussed in all of this week’s readings, the modern communication technologies make this “debate” more heated, and at times, extremist.

This relates to a third point that needs to be made. Although there have been so many arguments pointing out the declining relevance of the territorially-based nation-state, nationalism as an “imagined” phenomenon is still very much alive, as the craving for identity and a sense of community is a natural need for the human being (yes, we are social animals, and we want to live in our communities). Even if the nation state is slowly disintegrating, the ideas that held its community together are not, especially when the changes come too fast. Ideas and values take a long time to transform, and newly introduced ones require years, if not decades or centuries, to be internalized and accepted as their “own”. The modern media and IT have strongly accelerated the process of “modern idea dissemination” (multiculturalism, freedom, human rights, etc…); however, they do not allow the time required for the internalization of these ideas, resulting in an inevitable resistance from the “local” cultures. And when this resistance gathers up momentum and enough support, it starts its way towards a gradual relapse in the opposite direction: re-emphasis of their own “specific” cultural idiosyncrasies and, later, fundamentalism. Therefore, at least in the short-run, the rise of new communication technologies does not help to smooth the process of 'cultural globalization', but rather makes it more tumultuous by galvanizing nationalism in this sense.

1 comment:

  1. I found your comment on the role of nationalism within a diasporic community very insightful and wanted to comment on your agreement with Weaver that diversity does not necessarily lead to a convergence in culture. At a more localized level, one can see this behavior at US universities. For several years, many American universities have emphasized “diversifying” their student population, including my undergraduate institution of Penn State. However, when students are gathered together in one place at Penn State, it is easy to identify the various ethnic, racial and religious groupings. One weakness of diversity or multicultural policies is that they often do not facilitate interactions among different groups or cultures, rather they merely increase the number of diverse groups. This increase in groups does not in itself lend to increased integration and interactions among these groups.