Friday, November 23, 2012

Our Discussion on Nationalism Continued

This is the latest instalment in my friendly discussion on nationalism (in general) and Irish nationalism (in particular) with fellow Irish Catholic blogger Young Ireland. Previous instalments can be found here, here, here and here.

Young Ireland makes so many interesting points that I simply can't write everything that comes into my mind in response. So I think I will concentrate on some specific matters.

I agree with much of what he writes, but I find myself in disagreement with this particular view:

"I think it is possible to be patriotic and not be a nationalist. I would define patriotism as obeying just laws, taking an active part in community life for the sake of the common good, et cetera. . I don't think it should be confused with nationalism, which especially in the Irish context, often demands assent for immoral acts like 1916, and the belief that your particular country is infallible."

This reminds me of the time that one of my colleagues saw the little tricolour flag I have hanging in my office and said (unprompted) that she thought paying your taxes was a patriotic act. This whole definition of patriotism just seems too dispassionate to me. I think the virtue that Young Ireland and my above-mentioned colleague refer to might better be described as good citizenship, or public spiritedness. It seems more about duty than love or sentiment or loyalty.

Patriotism, in my view, is an affair of the heart. It is a way of looking at your nation as a kind of extended family. This doesn't negate the concept of the brotherhood of man, but it does mean that you feel a special kinship to your compatriots. And, like all families, this is as much a matter of exasperation, frustration, heated discussion, and painful memories as it is a matter of pride and loyalty.

A nation is a big family, with all the same aspects of the family writ large; a family tree, running jokes, family anecdotes, family squabbles, shared living space, even (to some extent-- I don't want make too much of this) shared genes.

OK, so you might say, "This is a pretty way of looking at things, but what is it based on? You can think of the nation as a big family if you like. Why should anyone else think of it like that?"

I think we not only can but should look at nationality this way because otherwise, national consciousness-- or even just public life-- becomes based upon a kind of lowest common denominator. We become so frightened of imposing a particular identity, or a particular idea of national culture, that we end up with nothing at all, or something even worse than nothing at all. We are stuck with a kind of bland, featureless universalism, a pallid pluralism.

Take the Spire of Dublin, for example. Here is a monument that nobody could accuse of being sectarian, or divisive, or jingoistic, or any of those things. But then, nobody could accuse it of anything much-- except of being ugly and characterless. But it seems to me a symptom, even a metaphor, of what happens when you studiously avoid any kind of nationalism. (To my non-Irish readers who might not know about the Spire, it's the most recent monument added to Dublin's main street, O'Connell Street. And what is it? A four hundred foot stainless steel spike with a light at the top. Literally that, and nothing more.)

I have noticed the same thing with "The Gathering", the attempt this year to lure the so-called Irish diaspora back to Ireland as tourists. If this had happened forty years ago it would have drawn heavily on traditional, Gaelic Revival images of Ireland-- roundtowers, harps, Irish wolfhounds, the Book of Kells, Celtic knotwork, uillean pipes, and so forth. And the advertising campaign would have had a certain sobriety and even solemnity to it. But the actual ads for The Gathering, presumably in an effort to avoid any hint of leaving anybody out, have just been facetious and insipid. The one I've seen most often involves a picture of a flaxen-haired lass in a plastic, horned Viking helmet pouting beside a seashore. In the online ads, the plastic helmet floats on and off her head. I can't see how that would draw anyone to visit their ancestral land, or inspire any sentiment in their hearts at all. Why should they care about Irishness, if we don't care about it?

And a final example is an ad for the National Census that I saw some years ago. The central image was a young man with Asiatic features, possibly Chinese or Korean. Now, I know that somebody of Chinese or Korean ancestry, or any other ancestry, can be just as Irish as me. I've had the surprising experience, in my work as a library assistant in University College Dublin, of serving students whose facial features and names (I see their names when they hand me their student cards) make them seem Indian or African, but who then go on to speak to me in a strong Dublin accent. I am not a racialist in any way. But it seems to me slightly perverse to pick a face with Asiatic features as representative of Irish people. Wouldn't red hair and freckles be more iconically Irish, even though red-heads are a minority here, too?

What has all this got to do with promoting a culture? Well, to a certain extent, we have to promote some kind of culture. Every country has streets to name, stamps to issue, festivals to organise, monuments to build, holidays to proclaim, and an educational syllabus to organise. In other words, we can't do without symbols, and we can't avoid those moments and occasions when we make some statement about who we are.

I accept that the Gaelic, Catholic identity we proclaimed on those occasions, in the past, might have been rather jingoistic, biased and even (sometimes) cheesy. The streets and train stations named after 1916 leaders, the public buildings named after saints, the national anthem ending a day's broadcast on RTE, the St. Bridget's Cross that the station used as its symbol in its early days, occasions such as the Tailteann Games...I understand why some people might have reservations about some or all of those symbols (in the same way that a secularist might object to the Angelus bells being broadcast on RTE).

But isn't it better to have some kind of national iconography, even if it does not express your own beliefs, than none? Doesn't its use express the idea that a nation entails more than a few million people breathing the same air and using the same water, airports and energy grid?

Take the example of England. If I go to England, I could take offence (as an Irishman) at the lions in Trafalgar Square as a symbol of British imperialism. I could take offence at the Irish harp used in the English royal coat of arms, which is to be seen on so many buildings. As a Catholic, I could take offence at Guy Fawkes night, since it celebrates the capture and burning of a Catholic, and has historically been used to express strong anti-Catholic sentiment. I could pout about poppy-wearing on Armistice Day.

But I don't actually take offence at any of these things. I wish the English nation cherished its traditions more, not less-- even those traditions that are imperialistic and anti-Catholic, or otherwise controversial. Because those things are part of what made England what it was, and what it is. Exchanging the realities of history for a pluralistic, secular, post-historic non-identity seems a crying shame to me.

What do you think? Do you see any merit in those arguments at all? (Be honest!)

I have concentrated on the matters where I disagree with you, rather than on those where I agree. I certainly agree with you strongly on many things-- such as the danger of nationalism becoming a belief in your country's superiority over other countries, or the undesirability of one-sided versions of national history. And to some extent, this is a discussion with myself as well as a discussion with you, since my feelings on these matters are rather mixed and unsure.

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