Have Americans Lost Their Sense of Imagination?

The Marxist political theorist Benedict Anderson famously defined nations as “imagined communities” that depend on people’s illusion of membership in a shared national identity. The bonds that form as a result of this imagination can be remarkably strong. And when people lose the sense of common identity–when they no longer see themselves as part of a shared national heritage, even an imagined one–political dissolution can follow very quickly.

A new collection of essays from the University of Nebraska Press, Our American Story: The Search for a Shared National Narrative, edited by Joshua Claybourn, argues that Americans have lost a common store of symbols to unite us. The results seem obvious. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Over the past few decades, the complicated divides of geography, class, religion, and race created deep fractures in the United States, each side fighting to advance its own mythology and political interests. We lack a central story, a common ground we can celebrate and enrich with deeper meaning. Unable to agree on first principles, we cannot agree on what it means to be American. As we dismantle or disregard symbols and themes that previously united us, can we replace them with stories and rites that unite our tribes and maintain meaning in our American identity?

Against this backdrop, Our American Story features leading thinkers from across the political spectrum—Jim Banks, Pulitzer Prize–winner David W. Blight, Spencer P. Boyer, Eleanor Clift, John C. Danforth, Cody Delistraty, Richard A. Epstein, Nikolas Gvosdev, Cherie Harder, Jason Kuznicki, Gerard N. Magliocca, Markos Moulitsas, Ilya Somin, Cass R. Sunstein, Alan Taylor, James V. Wertsch, Gordon S. Wood, and Ali Wyne. Each draws on expertise within their respective fields of history, law, politics, and public policy to contribute a unique perspective about the American story. This collection explores whether a unifying story can be achieved and, if so, what that story could be.

Cardinal Who?

80140105274650LSome of our readers may know of this episode, but I have to confess I had never heard of it. During World War I, a cardinal in Belgium, Désiré Mercier, became the face of Belgian national resistance to the German occupation. Apparently, Mercier was quite famous at the time; his autobiography was a best-seller in the United States. I find this episode interesting for three reasons. First, one can hardly imagine Belgian nationalism nowadays; the country is beset by centrifugal tensions that threaten to tear it apart. Second, it is somewhat unusual today to think of a Catholic cardinal as principally a nationalist leader, though of course there are exceptions. Finally, and most intriguingly, how could this man, so important a figure on the world stage in his own time, be so completely forgotten only 100 years later?

A new book from Cornell University Press addresses Cardinal Mercier and his role during World War I: Cardinal Mercier in the First World War: Belgium, Germany and the Catholic ChurchThe author is KU-Leuven historian Jan De Volder. Here is the description from the publisher’s website:

Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier, Archbishop of Malines, was the incarnation of the Belgian resistance against the German occupation during the First World War. With his famous pastoral letter of Christmas 1914 ‘Patriotisme et Endurance’ he reached a wide audience, and gained international influence and respect.

Mercier’s distinct patriotic stance clearly determined his views of national politics, especially of the ‘Flemish question’, and his conflict with the German occupier made him a hero of the Allies. The Germans did not always know how to handle this influential man of the Church. Pope Benedict XV did not always approve of the course of action adopted by the Belgian prelate. Whereas Mercier justified the war effort as a just cause in view of the restoration of Belgium’s independence, the Pope feared that “this useless massacre” meant nothing but the “suicide of civilized Europe”.

Through a critical analysis of the policies of Cardinal Mercier and Pope Benedict XV, this book sheds revealing light on the contrasting positions of Church leaders in the face of the Great War.

A New Translation of Renan on Nationalism

9780231174305Ernest Renan was a crank, with unsavory racial attitudes and crackpot ideas about Judaism and Christianity. As a theorist of nationalism, however, he has been quite influential, the way cranks often are. His definition of a nation as a group of people who wish to live together, united by a common history and shared interests rather than ethnicity or religion, is at the heart of liberal theories of nationalism. We close this week’s book posts with a new translation from Columbia University Press of Renan’s seminal work on nationalism, as well as other writings: What is a Nation? and Other Political WritingsThe translator is M. F. N. Giglioli (University of Bologna). Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Ernest Renan was one of the leading lights of the Parisian intellectual scene in the second half of the nineteenth century. A philologist, historian, and biblical scholar, he was a prominent voice of French liberalism and secularism. Today most familiar in the English-speaking world for his 1882 lecture “What Is a Nation?” and its definition of a nation as an “everyday plebiscite,” Renan was a major figure in the debates surrounding the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune, and the birth of the Third Republic and had a profound influence on thinkers across the political spectrum who grappled with the problem of authority and social organization in the new world wrought by the forces of modernization.

What Is a Nation? and Other Political Writings is the first English-language anthology of Renan’s political thought. Offering a broad selection of Renan’s writings from several periods of his public life, most previously untranslated, it restores Renan to his place as one of France’s major liberal thinkers and gives vital critical context to his views on nationalism. The anthology illuminates the characteristics that distinguished nineteenth-century French liberalism from its English and American counterparts as well as the more controversial parts of Renan’s legacy, including his analysis of colonial expansion, his views on Islam and Judaism, and the role of race in his thought. The volume contains a critical introduction to Renan’s life and work as well as detailed annotations that assist in recovering the wealth and complexity of his thought.

Orgad, “The Cultural Defense of Nations”

9780198806912Nationalism is currently resurging in the West. Nationalism explains the Brexit vote in 2016, the rise of anti-European political parties in Europe, and the Trump phenomenon in the US. For the most part, the academy refuses to treat nationalism as at all legitimate, assuming that it is simply a mask for much darker, illiberal forces — which it sometimes is, of course. A new book from Oxford University Press, The Cultural Defense of Nations: A Liberal Theory of Majority Rights, by Liav Orgad (WZB Berlin Social Science Center), takes nationalism seriously and offers a defense of it from within the liberal tradition. Looks interesting. Here’s the description from the Oxford website:

Never in human history has so much attention been paid to human movement. Global migration yields demographic shifts of historical significance, profoundly shaking up world politics as has been seen in the refugee crisis, the Brexit referendum, and the 2016 US election.

The Cultural Defense of Nations addresses one of the greatest challenges facing liberalism today: is a liberal state justified in restricting immigration and access to citizenship in order to protect its majority culture? Liberal theorists and human rights advocates recognize the rights of minorities to maintain their unique cultural identity, but assume that majorities have neither a need for similar rights nor a moral ground for defending them. The majority culture, so the argument goes, “can take care of itself.” However, with more than 250 million immigrants worldwide, majority groups increasingly seek to protect what they consider to be their national identity. In recent years, liberal democracies have introduced proactive immigration and citizenship policies that are designed to defend the majority culture.

This book shifts the focus from the prevailing discussion of cultural minority rights, for the first time directly addressing the cultural rights of majorities and, for the first time, addressed the cultural rights of majorities. It proposes a new approach by which liberal democracies can welcome immigrants without fundamentally changing their cultural heritage, forsaking their liberal traditions, or slipping into extreme nationalism.

Disregarding the topic of cultural majority rights is not only theoretically wrong, but also politically unwise. With forms of “majority nationalism” rising and the growing popularity of extreme right-wing parties in the West, the time has come to liberally address contemporary challenges.

Mirkova, “Muslim Land, Christian Labor”

In June, Central European University Press will release Muslim Land, Christian Labor: Transforming Ottoman Imperial Subjects into Bulgarian National Citizens c. 1878-1939 by Anna M. Mirkova (Old Dominion University). The publisher’s description follows:

Muslim LandFocusing upon a region in Southern Bulgaria, a region that has been the crossroads between Europe and Asia for many centuries, this book describes how former Ottoman Empire Muslims were transformed into citizens of Balkan nation-states. This is a region marked by shifting borders, competing Turkish and Bulgarian sovereignties, rival nationalisms, and migration. Problems such as these were ultimately responsible for the disintegration of the dynastic empires into nation-states.

Land that had traditionally belonged to Muslims—individually or communally—became a symbolic and material resource for Bulgarian state building and was the terrain upon which rival Bulgarian and Turkish nationalisms developed in the wake of the dissolution of the late Ottoman Empire and the birth of early republican Turkey and the introduction of capitalism.

By the outbreak of World War II, Turkish Muslims had become a polarized national minority. Their conflicting efforts to adapt to post-Ottoman Bulgaria brought attention to the increasingly limited availability of citizenship rights, not only to Turkish Muslims, but to Bulgarian Christians as well.

“Muslims Against the Muslim League” (Qasmi & Robb, eds.)

Next month, Cambridge University Press will release Muslims Against the Muslim League: Critiques of the Idea of Pakistan edited by Ali Usman Qasmi (Lahore University) and Megan Eaton Robb (Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies). The publisher’s description follows:

cup-colour-logo2The popularity of the Muslim League and its idea of Pakistan has been measured in terms of its success in achieving the goal of a sovereign state in the Muslim majority regions of North West and North East India. It led to an oversight of Muslim leaders and organizations which were opposed to this demand, predicating their opposition to the League on its understanding of the history and ideological content of the Muslim nation. This volume takes stock of multiple narratives about Muslim identity formation in the context of debates about partition, historicises those narratives, and reads them in the light of the larger political milieu of the period. Focusing on the critiques of the Muslim League, its concept of the Muslim nation, and the political settlement demanded on its behalf, it studies how the movement of Pakistan inspired a contentious, influential conversation on the definition of the Muslim nation.

The Revival of Nationalism in 2016

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At the Library of Law and Liberty site this morning, I have a post on the elections of 2016. Across the West this year, the unthinkable has occurred again and again: Brexit; the election of Donald Trump; the popularity of the National Front in France and Euroskeptic parties like Lega Nord and the Five Star Movement in Italy. What explains these developments?

Although traditional conservatism, including religious conservatism, has had a role, I argue that the most important factor has been the revival of nationalism across the West:

In short, although traditional conservatism has been on the winning side in recent political contests, it has been a junior partner in a larger project: the revival of nationalism. Nationalism is a complicated phenomenon that takes different forms. A good working definition is the following: a political program that unites a people with a common ancestry or culture together with a sovereign state. Nationalism rejects attempts to subordinate the state to outside governance. Often, it seeks to protect local traditions from being diluted by an aggressive global culture. In its present iteration, it sets the nation-state against supranational, liberal regimes like the EU or NAFTA, and local customs and traditions, including religious traditions, against alien, outside trends….

One can easily perceive nationalism’s role in the politics of 2016. Repeatedly, the side advocating a recovery of sovereignty from supranational bodies and a limit on immigration prevailed. In the Brexit campaign, the “Leave” supporters argued that Britain must take back control from EU bureaucrats and assert authority over its borders. Here, Trump famously called for withdrawal from the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty and for renegotiation of other free-trade agreements, including NAFTA; for a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants; and for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.

In France, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen has proudly declared that “the time of the nation state is back” and calls for restrictions on immigration and an end to multiculturalism. She maintains that the EU should be reconceived as a loose collection of sovereign states and that France should withdraw from the common currency. The ideology of Italy’s Euroskeptics is more fluid; nationalism is weaker in Italy, too. But important elements within Lega Nord and the Five Star Movement express skepticism about the EU and seek to withdraw from the euro, and also disfavor allowing large numbers of immigrants into the country.

The rise of nationalism upsets the conventional wisdom, which for some time has been predicting its demise. But, in times of crisis, people return to the nation state. I explain more here.

Liow, “Religion and Nationalism in Southeast Asia”

This month, the Cambridge University Press releases “Religion and Nationalism in Southeast Asia,” by Joseph Liow (Nanyang Technological University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Religion and nationalism are two of the most potent and enduring forces that have shaped the modern world. Yet, there has been little systematic study of how these two9781107167728 forces have interacted to provide powerful impetus for mobilization in Southeast Asia, a region where religious identities are as strong as nationalist impulses. At the heart of many religious conflicts in Southeast Asia lies competing conceptions of nation and nationhood, identity and belonging, and loyalty and legitimacy. In this accessible and timely study, Joseph Liow examines the ways in which religious identity nourishes collective consciousness of a people who see themselves as a nation, perhaps even as a constituent part of a nation, but anchored in shared faith. Drawing on case studies from across the region, Liow argues that this serves both as a vital element of identity and a means through which issues of rights and legitimacy are understood.

Pelham, “Holy Lands”

This month, Columbia Global Reports released “Holy Lands: Reviving Pluralism in the Middle East,” by Nicholas Pelham. The publisher’s description follows:

How did the world’s most tolerant region become the least harmonious place on the planet?

The headlines from the Middle East these days are bad, characterized by violence, 51ykklyeumlterror, and autocracy. Whatever hopes people may have for the region are being dashed over and over, in country after country. Nicolas Pelham, the veteran Middle East correspondent for The Economist, has witnessed much of the tragedy, but in Holy Lands he presents a strikingly original and startlingly optimistic argument.

The Middle East was notably more tolerant than Western Europe during the nineteenth century because the Ottoman Empire permitted a high degree of religious pluralism and self-determination within its vast borders. European powers broke up the empire and tried to turn it into a collection of secular nation-states—a spectacular failure. Rulers turned religion into a force for nationalism, and the result has been ever increasing sectarian violence. The only solution, Pelham argues, is to accept the Middle East for the deeply religious region it is, and try to revive its venerable tradition of pluralism.

Holy Lands is a work of vivid reportage—from Turkey and Iraq, Israel and Palestine, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, Dubai and Jordan—that is animated by a big idea. It makes a region that is all too familiar from news reports feel fresh.

To hear more about this book from the author himself, click here to listen to a podcast from The Economist Radio.

Chalcraft, “Popular Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East”

In March, Cambridge University Press released “Popular Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East,” by John Chalcraft (London School of Economics). The publisher’s description follows:

The waves of protest ignited by the self-immolation of Muhammad Bouazizi in Tunisia in late 2010 highlighted for an international audience the importance of contentious 9781107007505politics in the Middle East and North Africa. John Chalcraft’s ground-breaking account of popular protest emphasizes the revolutionary modern history of the entire region. Challenging top-down views of Middle Eastern politics, he looks at how commoners, subjects and citizens have long mobilised in defiance of authorities. Chalcraft takes examples from a wide variety of protest movements from Morocco to Iran. He forges a new narrative of change over time, creating a truly comparative framework rooted in the dynamics of hegemonic contestation. Beginning with movements under the Ottomans, which challenged corruption and oppression under the banners of religion, justice, rights and custom, this book goes on to discuss the impact of constitutional movements, armed struggles, nationalism and independence, revolution and Islamism. A work of unprecedented range and depth, this volume will be welcomed by undergraduates and graduates studying protest in the region and beyond.

  • Surveys protest movements from Morocco to Iran, from the eighteenth century to the present
  • Based on an original conceptual framework that challenges both socioeconomic determinism and power-lite theories of contentious politics
  • Challenges top-down views of politics in the modern Middle East, giving a narrative of overall transformation that includes popular politics
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