Nationalism, freedom and populism

Русская версия здесь

A few days ago, I proposed a little experiment to two young women, one from Poland and the other one from Belarus: one should speak in Polish, her native language, and the other one in Belarusian, and we would see if they could understand each other. The two women had a very basic conversation, but the experiment did not go so well: the young woman from Belarus, in fact, could speak very little Belarusian, like many other people from the country that today calls itself Belarus.

“We have had Russification” said the young woman from Belarus, trying to explain why she could not speak the supposed language of her motherland.
“Oh, that must have been such a terrible thing”, replied the woman from Poland, not hiding her compassion and indignation while shaking her head in disbelief, as if to say: “Oh, those terrible Russians again!”. It did not seem to matter much to the young Polish woman that in fact in the history of Belarus entering a period of “Russification”, at the beginning of the XIX century, meant having just escaped from many centuries of Polonization.

It is not that Polonization or Russification were violent processes of Stalinist cruelty where people were forced to speak Polish or Russian and persecuted for speaking Belarusian. In Belarus for many centuries the local elite consciously chose to polonize, renouncing the native Orthodox faith for Catholicism and adopting the Polish language. In most countries there is a centralized, formal, properly codified and considered as more prestigious form of language, beside a group of spoken variants that differ from this language in several degrees of closeness and complexity. After the dissolution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, of which Belarus was a part, in 1795, Russian became the language of bureaucracy, high culture and most of the education in Belarus (and, incidentally, until the Polish uprising of 1863 many educational institutions in Belarus remained in Polish). It is the same process everywhere: in this sense, France was “forcefully” Frenchified when millions of French people where taught French, Germany was “forcefully” Germanized in this way, Italians did not speak Italian until the unification of Italy in 1861 and Poland for that matter was “forcefully” Polonized too. In the absence of mass schooling, this meant that most people continued to speak their language for everyday purposes, while the written form of the language became increasingly more widely known and came to influence the way people spoke. There was nothing particularly unique about the terrifying Russification of Belarus.

For most people, the question of national identity does not pose particular problems, although certainly for some it is more complicated than for others: but ultimately we were all born in a specific place and are likely to have spent most years of our childhood and adolescence in a single country. The question people more rarely ask to themselves is: how did the English become English, the Dutch Dutch and the Macedonians Macedonians? Even people who generally think they know the answers to these questions often prove to have not thought about this problem long enough. Yes, probably life is too short to think about such things. History proceeds at a much slower pace than a Facebook news feed.

Most of us, in theory, are able to realize that nations as we know them today are not given as eternal entities since the beginning of time. However, for many, this is not the case: they mistake the map for the territory and looking at a map they assume that these borders as are drawn now represent some sort of eternal and just order of things, rather than the arbitrary result of historical accident. In this interpretation, Czech and Slovaks for example are clearly separated people, as they have always been since the beginning of time, and with the creation of the nation state, justice has been made and people have been given the home which they had deserved for centuries and was given to them by some eternal and universal authority, by God, one would have said in more metaphysical times. History, however, has proven that often nations come and go, the only thing determining a nation’s success over time being the caprices of destiny: what happened to the glorious nation of the Bretons for example? Will the Catalans one day ever be celebrating their longed-for home in the form of an independent state? (PS this was written well before the emergence of the Catalunia indepedence crisis in October 2017)

A few weeks ago, I had written a letter to the Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhi, arguing that his rather curious choice to use the word “Ukrainians” when referring to the people we know today as “Ukrainians” in times before they called themselves “Ukrainians” was, from the perspective of history as a science and not as myth, wrong. He replied that he had thought much about the historiographic questions I posited in the letter, but that ultimately “Ukrainians” were not parachuted in from the sky in today’s Ukraine. I was not satisfied with this reply. It is not that people became united and fought for independence because they shared some sort of mystical unity and spoke the same language: rather, people started speaking the same language because within a polity the language of bureaucracy and education spread to become the national language defining the nation’s identity.

We live in a global age, where national differences should have lost importance. This, however, does not seem to be always the case: when an Italian and a German or a Mexican and an Englishman meet, invariably speaking English, they will all be very conscious of their national identity. The global world has not leveled national differences but has made them more acute in many cases, because it is only when meeting real and not just imagined foreigners, who are foreign to us in many different ways, that we realize that there are certainly cultural differences which often can be attributed to a national character. It is not that a nation has a specific intrinsic character, but specific national cultures often tend to produce cultural specific characters: a particular sense of humour or a lack thereof, some particular gestures, some culinary habits or one’s attitude to marriage and religion. Even in the global world, where “everybody is equal” denying these differences is impossible. On the other hand it is extremely annoying to be identified, as it happens so often when a German meets an Italian or a French meets an American, just as an embodiment of stereotypical national characteristics. One is first and foremost a man and an unicum and individuum and just after that an Italian, a Jew or a Japanese. People should know these things. Many do not.

In 2017, it seems to be universally recognized, in the West in particular, nationalism is a bad thing. Why? Because the belief in the superiority of your nation, which seems to be one of the core ideas of the purest form of nationalism, has become incompatible with the coexistence of several nations next to each other in that small peninsula of Europe. Nationalism and the fomenting of national rivalries led to two world wars which certainly could, for the benefit and well-being of Europe itself, easily have been done without.

On the one hand, nationalism, in its watered down form, is omnipresent and it is impossible to deny it. Most people, even in the global world, are not even “nationalists”, because the idea of “nation” is a very abstract and large one, but “regionalists” or “citilists”: New Yorkers, or those who have come to call New York their home, think that the world ends in Newark, while Berliners, rejecting any form of nationalism, think that they are the coolest people on the planet and would respond to any hint of criticism: “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go away?”

Many young nations of Europe are certainly prouder of their national identity than the children of Britain, France or Germany. It certainly seems much easier to encounter patriotic Slovaks than proud Belgians or Brits. On the other hand it is strange to hear that same perfectly civil and ultraliberal young Europeans, who have long renounced national pride of any sort (at least in theory, because “national pride” resurfaces in every possible way in innumerable life situations), now are lamenting that for example the Ukrainian nation was endangered “because of the Russian occupation” , that Ukraine should be “Ukrainized”, and the Ukrainian language should be imposed on those who do not use it in everyday life, because one should speak only Ukrainian in Ukraine. If the same thing was proposed in their own European country they would be probably outraged and take it to the streets to protest the return of Fascism.

In the era of the European Union, when most national governments have become little more that a facade puppet show for the entertainment of the public, while the real strings of power are pulled in much quieter places, far from all the excesses and emotions of unpredictable national moods, the independence of nations should have ceased to keep its sacred character. This, however, seems to be the case in places like Ukraine or Belarus, two countries that became independent relatively recently and probably did not have so much time to psychologically elaborate their national identity. Local elites since the independence did not seem to have to offer the population much other than a folkloric version of patriotism, with a lot of songs, national traditional dresses and the omnipresent flag. Sure, national unity is fine and governments have all rights to promote it: this has been the case in every country in the world since time immemorial. But we should have not too many illusions about this mystical feeling of unity. The promotion and the propaganda of the love of the motherland and the joys of freedom and independence cannot be the sole reason of a national government to justify its existence. Otherwise this supposed patriotism becomes just another form of populism. Controversial characters like Stepan Bandera for example, the Ukrainian national hero, who in the second World War, after having been initially imprisoned by the Nazis, ended up cooperating with them, are still celebrated, their crimes forgotten because of their merits in the cause of “freedom”. Because he (symbolically) gave the nation freedom and independence, his name should be associated with glory.

Is this freedom really the highest value? It is a strange world where all these supposed friends of global humanity and of a united world celebrate their “freedom” from another people. When William Wallace was fighting against the English in Braveheart, he was defending the freedom of his small tribe. Freedom from what? Some Ukrainian friends of mine commented: “Maybe the Maidan revolution did not go down so well but we have gained our freedom and that is the most important thing”. Really? A nation is not a tribe. The unity of a nation is a much more abstract concept. There is an Italian proverb, joking on Italy’s own history of submission to many foreign powers, that goes: “Francia o Spagna, basta che se magna” (France or Spain, it does not matter as long as we have to eat). Many poetic effusions have been written on the love of the motherland and other similar noble feelings, but the unity of a nation is rarely the unity of a family. And in our age, where the family has lost any authority whatsoever, it may feel even more strange to be a patriotic citizen because “one has to love his country like one loves his family”. Nobody of course likes to be ordered by some people you do not belong to and who often look at you and your people as second rate human beings and despise you. But what guarantees that your own national elite will be better for your people than the one imposed by the “occupiers”? Elites everywhere have one thing in common: the will of self-preservation. They are not people like you and me and do not see themselves as people like you and me. They may pose as great patriots but often this patriotic card is nothing more than empty populist rhetoric.

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