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January 11, 2016

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History in the West shows modern nationalism goes hand-in-hand with flawed notions of race


Anyone who has studied the history of “the West” in the last couple of centuries knows how central the issue of nationalism has been to domestic and international turmoil.

Professor Benedict Anderson’s book, Imagined Communities, was originally published in 1983. I do not believe the intervening years have in any way provided evidence to weaken — let alone invalidate — professor Anderson’s analysis of the origins and development of nationalistic sentiments.

He reminds us that the entire concept of nationalism is, in fact, a relatively recent phenomenon of the last few centuries. For most of recorded history, in fact, people did not regard themselves as members of nations or national groupings but, rather, understood themselves as part of families, tribes, communities or regions. This is still true in many parts of the world.

Anderson explains that the emergence of national sentiment, the bedrock of nationalism, was tied to the evolution of the printing press and the preference for the vernacular over “official” (sacred or governmental) language.

Artificial labelling

As the use of vernacular languages became more common in written texts, this had the unanticipated effect of creating a sense of “Frenchness” or “Germanness” even among peoples who knew relatively few people — if any — outside their local village. Once this began to happen, it is amazing how quickly some “national characteristics” began to be applied to national groupings; favorable ones for those doing the labeling, with less attractive ones being applied to out-group nationalities.

One of the greatest contributions of professor Anderson’s work for me was the realization of how artificial so much of this is. Although he does not dwell on it much, I also had a “bingo” moment when I realized the parallels between nationalism and racism. For both of these rely upon fixing identifiable characteristics upon entire groupings of peoples, as if all Americans, Chinese, Germans — or, for that matter, Caucasians, blacks, etc — possess common characteristics.

In a course from the Teaching Company that I recently finished on biological anthropology, the instructor — Professor Barbara King from William and Mary College in Virginia — spent some time explaining why scientists in her field regard race as a concept that is used for historical purposes but that does not have a basis in biology. “Race” is applied to relatively surface features of human beings, but can easily also encompass cultural factors common to some regions of the world. Dr. King stressed how both the concept and use of race evolved from those who were, in fact, motivated by racism.

Distorted Darwinism

In the latter part of the 19th century, specifically, a distorted application of Darwin’s theory of evolution — known as Social Darwinism — began to be used to “explain” differences not only among individuals but, much more damagingly, between races.

Not surprisingly, the proponents of Social Darwinism — stemming largely from white, northern Europe — “discovered” that the “white race” was the group that demonstrated the highest level (and potential for) human development, while all the “colored races” — to varying degrees — fell short. This then became both an explanation and justification for the aggressive colonialism so much in vogue during that same period.

I just note that this work gives further saddening evidence of our seemingly very human tendency to want to group people into “us” and “them” categories. I understand where this comes from — after all, our species has been around for well over one hundred thousand years; and our hominid, DNA- sharing line for much, much longer — and for most of the vast period we were a tribal people where it could be a matter of life and death if one mistook one of “them” for one of “us.”

Unfortunately, our ability to manipulate scientific discoveries to give us ever more fatal weapons has far outpaced our social evolution. Can we recognize — in time — that we are all truly in this together? For our children’s sake, I hope so!

The author is a retired statesman from Iowa, US. Shanghai Daily condensed the article.


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