I think a lot about nationalism. I’ve always considered myself a nationalist, which is a funny place to be for a professional historian, really.* Historians frequently complain about nationalism, critique it, poke at it, tell undergraduates (and graduate students for that matter) that it’s a purely social construction, that there is nothing innately “true” about any nationalist myth, story or narrative of any type. We write articles and books that complain about it, that point out its limitations, and that seek to further discussions on the ways in which specific nationalist ideals are pressed by one community on to another. That last example is one that is particularly vexing to some, and understandably so. There’s only so many discussions on how one people were [insert national group]-ized by another, and this is coming from someone who wrote a dissertation dealing with the concept.**
It’s not really a dead subject, though. I’m not sure I believe in dead subjects. It’s really rather remarkable how many times I’ve had conversations with a historian where s/he talks about a subject being done to death or that there isn’t much left to do. There’s always something to do, even if it’s not much more than complain about the historiography or whine about each other’s methodologies. I say not much more. Maybe you can’t reinvent historical interpretations of Ancient Greece but as long as people are talking about it there’ll be new approaches to take.
But anyway. That’s a whole conversation going in a different direction. Back to my issue with nationalism. I see myself as a nationalist, and it’s a bit of a problem. It feels a little bit like a confession of inadequacy, that I am committed to acting irrationally and ignoring intellectual arguments. Nationalism is such a dirty word for some intellectuals that it feels like I’m participating in some kind of proscribed activity by being proud of my birthplace, or cheering on a sports team, or (more pertinently) having strong opinions about the relationship between my country and a certain neighbouring country.
In a sense, I am, though I cheat horribly and often. For one thing, I’m not completely irrational in my national pride. Making a comparison with an evolutionary biologist that believes in a supreme being is a little silly here, but I keep coming back to the idea. Essentially, just because you identify with one mode of thinking doesn’t automatically make you representative of the extreme forms of that particular view. So, I can be a nationalist without necessarily subscribing to more extreme nationalist views. Beyond that, I can accept the fact that nationalism is essentially an artificial ideological concept while still celebrating in the products of nationalism that are in theory built on the assumption that national identity is immutable, unique and specifically original.
I can’t get past the psychological aspects of the appeal of nationalism. This is something that increasingly attracts my interest. Historians talk a lot about inter-disciplinary study, but we’re mostly talking rubbish or talking up work we’re hoping to publish. In reality, we tend to be remarkably locked in to our own fields, with the only exceptions being the same post-linguistic turn thinkers that turn up again. And again. And again. Foucault and Derrida, I’m looking at you. Yes, both of you. We don’t do much in the realm of analyzing the dynamics of how ideology works on the individual level. Ideological manipulation can be analyzed and discussed in a relatively straightforward manner. The decision to participate in an ideology on the individual level is difficult to include in historical work. Finding the sources, for one thing, is impractical at best. Beyond that, well… it’s just a difficult thing to incorporate into historical methodologies that make sense.
We’ll get there. Of that I am sure. Between now and then I am happy to participate in such an ideological dynamic on a personal level. It doesn’t stop me from analyzing the same process intellectually. It’s all about being open to changing your mind of course. Perhaps I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.
* It’s weird to think of myself as a professional historian. Not much has changed from graduate school, except that I get paid. So… I’m professional, I suppose.
** I actually argue that the –izing isn’t happening, at least not in the way previously asserted in the literature. For that matter, it’s not even a central component of my argument, more an aspect of the existing literature with which I disagree. I don’t get off easy though: I’m still discussing the basic historical mechanic.