We’re different (and better)

I want to look at the phenomenon of nationalism. I think it's as important as talking about culture, since national identity is among the broader categories people tend to identify themselves with in today's world.

Let's take an example. An American family conforms to certain “ideas” of what it means to be American. More specifically, what it means to be, say, patriotic during a time of heightened terrorism and foreign threat. In short, in post 9/11 world.

Of course, it's not enough to simply say, “I'm proud to be an American,” or “united we stand,” although, linguistically that's all that seems to be going on, since these are just some utterances which embody other practices, beliefs and discourses.

These sentiments come in a larger package, for example, justifying one's suspicions towards Middle-Easterners, praising racial profiling, believing in the causes of going to war with a “threatening” country, preventing our children from mixing with certain crowds, desensitizing ourselves to violence unleashed on people perceived as a threat to national security. 

It seems national identity, is more than just a personal or collective expression of identity politics. In fact, nationalism makes all the more sense when millions are sharing in an ideal; it gives my estranged sense of being a feeling of community, protection, direction and purpose. 

In America however, nationalism has become a plural phenomenon. Iranians, Hindus, Chinese, Mexican, Irish… all by and large promote their own national colors, foods, customs, national history in some way.

Interestingly, many immigrants, new and old, practice a dual nationalism — I promote myself as an Iranian (as different) and yet I appreciate my civil liberties as an American (as same). In other words, nationalism as a phenomenon has become a complex process of assimilation into the present and preservation of the past here in the U.S. for many immigrants.

In a country where nationalism is among the strongest social bonds for a collective subjectivity, other nationalist discourses can enter the scene with little friction. What this points to, I believe, is the more general social process of nationalism as an ideology, as a way of understanding oneself, the other and the world.

I don't mean to suggest that there is no friction, but it's “kaj daar o mariz” a balancing act! Nationalists say, “We're different that you!” but how often does this translate into “We're better too!”

At a recent Iranian New Year's parade in New York City, I got a taste of nationalism — pre-Islamic flags, signs proclaiming “3,000 Years of History,”  colorful dances by different subcultures in Iran. Nationalism was both present and transcended at the event. [See: Persian pride]

Firstly, nationalist sentiment operates indirectly, underhandedly: no one says “I hate you…” they just say “such and such people are uneducated, uncivilized, poor, etc.” By undermining the humanity of the Other, you methodically raise yourself to the standard of what it means to be human.

Suggesting “3,000 years of history” seems innocent enough, but it only begins to make real sense, to be impacting when considered within the broader discourse a nationalist operates within; 3,000 and not 250 years = Iranians are a people of a long history = more development = smarter = stronger.

The causal chain of feelings and representations within the discourse is often formed on the basis of an emotion that one is qualitatively better than the Other.  Language and symbolism form the weapon, shield, and retreat for these background operations. In the U.S., the background operation is more complex, as I mentioned above, yet the weapons are the same, just a tweek here… a tweek there. 

Dual nationalists of all backgrounds are a recent phenomenon, yet they consummate the structural core of nationalist ideologies all the same.  They swing from left to right, but the rope which supports them is the nature of nationalism itself — an ideological framework which divides humanity first into tribes, nations, religions, ethnicities, creeds — in a battle to confirm humanness as superiority. Instead we should begin talking to each other as humans, and peacefully confirm our differences as humans too.

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