I was recently party to a discussion about a code of conduct for an internet community, in which we found ourselves trying to delineate the difference between welcome and unwelcome forms of nationalism. The moderator found a better way to work around that, but the question got me thinking. I am generally anti-nationalist, but there are forms of nationalism that I do tend to sympathise with, and it’s worth trying to clarify why. To start making sense of implicit demarcations like this, I find it helpful to start with a list of opposites in my own feelings:
- English nationalism: evil and racist, gives us the EDL and its violence … Scottish nationalism: I found myself cheering on the pro-independence campaign in the 2014 referendum.
- Turkish nationalism: evil, racist and now heavily abused by an autocratic leader … Kurdish nationalism: right on, oppressed minority, get out from under that boot.
- Jewish desire for self-determination after the Holocaust: of course we wanted that, how could we feel safe without it? … Israel at 70: apartheid state responsible for horrible oppression.
The next step is to try to disentangle why I feel a particular way about one set versus the other. That last one is particularly useful because it forces me to think about what changed over 3-4 generations. I think it’s the simple fact that Israel is now a nation state, invested in keeping itself as a state for one nation. If Scotland or Kurdistan were to win independence, from that moment on I would immediately be suspicious of ongoing Scottish or Kurdish nationalist organising. And the only way I would continue to support those states is if they conspicuously abstained from the activities—ranging from discriminatory immigration policies to outright ethnic cleansing—necessary to maintain the specifically Scottish or Kurdish character of that state.
In other words, the nationalisms that I find myself sympathising with are exclusively the ones that don’t have a nation state to defend. The nation state itself is the problem. But if so, then what am I cheering on in one half of each example?
I think it’s a call for safety and true equality. Would Scottish nationalism hold the same appeal if Scots didn’t feel that the government in London had consistently short-changed Scotland? Would separatism have broad support among Turkey’s Kurdish minority if the country hadn’t consistently tried to stamp out Kurdish culture and disregarded the needs of the Kurdish-majority provinces in its development? Would the majority of Jews have become Zionists—don’t forget that Zionism was highly contentious among Diaspora Jews before the Holocaust—if a large assimilated population in Europe hadn’t suddenly found itself under mortal threat?
In each of these cases, creating a new nation state has looked like the solution for people suffering under the yoke of nation states that aren’t their own. But Israel’s experience shows that creating a nation state inherently, inevitably means oppressing other nations. If there were any terra nullius left on Earth then perhaps we could resolve this by settling it, but there already wasn’t when the Europeans went out colonising everywhere, and in any case we’d still be left with the evils required to maintain the ethnic character of a state. We need to move away from this model which can only work by erasing the “other”.
Going back to the underlying cause, as much as people can be romantically drawn to the idea of a land that is “ours”, the true needs are safety and equality. So here is my radical idea: what if we provided those to everyone, regardless of nation? And what if everyone had a fierce attachment to the place they are from, without corrupting it by invoking states? Of course a cultural shift on this scale is a large undertaking, but I have as yet to see any alternative that is neither unjust nor impossible.