‘National identity is made up.” Thus saith the explainer journalist. But what exactly is explained by this gnomic pronouncement? The New York Times says that its new column “The Interpreter,” whose authors recently produced a four-minute video defending this thesis, “explores the ideas behind major world events. They use political and social science to explain topics from authoritarianism to arms control.”
“Use” is an apt verb. From the evidence at hand, I can see that political and social science were deployed for a purpose. A thief uses tools for his purposes too. And it could be said that a propagandist also explores ideas.
After a brief introduction, the New York Times narrator comes to his point. “If you think about it, nationality is weird. The idea that you identify with millions of strangers just based on borders. That’s because national identity is made up” (emphasis mine).
He goes on to explain: “National identity is the myth that built the modern world, but it also primes us for dictatorship, racism, genocide.” Those last three words are accompanied by pictures of North Korea, the tiki-torch rally at Charlottesville, and a rally in Nazi Germany. The narrator continues: “Today we’re fighting over whether to keep that kind of national identity. To understand why, you have to know how new this idea is.”
It’s hard to overstate how much the video comes across as very crude, if very twee, propaganda. We’re having a fight, it says. And the people on one side of that fight derive their identity, at least partially, through borders. Which, yes, sounds really dumb. Also, these border-based identities make you ready to become a Nazi or turn half the Korean peninsula into a prison-camp for Juche.
So, now that you’re primed to believe national identity is dumb and evil, what is the argument that it is just made up? Our narrator points to France and says that even as late as the French Revolution, nearly half the people in French territory didn’t speak French. You have Breton, and Occitan, and a few others. “Just a patchwork that didn’t line up with borders,” he says, “We know from modern genetics that ethnicity didn’t line up with borders either.” You may have noticed that he’s leaning heavily on borders.
Then he shifts, without telling you so, to talking about nationalism as a modern ideological project. And it turns out the rest of the argument is an extremely bastardized version of what you might get from political thinkers like Benedict Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm, or Elie Kedourie. Newspapers, railroads, and the demands of war in an age of declining religious belief all play a role in that story.
I pause to note here that we’re glossing over quite a bit. Nationalism as a political movement was also what made democracy possible; it helped to overthrow ancient monarchies that routinely bequeathed nations with foreign rulers who just happened to inherit the chair. Further, national identity helped to create the social trust necessary to institute massive social-welfare systems. We might also note that while the Nazis made use of national loyalty, so too did the Poles, the French, the British, and the Americans who resisted and defeated the Nazi regime. And they could not have defeated the Nazis without that loyalty.
Nationalism as a political movement was also what made democracy possible; it helped to overthrow ancient monarchies that routinely bequeathed nations with foreign rulers.
Next our narrator turns to what national identity “does to our brains.” (Sounds sinister, doesn’t it?) We get a study of people who watched Rocky IV, the Cold War–themed Rocky. The social-science study said that people who identified as Americans saw a lift in self-esteem watching Rocky win. When the film was recut to show him losing, they were more susceptible to negative feelings about the Soviet Union.
Pretty soon we’re jump-cutting to Nigel Farage and Donald Trump. “The national myth is powerful. It isn’t real. But that doesn’t matter. We’ve been taught for so long that this is who we are. Building a world based on shared values really means creating a new myth. But that only works if it feels as powerful as the last one.” (Emphasis mine)
Where to even begin? Well, here’s one way. Explainer journalism reflects the flaws of the Millennial generation that practices it. It combines precociousness with a fundamental intellectual laziness. It takes academic jargon in hand and whirls it around like a magic wand. Don’t like a concept? All you have to do is call it “contested” or “socially constructed” and it disappears.
What the authors of “The Interpreter” have done is discovered that the concept of national identity cannot be reduced down to simple mathematical relationships. Because national identity assumes into itself facts that derive from social interaction and history, the explainer concludes that it is a myth. It isn’t real. It’s just made up. Of course, lots of things that you can study have these properties: languages are “made up” in this way. They change over time. Their uses vary in history and social context. English shows evidence of assimilating Latin, French, and Greek vocabulary over its life. It is conditioned by history. But it would be stupid to say that English is somehow unreal. N’est-ce pas?
The “Interpreter” authors have lots of other tricks. They completely elide the difference between national identity and modern nationalism as a political movement, giving both the late birthdate of the latter. Nationality is an ancient concept, going back to antiquity. It is a major theme throughout the Biblical narrative.
The jargon and the slick graphics have to be deployed, because if you actually reduced their explainer down to the core elements, it would be laughed out of the room. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I know you think England is a real thing. And Englishness, too. But I’m here to inform you that people in Cornwall were speaking Cornish well into the reign of Queen Victoria! Your so-called England is a hoax!”
The video also constantly invokes borders, for a reason: To make nationality sound silly. It indeed would be dumb to base your identity “just based on borders,” but in fact the relationship is the other way around. The identity is based on a shared homeland, or territory, along with shared law. National loyalty makes possible the kind of self-sacrifice that is necessary for living in peace with strangers. And in fact, the notable thing about national loyalty isn’t the times when, aggravated, it motivates us in war. War was very common before modern nationalism. Much more notable is the everyday peace and neighborliness that national loyalty fosters between people who may not share a tribe or a religious creed. Without nationality, we may still be trying to settle the wars of religion. With it, we were able to contribute to common treasuries whereby we provide for one other regardless of our ethnic background and religion. The border is just what you draw around this home.
The Times chooses Rocky IV to belittle its subject as well. It is a silly movie, which deploys the idea of national conflict in a heavy-handed way. But its effect “on our brains” is not in itself insidious, but commonplace and even comforting. National legends and patriotic songs exist to bind our emotions and our imaginations, to our national homes and to the people that share them. Sometimes, yes, they inspire a hatred of those who might work to destroy them. The most obvious alternative to binding our emotions to our national homes isn’t some higher peace. It’s something baser, as we’ll see.
The video is right on one thing. We are in a fight, one that seems to pit liberal elites against democratic peoples. The video ends with a hint of “building a world of shared values” if only we could get over our nationalist brainwashing. Progressives often feel that by cutting those national loyalties, they are opening themselves up to the service of all humanity, to the establishment of liberal principles and fellow-feeling on a universal scale. But the effect of dissolving nationality is not what they anticipate. And usually, I think it’s not what they intend.
One would imagine that the level of sacrifice that a universal human community would demand of elites would be greater than the one called upon by national loyalty. But it never is. Instead the dissolution of national loyalties liberates the elite from any practical moral and political restraint on their self-seeking, and confiscates from the poor and the weak the benefits that national loyalties confer on them.
The post-nationalist political structures are anti-democratic for this very reason; the point is to get rid of accountability from below. The anti-nationalist says that he wants fellow-feeling with all men, but his aim is to leave his countrymen in the ditch and to do so in good conscience. The posited freedom to serve any man comes by dissolving his duty to his neighbors. His tragedy is that once he succeeds in deconstructing national loyalties, he will find that loyalties based on blood or creed come roaring back.
Videos like this New York Times explainer are the anti-nationalist’s Rocky IV. They crudely stimulate fellow-feeling in a common enterprise — in this case, robbery. Your national identity gets lifted first, then the effectiveness of your vote, then your wallet. It’s a confidence trick.