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Home > Nations & Nationalism  - What is a Nation? > On Civic Nationalism & Ethno Nationalism > The myth of civic nationalism - Bernard Yack


The myth of civic nationalism

Bernard Yack
National Post July 1, 2000

The idea that there are two forms of nationalism, a good 'civic' kind and a bad 'ethnic' kind, is increasingly accepted by political commentators and policy makers, who see countries such as Canada and the United States as embodying a voluntary form of belonging, and condemn Serbs and Kosovars as tribalists. But the idea of a civic nation is really just wishful thinking that allows Western democracies to flatter themselves.

Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian writer, is a leading proponent of the increasingly popular notion of "civic nationalism." He defines a civic nation as "a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values." Civic nationalism, Ignatieff argues, turns "national belonging into a form of rational attachment," a choice rather than a legacy that we receive from our ancestors. Ethnic nationalism, in contrast, insists "that an individual's deepest attachments are inherited, not chosen" and that "it is the national community that defines the individual, not the individuals who define the national community."

According to Hans Kohn, the great post-war historian of nationalism, civic nations like France, the United States, and Canada, "look to the future" and celebrate "a rational and universal conception of liberty." Ethnic nations, like Serbia, Germany or Japan, look instead to "history, monuments and graveyards" and celebrate a kind of "tribal solidarity."

Ignatieff and Kohn are part of a larger wave of contemporary writers who devote time and energy to debunking chauvinist myths that exaggerate the virtues and antiquity of nations. And with good reason. For these myths -- about Serbian martyrdom or the ancient German volk, for example -- not only distort the historical record. They inflame the passions that ignite ethnic conflicts. No wonder then that political theorists keep reminding us that nations are "imagined communities" or "constructed" or "invented," rather than simply handed down to us by our ancestors.

But in debunking one set of myths, Ignatieff, Kohn and the rest have inadvertently breathed new life into another: myths that exaggerate our independence from the contingencies of birth and cultural heritage.

One of these myths is the myth of civic nationalism, and it is increasingly taken for granted by international commentators and policy-makers. It suggests that in western democracies, freely chosen principles have replaced cultural heritage as the basis of political solidarity.

The way to preserve freedom and rationality in modern life is to persuade -- or force -- people to switch from ethnic to civic nationalism. If only, so the argument goes, we could persuade Serbians -- or Kosovars, or even the QuÈbÈcois -- to replace their visions of ethnic or cultural unity with our vision of civic solidarity, then nationalism need no longer promote ethnic violence and intolerance.

Attractive as this remedy may sound, it is a little too good to be true. When the rational, voluntary, and good way of doing things just happens to be ours, and the emotive, inherited, and bad way of doing things just happens to be theirs, it's time for critical self-examination. Designed to protect us from the dangers of ethnocentric politics, the celebration of civic nationalism is ethnocentric itself, a comforting illusion that combines self-congratulation with wishful thinking.

There are three major problems with the portrait of liberal democracies as purely civic communities. First of all, it gets the history wrong. So-called civic nations like France, Canada, and the United States may have become relatively open societies that offer citizenship rights to all peoples, but they did not start out that way. In each case, they began with restricted core communities -- be they white or Catholic or British or European -- and expanded outward. As a result, when we urge nationalists, say in Bosnia or Kosovo, to follow our example and found nations solely on the basis of shared political principles, we are in fact urging them to do something that we never did ourselves.

Second, and more important, the celebration of civic nationalism misrepresents liberal democratic communities as they are now, not just as they were in the bad old days of the past. For the supposedly "civic" Canadian identity is no less inherited than the supposedly "ethnic" QuÈbÈcois identity. Being Canadian comes with all kinds of hand-me-down cultural baggage: the connection to Great Britain and British political culture, the history of tension and co-operation between Francophones and Anglophones, the ambivalent relationship to Canada's overwhelmingly powerful neighbour to the south, and so on. The same is true for the United States and France. However much they may have come to stand for abstract political principles, each national identity comes loaded with inherited cultural baggage derived from their peculiar histories.

Finally, even if the description were accurate, I have my doubts about whether a purely civic nation would provide the ideal environment for social diversity and individual rights. Indeed, I suspect that it is only because so few of us really take the idea of a community of shared principle seriously that we think of it as an antidote to political exclusion and intolerance. For even a brief look at history teaches us that collective righteousness can inspire just as much violence and intolerance as mindless ethnocentrism.

The Jacobins, for example, imposed their reign of terror during the French Revolution in the name of civic principles rather than ethnic solidarity. And the "House Un-American Activities Committee" searched for hidden subversion rather than illegal immigrants during the McCarthyite witch hunts of the 1950s. Focussing on political principles as the basis of collective allegiance can, it seems, make us more, not less, suspicious of each other.

It is easy to see why this might happen. If the sole reason we trust each other is our commitment to certain political principles, then we will probably be much more concerned than we are now to discover whether our neighbours' commitments are genuine or not. And since there is no way that we can definitively refute challenges to our sincerity, increased inspection of each other's political commitments is bound to lead to increased distrust. That is one reason why revolutions so often collapse in mutual suspicion and accusations of treason. Revolutionaries demand strong and principled commitments from each other, the sincerity of which they quickly begin to question.

The myth of civic nationalism thus exaggerates the value as well as the extent of the form of community that it recommends. Western liberal democracies such as France, Canada, and the United States have not turned "national belonging into a form of rational attachment." And even if they had done so, that would not necessarily make them more tolerant and comfortable places in which to live.

Defenders of this myth often cite 19th-century French historian Ernest Renan's famous description of the nation as "a daily plebiscite," a phrase that suggests that consent is indeed the source of national identity. But they rarely note that this phrase represents only one half of Renan's own definition of the nation. "Two things," Renan insists, constitute the nation:

"One lies in the past, the other in the present. One is the possession of in common of a rich legacy of memories, the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form."

So contemporary writers are right to remind us that national communities are imagined, invented or constructed. But national communities are imagined, invented or constructed by people trying to sort out the variety of overlapping and often inconsistent ways in which they find themselves connected to each other, not by disconnected or purely independent individuals.

And prominent among these connections are the intergenerational loyalties introduced by the contingencies of birth.

We need therefore to be wary, when unmasking conservative myths about the natural division of the world's population into nations, of reviving liberal myths about our ability to reshape the world to suit our purposes. For while the conservative myths conceal the ways in which we ourselves give shape to our communities, the liberal myths conceal the connections that bring us together to form communities in the first place.

The civic nationalist vision of political community offers an inspiring alternative to ethnocentrism and intolerance. It is particularly attractive to many North Americans, whose peculiar national heritage -- with successive waves of immigration and constitutional foundings -- fosters the illusion that their mutual association is based solely on consciously chosen principles. But this vision misrepresents political reality as surely as the ethnic nationalist myths it is designed to combat. And propagating a new political myth, it seems to me, is an especially inappropriate way of defending political freedom from the dangers of nationalist political passions.


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