Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, March 1997
Ethnonationalism: The Quest for Understanding, Walker Connor, Princeton University Press, 1994, 234 pp.
It would be hard to think of a mainstream, commercially-published book that is more subversive to the contemporary notion of America than Ethnonationalism, by Walker Connor. In this collection of essays that were originally written between 1966 and 1992, Professor Connor establishes a set of propositions about nationalism that cast doubt upon the very legitimacy of the United States.
Needless to say, this was not his overt intention. However, his explanation of the nature of nationalism and his deft references to nationalist movements in every part of the world leave no doubt about the perils Americans ensured for themselves with the choices they made in the mid-1960s.
As he points out, the conflicts from around the world that fill the headlines make no sense to anyone who does not understand nationalism—and yet recent American scholarship has treated nationalism as if it were some kind of primitive emotion that will soon wither away. Most political scientists had taken it for granted that “modernization” would erode parochial loyalties, but Prof. Connor shows that the effect of increased communication is often to accentuate ethnic consciousness rather than attenuate it. Although he refrains from drawing conclusions about the United States, he argues that the coming era is likely to be one of intensifying national sentiment, and that any analysis that fails to reckon with its power is hopelessly superficial.
Prof. Connor points out that some misunderstandings about nation and nationalism stem from the misuse of words. He notes that the word “nation” comes from the Latin nasci, meaning to be born, and proposes a definition of nation that runs counter to current American dogma and also disqualifies nearly every sovereign entity on earth: “[A nation] is a group of people who feel that they are ancestrally related. It is the largest group that can command a person’s loyalty because of felt kinship ties. It is, from this perspective, the fully extended family.”
Prof. Connor points out that 90 percent of the political units that claim to be nations are not, and that with the exception of such places as Japan, Iceland, and Norway, they are all multinational states. International relations should be called interstate relations, and both the League of Nations and United Nations are “obvious misnomers.” The term “nation-state” properly refers only to those rare cases when state and nation coincide. Use of the word “nationalism” to mean loyalty to the state is so common an error that Prof. Connor has coined the term “ethnonationalism” to emphasize the kinship element that the word nationalism properly contains but has lost.
Nationalism is far more powerful than allegiance to a state or government: “[A]n intuitive sense of kindredness or extended family would explain why nations are endowed with a very special psychological dimension—an emotional dimension—not enjoyed by essentially functional or juridical groupings, such as socioeconomic classes or states.” Prof. Connor explains that “the national bond is subconscious and emotional rather than conscious and rational” and is reached through “appeals not to the mind but to the blood.”
Another characteristic of nations, even when they do not enjoy the self-determination that most of them long for, is an exclusive attachment to a certain territory. The Scots and the Welsh are, in this sense, nations, as are a nearly endless number of groups that do not have seats at the United Nations—Basques, Flemings, Tutsis, Tibetans, Kurds, Punjabis, and Bretons to name just a few.
Prof. Connor notes that even the United States at one time shared the sense of consanguinity and territoriality—blood and soil—of which nations are made. In his address at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln spoke of the nation that “our fathers” had brought forth, and the song “America” is a tribute to the “land where my fathers died.” The Confederacy’s second-best known song, “The Bonny Blue Flag,” opens with a classic statement of the principles of nation:
We are a band of brothers
Native to the soil
Fighting for our liberty
With treasure, blood, and toil.
Appeals to national blood-kinship are so powerful that even Communists used them to gain power, despite Marx’ insistence that class solidarity takes precedence over love of nation. Ho Chi Minh rallied the people of both north and south Vietnam with these words: “We have the same ancestors, we are of the same family, we are all brothers and sisters.” Mao Tse Tung spoke to “all our fellow countrymen, every single zealous descendent of Huang-ti [the first emperor to unite China].” Prof. Connor also cites Bismarck’s famous exhortation to the Germans: “think with your blood.”
Of course, once revolutionaries gain power they become extremely hostile to fissiparous appeals to nation. The Soviets and the Chinese at least had Marx’ approval for stamping out nationalist movements, but many leaders who have struggled for independence in the name of self-determination promptly deny it to others as soon as they gain power. Anti-colonial agitators insisted that rule by aliens was intolerable, but immediately imposed it on others as soon as they inherited the multinational states the colonial powers left behind.
Prof. Connor points out that when Third-World (and other) leaders talk of “nation-building” they are really strengthening the state in a process that should be called nation-destroying. It was the Ibos who were building a nation during the Biafran war; it was the (multinational) Nigerian state that crushed it.
Nationalist conflict usually has simple causes: state and national borders that do not coincide. National sentiment is sure to arise when a nation feels that its sacred land is being invaded by strangers or when a nation chafes under alien rule. As history has repeatedly shown, local autonomy or even outright separation are the most reliable cures for national conflict.
Prof. Connor has been a lonely voice within American academic circles: “With but very few exceptions, authorities have shied away from describing the nation as a kinship group and have usually explicitly denied that the notion of shared blood is a factor.” This reluctance is paralleled by the refusal to acknowledge the importance of race within the United States, and one of the most interesting chapters in Ethnonationalism explains why so many academics have misunderstood the nature of nationalism and have been caught napping by its post-war resurgence.
One of the most frequent mistakes is to believe that all conflicts are economic. National conflicts usually are associated with economic disparities but money is not at the heart of the struggle. Prof. Connor describes cases in which economic gaps have been narrowed and even reversed without easing national tensions. At the same time, so long as people think of themselves as members of the same nation, they tolerate huge disparities in wealth by region, class, and profession.
Some scholars mistake symptoms for causes. For example, they write solemnly about “the weakness of government institutions” when the real problem is that the government is in the hands of one tribe whom all the other tribes hate.
Another common mistake is based on the view that nationalism is an unenlightened, juvenile sentiment. Thus it is thought to be always waning as peoples mature towards sophisticated one-worldism. It is true that many 20th-century European nationalisms were muted, first by the exhaustion of the Second World War and then by the imposition of Marxism. However, national movements that fashionable scholars had pronounced dead have sprung to life and others are stronger than ever.
Perhaps the most widespread error is to describe a national conflict in terms of one of its components, such as language or religion. Belgium, for example, is not wracked with dissent over language but has a national struggle between Flemings and Waloons.
The Irish problem is likewise misreported. The fight is not about religion but between natives of Ireland and the Englishmen and Scots who moved into the territory, often as alien rulers. In Prof. Connor’s view, the troubles could as accurately be described as a conflict over last names as over religion. It is a common mistake to confuse nation with some tangible element of nation:
[W]hat is fundamentally involved in such a conflict is that divergence of basic identity which manifests itself in the “us-them’ syndrome. And the ultimate answer to the question of whether a person is one of us, or one of them, seldom hinges on adherence to overt aspects of culture.
Prof. Connor argues that the ethnic bond can survive even if every distinctive cultural element has disappeared, since “cultural assimilation need not mean psychological assimilation.” He points out that at one time the Irish clung desperately to Gaelic for fear that national sentiment could not be nourished in English. English-speaking Irishmen learned to hate the English as much as Gaelic-speakers had.
Perhaps the most naive of the reasons for underestimating nationalism is the silly view that the more contact people have with strangers they more they will love them. The opposite is true. In the undeveloped world, many people still live with almost no awareness of the existence of people unlike themselves. Only with the arrival of the transistor radio do they discover that “their” president may not even speak an intelligible language or pray to the right gods.
Post-war modernization has had the same effect among Europeans, of sharpening rather than reducing nationalism. Prof. Connor cites the Basques and the Castillians, the Czechs and the Slovaks, the Flemings and the Waloons, not to mention the myriad incompatible nations that destroyed Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. In North America, French Canadians are moving towards independence rather than assimilation.
Among people who already think of themselves as a single nation, increased contact does reduce strictly regional differences. The disappearance of regional differences encourages the misguided to think that increased contact will have the same effect on national differences.
Current Racial Dogma
Nevertheless, in Prof. Connor’s view, what best explains American scholarship’s failure to understand nationalism is that it is non-rational. Academics hate the mysterious and unquantifiable, and therefore look for economic and class explanations for phenomena that stir the blood rather than the mind. Although Professor Connor does not touch on this, there can also be no doubt that current racial dogma has blinded academics to much that is obvious. Acknowledging the terrible difficulties inherent in multi-nationalism would cast a completely different light on the American attempt deliberately to undertake the hazards of building a nation out of incompatible materials. To admit that a belief in common ancestry is the necessary glue of nations is to admit that the United States is not a nation and cannot be one.
The laws of ethnic kinship function just as well in the United States as anywhere else — except for one exception. As Professor Connor writes, “a prerequisite of nationhood is a popularly held awareness or belief that one’s own group is unique in a most vital sense. In the absence of such a popularly held conviction, there is only an ethnic group.” American blacks and Hispanics and even some Asians act like nations (Prof. Connor concedes that racially conscious blacks are, indeed, a nation); only whites are a mere ethnic group.
This is, of course, changing as more and more whites begin to see that they, too, are a nation with national aspirations. Eventually, the futility of multi-racialism will become clear and real nation-building will begin.