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Nationhood, Its Benefits and Pitfalls

Nationhood may someday acquire the same reputation as race has taken on since scientific DNA studies demonstrated humanity’s overwhelming kinship. In the meantime, until history can demonstrate that nationhood is as much a fabrication as race, nation states rank up there with another human fabrication – religious denomination – as an excuse conflict and separation between people. When a nationalistic impulse hearkens back to a real past, as has occurred recently In Mexico in the increasing emphasis on supposedly indigenous candidates, it can perhaps help to preserve a history that might otherwise disappear. However, when nationalism is based on a self-serving fiction it can result in the sort of nightmare represented by the misdeeds of Hitler’s Third Reich regime.

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In the case of this student’s own Serbian ancestry, the USA is the main source of current national self-identity for the present generation. However, the remembered and sometimes discussed events and history of the Serbian people shape the narrative of family movement and arrival in this country in ways that are still, several generations later, significant. Nationhood has at some points encouraged a state of peace but at other times and under other circumstances, it has probably encouraged conflict rather than preventing it. However, despite these drawbacks, nationhood, as a means of managing the massive numbers of people alive and so mixed together today, may offer some efficiencies.

The very concept of nationhood is a recent phenomenon in the vast span of human activity. Self-conscious, “imagined” nationhood seems to be more prominently a product of the special circumstances of the 17th, 18th, and 19th century (Anderson 48, and 50). Prior to that, as noted by Renan, there were families, villages, clans, tribes, powerful cities (such as Athens, Florence, and Venice) republics, and even empires, but not the sort of large scale mass of individuals who consider themselves to be one people that nationhood encourages (Renan 4). Just being subject to one authority is not enough, it seems, to constitute one nationhood. Even under the Roman Empire, the early Christian convert, writer, and evangelist, Paul of Tarsus, for example, would likely identify himself as a Roman citizen, but not as a Roman – he was a Jew from the region the Roman authorities called Judea, under the authority and with the rights of a Roman citizen. A nation as defined today is supposed to share a sense of being one people, expressed very clearly, for example, in the words of United States Pledge of Allegiance.

If, as Renan asserts, nationhood is something that has been constructed by human beings, does it have any benefits (Renan 3)? A nation can bring together people who share the same geographic area, whether they share the same cultural background or not. Shared nationhood does not necessarily make friends of people who have a history of being in conflict, but it can create opportunities for cooperation. Clearly, a nation that is organized and governed with the consent of its citizens can possess some advantages of scale, in the same way that a large corporation can achieve economies of scale in their operations.

A large group of people organized into the sort of unit that a nation constitutes can exert power more effectively. For example, a nation can implement larger ambitions and goals in terms of caring for its citizens. For example, a nation can create a system of education that will allow citizens to achieve their full potential as individuals. A modern nation can demand and enforce changes in behavior and practice to improve the health care of its citizens, for example, through inoculation. It can also compel and create an army to protect its borders, but this capacity can also result in the ability to bully a nation’s neighbors near or far.

The pitfalls of nationhood are many and can be deadly. A nation-state, because it is a human construct, can result in separating people who have little reason to be separated. An example is the way that the Third Reich tried to create a German nation by purging out any group that did not fit Hitler’s ideas of German-hood, such as gypsies, Jews, homosexuals, the mentally ill, and others whom Hitler did not like. When nationhood is confused with race or religion, it can result in horrors like the Holocaust. Renan, speaking well before Hitler’s insanity, assures his listeners that “Man is a slave neither of his race nor his language, nor of his religion, nor of the course of rivers nor of the direction taken by mountain chains.” (Renan 8)

However, ethnic identity does still rear its head as a rallying point for the development of national identity in some instances. Mexico, in some ways similarly to Serbia, had a true empire in its own region, under the rule of the Aztec. Mexico has also had a history of explicit colonial oppression from a completely unfamiliar and alien race in its conquest by the Spaniards, armed as they were with previously unimaginable weapons and mounted as they were on the totally unknown and mystifying war horse. The ignominy of the Aztec’s complete squashing and elimination of their language and religion remain dramatic and undoubtedly painful for many who study their own history. One of the saddest aspects of the Mexican experience is the deliberate destruction of what records might have existed of the details of their culture, a tragedy to which Suzanne Rostas refers. This means that the nation that has been imagined, to use Anderson’s term (Anderson 1), is almost entirely of Spanish origin. This means that the legacy of the Aztecs has been largely lost to most of the population.

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During their conquest, the Spanish conquistadors imposed on the indigenous population an upper class historically composed of those with at least some Spanish ancestry, and as little indigenous ‘blood’ as could be plausibly denied. This means that the rulers have been from families with little connection to the ancestral population. The lives of the indigenous people have been widely separated from the lives of the ruling aristocracy. Although residents of Mexico now have some common experiences to share, from the recent decades, there is likely still a gulf between the privileged Hispanic folk and the indigenous population (Rostas 1). This sad lack of common experience prevents Mexicans from possessing one of the key features of nationhood described by Ernst Renan, “the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories” (Renan 7).

The other key feature Renan proposes is “present-day consent, he desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form.” (Renan 7). The efforts by the young Mexica men described by Suzanne Rostas, who dress up the way that they think their ancient ancestors dressed, and appear on the festival days of the Aztec calendar seem to be an effort to strike a blow towards reviving their Aztec history and culture (Rostas 1). The recent candidacy of individuals with self-declared indigenous backgrounds perhaps also represents a more inclusive practice of leadership. If this trend of participation in the political process of obviously indio candidates grows, it could help knit Mexico together into a nation. Since those of Spanish descent cannot ‘go home’, this is a reasonable solution to the hurts of the past.

In the case of this student’s heritage, Serbia was a distinct region for centuries, even according to family oral history, boasted an empire at one time. However, Serbians were oppressed by several regional powers, e.g. the Habsburgs and the Ottoman Empire. Although in the 19th century Serbia began to be a nation, this did not make it a place where this student’s own ancestors wanted to stay. The older members of the family still retain mixed feelings about the old country, and follow its news – usually upsetting – with close attention and distress, although they identify as Americans, and would never consider returning to modern day Serbia. This student hears the stories as stories only. Thus, the pull of the USA seems to overcome the pull of the old country, transforming successive generation more thoroughly into ‘real’ Americans.

Since nationhood is a created concept, it should be viewed with skepticism as a means of dividing people. On the other hand, with the numbers of people living in heterogeneous mixtures of religion and origins in the billions today, national identity holds the potential to permit cooperation in constructive ways. The example of Mexico suggests that even a group composed of oppressors and historically oppressed can, by self-conscious inclusion and advocacy (through performances by the Mexica) heal itself together into one nation (Rostas 1). The example of Serbian Americans shows that time and forgetting (as noted by Renan) can help to incorporate people into a new nation (Renan 2). At its best, a nation can accomplish what a smaller unit of government cannot in terms of laws that compel constructive behavior; at its worst, a nation can compel killing and destruction of everyone who is not that nation.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Naitonalism. London: Verso, 1983. Print.

Renan, Ernst. Qu’est-ce qu’une nation. 2015. Web.

Rostas, Susanna E. “”Mexicanidad”: The Resurgence of the Indian in Popular Mexican Nationalism.” 2015. Web.

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