Perspective

History, the judge: Civic nationalism Good, ethnic nationalism Bad

By Marianne Thamm 30 January 2019

In 1995, Canadian author Michael Ignatieff (later to lead Canada’s Liberal Party) undertook a journey to six countries he had lived in and cared about and which had experienced cataclysmic political upheaval, war, ethnic cleansing and violence in the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The result was a book and series Blood and Belonging — Journeys Into New Nationalism which remains as relevant today as it was in 1995.

The year 1989, many had hoped, would ring in an era, as Ignatieff writes, that would go “beyond nationalism, beyond tribalism, beyond the provincial confines of the identities inscribed on our passports, towards a global market capture which was to be our new home.”

In fact, Bishop Desmond Tutu’s notion of the Rainbow Nation, an idea which came to form the centrepiece of Nelson Mandela’s democratic South Africa as embodied not only in the Freedom Charter, but in the Constitution, became a beacon for the entire world. Today these sentiments are sadly increasingly viewed as naive, tacky, intellectually flaccid.

Our democracy was celebrated — everyone wanted a piece of it.

Ours was (and remains) a triumph of civic nationalism — the kind where the only thing that matters is that you are a citizen of a country; free to be, free from persecution of any kind, free to speak your language, live where you please, conduct business where you wish, love whom you like, wear what you please, pray to whom you want, speak your mind without fear, to democratically elect officials from a multiplicity of parties to Parliament to represent us: Many Cultures — One Nation.

We, out of many, accomplished this back then — or at least the idea of it.

Ignatieff began his travels in Yugoslavia (as he had lived there in Tito’s heyday), then on to Germany — “the country which invented ethnic nationalism under the Romantics and disgraced it under Hitler and which now is struggling to contain ethnic nationalism in its modern Western European form; the white, racist youth gang”, moving on to Ukraine, then Quebec in Canada, to the Kurdish enclave in Northern Iraq and finally Northern Ireland.

The result was a book and series Blood and Belonging — Journeys Into New Nationalism which remains as relevant today as it was in 1995.

Back then Ignatieff had already noted that some had believed that 1989 had been the kickstart to the 21st century, a time were humans looked forward to a world committed to freedom, democracy and human rights.

In retrospect, we were whistling in the dark. The repressed has returned, its name is Nationalism,” he wrote.

Nationalism, as a moral ideal, writes Ignatieff, is an “ethic of heroic sacrifice, justifying the use of violence in the defence of one’s nation against enemies, internal or external”.

All forms of nationalism (some benign, most repressive) claim to vest power in “the people” but not all nationalist movements create democratic regimes because not all nationalisms include all of the people in their definition of who constitutes the nation, a nation.

Civic nationalism “maintains that the nation should be composed of all those — regardless of race, colour, creed, gender, language or ethnicity — who subscribe to the nation’s political creed.”

This nationalism is “civic” because it envisages a nation “as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values”.

In other words, South Africa. What holds the society is not necessarily its common roots, but the law which offers all freedom and equality.

Ethnic nationalism, on the other hand, claims that “an individual’s deepest attachments are inherited, not chosen. It is the national community which defines the individual, not the individuals who define the national community” writes Ignatieff.

Common ethnicity, by itself,” he goes on to warn, “does not create social cohesion or community, and when it fails to do so, as it must, nationalist regimes are necessarily impelled towards maintaining unity by force rather by than by consent. This is one reason why ethnic nationalist regimes are more authoritarian.”

During his travels, Ignatieff found that in 1995 ethnic nationalism flourished in Eastern Europe “because 40 years of communist single-party rule effectively destroyed whatever civic or democratic culture there had once been in the region”.

Countries, where democratic or civic culture were entrenched, were less likely to fall prey to the blood thirst of the ethnic nationalist — right or left.

The European racism Ignatieff witnessed was, he stated, “a form of white ethnic nationalism, indeed it is a revolt against civic nationalism itself, against the very idea of a nation based in citizenship rather than ethnicity”.

Here and now, in the global 21st century, goods rather than people easily cross borders, where capitalism — state, private and corporatist — is fashioning a world of growing extreme poverty while a tiny, wealthy, mostly white elite enjoys the cosmopolitan benefits of a system — financial and political — rigged in their favour.

The rapidly shifting global political forces have thrown some places in the world into chaos — the US for example — creating fertile ground for extremists.

While the alt-right at present has laid intellectual claim to this new conservative world order, the chilling end-result of this type of shrill political hectoring — by the likes of Steve Bannon — this “othering” of fellow humans wherever it occurs in the world, is captured in the histories, the horrific personal narratives, the letters and the grainy black and white newsreels of how fascism and authoritarianism destroyed Western Europe.

More than 55 million people died in World War II — 10 million of them Jews, homosexuals and gipsies, all exterminated for being ethnically and religiously “other”.

Papers, passports and visas became weapons in the quest to deny those who had lived for centuries in some countries the same rights as others.

My German grandmother, writing in 1960 to her son, my father in England, from her apartment in Charlottenburg, Berlin, where she lived and survived 12 years of Adolf Hitler’s reign of terror, asked “was it worth it? We have lost our loved ones, we have lost our children, I have lost my Heimat”.

It is because of this history, this moral vacuum in Germany which allowed the extermination of Jews or anyone deemed “undesirable”, that Germany and its chancellor, Angela Merkel, made the trailblazing decision to welcome refugees to that country, leading the EU’s response to the migration crisis.

But is it is precisely this stand which has threatened Merkel politically and that has seen a rise in neo-Nazi movements, right-wing nationalism, anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia and homophobia in Europe.

According to Oxfam “more than 65 million people around the world are now officially displaced from their homes by conflict, violence and persecution — the highest figure recorded by the United Nations since the Second World War.”

While more than 170,000 migrants and refugees arrived by sea in Europe in 2017, the vast majority of people “are displaced within their own country of origin or remain close to it”.

This mass migration of human beings because of war, conflict, poverty, hunger and political persecution is a modern humanitarian crisis.

Why this has happened and exposing the various global players who stand to benefit from this global political instability is a complex and sprawling story still unfolding on a news screen near you.

Populists across the world are on the march; they are here in South Africa as our report on right-wing activity in the country demonstrates. They dominate the headlines with their insults and attacks, their threats of violence and retaliation, their attempts at setting citizen on citizen in a claim to political legitimacy.

The utter failure of the ANC government, particularly during the past 10 years where corruption by a predatory business and political elite has all but hollowed out the democratic state, has created a climate ripe in for those, a brother and sisterhood from across the world, who thrive on derision, violence and hated.

Between these extremists of the world, there is a centre where we can meet and, as we did in the past, create a country located in civic nationalism where the most pressing needs of all our fellow citizens are addressed and met. DM

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