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Monday, December 20, 2004

Nations and Concepts

Via Randy McDonald I was very interested to find this article by Andrew Coates called 'In Defence of Militant Secularism' which compares the attitudes of the British and French Left to dealing with manifestations of Islamic identity. I am not interested in discussing the whole article, but there is one point I want to flag up.

In discussing the tendency of parts of the British Left to an unengaged Islamophilia Coates says:

Secondly, there is the adoption of the American model of "multi-culturalism". This, as Historical Materialism (Vol.11 No.4, 2003) details, is a model of social conflict in which different ethnic groups assert their "rights". The very particular conditions of American class formation (in which the heritage of slavery, different waves of immigration, the existence of a colour-based privileged layer in the working class, and an immensely powerful bourgeoisie have combined) are regarded as universal. In place of unified class conflicts, we have religious and cultural organisations from the different class and ethnic fractions as permanent lobbies. Each is held to be separate but equal. Those British groups, such as Socialist Action, which derive their politics from America, are quite open about this. Class unity is dropped in favour of the "right to be different". Lee Jasper, a key adviser of Ken Livingstone, has gone so far as to advocate racially segregated schools in the name of ... anti-racism!

As much as I dislike parts of multiculturalist orthodoxy, its tendency to reinforce divisive identity boundaries, this is not the whole story in American society. America also has a powerful universal 'American' identity, a belief in American nationality that cuts across these boundaries. Like all strong nation-states America is a concept as much it is the contents of a series of geographical boundaries. Even though few Americans can agree on the precise definition of what being American means there is still a broad consensus of the desirability of an American identity. This universalistic concept, of being American as something that all people who live in this country should embrace, helps to mitigate the sort of tribal impulses that multiculturalism panders to. This form of American identity may be built on many myths, and it is the historian's job to expose them, but in my opinion it is preferable to have these sort of binding myths than the divisive ones of much of multiculturalism, with their belief in eternal differences.

An example: last Wednesday night I was driving up to Connecticut with my old friend Ian and his friend Makai. We were talking (as you do) and we got onto the subject of why some Brits dislike Americans. Mak, who was in the Marines and had been in Iraq at the start of the current war, had met quite a few British squaddies who were overtly hostile to him as an American, so he was saying "after what we did for these people in World War II, what's their problem?" The thing that I found encouraging about this is that Mak is the son of Dominican immigrants, so his grandparents would not have fought in WWII, yet he still identifies with the history and the cause as part of being American.

This is, I think, an unqualified good thing. It is an area where I think American society departs from that of Britain (which is the other country I know intimately) in that here the vast majority feel at least some pride in being American. People who actively shun the idea of American identity are confined to the Chomskyite fringe. In Britain, however, a much larger part of the Left is actively hostile to British identity. I remember having debates with people who felt that the British flag was a symbol of nothing but imperialism and racism, and as such they disliked it. I think this is an unhealthy attitude in the long-term. A nation is composed not just of the people who live with it, but also of beliefs and myths that are commonly held. Without these universalizing currents the tendency is to withdraw into narrower quasi-tribal bonds. Without them you encourage problems for the future.

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