THE MONKEY ISLAND Tom Sykes
SCOUNDRELS & REVOLUTIONARIES
Some thoughts on Nationalism
IT’S OFFICIAL. Britain has now slid down the tattered rope ladder of a ‘credit crunch’ and into the bubbling swamp of a ‘recession.’ History warns us that the worst consequence of this could be a resurgence of the far right. Already the insidious BNP (the ‘N’ should stand for Nazi, but in fact it’s National as in British National Party) are scapegoating immigrants and foreigners for economic problems caused by bankers and politicians. Recent strikes in the name of “British jobs for British workers” were backed by the BNP with the rhetoric of nationalism and xenophobia. Many of their members have criminal convictions for assaults on people from ethnic or religious minorities. According to the activist Martin Smith, these lovely people talk of committing genocide against the British Asian community behind closed doors. So what is the reasoning—if there can be any—for this appalling behaviour?
Before the BNP there was the National Front, and before them the British Union of Fascists. These groups claimed to be defending the ‘white tribe’ of ‘indigenous’ British people against degenerate foreign influences. Had they bothered to spend a minute with a history book they would have realised that Britain, like every other nation in the world, has always been multicultural, multireligious and multifarious, with people coming and going, coexisting and combining. Conduct a DNA sequencing test on the whitest person you can find and chances are they will have ancestry from the four corners of the earth. It would be faintly mad of me to describe myself as a “native Briton” even if I wanted to, because I am of Jewish, Dutch, Scottish and Irish extraction. The point is, there’s probably never been such a thing as a native Briton; you could go back thousands of years and find someone living in Britain at that time, but anthropologists would argue about where that person had originated, which would ultimately lead you to Africa where the first modern Homo sapiens appeared.
Despite the sophistry of the fascists—or because of it—all talk of nationalism, patriotism and even national pride in this country has become problematical. The far right did such a good job of appropriating the Union Jack that most British people today would be reluctant to wave their national flag in a way that Americans or Malaysians wouldn’t. But was the Union Jack so innocent before this appropriation? Not if we agree with Dr. Johnson, who said that in all cases and at all times “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” The Union Jack might bring a flush of sentimental pride to an old granny in the suburbs, but to others it represents imperialism, colonialism, racism, ethnocentrism, no doubt lots of other nasty things ending in ‘-ism,’ slavery and war, and should have been abandoned along with shell suits and hanging. Britain’s record of being extremely unkind to the rest of the world might therefore explain this modern unease about national identity.
This unease is not shared by other countries, and in other countries, nationalism hasn’t been so riveted with the political right. When the great Rabindranath Tagore wrote lines like “I bow, I bow to my beautiful motherland Bengal!” in his 1896 poem “A Half-Acre of Land,” he was unashamedly celebrating his country for the cause of Indian independence—a progressive, largely peaceful struggle against British imperial rule. Similarly, the great wars of colonial liberation after World War II were guided by a form of nationalism deeply influenced by socialism. As Robert J.C. Young explains in his illuminating Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction, “Just as nationalism could function as a convenient siphon for the representation of a variety of discontents, a means through which they were funnelled into a metaphoric meaning beyond themselves, so too could Marxism.”
The nationalist arguments of liberationist leaders made sense in their historical contexts. In the pre-war era, the Chinese were treated like strangers in their own country, barred from public parks, bars and restaurants frequented by Europeans. Sun Yat Sen’s Guomindang movement capitalised on the sense of humiliation this caused. One of the aims of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s guerrilla war against the Batista regime in Cuba was the expulsion of U.S. businesses that were exploiting the people and plundering the resources. Ho Chi Minh’s appeals to the unique toughness of the Vietnamese people and their ability to resist successive empires from the Chinese to the Japanese to the French, was crucial to his victory in open warfare against the Americans. What allowed the Vietnamese to overcome the world’s most advanced military power was an absolute dedication to the right to self-determination.
So it seems that Britain’s experience of nationality and nationalism is somewhat different from Asia’s and the world’s. The reasons for this are complex to say the least, bound up in the peculiar historical experiences of different parts of the world. As Billy Bragg’s The Progressive Patriot: A Search for Belonging, an attempt to reconcile national pride with left-wing ideology, says, “Patriotism has many shades ... the Britain I love is a society, not a state, not an army, not a monarchy. It’s a society with many people who have come together time and time again to stand up for the idea of fairness.” Personally I have always seen myself as a citizen of the world, with as much empathy for Indians and Brazilians as I have for fellow Britons. However, that does not stop me from admiring those who have used the concept of national identity for positive ends.
TOM SYKES was born in 1979 and educated at the University of East Anglia. He is the co-editor of the travel book, No Such Thing As A Free Ride?, which was serialised in the London Times and named Observer Travel Book of the Week. A North American version of the book came out in June 2008 and an Australasian edition has been planned for 2009. He has published short fiction and articles in the U.K., U.S., Canada and Southeast Asia, as well as in international anthologies such as Small Voices, Big Confessions. His novella, The Blank Space, will be published by Pendragon Press in 2009. His story, “Let There Be Something or Nothing,” was recently anthologised in Urban Odysseys: KL Stories (MPH Group Publishing, February 2009).
Reproduced from the April-June 2009 issue of Quill magazine