Tuesday, April 14, 2009


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


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although this has nothing to do with the topic of your post, I wonder how the entries for the CBA short stories competition of 2008 are judged. I've read a few stories of of the winners.
Although the winners' stories are good, some had typos, grammatical mistakes and wrong spacing in paragraphing.
As for the MPH-Alliance Bank short story competition, is a good plot more important?

Monday, April 13, 2009 7:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fish and chips, curry, scones, pie, pub.

Monday, April 13, 2009 9:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention the real fascists who occupy the Labour Party and extreme left who it appears you are a member of. Name me one person who has been assaulted by a BNP member. You can,t! I can name dozens of BNP members who have been physically attacked and intimidated by your leftest comrades propelled by loons like you who write this drivel.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009 8:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Rayatcov said...

BNP: Many of their members have criminal convictions.
So the Liebor/Cons/Libdims are whiter than white I suppose.
You want to grow up young man.
Are you seriously condemning thousands, yes thousands, of British people as racists and nazis.
If the BNP are so bad why won't any of the other parties debate with them, and prove them wrong the BNP have offered often enough.
Don't come the old rhetoric that we don't talk to racists as that doesn't work any more. I, and many others believe the reason you will not is because you are afraid they may be right.
Before you reply and call me names I am not a member of any party, I have little time for any politicians of whatever colour but I sometimes wonder, whatever happened to democracy and the saying 'I may disagree with what you are saying, but I would defend to the death your right to say it'.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009 8:22:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's amazing how cloth-eyed some of the commentators on this blog seem to be.

'Don't come the old rhetoric that we don't talk to racists as that doesn't work any more.'

Where exactly does this article state that? Anyone sensible on the left knows that simply banning the BNP wouldn't work (if only it were that easy). Indeed, as anyone who looks at the history of censorship will know, putting a ban on something often only serves to spice it up and lend it an added appeal. Thus the best approach to fascists is that which deals with their arguments head on, arguments which, as this article spells out, are dependent on completely bogus, mythical and unscientific historical outlooks. When these arguments are held up to the light of scrutiny they quickly crumble to dust. Thus when people like David Irving have been debated publicly, they have been proven to be total charlatans and had their reputations ruined as serious, objective historians.

As for the notion that BNP people have never attacked anybody, what planet have you been living on? Take a look at this catalogue of serious crimes and have a re-think: http://www.hopenothate.org.uk/the-real-bnp/BNP-a-party-of-convictions.php

I agree that mainstream politicians can't be absolved of blame with their corruption, constant attacks on immigrants, the youth and the poor, and their hubristic foreign wars, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be extra wary of the divisive racism and fascism of the BNP, a party, by the way, who would manifestly not defend many people's right to say what they want.

Friday, June 12, 2009 9:28:00 AM  

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