The past through a distilled lens

Kanishk Tharoor | Updated on December 31, 2019

World view: Majoritarian politics now stalks the international stage as seen in the rhetoric of leaders such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro (centre), Russia’s Vladimir Putin and India’s Narendra Modi   -  REUTERS/PAVEL GOLOVKIN

Right-wing intellectuals try to burnish the chest-pounding gusto of majoritarian nationalism with moral grandeur

For a brief time in the late 20th and early 21st century, it seemed possible to speak of identity-based nationalism as an anachronism, a parochial cause, a marker of older movements and ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries that were fast becoming irrelevant. But in hindsight that view looks rather naïve. Majoritarian nationalism never actually went away; it now stalks the international stage with chest-pounding gusto, from the theatrics of Donald Trump, to the bluster of Boris Johnson, to the rhetoric of a host of other world leaders, including Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Narendra Modi in India.

Right-wing intellectuals try to burnish this kind of politics with moral and philosophical grandeur. Take, for example, the Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony, who argues in his book The Virtue of Nationalism that the nation-state is the necessary shelter for a people against the depredations of “empire”. The bonds of nationhood are broad enough to tie together disparate clans in mutual loyalty and trust, but particular enough to build a state that does not seek to impose its own moral system on others. Hazony sees in modern liberalism an imperial endeavour as threatening to human dignity and freedoms as the expansionist empires of old. It’s not terribly surprising that Hazony, a former aide to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, roots his combative philosophy of nationalism in the geopolitical experience of Israel: An ethnonationalist state that faces the frequent opprobrium of international entities such as the United Nations and the European Union.

The conservative American magazine editor Rich Lowry echoes much of this thinking in his book The Case for Nationalism, albeit even more crudely. In his view, nations are organic entities, built around shared identities and values, and that belief requires, in the American context, privileging the English language, the Christian religion, European ancestry, and a pantheon of male national figures. This reading flies in the face of the American experience of cultural and racial diversity and of how the country has evolved in the last two centuries, from a society that enfranchised a small number of people to one in which more and more Americans have a real stake in public life. It also requires an embarrassingly simplistic reading of history to imagine that nations are primordial, handed down through time. “Ancient Egypt constituted a unified state, ruling an ethnically homogeneous people with a distinct culture, for thousands of years,” Lowry writes in one loose statement that is as childish in its magical thinking as it is entirely false. So many modern nationalists demand an impossible simplicity from the historical record, trying to distil the past only for comforting truths, a process as sensible as squeezing water from a stone.

All nations are contingent. They are made and remade, and can be best understood in the ways they are contrived and the ways they come apart. Yet it’s possible to come to this rational, historical appraisal of nationhood and still espouse a kind of nationalism. The writer and historian Jill Lepore laments how, in the latter half of the 20th century, her colleagues in the academy abandoned the project of thinking and writing about American nationhood, turning instead to more particular stories and groups or to the wider sweep of global history. “Meanwhile,” she wrote in an essay in the magazine Foreign Affairs, “who was doing the work of providing a legible past and a plausible future — a nation — to the people who lived in the United States? Charlatans, stooges, and tyrants... When historians abandon the study of the nation, when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.”

What Lepore proposes instead is that historians return with seriousness to the complicated story of American civic nationalism, one that emphasises how Americans have fought ever since the country’s creation for equality and dignity. That nationalism doesn’t simply peddle old glories; it admits to failures and atrocities. But it finds modern purpose in the continuum of moral struggles that shape and reshape the national community over time.

The problem with liberal nationalism of this kind — including the pluralist variety in India — is that it can be rather lofty and abstract. Its values of inclusion and equality are universal, to a fault. With reason, the borders of its moral commitment tremble and fade. Why not extend your sense of attachment and loyalty well beyond the closed circle of the nation, especially as globalisation enmeshes our lives with those far away? Why shouldn’t a New Yorker be as committed to a Nebraskan as to somebody in New Delhi? For a lot of us, there is nothing fuzzy about that universal sense of connection and belonging, but it does inevitably dull the strength of the particular claim of the nation. And only in extraordinary circumstances does it produce successful mass politics. Demagogues know all too well that it’s far easier to appeal to people’s tribal instincts than it is to convince them that they share so much with others.


Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among Stars, a collection of short fiction

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Published on December 25, 2019
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