27 June 2023

On National Identity

Differing views on the intangibles of national identity can have a large real world impact, as we are seeing in the Russo-Ukrainian War.

From The European Conservative

By Daria Fedotova

What is national identity? An experience of a nation, its history, its personalities, its reputation, self-esteem, and the vision it has for its future.

Just like every individual, each nation has its own identity, which it relies upon to find its place among other nations. As this identity is slowly washed away by the globalist uniformity, conservatives aspire to defend it. However, for a topic brought up so often, national identity as a concept remains ill-defined—a vague idea generally understood by everyone involved yet fading into the mist upon closer look. So what is it? The sum of a nation’s characteristics found on a Wikipedia page? A symbolic image encompassing its values, akin to the goddess Britannia of Victorian placards? Traditional dances, cuisine, and fairy tales read by mothers to their children? As our intuition suggests, probably all of these and even more.

Before we proceed, it is necessary to examine the difference between a nation and a state. With regard to national identity, those are often used interchangeably, and for a good reason, as the dominant nation usually shapes the identity of a state. Still, one can exist without the other. For example, several nations may make up a state, and there were many distinct nations within former empires, even though one may rule and impose its identity upon the overall structure—or, as it happens, adopt the features of a subjugated one. Alternatively, a state can have no national identity of its own, sharing it with its neighbours, going through the process of forming it, or rejecting the idea altogether.

National identity is found at the crossroads of time. The past grants it legitimacy, the present is its power, and the future holds the dream it is chasing. All three are important for its survival.

The dusty road of the past connects a nation to its roots, which come in two main categories. The first is history or a number of events and personalities that are considered significant; these may be selected naturally, due to the magnitude of their actual impact, or artificially, in order to create or influence a particular narrative. This filtered history is usually focused on political, military, and cultural achievements, but it may also emphasise the tales of woe, especially if they serve to fuel resentment towards injustice—like, for example, the Great Famine in Ireland. The second is forefathers’ knowledge: values, traditions, and customs passed between generations. This includes everything from the fundamental moral lessons (and, where applicable, religion) to small everyday things such as clothes, food and folk songs. 

The road of the present leads to a state’s current situation. This is judged according to, first, its level of influence on the international arena and, second, the quality of its citizens’ life. There is, of course, room for interpretation and even falsification, but the sheer number of witnesses makes it harder to steer too far from reality. The quality of life, for example, is measurable. A state that is unable to provide its citizens with at least a reasonable level of security, liberty, and the opportunity to build a comfortable life is less likely to be considered great, however glorious a past it can boast. Its international reputation is also a part of its image. Is it respected? Feared? Pitied? Is it famous for its military, art, or resources? Is it a just arbiter, or a quiet, harmless nation minding its own business? All this has little to do with actual diplomacy but is essential for a brand.

The ethereal bridge to the future always makes a promise of a better tomorrow. It may be achieved either by keeping up the good work or by making a drastic change, depending on the present circumstances. Another prominent feature is that a nation strives to build an improved version of the past rather than something entirely different; this is what keeps it from being erased. 

For an individual, his nation’s identity may be a part of his own, a way to connect with others who share it, and a source of passion. For a state, it is an instrument of cohesion and a message it wishes to communicate to both its people and the international community. It may be a foundation for creating something worthy of admiration or a starting point of descent into the depth of bitter revanchism. It may also, if poorly crafted or manipulated on purpose, send a nation down the path of shame and self-pity, a fatal disease that, if not cured in time, leads to its destruction.

Shame and nationhood

The assault on the Western nations’ identity by modern globalism is meant to achieve just that: an overwhelming sense of shame for the imperfect past and acceptance of a radically different future. It is promised to be built on reason, universal values, utilitarian principles—diversity of appearances, uniformity of thought. Within this paradigm, the British, French, Germans, Americans, Saudis, and Chinese are all the same but with region-specific food and hats. The nations’ leaders are no longer statesmen but managers: they have excellent credentials, are trained in corporate ethics, deliver carefully worded speeches, and appear to be instinctively averse to risks. 

However, national identity can also be built up almost from scratch, as the example of post-Soviet states shows. This is usually done through the rediscovery of the lost history and culture, mixing them with the customs that already exist in the society in question, and the development of the official narratives. The latter may not influence most people directly—or, at least, they very much like to think so—but it affects the choice of schoolbooks, the projects that get government funding, and the banned speech.

A world filled with nothing but superficial cultural differences and soulless uniformity underneath it is a grim place indeed. It may be more peaceful than the one we now have, yet also deprived of any true sense of belonging. So, all things considered, what is national identity? An experience of a nation, its reputation, self-esteem, and the vision it has for its future. There is also an inherent need for competition baked into the concept, and though some might argue that it is a cause for concern, its efficiency is rarely matched when it comes to finding motivation for improvement.

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