Ethnonationalism vs Civic Nationalism

The Trouble With Civic Nationalism

One decade ago, Oz Conservative made 2 excellent points about the flaws of civic nationalism that deserve revisiting.

The first is that civic nationalism tends to be convoluted, vague, and ultimately not as compelling to people as a coherent ethnic identity.

Second, civic nationalism necessarily discriminates in favour of those who are citizens, against those who are not. This is problematic for those attracted to civic nationalism for liberal reasons, who seek to counter perceived racism that accompanies ethnonationalism. (See here¬†for more on the false choice between discriminatory and ‘non-discriminatory’ national policies).

From these truths, I would say this to civic nationalists: If one seeks to create a national homeland which places its own citizens first, then why not use empirically sufficient sources of identity, rather than contrived, flimsy grounds?

Civic Nationalism

“A hollow identity?”, by Oz Conservative, June 1, 2008:

The nineteenth century liberal philosopher, John Stuart Mill, once wrote that,

He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his life plan for him, has no need for any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.

The irony is that Mill was merely echoing here an entrenched liberal orthodoxy, namely that to be fully human (and not like the apes) we have to be self-created by our own will and reason (rather than letting the world choose our “life plan”.)

As I’ve noted before, the idea that we should be self-created by our individual will and reason sounds nice. But it has some radical consequences when taken logically to its full extent.

It means, for instance, that those things that we inherit, rather than choose for ourselves, become illegitimate. And this includes those things which modern liberals dismiss as a merely “biological destiny”, namely our sex and our race.

Our sex and our race are physical things which can’t be altered by any force of our own will (sex change surgery and Michael Jackson aside). Therefore, for liberals the two things which are most strictly forbidden as factors influencing human relationships and human identity are race and gender.

For liberals, to allow race or gender to count in any important way – to “discriminate” on the basis of race or gender – is logically (in terms of liberal principles) seen as a grave moral offence.

Abbott & national identity

I was reminded of this when reading a recent speech by a leading member of Australia’s Liberal Party Government, Tony Abbott.

Abbott is one of the more “conservative” leaders of the right-liberal Liberal Party. Yet, when discussing the national identity of the founder of the Liberal Party, Sir Robert Menzies, he followed the usual liberal orthodoxy by denying that race had anything to do with national identity. He claimed that,

Although the English-speaking countries have handled difference badly (like everyone else but generally less so), race has rarely been central to any of the English-speaking national identities.

Starting from Roman times, England was one of the first “melting pot” nations. More than any other, the English-speaking culture is prepared to take people from anywhere on their own terms. No one who can speak English is really a foreigner in any of the English speaking countries.

The problem here is not just the historical inaccuracy (the main waves of settlers into England in historical times were Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Danes, who were not dissimilar in race. To call this a “melting-pot” is like considering a group of New Zealand settlers into Australia as creating a “melting-pot” nation).

The major problem is that once you dismiss race entirely, as Abbott does, you have undermined traditional nationalism. Nations were traditionally founded on an ethnic unity, in which people were connected by ties of ancestry (ie a real biological kinship marked by a common race), as well as a shared history, language, religion and culture.

Abbott has jettisoned the very idea of traditional nationalism, even its historical existence, because he wants, in his own words, to found national identity not on race but on values.

This is why the only thing he really insists on is that people share a common language, as this is all that is required for them to participate in the shared values which are to form the new basis of national unity and national identity.

Civic nationalism

The kind of values which liberals usually put forward as a basis of national identity are civic ones.

A leading spokesman for a civic based nationalism is Professor Michael Ignatieff. He has written that civic nationalism envisions the nation “as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values.”

In a sense, liberals like Professor Ignatieff are saying that what will bind us together as a nation is our shared commitment to … the liberal political order. Which means that the phrases “I am Australian” and “I am a liberal” are closely interlinked.

This is a very convenient way for liberals to define national identity. If you think it over, it veers toward a certain kind of political totalitarianism – at least in the sense that a certain understanding of politics is taking over and coming to totally dominate forms of self-identity which used to be non-political and more varied in character.

There are other significant problems with basing nationalism on shared political values. One of these problems is well known to the civic nationalists themselves. This is that civic nationalism is based on more shallow forms of attachment than the traditional form of nationalism.

For instance, Professor West of Suffolk College has defined the strength of ethnic national identity as follows:

… the sense of identity is so strong that it is an inseparable part of the personalities of most of the individuals in the group. People are born and raised to conceive of themselves as being a part of the nation, and rarely lose that self-conception in the course of their lives. There is a feeling of pride and a deep sense of loyalty associated with it.

Michael Ignatieff has conceded that this “psychology of belonging” of traditional nationalism has “greater depth than civic nationalism’s”.

Similarly, two academics from the University of Melbourne, Brian Gallagan and Winsome Roberts, have recently written a book titled Australian Citizenship in which they worry that civic nationalism is too insubstantial.

They pull no punches, describing an Australian identity defined solely in terms of shared political institutions and values as “hollow, lacking in cultural richness and human content.” They talk also in similar terms of “an empty and flaccid citizenship based on abstract principles that lack the inspirational power to represent what it means to be Australian.”

A parochial distinction?

Civic nationalism has a further defect. Even though civic nationalism doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race, it does discriminate. It draws a line between people who are citizens, and therefore part of the nation, and those who aren’t.

This is a problem for liberals, who believe that any kind of discrimination which impedes the individual will is wrong. Therefore, it’s not hard to find liberals who find even civic nationalism to be morally indefensible, and who want to collapse all distinctions of national identity.

Former Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, is one such liberal who angrily opposes even civic forms of nationalism. He has thundered against those whose “exclusiveness” relies on,

constructing arbitrary and parochial distinctions between the civic and the human community … if you ask what is the common policy of the Le Pens, the Terreblanches, Hansons and Howards of this world, in a word, it is “citizenship”. Who is in and who is out.

Then there are the views of Age newspaper columnist Sharon Gray. For her, even a nationalism which is similar to supporting your own football team is too much. She writes,

Although no one chooses one’s nationality at birth, patriotism is held up as the Holy Grail, but I’m not convinced of its sanctity. [Note the liberal objection to a form of identity which we don’t choose.]

Patriotism means you define one group as preferable to another. You will do more for them than for others. You want your group to win, which means you want other groups to lose. It breeds a football team mentality, which seems childish in this shrinking world.

There is, in other words, a tension within the theory of civic nationalism. Civic nationalism puts liberalism at the heart of national identity, but liberalism rejects the idea of any discrimination limiting to individual will. And civic nationalism, though more open to individual will than ethnic nationalism, does still discriminate.

The further “progress” of liberalism is therefore likely to undermine the moral authority of civic nationalism.

The challenge

Of course, none of this would be such a problem if Western societies weren’t dominated by liberalism in the first place.

The older and deeper forms of national identity have only been rejected because they don’t conform to a political theory, which itself is simply accepted unquestioningly.

The response of conservatives must therefore be, not only to point out the flaws of civic nationalism, but to begin to challenge the underlying principles of liberalism itself.

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