Nationalism and the Mind: Essays on Modern Culture

Here are excerpts from Liah Greenfeld’s essay on nationalism and religion published in this 2006 collection:

* Both essentially secular nationalism and the transcendental religions are ways to interpret – that is, invest with meaning – otherwise meaningless reality, providing prisms through which it is to be perceived and seen as ordered. Both nationalism and religion are order-creating cultural systems.

* No human group of any duration and no human being, unless severely disabled or as yet undeveloped mentally (as in early infancy), exists without an identity; having an identity appears to be a psychological imperative and thus a sociological constant. But if the development of some identity is inevitable, the emergence and ascendancy of a particular kind of identity – for example, of a national versus a religious identity – is always, at root, a matter of historical contingency. There is nothing in human nature, and therefore in society in general, which makes any specific identity necessary.

* An identity defines a person’s – and a group’s – position in the social world; it carries the set of expectations that its bearer, whether an individual or a collectivity, can legitimately have, orienting the actions of the bearer by defining what can be legitimately expected of the latter. The least specialized type of identity, the one believed to define the bearer’s very essence, shapes behavior in a wide variety of social contexts and reflects, by containing in microcosm, the image of social order or the social consciousness4 of the given society. In the modern world, national identity, much more than any other, has been such a generalized identity. Its framework, nationalism, thus has been also the framework of the modern social consciousness. It was religion, by contrast, that formed the framework of social consciousness in the premodern world; nationalism has replaced religion as the main cultural mechanism of social integration. But though on this (sociologically crucial) level religion and nationalism are functionally equivalent, they differ in virtually all other important respects and inattention to these differences obscures the nature of nationalism.

For example, since the transcendental religions to which nationalism is sometimes compared held out the promise of eternal life, it is maintained that nationalism, for all its this-worldly orientation, must proffer similar guarantees; otherwise, why would people die for their nations?

* Most of the experiences that drive people to distraction – making them curse the day they were born and wish they were dead, or turning them into suicides, murderers, or revolutionaries – has to do with people’s relations with others. The nature of most suffering is social, not physical; it is caused by rejection, humiliation, betrayal, shame, and social disorientation – that is the proverbial anomie – not by aging or mortality. If people’s actions are any indication of their obsessions, they are, on the
whole, far more preoccupied with injustice than with death. It is the ability of religions (and nationalisms) to justify otherwise distressing social arrangements, to create a sense of a just social order, and to make social suffering sufferable,7 that explains their endurance over time.

* The perception of the mundane as meaningful in its own right implies its sacralization. With nationalism, the heavens, so to speak, descend to earth; this world, the world of empirical reality and social relations, becomes the sphere of the sacred. Unlike the need for immortality, the need for meaning is universal; proximity to the perceived sources of ultimate meaning takes our breath away. Nationalism provides countless opportunities for such perception in the routines of quotidian activity, business, parenting, and neighborly association, which to the religious mentality are the very strongholds of the profane. It was this uniquely modern sacralization of the secular through the experience of national identity that moved Durkheim to declare that God is society…

* The perception of this world as ultimately meaningful – its investment with the creative powers and authority that the great religions were willing to recognize only in the mysterious beyond – makes our everyday existence, contrary to the Romantic deprecation of modernity as soulless and materialistic, far more intensely spiritual than that of any of the prenational social formations. Within the framework of nationalism, society is saturated with spirituality…

* It is no coincidence that the age of nationalism is also the age of science. The nationalist enchantment of the world is reflected in the apotheosis of the means of knowing the world. Science is expected to penetrate the world’s mysteries, harness its powers, and uncover its meaning. It is forced to take the place of theology. But society is God
(pace Durkheim) only if we make it so; the meaning of the world is not simply there to be uncovered.

* nationalism replaced religion as the order creating system, substituting the social and political relations between men for the bond between man and God as that which gives meaning to life…

* Because most religious nationalisms are ethnic nationalisms, the fanaticism, the abnegation of self (one’s own as well as others’) for the sake of the community, which we associate with religious nationalism, are more often than not predicated on the essential worldliness of this complex of sentiments…

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Nationalism: A Short History

Liah Greenfeld writes in this 2019 book:

* [W]hen it comes to our core ideals of equality and respect owed to every human being, a mere suggestion that these ideals may be denied arouses our wrath. We firmly believe that the purpose of humanity is to realize these ideals, we measure other societies by how well their institutions accord with these ideals, and we constantly demand of our own institutions a more perfect accordance with them, never satisfied with the current state of affairs. But in 1776, the declaration that “all men are created equal” was revolutionary; it would have appeared absurd, preposterous to the vast majority of people then alive. Even today, the reason why three billion people in Southeast Asia do not find this declaration strange is only because it has become a cultural trope, thanks to a world hegemony of Western nations that has lasted for a quarter of a millennium. A cultural trope, however, is not a value or even a belief: it is simply a statement that has been repeated without question so often that it
arouses no reaction whatsoever.

* The value of equality—the cornerstone of the American system of beliefs—is the essential value of nationalism. Nationalism transformed Western societies into nations, and in doing so made equality a core Western value. Even among Western societies, the American society is unique, indeed exceptional, because its population was national from its earliest origins. This can be said of no other society: populations of other societies went through numerous social (cultural) permutations before becoming populations of nations.

* The society of orders, as mentioned, was based on the presupposition that the upper and lower orders were different species of humanity, utterly unlike each other even to the color of blood in their veins. They coexisted but were no more compatible than chickens and horses. Now that the blue-blooded order had been physically exterminated, the red-blooded sons of butchers (such as Cardinal Wolsey) and of smiths (such as Thomas Cromwell) ascended to positions and were treated in ways that were as difficult to justify as riding a chicken or expecting eggs from a horse. Yet the new Henrician aristocracy needed to justify these positions and treatment. Instead of claiming that all of the new aristocracy were lost children of dead princes, they declared that the English people was a nation. Not only did this make the bewildering situation of the new aristocracy understandable and legitimate, it also reinforced the originating trend from which it resulted, normalizing social mobility, and reconstructed the previously hierarchical society on the basis of equality. How could an equation of two terms, people and nation, a linguistic event, produce so powerful a social transformation?

* Once the people and the elite shared a common identity, families were no longer bound to their current place in the social hierarchy, which appeared temporary and accidental. Social stratification became fluid: depending on will, ability, and chance, individuals could move up and down society as if on a ladder. This was a revolution in the imagination, in consciousness.

* The presupposition of fundamental equality in the inclusive community—of shared identity, implied in the definition of the people as a nation—had several vital implications. It is hard to rank them in order of significance. We may start with the one that was to shape the American experience: individual freedom. One was no longer born into a social position or personal identity but had the right to (in fact, had to) choose one for oneself. The decision no longer belonged to God; one became one’s own maker. With this notion, appreciation for the individual human being, human creativity, increased tremendously. There was dignity in simply being human; one could take pride in one’s humanity. The modern idea of the individual as an autonomous agent emerged from this mindset. (Émile Durkheim, therefore, was right when he claimed that the individual was created by modern society, that, in other words, societies had existed for millennia without individuals.)2 Simultaneously and necessarily, God became much less important, and the world of living experience came to occupy a far greater place in human concerns than ever before. The process of secularization was set in motion, reinforcing the appreciation for the individual and, specifically, greatly increasing the value of human life. The authority of the nation, as an elite, to make decisions regarding the political and religious positions of the population for which it was responsible was now presumed to belong to the population in its entirety. As God gradually assumed less importance in people’s lives, this authority soon was regarded as supreme authority, or sovereignty.. To be a member of the people was itself an honor.

* And in their right to communicate with God directly, all Englishmen were now equal.

The Reformation also helped establish the principle of national sovereignty.

* This national dignity was expressed, above all, in international prestige—the relative standing of one’s nation among other nations, and their regard for it—which made national consciousness (nationalism) inherently competitive. From their earliest days, nations have engaged in a never-ending race for respect. England was the first nation. In the sixteenth century, national consciousness existed nowhere else, no other society was a nation, and no other people cared how foreigners regarded the societies of orders in which the people were a despised, expendable rabble. But the English did not know that. Their conversion to nationalism was, like any inner conversion, a total replacement of one faith by another. They no longer could see and experience reality but through the lens of national consciousness, and therefore they imagined they were surrounded by other nations, and thus by competitors.

* To protect their national dignity, the English began to compete. They challenged their European neighbors to combat in every area in which comparisons were possible, and these neighbors, bewildered by the strange behavior of a kingdom that until recently had seemed to be a normal European feudal community, had to engage with them. But none of these neighbors had the competitive motivation that actuated the English. Instead of competing, they could only watch in amazement as the little England of 1500—a peripheral European principality, exhausted by internecine fighting, rough in manners, and as poor in natural resources as it was in learning, emerged as a great leading power, the center of attention and an object of emulation for other great powers, in the span of a century.

* At the beginning of the sixteenth century, according to Erasmus, there were five or six erudite people in London; according to John Leland, there was one “slender” library. A few decades later, England was emerging as a cultural powerhouse… To accept the authority of the ancients would mean admitting England’s cultural inferiority. Unwilling to do so, the English espoused a primitive cultural relativism, arguing that what was good for one period and society was not necessarily good for another.

* Science was a modern, new, activity: apart from the few practicing scientists, it had not been of interest to anyone before. With so few achievements to date, a culturally
backward England could compete in it effectively. Science’s ability to contribute to the dignity of the nation—which none of England’s neighbors at the time cared to consider—prompted England to throw behind it the might of general social approbation.

* [S]cience became the measure of native intelligence, and it was impossible to claim national dignity without excelling in it.

* Nationalism…implies democracy. The fundamental principles of democracy are the principles of popular sovereignty and of the fundamental equality of membership (or
fraternity) in the community. Nationalism made them the moral and political canon of the modern world, so much so that we believe them today to be natural, hard-wired into the human brain, and their increasing implementation around the globe an inevitable feature of human progress. Every nation—a community based on the principles of popular sovereignty and fundamental equality of membership—is a democracy by definition.

* As implementations of individualistic nationalism—specifically, of the concept of the nation as a voluntary association of individuals— liberal democracies by logical necessity are majoritarian. The choices, and thus the will and the interests, of the nation are those of the numerical majority of its constituent individuals. By contrast, collectivistic nationalisms—which conceive of the nation as an indivisible collective individual, reified and personified as a higher being with a will and interests of its own, independent of those of the human individuals composing it—require a specially designated elite, presumably of intelligence or virtue, capable of divining the will and interests of the nation. The authority of such elites reflects their innate characteristics. It can be recognized by acclamation, but does not result from election. Indeed, the rank and file of the nation are not qualified to elect national leaders; they can only acclaim them.. Individualistic nationalisms see the nation as an association of individual autonomous agents, and collectivistic nationalisms see it as a collective individual.

* Because the sphere of their activity as intellectuals was essentially defined by language, the romantics insisted that communities of language were true moral individuals and fundamental units of humanity. But language, they held, had a material basis. It was determined by blood ties—or, as these ties were later to be called, race.

* Jews were defined as a separate race, rather than a part of the German nation. The French had attempted to emancipate them, and therefore they were seen as the beneficiaries of German humiliation. For these reasons, the Jews came to personify Western liberalism, individualism, and capitalism. Their allegedly vile nature, in accordance with the principles of romantic philosophy, was seen as a reflection of their blood or biological constitution, not their religion; thus there was no hope that they would ever change for the better.

* after World War II, nationalism in general was identified with resistance to change, conservatism, reaction, a hankering for the imaginary good old days—in short, with the right, and therefore as evil.

…The intelligentsia blamed acquiescence to the Holocaust on classical liberalism, with its stress on individual freedom, which implied the right to be indifferent to the suffering of others and the right to use one’s strengths to outcompete the weaker. …in the United States, this response dramatically increased the appeal of Marxism, socialism, communism, and anticapitalism in general, prompting leading sectors of the intelligentsia to self-identify as the left. At the same time, nationalism as such (that is, not a particular type of nationalism) was associated with gore and brutal primeval instincts, and defined as the opposite of the progressive direction of history.

For some forty years, nationalism was banished from discourse (among others, academic) and considered completely irrelevant to the life of nations. History equaled progress and was perceived by the majority of intellectuals as leftward oriented…transnationalism.

* Paradoxically, inside the United States, this shift in mentality coincided with growing concern with the rights of ethnic and racial minorities, as well as other groups underrepresented in the elites—women above all—which had been classed by their physical or genetic characteristics. These groups were presumed to be separate (in this sense, exclusive) but inclusive (that is, cutting through lines of status and class) communities of natural identity, parallel to the ways in which exclusive, ethnic nations were imagined in the framework of collectivistic-ethnic nationalisms, such as German and Russian. They all were presumed to be opposed to and suffering under the privileged or majority group, another naturally (biologically) constituted inclusive community of identity—that of white heterosexual males.

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Can You Lose Your Native Tongue?

When you speak one language, you think and feel differently than when you speak a different language.

Lian Greenfeld wrote in her 2016 Advanced Introduction to Nationalism: “Language, above everything else, is the medium of thinking, thinking representing the explicitly symbolic component of our consciousness, the explicitly symbolic mental process… To capture symbolic experiences (experiences produced by the specifically human, cultural environment) language is necessary; only it can incorporate them into reality. A stable sphere of new experiences presupposes the annexation to human existence of a new sphere of meaning which only language can create, the emergence of a new semantic space. Therefore, while one can imagine a social current without the participation of language, institutionalization without language is impossible. Any social order starts with the creation of a new vocabulary, and this is demonstrated by every case of nationalism…”

As you add languages, you don’t only add to your identity, you simultaneously replace, reduce and erase other identities.

Our languages master us as much as we master them.

Madeleine Schwartz writes in the New York Times:

Compared with English, French is slower, more formal, less direct. The language requires a kind of politeness that, translated literally, sounds subservient, even passive-aggressive. I started collecting the stock phrases that I needed to indicate polite interaction. “I would entreat you, dear Madam …” “Please accept, dear sir, the assurances of my highest esteem.” It had always seemed that French made my face more drawn and serious, as if all my energy were concentrated into the precision of certain vowels. English forced my lips to widen into a smile.

…Back in New York on a trip, I thanked the cashier at Duane Reade by calling him “dear sir.” My thoughts themselves seemed twisted in a series of interlocking clauses, as though I was afraid that being direct might make me seem rude. It wasn’t just that my French was getting better: My English was getting worse.

…Rather than seeing the process of becoming multilingual as cumulative, with each language complementing the next, some linguists see languages as siblings vying for attention. Add a new one to the mix, and competition emerges. “There is no age at which a language, even a native tongue, is so firmly cemented into the brain that it can’t be dislodged or altered by a new one,” Sedivy writes. “Like a household that welcomes a new child, a single mind can’t admit a new language without some impact on other languages already residing there.”

…Even languages that seem firmly rooted in the mind can be subject to attrition. “When you have two languages that live in your brain,” says Monika S. Schmid, a leader in the field of language attrition at the University of York, “every time you say something, every time you take a word, every time you put together a sentence, you have to make a choice. Sometimes one language wins out. And sometimes the other wins.”

…A change in language use, whether deliberate or unconscious, often affects our sense of self. Language is inextricably tied up with our emotions; it’s how we express ourselves — our pain, our love, our fear.

… “It appears that what is at the heart of language attrition is not so much the opportunity to use the language, nor the age at the time of emigration. What matters is the speaker’s identity and self-perception. … Someone who wants to belong to a speech community and wants to be recognized as a member is capable of behaving accordingly over an extremely long stretch of time. On the other hand, someone who rejects that language community — or has been rejected and persecuted by it — may adapt his or her linguistic behavior so as not to appear to be a member any longer.”

…Regarding a first language as having special value is itself the product of a worldview that places national belonging at the heart of individual life.

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Report: ‘A Failed Medical School’: How Racial Preferences, Supposedly Outlawed in California, Have Persisted at UCLA

Washington Free Beacon:

Up to half of UCLA medical students now fail basic tests of medical competence. Whistleblowers say affirmative action, illegal in California since 1996, is to blame.

Long considered one of the best medical schools in the world, the University of California, Los Angeles’s David Geffen School of Medicine receives as many as 14,000 applications a year. Of those, it accepted just 173 students in the 2023 admissions cycle, a record-low acceptance rate of 1.3 percent. The median matriculant took difficult science courses in college, earned a 3.8 GPA, and scored in the 88th percentile on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT).

Without those stellar stats, some doctors at the school say, students can struggle to keep pace with the demanding curriculum.

So when it came time for the admissions committee to consider one such student in November 2021—a black applicant with grades and test scores far below the UCLA average—some members of the committee felt that this particular candidate, based on the available evidence, was not the best fit for the top-tier medical school, according to two people present for the committee’s meeting.

Their reservations were not well-received.

When an admissions officer voiced concern about the candidate, the two people said, the dean of admissions, Jennifer Lucero, exploded in anger.

“Did you not know African-American women are dying at a higher rate than everybody else?” Lucero asked the admissions officer, these people said. The candidate’s scores shouldn’t matter, she continued, because “we need people like this in the medical school.”

Even before the Supreme Court’s landmark affirmative action ban last year, public schools in California were barred by state law from considering race in admissions. The outburst from Lucero, who discussed race explicitly despite that ban, unsettled some admissions officers, one of whom reached out to other committee members in the wake of the incident. “We are not consistent in the way we apply the metrics to these applicants,” the official wrote in an email obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. “This is troubling.”

“I wondered,” the official added, “if this applicant had been [a] white male, or [an] Asian female for that matter, [whether] we would have had that much discussion.”

Since Lucero took over medical school admissions in June 2020, several of her colleagues have asked the same question. In interviews with the Free Beacon and complaints to UCLA officials, including investigators in the university’s Discrimination Prevention Office, faculty members with firsthand knowledge of the admissions process say it has prioritized diversity over merit, resulting in progressively less qualified classes that are now struggling to succeed.

Race-based admissions have turned UCLA into a “failed medical school,” said one former member of the admissions staff. “We want racial diversity so badly, we’re willing to cut corners to get it.”

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UCLA Pro-Palestine Protests (5-23-24)

I report, you decide!

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