Back at the beginning of January, I told you about a book I recently read called Imagined Communities, written by British-American political scientist Benedict Anderson. It is a thorough study of nationalism and its origins that includes religion, languages, history and cultures from all around the world, and it is definitely one of the best books I’ve read. I had originally planned on writing a normal review like I usually do but then thought I’d straight up tell you why you should read it, too.
“Who would have thought that the storm blows harder the farther it leaves Paradise behind?”
1. Because it is written in an eloquent, understandable and pleasant manner
Being a scientific publication, it is obviously harder to read than a novel (unless that novel was written by James Joyce in which case this will feel like a pamphlet), but Anderson has a very balanced writing style. Like all scientists, he touches on a lot of dry, difficult topics but the book never feels like it’s dragging. For me, there was never a moment when I stopped and thought, well I have no idea what I’ve been reading for the last three pages!
Also, he has a way with imagery that gives this book a sense of beauty. Jeet Heer wrote for the New Republic that Anderson is «as well-versed in novels and poetry as he was in scholarship», which refers to his knowledge, but you can see that influence in his own writing.
“Through that language, encountered at a mother’s knee and parted with only at the grave, pasts are restored, fellowships are imagined, and futures dreamed.”
2. Because his whole theory is based on one idea: It is all imagined
“In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”
A nation is not something that we can physically see or touch, nationalism isn’t a concrete ideology that we are taught, there’s nothing in our bodies that marks our nationality.
To Anderson, a nation is a community that is imagined because even though we can’t meet every single member, we somehow know that they are there, sharing our nation with us. We imagined it as limited because we have a clear idea of where its borders are and we know that beyond them there are other nations with their own people and their own borders. We imagine it as sovereign because the concept of nation was born when people decided that the legitimacy of a country wasn’t divine. We imagine it as a community because, despite all its problems and all the struggles and tragedies that we live within it, we still have some sense of belonging and of fraternity with other members.
Thus, we could say that everything that defines a nation and a society, the decisions we make, the way we treat people that live on the inside and on the outside, how we see those who are different from us, how we respond to foreign interventionism, it all depends on how we imagine them.
3. Because history isn’t watered down
The book has a detailed account of Imperialism and Colonialism. It deals with racism and prejudice, and it tries to give an explanation of how those things first manifested, but it does not try to water them or their consequences down. I know that at this point we shouldn’t be praising someone for telling something like it actually was but, sadly, academic writing (like any other form of writing) has a history of omitting and repackaging reality in favor of portraying itself as «the developed one».
Anderson doesn’t shy away from the fact that lots of languages, cultures, peoples, and complete identities were lost in the Southeast Asian colonies because the colonial administrations didn’t bother to respect the people that lived there before them and continued to do so after them:
“These ‘identities’ [were] imagined by the (confusedly) classifying mind of the colonial state. […] One notices, in addition, the census-makers’ passion for completeness and unambiguity. Hence their intolerance of multiple, politically ‘transvestite’, blurred or changing identifications. Hence the weird subcategory, under each racial group, of ‘Others’ – who, nonetheless, are absolutely not to be confused with other ’Others.’”
When talking about Simon Bolivar’s fight for freedom from Spanish rule in South America, Anderson does not forget to mention that one of his main motivations for the independence movement was based on the fear of black people taking over:
“One key factor initially spurring the drive for independence from Madrid, in such important cases as Venezuela, Mexico and Peru, was the fear of ‘lower-class’ political mobilizations: to wit, Indian or Negro-slave uprisings. […] The Liberator Bolivar himself once opined that a Negro revolt was ‘a thousand times worse than a Spanish invasion’”
4. Because we get to examine some of the objects that shaped our views of a shared culture
To Anderson, what we now know as nationalism was born in the 18th century Western Europe for several reasons, one of them being print capitalism. This means that thanks to the printing and distribution of books and newspapers in specific languages other than Latin led to people to begin identifying with that language. This means that all the people who read newspapers and books in German at some point understood the language as something they all shared, it wasn’t a language anymore, it was their language. The same thing happened to those who started reading books in French and in English.
Our sense of identity not only as individuals but within a community and culture is also closely linked to the use of common objects and institutions. Anderson talks about the role of things such as maps and museums in shaping our understanding of who we are, where we come from, where we are, and where we’re going. These themes are particularly important in media, Disney’s Moana and Pixar’s Coco are all about that:
5. Because it is still as relevant (if not more) as it was in the 80s
Anderson published Imagined Communities in 1983. The book was reissued in 1991 with some alterations and new chapters. Another revised and updated edition came out in 2006.
If there’s anything the current political situation tells us is that nationalism is still alive and kicking. The biggest political decisions we’ve seen during the last few years are based, amongst other things, on the way we imagine our nation and who is and isn’t part of it.
In the U.S., Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency base on nationalist ideas: this is us, this is our nation, these are the people that belong to our nation, this is our language, these are our borders, and beyond them are the people who are not us.
The Mexican presidential elections are this July and one of the strongest candidates is populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Much of his popularity is thanks to the awakened sense of nationalism thanks to the situation north of the border.
The Rohingya humanitarian crisis in Myanmar is based on the Rohingya’s Muslim ethnicity. They have lived in Buddhist Myanmar for centuries but are being persecuted because they are seen as «illegal immigrants» from Bangladesh. The reason for this paradox goes back to the time when Burma, India and Bangladesh were one British Colony. The British thought that Muslims were more reliable than Hindi and Buddhists and hence favored them for the relatively well-paid jobs in the colonial administration.
It is interesting that nationalism hasn’t changed all that much since it started. Yes, every country has a different form of nationalism and not everyone sees it as purely good or purely bad. It has been in its name that people have suffered rejection and discrimination even inside their own countries, wars have been waged and humans have been killed and borders have closed. But it also thanks to nationalism that people have risen against their oppressors, colonies became independent, sovereign nations, free to choose their leaders and free to celebrate their culture, their identity and their history. One thing is clear: Nationalism is always about defining one’s own identity by differentiating the self from the other, thus dividing people into different groups.
So however you may look at it, whatever you may feel about it, nationalism is something very present and deeply rooted in our culture, and we should all at least have a look at what it is, how it came to be, and what it could be.
Special thanks to René Muschter for his brilliant input, his thoughts, his comments, and his support!