Re: Race and nationality as the cornerstone of Empire
Starting a new book today, I had one of those mental clicks that you get occasionally when you struggle with ideas like these. The book is "The Challenge of the American Revolution", by Edmund S. Morgan, and the click came from reading the first paragraph of the introduction, as follows:Every nation needs a history. Without the collective memory embodied in history a people would lose their collective identity in the same way that an individual suffering from amnesia loses his personal identity. But collective memory, like the memory of an individual, is apt to be faulty; it suppresses some events and reshapes others, and because it fades with the passage of time it often needs refreshing.
"The Challenge of the American Revolution", p. ix.
The thought that occurred to me, reading this, is that all of the various centers that we've talked of as serving as the focal point for building a national identity may all be limited expressions of a mutual history. What is necessary in building the idea of a nation, then, would be some sense that a people are united through their shared past, in whatever sense that's possible.
Further, each potential nation picks a limited historical viewpoint by picking some particular element of culture or myth. It's a form of suppression, really, that says, we're going to pay attention to what happened at this time
but not at that time
. So, when the Germans built their national identity around shared folk culture -- particularly the kitchen stories compiled by the Brothers Grimm -- they were drawing on a limited shared history and ignoring, say, the history of inter-tribal conflicts. The Serbians drew on a different aspect of culture, and thus created a different historical focal, but drawing on the myth of their long persecution as a people. But in both cases, it's the past that serves as the anchor for national identity, and some form of history is necessary for securing that identity.
In the wake of that mental click, I also thought about the chapters in Mircea Eliade's "The Sacred and the Profane" in which he discusses the concept of sacred time. Religious conceptions of identity also depend on a historical elements, one that highlight's the divine nature of a particular moment in the past (whether real or imagined) while simultaneously ignoring or suppressing historical events of equal standing.