Obsolete Democracy III: Must You Be a Nation? Composing, 14/10/2016

Continued from last post . . . Here's what I've been trying to figure out for the last few days of thinking about Partha Chatterjee’s thoughts about “political society.” What kinds of words will we use to talk about communities that unify in state institutions, but maintain and grow their differences without the unity of nationhood?

To state the problem as a paradox – How can you have a nation without nationhood? A nation of many nationalities?

I don’t want to keep talking in paradoxes, though. That’s what kept Derrida from being read seriously by thousands of overly-rational Anglos, and what spawned way too many genuinely obscurantist writers who thought they were being deep.

I've spent a lot of different posts on this blog thinking about the allure of nationalism – what about its nature seduces people into some of the most horrifying violence of humanity’s last few centuries. 

This was the image that contributed heavily to killing France's short-lived
ban on the burkini – modest swimwear marketed largely to Muslim
women. It's the image of state authority forcing a citizen to strip in
public because of her choice of clothing. This act was done in the name
of defending France's democratic tradition of civil secularism. Yes,
this is an extremely democratic activity.
The core of Utopias is a philosophy of community. How do we build a community that can become a true democracy? A place where people can be as free as possible to do what they want with their lives. 

When we look at nationalism today, we see horrid results. Barbed wire fences strung along the length of a country’s entire border to keep migrants and war refugees out. Migrant detention camps on isolated islands lock people in hideous conditions – even as they flee military regimes and ecological disasters. 

And on my own continent, we have Donald Trump, his ultra-nationalist followers, and the pale imitations of his white supremacist politics creeping even into Canada’s Conservative party

One of the most grotesque displays of nationalism I think I’ve seen this year is the militant defence of the French national concept of laïcité – enforcing secularism on a Muslim minority to the point of stripping headscarves and other modest garments from them in public

The real motives and actions of hijab-wearing women make no difference when national unity appears at stake. In the French case, this is why Jacques Rancière wrote in Hatred of Democracy that there's little essential difference between ultra-nationalists like Marine Le Pen and liberal internationalists like Bernard Henri-Levy. 

So what do these different nationalist expressions reveal about nationalism? Let’s take it by each example. 

When the Hungarian government builds fences along its borders to keep Syrians out, or Trump dreams of his Great Wall Paid By Mexico. This is a vision of the nation that includes its citizens by excluding others. The nation as defined by the boundary, the border. In or out.

When the Australians lock migrants in indefinite detention, in the hells of their camps on isolated islands like Nauru. The petition for citizenship, to join a community, becomes itself a crime. 

To come from one community – no matter its hardship, suffering, or disastrous existence – and ask for the brotherhood or a new community. It’s such an affront to the petitioned community’s sense of decency and right that the petitioners are dehumanized, their persecution, imprisonment, and suffering legitimized. 

When a country like France or Quebec demands cultural uniformity from its citizens – Muslim women have their hijabs stripped off, or synagogues are pelted with porkchops. Nationhood becomes a template for each member’s personality. Conformity is valued above creativity, self-expression, and difference. Nationhood assaults democracy.

If we let these ideas – borders and exclusion, criminalizing petitions for brotherhood, and cultural conformity – define our nation, then nationhood and democracy really do seem incompatible. To have a nation without nationhood truly becomes a paradox. 

Chatterjee's examples show that our countries and communities don’t have to be this way. So why do so many of us think they do? And what would this democratic nationhood look like? . . . To Be Continued

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