In Myths and Memories of the Nation, Smith discusses the “myth of ethnic election,” referring to the widespread belief that one’s ethnic community is a “chosen” solidarity. These groups need not be politically autonomous to survive. Rather than surviving in a political sense they can survive solely by the continued beliefs in their cultures. Examples would include Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Catalonia, among others. According to Smith, members of such groups feel as though they belong to a special “elect,” and that they have a moral obligation to sustain the solidarity’s unique cultural and, in many cases, linguistic or religious characteristics.
Of course, in this theory the so-called ‘elect’ is preceded by the ‘myth(s)’. What makes a group feel as though they are special or chosen? In Smith’s words, “To be worthy of forefathers who laid down their lives in these holy mountains and by the banks of these sacred rivers, must we not return to the ancient virtues and forsaken ways?” (1999:135) Many cases leap off the page to support this theory. Take for instance the American patriotic song My Country ‘Tis of Thee:
My country ‘tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died!
Land of the Pilgrim’s pride!
From every mountain side,
Let freedom ring! …
Ironically set to the tune of God Save the Queen, this song reflects a commonly shared bond to a national past and even a (mythical?) shared ancestry of ‘fathers’. But one might criticise this example for exemplifying an obviously modern nation in the case of the United States. After all, Smith’s argument is meant to provide evidence that while nationalism may be a modern phenomenon, nations themselves are rooted in pre-modern cultural and ethnic ties. Fair enough. How about, then, the Welsh national anthem:
(For a good visual-audio experience, head to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kUnCwV3AYE)
This land of my fathers is dear to me
Land of poets and singers, and people of stature
Her brave warriors, fine patriots
Shed their blood for freedom
Land! Land! I am true to my land!
As long as the sea serves as a wall for this pure, dear land
May the language endure for ever.
Old land of the mountains, paradise of the poets,
Every valley, every cliff a beauty guards;
Through love of my country, enchanting voices will be
Her streams and rivers to me.
Though the enemy have trampled my country underfoot,
The old language of the Welsh knows no retreat,
The spirit is not hindered by the treacherous hand
Nor silenced the sweet harp of my land.
Unsurprisingly, the anthem is meant to be sung in Welsh, and it serves as a great example of glorifying one “chosen” people, who according to the anthem refuse to allow their language to die, are extremely loyal to their ostensibly beautiful land, and will fight “the enemy” if needed.
Wales is what Smith would call an example of Communal-Demotic ethnic survival, most cases of which involve an ethnic group that has been conquered and must fight to preserve its culture. Communal-Demotic patterns also emphasize the importance of the “homeland” being linked to the group in question. Wales was granted a national assembly with secondary law-making powers in the late-’90s, and a referendum for more law-making power is due next March.
Meanwhile, Chechnya is arguably even less autonomous. The Caucasian Chechen ‘ethnie’ is an example of Smith’s Diaspora-Restoration ethnic survival. The constantly nomadic community attached the myth of being “chosen” to “patriots” moving to the direction of homeland, whose cultural connection was closely tied to the centurial ancestry. The latter finds its illustration in the folklore:
Noxçi (this is how they call themselves) Mohajirs (emigrants in Arabic), brothers of Mohammed,
Your land waits you, your blood of ancestry, your culture of fighter,
Will surpass from generation to generation,
Long live, long live, long live
(Sources: Book of Caucasian Folklore, Encyclopedia of stateless nations)
With these examples in mind, consider the following questions. We will try to address at least the bold-faced questions in class tomorrow:
1. Is Wales, which has witnessed somewhat of a surge in nationalism quite recently, an example of Smith’s pre-modern, ethnically conceived nation? Or could the recent political developments in Wales (and Scotland for that matter) be attributed more to Gellner’s modernity- and industrialisation-driven theory?
2. Do you believe Smith and Hastings when they claim that nations may have existed in medieval times, or even beforehand? Why or why not?
3. Smith says the modern idea of nationalism “has strengthened existing myths of ethnic chosenness and kindled new ones wherever ethnic groups have begun to crystallize and demand recognition.” (1997:140). Yet, he also says that nations existed before modern times, and preceded nationalism. Is this a contradiction, or can nationalism be both a product of, and catalyst for, nations and nation-building?
1. Smith finds that there are two time frames for “Neo–Perennialism”: medieval nations and ancient nations. To what degree do you agree with him that the two are distinct. Or, is Smith trying to solidify his stance by creating a definition that is too encompassing?
2. Walker Connor finds that the end point of nation-formation is when “the nation mobilizes large numbers of people that it becomes a ‘major force in history’. However, he concerns himself “with exactly how many members of a people must internalize a national identity” to solidify it. To what degree does Smith find fault with his argument? Do you think Connor has supporting evidence for his argument? (2004, 207-208)
1. “For in the language and symbolism of modern nationalism we find the contemporary equivalent of the old beliefs in ethnic election.” (1999:139)
“The nation is not an essence or fixed state that is either present or absent, or that one either possesses or lacks…It is a precipitate of a set processes which are variable in extent and intensity, and which may combine to produce a type of community that approximates, more or less, to the ideal type of nation.” (2004 article)
In light of the two quotations above and from your own knowledge of Smith, to what extent do you agree that ‘the nation’ is an ongoing process as opposed to a fixed state? (And could/should this process be argued to have begun in a pre-modern time period?)
2. If Smith accepts that modernity and nationalism play a key role in shaping ethnies do we still have ethnies today?
3. Does Smith’s ethnosymbolist approach give sufficient weight to political aspects necessary/inherent to nation-formation?
4. We often talk of nation-states as being the main political unit in the world today but the two are not synonymous. We are familiar with the idea of multi-nation states and nations without states, what do you make of the idea that it is possible to have a state without a nation? Can you think of any examples? (Smith mentions South Africa as an example of this in the 2004 article).
1. Smith states that nations begin with ethnic communities. Keeping this idea in mind, what would Smith say to the creation of Australia? How does Australia’s history as being a prisoner’s colony fit into Smith’s theory?
2. Switzerland was built mainly because of political reasons by different ethnies. What would Smith’s response be?
3. Considering ethno-symbolism: What consequences does that imply for modern state-building (Afghanistan, Iraq…)?
1. Can the ideology of Chechen nationalism be named as modern and the process of their ethnic survival pre-modern?
Feel free to watch the following YouTube video of a Chechen ritual dance to help form your opinion: