“We have to concede that […] there remain ‘non-rational’ elements of explosive power and tenacity in the structure of nations and the outlook and myth of nationalism. These elements stem from the profound historical roots of the myths, symbols, memories, and values that define the ethnic substratum of many modern nations. These are elements that many of us, including many social scientists, would prefer to ignore, but we do so at our peril. The conflicts that embitter the geo-politics of our planet often betray deeper roots than the clash of economic interests and political calculations would suggest.”
Introducing Anthony D. Smith
Anthony D. Smith is a leading theorist in the field of nationalism studies and ethnosymbolism. Although he was a student of Ernest Gellner, his theories depart from his predecessor and the modernist paradigm. Instead, Smith focuses on the historical process, la longue durée, which culminated with the establishment of the modern concept, nationalism. Despite the fact that nationalism is relatively novel concept, Smith argues that origins of nations “can be traced back to pre-modern ethnic communities,” otherwise defined as ethnies (“Origins of Nations” 340). According to Smith, ethnies have existed since ancient and medieval times, and have been instrumental in “[furnishing] the nation with much of its distinctive mythology, symbolism and culture, including its association with an ancient homeland” (“Origins of Nations” 360).
- A nation is “a named community of history and culture, possessing a unified territory, economy, mass education system and common legal rights”
- Nationalism is “an ideological movement for attaining and maintaining the autonomy, unity and identity of an existing or potential ‘nation’”
English National Identity and the Human Rights Act
In his article, “‘Set in the silver sea:’ English national identity and European Integration,” Smith asserts that there is “growing friction” between Britain and the European Commission due to the concern that the EC’s projects have encroached “into [Britain’s] political and possibly, cultural spheres” (435). Furthermore, English Euroskeptics are suspicious of the notion that a supranational identity, embodied in the EU, has been realized and can “subsume national loyalties and identities” (‘Set in the silver sea’ 434). Indeed, “English Euroskeptics discern a specific threat to the unique character of English institutions, in particular to English common law” (‘Set in the silver sea’ 435). According to Smith, the attachment to English common law pre-dates the conception of Britain as a modern state, beginning with Alfred the Great’s introduction of an English code of laws at the end of the Ninth Century “based on the laws of the several Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, as well as [those] in the book of Exodus and the New Testament,” which were expanded upon during the Norman period (Eleventh Century) to incorporate legal customs such as “trial by jury” (‘Set in the silver sea’ 440). The early development of English law has been a significant facet, if not the bedrock, of establishing a common English national identity: “By the thirteenth century, English law was regarded as one of the distinctive hallmarks of Englishness and as an integral part of English political culture” (‘Set in the silver sea’ 440). In light of Westminster’s recent challenges to the Human Rights Act (HRA), Smith’s discussion of English Euroskepticism becomes all the more relevant.
Parliament enacted the HRA in 1998 with the aim of incorporating the rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into British law. Besides strengthening human rights law domestically, the HRA makes it possible for breaches of the Convention to be remedied in UK courts rather than the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Since its inception, Conservative leaders have routinely expressed their aversion to the HRA, with Prime Minster David Cameron running on the platform of dismantling it all together and replacing it with a British Bill of Rights. Cameron has condemned the HRA as having hindered the ability of the UK to “[respond] properly in terms of terrorism, particularly in terms of deporting those who may do us harm” as well as for forcing the UK “to apply the human rights convention even on the battlefields of Helmand […and] give prisoners the vote” (“Cameron ‘could scrap’ rights act;” “Cameron’s pledge to scrap HRA angers civil rights groups”).
In many of his statements, Cameron has rejected the cosmopolitan nature of the HRA while insisting upon maintaining the English-character of law in the UK: “We do not require instruction on this from judges in Strasbourg. So at long last, with a Conservative government after the next election, this country will have a new British Bill of Rights, to be passed in our parliament, rooted in our values” (“Cameron’s pledge to scrap HRA angers civil rights groups”). Supporters of the HRA are baffled as to how a British Bill of Rights would differ from the HRA since very little has been said about what rights Cameron and the Tories would include or not include. Additionally, the UK would still be obligated to follow the Convention’s requirements as well as implement the decisions from the Strasbourg Court, unless it chose to withdraw entirely, as Chris Grayling has suggested doing “if parliament failed to secure the right to veto judgments form the ECHR” (“Tories plan to withdraw UK from ECHR”). Upon reading Smith’s piece on the centrality of English common law in forging a sense of British national identity, it is evident that the HRA has reignited English Euro-skepticism.
Does Smith’s analysis of the English national identity offer any valuable insight into Cameron and the Tories’ proposition to scrap the HRA? To what extent is the rhetoric regarding the dismantling of the HRA and replacing it with a British Bill of Rights merely political rhetoric designed to mobilize popular support? If it is merely rhetoric intended to manipulate members of the populace into supporting the Conservative agenda, does that degrade the national identity of a people shaped by a distinct collective history? Should it be dismissed? Must the populace’s sense of national identity be legitimatized by government elites?
For more information:
- BBC: Cameron ‘could scrap’ rights act
- The Guardian: Cameron’s pledge to scrap Human Rights Act angers civil rights groups
- The Guardian: Tories plan to withdraw UK from ECHR
The importance of myths: The tale of the mermaid and the tomb of Amphipolis
Kiki Dimoula, a famous Greek poet, wrote recently about the new archaeological discovery in Amphipolis: “Where there is a land, there is a country, so I pray and dream that Alexander the Great is the owner of that tomb. This comes not from megalomania. I want the distraught mermaid to stop drowning in the high seas of a question: Is king Alexander alive? Yes, I answer”.
Smith argues that ancient Greece could be considered an ethnie, since the different poleis recognized a common heritage and common cultural community (Smith, 1989: 345). Parts of this heritage survived the aggregations of the East Roman empire and became part of the pre-modern and modern folklore. Indeed, the tale in which Dimoula refers to -about the sister of Alexander that transformed into a mermaid and created shipwrecks because of her brother’s death- has been quite popular in Greece, even before the formation of the state in 1830 (http://chain.eu/?m3=28662). The Greek king who built a powerful empire was a reminder of an identity that distinguished the people that lived in the Greek region of the Ottoman Empire.
At the time Alexander was, as Smith would put it, a myth of common origin, historical continuity and descent for the population (Smith, 1989: 344). Later on, Alexander became a symbol of unity which came to be the mythomoteur of the nation (Smith, 1986: 229), the myth that gave the Greeks a sense of purpose. “Once all together, we are unstoppable” is a phrase often heard even today and was the motto behind the “Greece of three continents and five seas” expedition at 1920 and the Greek Resistance of 1940. That is the reason the mythological mermaid mourns for his death. In fact, she mourns for the glory that was (or could have been) Greece.
Today, many Balkan states fight over the national identity of Alexander the Great. However, if he is indeed buried in greek soil, Greeks will have one more reason to believe that they rightfully claim their ancestry and, after the 2009 crisis, will once again find a reason to be proud of it. The memory of Alexander gives them hope for a better future and re-establishes the myths and symbols of a golden past (http://www.ekathimerini.com/4dcgi/_w_articles_wsite4_1_24/09/2014_543162, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/justine-frangouliargyris/a-monument-of-hope_b_5871726.html?utm_hp_ref=greece ).
The example of Greece is a solid argument for Smith, because the ethnie preserved its distinctive cultural identity and tradition based on religion and language for over two centuries.
However, are myths important enough to be considered the core of a nation? Could the symbolic nature of an ancient ruin form one’s national identity? How do you perceive your nation’s myths and symbols?
Details about the Amphipolis tomb: http://www.theamphipolistomb.com/
First nations and the Idle No More movement
Smith observes two different paths wherein a nation is formed which differ according to the sort of ethnic trajectory they follow. There are the lateral ethnies, that incorporate and create a nation with the help of the bureaucratic state ( Smith, Origin of nations p.352). The second path is that of demotic ethnies that, according to Smith, often have an intelligentsia, recreating, reinventing and harnessing tradition, myths and symbols with an ultimate agenda of creating a nation ( Smith, Origin of nations, p. 355).
Smith also looks into why ethnic groups survive, referring to ethnic groups sharing cultural attributes. He discusses the value of surviving as a cultural community based on shared myths and values mentioning also that “the members of an ethnic community must feel (…) that their heritage must be preserved against inner corruption and external control, and the community has a sacred duty to expand its cultural values to outsiders”( Smith, Chosen people why ethnic groups survive, p.438).
This all leads to a case study that perhaps can be looked at with the help of Smiths theory.
The Idle No More movement which originated from Canada in 2012 has grown in both number and recognition world wide, most recently they were a part of the New York Climate march( HTTP://www.idlenomore.ca/news)
Read more about the movement – http://www.idlenomore.ca/
At its core the movement wants to promote rights for First nations around the world. The strongest movement however, remains in Canada and is driven by their First Nation communities. The group also wish to reclaim their culture and symbols promoting campaigns such as promoting the abolition of native imagery in sports teams http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatoon/change-bedford-road-redmen-name-school-board-says-1.2560182 ( In this case the campaign was successful and the team changed their name)
They have also linked themselves to the green movement arguing that the two are intrinsically connected groups, and by honouring treaties a green sustainable society can be supported. They have their own core “intelligentsia” in their chiefs and community leaders. The movement is however problematic to analyze from the context of nationalism as it seems that it will not able to reach the primary goal of demotic ethnies, namely an own homeland. Nevertheless, they do have claims to their territories and demand that their treaties be honoured.
Does the limited goal of territory over a nation state creation perhaps limit our ability to study the movement though a nationalistic lens?
I would argue that it does show examples of Smiths theory of the demotic ethnies and their mobilization, what do you think?
In general, are studies of indigenous people hard to relate to nationalism studies or do we simply tend to view nationalism as a strictly modern and western phenomenon?