Earlier this week, a senior retired diplomat tweeted a “joke” that France was the last African country to remain in the football World Cup. African ostensibly because many of the French players have sub-Saharan ancestry. This is not a particularly original joke or a new charge. In 2005, the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut unwittingly went down this path when he said that the French soccer team “has become black, black, black and [France] the laughing stock of Europe”. Notwithstanding the infelicity of disseminating a racialist talking point of the French right wing, what the “joke” revealed is that even intelligent outsiders think of the ‘nation’ in terms that are at odds with what in fact constitutes it.
Across a wide swathe of Indo-European historical memory, the word nation has been intimately tied to the idea of birth. The root word natio comes from the old Latin word
(to be born), which scholars tell us comes from a proto-Indo European language root -gena (to give birth). In Old Avestan (ancient language of Iran), the word appears as -zizanenti (they give birth) and in Sanskrit as ‘-jana’ (birth). In Indian political history, the word goes onto acquire other valences and utility — as ‘jana’ (the people) or as ‘janapada’ (the republic). Today, the word nationalist has a certain positive shine to it (albeit the cosmopolitans may disagree), in ancient Rome the word ‘natio-’ had a derogatory flavour. The natives of Rome used the term to describe outsiders who were united by their birth in a specific area. Foreigners are, as the Greeks had it, merely a stone throw away from barbarians.
A marker of the elite
Around the late 13th century, when universities in Europe began to slowly acquire a patina of respectability, they sent out groups of theological scholars to deliberate on disputes inside church councils. A cluster of scholars who had similar opinions or followed the same schools of interpretation were often classified as belonging to a nation. As is to be expected, where an authority to adjudicate exists, the political power of the state or the monarch soon intercedes. Before long, these interpreters of the ecclesiastics ended up as representatives of their secular masters — the local lords, lieges, and kings. Despite this growing relationship with the secular powers, the nation remained a marker of the elite who lived in a world of universities, courts, and churches. Being part of a nation implied being a willing participant and adherent to a particular mode of thinking, a world far removed from farmers, blacksmiths, labourers.
A homogenous entity
By the early 15th century, however, this idea of a nation became synonymous with ‘the people’. Thus, a descriptor used by the elites to describe themselves ended up being deployed to include the lower classes across feudal societies of Europe, and more particularly in England. With this commingling of subjects — the elite and the demotic — under one category came a transformation of mentalities: people began to see themselves as an homogenous whole. The visible differences such as class and wealth were, under the gaze of the nation, ultimately less important. With this privileging of one kind of social cohesion over all others began the age of nationalism.
At its heart, the nation demands a theory of homogeneity alongside with a belief in the distinctiveness, if not superiority, of the people. When the right wing mocks the African origins of many of the French players, to the question about what sort of homogeneity describes the French nation, their answer is: a biological homogeneity. Thus, according to this calculus, a non-white person could never be French. Elsewhere, when the RSS speaks about a Hindu Rashtra, the vision of homogeneity they demand of the nation is a membership in a Hindu cultural paradigm. In Israel, the homogeneity that marks the Jewish nation is, by construction, a religious one. In Rwanda of the 1990s, the homogeneity demanded of the nation was an ethnic one.
In each of these cases, there are fundamental barriers that prevent outsiders to be included to the nation. For most people, these demands of homogeneity — based on skin colour, mother tongues, adopting new cultural practices, or religion — are not just onerous but also violates their sense of self.
Meanwhile, liberal democracies buck this trend. Citizenship in liberal democracies is a matter of voluntary subscription to a code of rules (the Constitution). The homogeneity demanded is of the mind and principles and not of body, race, or language. The result is that liberal democracies can only survive by supplanting the original value system. The wave of populist and nativist rhetoric that we see today, within and against liberal democracies, world over, is an effort to return to an older conception of nation — one predicated on race, ethnicity, culture, and religion. The seductiveness of an older vision coupled with the inefficiencies and corruption of the liberal order should give any liberal democrat a pause. The responses and reactions to the football World Cup remind us that beneath all the feel-good rhetoric of benign nationalism or postnationalism, a deeper and darker version of nationalism burbles, awaiting an viable opportunity to pour through.
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