Over the rainy weekend, I had a chance to visit the revised edition of Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. This was a deliberate read, as I was curious as to how my refreshed perspectives on storytelling and cognitive integrity might help me understand and reframe the identity narratives of national belonging. As I read Anderson's analysis of the genesis of nationality, nation-ness and nationalism as cultural artifacts, I couldn't help but reflect on my own story, so, auto-ethnography, if you will.
My primary school years were largely passed in a heightened atmosphere of patriotism due to the US engagement in WWII. Each school day began with the Pledge of Allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, the flag prominently displayed in every classroom, and the singing of either the national anthem or another patriotic hymn such as "My Country 'tis of Thee" or "America the Beautiful." Sometimes the songs were sung marching from recess to class. These performative elements, rhetoric, music and dance, as they were shared, projected the identity narrative into a whole body experience as well as connectivity with the immediate group and those who shared the experience elsewhere. We're all singing our song and our song is singing us!
The transformation of the theocratic and dynastic social structures into the model we now know and recognize as the nation state was a process of fits and starts in Europe. It was more solidly anchored in the experience of the transformation of colonies into independent states in the Americas, ultimately providing an identity model to be adopted and adapted to this day in nationalist movements worldwide. While democratic aspirations emerged in certain situations, this shift did not necessarily imply the absence of dictatorial behavior or internalized religious definitions of society, fights for rulership and for divine approbation of the new national entities. The God of faith may have been abandoned by many and crowned heads are no longer visible, but the nation radiates divine splendor and begs worship and royal respect.
Anderson points out three paradoxical elements in the perception of nation states and national identities. First, they are historically recent, yet possess a subjective antiquity, even eternal roots in the eyes of those defined by them. Secondly, the belief that everyone has, or should have a nationality as much as having a gender, yet each nationality is seen as s limited community, bearing sovereignty over its subjects. Thirdly, the political power of nationalisms can be awesome, despite their invented nature and lack of accurate substratum and reasoned intelligibility. They function as a meta-récit despite their historical and factual poverty. How do they come about?
It is said that history is written by the winners. Forgetfulness or selective memory is essential to the creation of the national mindset found in my 6th grade history books, geographies and civics texts. Remembering what contributes to the desired identity and eliminating unfitting facts is essential in creating a story that is embraceable.
Unaware that the plagiarized score of "My Country 'tis of Thee" was the tune of "God Save the King", we grooved to the music that still links us to the colonial power rejected by the founders of the nation. We accept that figures in the past were "forefathers" and "ancestors", singing "Land where my fathers died" despite the majority of our roots being elsewhere. We glory in the "Land of the Pilgrims' pride" forgetting that they and subsequent glorified groups launched genocide on indigenous peoples. Factual history is mythologized and made the basis of identity and future destiny. We continue to sing our song and our song continues to sing us!