24 June 2014

Cultural nationalism

We think of nationalism as a political phenomenon, but in the present age it can take another form which is almost equally important, which I call cultural nationalism.

I define cultural nationalism as the mass re-assertion, in cultural rather than political forms, of a sense of national identity which is felt to be under threat.  There isn't a leader or an ideology or a written mission statement, and if organizations exist at all, they're generally innocuous and more an effect that a cause.  It starts among ordinary people and largely stays there.  It can appeal to people who are uncomfortable with the often more aggressive and ideological character of political nationalism.  It can, however, eventually lead to a later rise of political nationalism, as we'll see.

An example of a country where cultural nationalism has become important is the United Kingdom.  People in the land of my ancestors have felt their sense of identity to be under attack for several decades due to three factors which are unprecedented in modern British history.  One is large-scale immigration, especially Muslim immigration, which has introduced a radically-different culture into the country; Muslims are only 4.4% of the total population, but their presence has been highly visible and assertive.  The second factor is the European Union, Europe's increasingly intrusive and unaccountable supra-national quasi-government.  The third, perhaps most important in this context, is a sporadic tendency by the authorities to discourage symbols and practices which are felt to be potentially "offensive" to Muslims.

An example of the latter involves the English flag, not to be confused with the familiar British flag (The UK is made up of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but England has 85% of the population).  The English flag is traditionally displayed on St. George's Day, England's national holiday, but because it resembles the flag used by the Crusaders, it was discouraged as potentially offensive (example here).  In the last few years, though, the flag and other traditional St. George's Day practices have been resurgent.  There isn't an obvious political component to all the dressing up and slaying of plastic-and-cloth dragons.  It's just people re-asserting who they are and, perhaps, sticking it to the finger-wagging busybodies.

Cultural nationalism also often asserts itself in music.  What first made me aware of the concept, in fact, was a folk-rock band called Show of Hands (again, more an English than a British phenomenon -- the distinction isn't too relevant to this post, though the English themselves are very conscious of it).  You couldn't ask for a better example of cultural nationalism than this song:

Again, there is nothing political here, but the appeal to reclaim identity is fervent and explicit.  Show of Hands is enormously popular, having for example sold out the Royal Albert Hall (a huge venue) several times.

One striking thing about the re-assertion of cultural identity in Britain is that religion has been decisively rejected as a component of it, even though there is an official state religion.  Rosa Rubicondior, a British blogger, discussed this last week, and I particularly note this chart based on a recurring survey of what British people themselves consider the most important components of their identity:
Being Christian ranks by far the least important of all the factors surveyed, and is falling in importance over time.  (More on nationalism vs. religion here.)  Cultural nationalism in Europe is routinely smeared as racist (and racists certainly do exist there, as everywhere); there was no question about race in the survey, but note that having British ancestry also ranks much lower in importance than most of the other factors.

Cultural nationalism can presage a later rise of political nationalism; questions like intrusive international organizations, and the clash between religious "sensibilities" and free expression, have a political dimension.  Establishment pundits were startled by the electoral victories of the explicitly nationalistic UK Independence Party, and similar parties in other European countries, last month.  They shouldn't have been.  But they need to start paying more attention to those fake-dragon slayers and sold-out folk-rock shows, and less attention to officious tie-wearing people pronouncing upon what is and isn't correct thought -- and that kind of thing doesn't come naturally to most pundits.

Cultural nationalism is asserting itself in many places, though it can sometimes be hard to recognize -- by its very nature, it takes somewhat different forms in each country.  But for better or worse, it's a manifestation of something very important, and in many cases it tells us more about what the future has in store than the words of politicians, always deemed more newsworthy, ever can.


Anonymous Zosimus the Heathen said...

I'm not sure if I've noticed a resurgence of cultural nationalism where I'm living, although some of the same concerns that have led to it in the UK exist here too. Right now, for example, there's a lot of anger over the current government doing its seeming best to push some odious economic neoliberal agenda that's widely seen as "unAustralian", and there're also concerns about some Muslims who live here pushing values that are considered largely antithetical to most people's as well (some years back, for example, one rather inflammatory imam here caused a great deal of outrage by describing women who don't cover their whole bodies as "uncovered meat").

Re the resurgence of folk music, I've gotten into a lot of European folk metal, which, as its name suggests, combines folk music with heavy metal (there's a particularly interesting variant of this from Scandinavia called Viking metal, which celebrates that region's Viking heritage). This has unfortunately gained a reputation among a lot of people for being racist or even neo-Nazi (so much so, in fact, that a few years ago, a couple of fairly big names in the genre felt compelled to release a video statement saying they weren't Nazis), but for the most part, it's just good wholesome fun. (There are some exceptions, such as a band from Ukraine called Nokturnal Mortum, whose style of music is described as National Socialist Black Metal. Sort of a pity, as their material's really quite good from a purely musical perspective.)

26 June, 2014 06:39  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I suspect cultural nationalism comes most naturally to old, long-established countries, than to newer ones like Australia and the US where identity is less settled and more in flux. Of course Britain, and every modern country, has changed enormously in the last couple of centuries, but there's a feeling of long continuity, and in such matters perception trumps reality (they can be quite different).

Thanks for the tip on Viking music. On a possibly-related note, perhaps you're familiar with this guy.

I really hope Australia succeeds in fending off that "neoliberal agenda", which I gather is the same kind of tendency we call "libertarian" here. I grow increasingly worried about this country's future because of it.

26 June, 2014 19:35  
Anonymous Zosimus the Heathen said...

Yeah, I've heard of Mortiis, and probably listened to a handful of songs he's done as well. What an interesting character he is! (I gave the video of Show of Hands a watch as well; that was pretty good.)

The people pushing the neoliberal agenda here aren't so much libertarian as socially conservative and economically liberal, which, as I like to describe it, is all the bad bits of libertarianism and none of the good bits! We do have our own libertarian party here now (yay!), a newish party called the Liberal Democrats. They have some very appealing policies (eg gay marriage, legalizing marijuana, and keeping us out of other country's wars); unfortunately, however, buried in among all of those are some decidedly less appealing policies such as privatizing every publicly-owned asset that hasn't already been sold off, and giving people the "freedom" to work for low wages (because obviously the big evil unions are causing unemployment by making labour too expensive, or however the bullshit libertarian argument goes). There probably was a time when I would've been seduced by libertarianism myself (mainly because of its opposition to things like the idiotic War on Drugs); however, I grew disillusioned with it when I realized that its philosophy basically boiled down to: "Power in the hands of government - bad! That same power in the hands of big, faceless corporations even less accountable to the people they screw over than the government - good!"

30 June, 2014 06:54  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I listened to a couple of No0kturnal Mortum songs. The music's not bad, but I just can't get into that hoarse-growly style of singing.

I went through a period of being libertarian and taking Ayn Rand seriously. I think many intellectually-curious people do that. It's worrisome how many people get stuck in that phase, though. You've spotted the basic flaw -- they oppose interference in individual freedom only when that interference comes from government -- when it's from a private entity, they twist everything around to justify it. 99% of the population would have much less freedom under libertarianism than they do now.

01 July, 2014 06:37  

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