Wednesday, November 4, 2009

National Identity

(Part 1: The "Inevitability" of War) - (Part 2: Racism) - (Part 3: Implicit Association) - (Part 4: National Identity) - (Part 5: Multiculturalism)

In my first blog post, I talked at length about the defeatist mentality that war is inevitable. In my most recent blog posts, however, I have written about the racist sentiments that still plague our country. It is my goal in this blog, therefore, to connect these two concepts: the “inevitability of war” and “racism”. The resulting mixture of these two concepts is responsible for the superior nationalistic identity people have of themselves in various parts of the world. My intended goal for this blog post is to further explain this important connection and to convince you that one's national identity is a primary factor in armed conflict throughout the world.
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"When a nation is roaring Patriotism at the top of its voice, I am fain to explore the cleanliness of its hands and purity of its heart."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson (qtd. Altheide)

I have talked at length about how implicit and explicit racism of others has a profound effect on conflict. It is equally important, however, to address the inflated views that a society may have of their own culture. Such sentiments lay the groundwork for persecution of other people groups based on the superiority complex of the offending group. As a result, before racist conflict can be resolved, nationalism – blind loyalty to your country – must first be addressed.

A national identity that strongly emphasizes differences between in-group and out-group members can easily give way to conflict. Such national identities usually encompass "language, territory, religion... [shared] attitudes, perceptions, and sentiments such as respecting political institutions..." (Kunovich). The latter can be a particularly dangerous criterion for defining nationalism as it can lead to unyielding devotion to a government's questionable domestic and foreign policies. Such sentiments were noted immediately following the September 11th terrorist attacks on America. People who opposed President Bush's controversial domestic wiretapping of American citizens were deemed unpatriotic and were therefore, at least before Bush's approval rating declined, excluded from the prevailing national identity. Similarly, concerned citizens who called for withdrawal of American troops were labeled in a similar fashion thereby decreasing the chances of any meaningful debate on foreign policy. Such criteria used to define one's national identity can easily give way to the self-fulfilling prophecy that war is inevitable due to the perceived violent nature of nations and communities that do not belong to the in-group. Such a notion can prove extremely useful to even the most incompetent of politicians as it enables them to justify virtually any act of foreign aggression as a means of protecting American lives.

Should a nation's prevailing national identity be challenged, especially from an in-group source, that member or institution will usually be vociferously decried as an un-patriotic enemy of the country. Such was the case with a "controversial" exhibit displayed by the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in 1994. This exhibit, centered on the Enola Gay, the US aircraft responsible for deploying the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, brings light to the loss of innocent Japanese civilians that were killed in that event. Immediately following the display, several institutions and individuals including "the Air Force Association, the American Legion, Col. Tibbets, [former Vice President] Quayle, and [Washington Post columnist] Krauthammer" along with several politicians unleashed a slew of "verbal assaults" against the museum (Little). Such an exhibit only aggravated the cognitive dissonance that many American's had felt about the justification of the firebombing and nuclear warfare against Japanese civilians. To call into question the actions of the American military during World War II certainly conflicted with the national identity that politicians and social institution have rigorously constructed for American citizens. A clearly distraught Charles Krauthammer slandered the exhibit as underplaying "Japanese savagery in the conduct of World War II... It is an exhibit with dozens of wrenching photos and touching artifacts from Hiroshima, heavily weighted toward those from women and children... [it] casts the Japanese as victims, the kamikaze pilots as heroes and the Americans as the vengeful heavy" (qtd. Little). Clearly, however, innocent Japanese were the intended target of the bombings. To fail to acknowledge as much, just like Mr. Krauthammer did, shows just how desensitizing and dangerous such a national identity can be.

After exploiting the sentiment that war with the barbaric out-group members is inevitable, a nation often times uses racial overtones to justify an assault on other nations and ethnicities. Just as Krauthammer so brazenly attempted to dehumanize the Japanese of World War II in his column, so did most Americans dehumanize Arabs and Muslims as a means of justifying an invasive Middle Eastern foreign policy proceeding the September 11th attacks. Such desensitization to the well-being of out-group members is a key component of resolving the cognitive dissonance brought about by a national identity that justifies aggressive behavior from the in-group. The primary way of dealing with a destructive national identity is to foster more tolerant, open-minded values within the younger generation – in other words, multiculturalism.

Works Cited

Altheide, David L. "Consuming Terrorism." Symbolic Interaction. 27.3 (2004): 289-308.

Kunovich, Robert M. "The Sources and Consequences of National Identification." American Sociological Review 74.7. (2009): 573-593.

Little, Monroe. "Remembering Hiroshima: Cultural Politics, World War II and American Consciousness." Western Journal of Black Studies. 21.1 (1997): 34-41.

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