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Thursday, September 28, 2017

National Unity and the Sins of the Past

"Dans le passé, un héritage de gloire et de regrets à partager, dans l'avenir un même programme à réaliser ; avoir souffert joui, espéré ensemble, voilà ce qui vaut mieux que des douanes communes et des frontières conformes aux idées stratégiques ; voilà ce que l'on comprend malgré les diversités de race et de langue. Je disais tout à l'heure : « avoir souffert ensemble » ; oui, la souffrance en commun unit plus que la joie. En fait de souvenirs nationaux, les deuils valent mieux que les triomphes, car ils 
imposent des devoirs, ils commandent l'effort en commun."

"A people shares a glorious heritage as well, regrets, and a common program to realize. Having suffered, rejoiced, and hoped together is worth more than common taxes or frontiers that conform to strategic ideas and is independent of racial or linguistic considerations. “Suffered together”, I said, for shared suffering unites more than does joy. In fact, periods of mourning are worth more to national memory than triumphs because they impose duties and require a common effort." (Translation by Ethan Rundell.)

Ernest Renan, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? (What is a Nation?), 1882.

If you've never read this text, I really encourage you to do so.  It was a lecture Renan gave at the Sorbonne in the late 19th century in which he asked this deceptively simple question.  At a time when people viewed race, ethnicity, language, national borders and even common interests as the elements that make up a nation, Renan argued rather that a nation has a "soul" that is composed of the past and the present:  "One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present consent, the desire to live together, the desire to continue to invest in the heritage that we have jointly received."

That is a emotionally stirring and surprisingly inclusive definition.  It's not something that one can prove empirically and the fact that he had to argue for it says that many at that time would have disagreed. Many still would.  Is is possible to conceive of the French or Japanese nations today without the French and Japanese languages? And yet Renan argues against making it a defning feature of the nation for "When one exaggerates its importance, one limits and closes oneself up in a particular culture understood as national. One leaves the open air that one breathes in the midst of humanity in order to lock one’s self away in little freemasonries of one’s compatriots."

However, where I definitely part ways with Renan is when I read these passages (the ones most often quoted):   
"Forgetting, I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation and it is for this reason that the progress of historical studies often poses a threat to nationality. Historical inquiry, in effect, throws light on the violent acts that have taken place at the origin of every political formation, even those that have been the most benevolent in their consequences." and "However, the essence of a nation is that all of its individual members have a great deal in common and also that they have forgotten many things. No French citizen knows whether he is a Burgund, an Alain, a Taifala, or a Visigoth. Every French citizen has forgotten St. Bartholomew’s Day and the thirteenth-century massacres in the Midi."
Renan argued that forgetting was a good thing: A collective memory of the past is what makes it possible for members of the nation to envision a common future.  This is an appeal to national unity which should, in his view, override historical accuracy.  

This argument is still with us;  you can hear it in the US, in Japan and in France.  Some say Why do we have to keep talking about the history and legacy of slavery and colonialism?  Let us all instead indulge in a collective act of selective amnesia and just move on. There are many answers to that suggestion written by far wiser people than I.  But my belief is that this simply can not be asked of people whose recent ancestors suffered great injustices and who are still feeling the weight of the past in the present.

This proposition also offends my own honor:  Am I so small a person (so delicate a flower) that I need lies or erasure of facts in order to think well (or badly) of my or any other nation?  Nor would I like to think of myself as so lacking in intellectual integrity that I decide to accept one pleasing and palatable version of an historical narrative and sweep all others aside.  "You can't handle the truth!" was an insult, not the wise words of a venerable warrior.  The truth certainly can elicit all kinds of emotions but it is not for someone else to say whether you or I can "handle" it.

In the context over these thoughts about forgetting, I am following debates over the Confederate statues in the American South and the shrines to the war dead in Japan.  I confess that I have never been to that part of the US but I have been to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.  (And I went with full knowledge of the controversies surrounding it.)   The arguments for and against them are not so far apart though the existence of the shrine is a recurring national debate and an international cause célèbre in Asia.  

Are they memorials or monuments?  Are they recalling events to which Renan might counsel forgetting in the name of national unity?   Do they promote an historical narrative that is one-sided and based on principles like imperialism and white supremacy?  What does it mean when a Japanese prime minister pays a visit (or for that matter, Jean-Marie Le Pen) or when American politicians argue against the removal of statues?  Do we accept that "Yasukuni Shrine was established to commemorate and honor the achievement of those who dedicated their precious lives for their country" and Confederate statues and flags as simply a part of the "heritage" of the region?* Or do we reject those arguments and ascribe far more nefarious motives to those who built them, visit them, or support their continued public existence?

National tragedies are not so forgettable as Renan seems to suggests, nor is it obvious that a people necessarily see themselves as united in suffering.  Akiko Hashimoto had this to say about the nation and the past in The Long Defeat:   "Memories of difficult experiences like war and defeat endure for many reasons: the nation's trajectory may change profoundly as it did when Japan surrendered sovereignty in 1945; collective life must be regenerated from a catastrophic national fall; and losers face the predicament of living with a discredited, tainted past." May I suggest that if people perceive that those are the stakes, then efforts to explore the past together in order to come to a place where there is that desire to move on together will be a Sisyphean task.  Because anything that smacks of Sin without the possibility of compassion and redemption leaves people with nowhere to go but Hell (in which case they will fight like devils just to get into Purgatory.)

I think these debates are necessary, however acrimonious and painful they may be.  It may very well be that what we are experiencing now in so many places - the angry debates, the culture and identity wars and the never-ending arguments over "the moral character of heroes, victims and perpetrators" (Hashimoto)- is a form of Renan's "suffering together."  Like all things under the sun, it will be over one day and how it will end, I cannot say.  But I do think that Renan is right  and national unity (and better international comity) may actually come to pass once we have learned  to sincerely regret and to grieve with and for each other.  

*This connection has been made before by others.  Just google Yasukuni and Confederate Flag.


Maria said...

This Sunday a referendum is supposed to take place in Catalunya to decide whether or not to declare independence. It's been declared illegal by the central government in Madrid, and efforts are being made to seize all the ballots, and to keep polling places locked up. Thousands of Policia Nacional and Guardia Civil have been sent to Catalunya to help with security.

The Catalans have a shared past and present. One might say they are therefore a nation. Prime Minister Rajoy, however, is of the opinion that history should be glossed over, and has stated that the Catalans will not "erase five hundred years of history." But, within those five hundred years the Catalans have struggled against a monarchy and governments that they feel did not represent them, and only took advantage of them. The Catalans even went so far in 1641 as to declare a republic under the auspices of the French King Louis XIII. The Spanish retaliated, and eventually, all special rights were lost in 1707. At the beginning of the Second Republic, in 1931, they tried again for independence, and were rewarded with autonomy. In 1934, when Spain was already in crisis, they finally declared independence, were beaten, and lost their autonomy.

So, should Catalans become independent and decide their own common future? Or should they remain in a newly federal Spain? I fear the riots that will come next week, starting on Sunday. More than anything because of the stubborness and blindness of a central government that sees only what they want to see.

Ellen Lebelle said...

Second try at a comment.
The problem I see is that our perception of past events changes. The Monroe Doctrine, the conquest of the West were once points of pride, now, no. Frankly, I can't think of anything that was seen as negative that we now consider positive. Maybe everything becomes negative over time. There's always someone who gets hurt. That said, remembering past events and how people were hurt should serve to forge unity. It can only happen if the "winners" can embrace those who were trampled on.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Maria, That situation has been one the edge of my consciousness. Thank you for bringing it up. The nation-state - the idea that there ought to be one nation per state. If a nation doesn't have a state, they should get one; people have the right to self-determination, to break off and form their own state. That's the principle, the reality is something else. Canada has struggled with Quebec and the Kurds struggle with multiple states all of which are not keen to see a Kurdistan next door. What are the risks to Spain if Catalan succeeds? There is the loss of territory which no state likes much but I'm sure there is more to it than that. Do you have any links to share that would shed some light on this?

Ellen, Yes, that's definitely one problem. An historical narrative changes with each generation - sometimes in very deep ways. A good example that illustrates your poimt, Ellen, is an organization called Nippon Kaigi. These folks are Japanese nationalists whose program, as nearly as I can tell, is not supported by a majority of the people but has a lot of support from politicians and the current prime minister. One of their projects is changing the historical narrative - the one that has made so many Japanese such fervent pacifists. So they want to see a very different discourse about World War II, the Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. That is to say the events will still be there but the interpretation of them, say the nationalists, needs to change.

Maria said...

I think the biggest problems would be loss of face (with no real consequences) and economic (now we're talking). I found these links to articles that explain the economics.

The last is a link to a 240 page study of the economics of secession, written by economists from Catalunya.

Seeing as how Spain touts its economic upturn (only in macro numbers - the people who suffered the most during the crisis are still pretty much under water), having another downturn would damage its position in the EU. One thing the government tried to avoid as much as possible was being treated like Greece. And since Spain is one of the largest European economies, a sharp downturn would also spill onto everybody else. France is probably also leery because Rousillon just might try to reunite with the rest of Catalunya. I haven't read lately on it, but I think I remember that France made certain concessions to Corsica to temper their dreams of independence. It would then have to concede some autonomy to even more regions.

Andrew said...

Better to understand and learn from history rather than forget it. In Canadian context, both major parties have tended to include unfavourable aspects of our history (e.g., Indigenous peoples, Immigration restrictions) as part of the narrative.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Andrew, Yes. History can keep us human, I think. By "human" I mean that it reminds us that we are imperfect and capable of both great and dark deeds. It could challenge us to a kind of "truth and reconciliation" process in our own minds. How do we reconcile what we believed was the essential goodness and kindliness of, say, our grandparents with their beliefs (and acts)?

Maria, Thank you! Still trying to download the pdf (getting a time out) but I read the other articles. Looks like both sides have the potential to do each other great harm. That the Catalans might find themselves out of the EU is one that I hadn't thought of.