The Idea of Nationalism essay

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Nationalism is an ideology that has taken various forms in various tomes, situations and locations. In the nineteenth century, classical liberal nationalism depended on the ties between a nation and its citizenship. In Europe, this form of nationalism was accompanied by “the state-and nation-building”. Nationalism transformed into ethnic nationalism in in the twentieth century, depending on ideas of common origin. It arose specifically after World War I and World War II after the Soviet Union collapsed. Eventually, at the beginning of the twenty first century, as a result of global political changes, nationalism started to integrate with religion. The September eleven terrorist attack on the United States, and the consequent effects of the United States and its allies on the widespread Muslim geography have added a completely different dimension to nationalism. Nevertheless, it should be stressed that nationalism occurs at all times, in all economic and social structures, and under all political regimes. In addition, in global history nationalism has succeeded at critical turning points.

Almost all, if not all, modern governments claim to defend and represent their peoples’ rights. These governments range from constitutional monarchies and authoritarian dictatorships to large democracies, or small republics. These governments go ahead and define “human rights” with quite different emphasis on collective and individualistic themes such as the right to vote, receive social benefits, defend national sovereignty, speak in public freely, and practice religions, among others. The exercise of these rights, however, varies greatly in different societies around the world. For example, in 1936, the Soviet Constitution proclaimed the fundamental freedom of speech and religion (Grosby 9). However, even after Stalin’s repressive regime asserted this commitment; it dispatched millions of people to prisons or death. Similarly, modern nations also justify international policies and military actions by the claim to protecting the rights of its citizens and others. These religious sensibilities and energies from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries transformed into nationalism, with, for instance, France’s global “civilizing mission” being referred to as promotion of “human Rights” (Grosby 13).

Historian Lynn Hunt, in her book, Inventing Human Rights, links the history of human rights to both the French Revolution and Enlightenment individuality. She further reinforces the understanding of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948, which she argues developed out of Western Enlightenment tradition.

Hunt’s foundational argument is built in the first half of her book. This is where she links novels, empathy, and the concept of human rights. Using Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities” argument, she develops the idea that communities are created through print-capitalism across temporal and geographical boundaries. In chapter three, the centerpiece of the book, Hunt furthers the argument in the first two chapters by outlining the rhetorical and political rise of the French Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen or, the actual “document” of change. UDHCR, according to Hunt, is a product of the secular identification through empathy and a direct descendent French Declaration universalism brought about by the novel. In the last two chapters, she explores the historical challenges to that apparent universality through the difficulty of integrating rhetorically and politically specific claims for rights with the limits of empathy and the universal language. This also includes arise in nationalism, coupled with racism and xenophobia exacerbated by the nineteenth century imperialism. Hunt, however, also suggests that, “we must still continually improve on the eighteenth-century version of human rights” (Hunt 212).   

According to Hunt, rights become linked with political power and self-evidence through reading the eighteenth century novel that placed emphasis on individual autonomy. She says that historical change happens on a collective, but individual level: “I believe that social change and political change—in this case, human rights—comes about because many individuals had similar experiences. . . through their interactions with each other and with their reading and viewing, they actually created a new social context” (Hunt 34). As a result, the history of ideologies is best understood not only by changes in material conditions, but also by changing notions of selfhood. She uses Rousseau ad Richardson as examples of how protagonist authors struggle for autonomy makes readers more aware of their own and others’ individuality and, consequently, humanity.

Inventing Human Rights details an engaging and proactive history of the political effects of human rights, more so in the nineteenth century. For the first time, in the late eighteenth century, human rights principles gained wide acceptance. In America, it started with the Declaration of independence in 1776; in France, this happened mostly after the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789. Hunt grasps the preciousness, and novelty of this intellectual transformation. 

Hunt then moves on to a firmer historical ground in her description of new attitudes towards physical punishment and torture of suspected criminals. In chapter two, Hunt discusses the relatively rapid reduction in torture techniques in the United States and Europe in relation to the rise in human rights discourse, individuality and empathy. For today’s audiences, this chapter holds vital contextual relevance given that it was published during the continual Guantanamo Bay controversy and the Abu Ghraib incident. Hunt, in this chapter, argues that the wheel and the iron collar as torture devices were gradually phased out of the judicial system in the mid-eighteenth century because of social cultural attitudes towards the body. Early eighteenth century France viewed the convicted body as an object to be sacrificed as an example to the society. The convicted individual’s body-in-pain belonged to the community. The body acted as a crime deterrent through the empathy of the crowd with that pain. She says, “Bodies could be mutilated in the interest of inscribing authority, and broken or burned in the interest of restoring the moral, political, and religious order” (Hunt 94). With time, however, these public spectacles of long protracted torturous hangings in the name of preservation and prevention of religious authority slowly became associated with a body-in-pain. Torture started to be viewed as a structural “assault” on society (Hunt 98). This was because a mutilated body could not pay damages to the community in which it committed the crime. It was finally secularized in the progressively individualistic eighteenth century climate (Hunt 97). This chapter also comprehensively delves into the rise of individuality so as to provide evidence for the development of “the new language of sentiment” (Hunt 81). Hunt says that the body belongs to an individual other who endures pain similar to the self, hence the ability to identify and consequently empathize.

In history, it has always been that often religion has denied moral authority to secular politicians. However, in Western countries after the Enlightenment it became the contrast. Political authorizes sought to monopolize this authority to sanction violence. The state and only the state had the power to kill legitimately, albeit for limited reasons such as police protection, military defense and capital punishment. The development of religious conflict in the twentieth century indicates the power of religious ideologies in challenging the right of secular nationalism to sanction killing.

After examining these basic preconditions for human rights, Hunt explains how European governments and societies declared and applied human rights. The discourse of human rights had the “tendency to cascade”. Primarily using France as an example, Hunt further notes that the moment Protestants gained rights the logic for denying Jews their rights too broke down. Similarly, once the free blacks gained their rights, abolition soon followed. However, women were the only group that was excluded from this inner logic of rights. Women were viewed as incapable of exercising full citizenship rights and morally dependent. It is not surprising that this expansion of rights led to criticism, from people like Edmund Burke who expressed their worries that the universal application of human rights would undercut the necessary hierarchies for an orderly society. However, universal human rights’ most damaging critic was in 1848 by conservative nationalism. This nationalism was anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic. In this case, Hunt portrays the irony in the universal human rights. It opened the door to contagious forms of racism and sexism. Biologically oriented sexism and racism evolved partly to explain why some people should not be equal to others. Hunt opposes the fact that as the inner logic of human rights moves toward the inclusion of persons whose exclusions had been customary rather than explicit, biological sexism and racism evolved to explain why those groups were incapable of participating equally in society. She concludes that European racism was at least in part a ‘‘visceral reaction against the notion of equality’’ inherent in the concept of universal human rights (Hunt 192).

In the concluding chapter on “why, human rights failed, only to succeed in the long run” Hunt explores the political movements and ideologies that enabled the push for equal human rights after the Napoleonic and revolutionary era ended in 1815. Napoleon’s imperialism in itself was responsible for much of the earlier backlash against equal human rights. This is because the French army enforced concepts of legal equality or religious freedom on the majority of people who had no aspiration of doing so themselves in their own societies.  

There is a strong similarity between religious commitment and patriotism, or devotion and national cause. One’s country represents the symbol of a rich linguistic and cultural heritage. It gives an individual a purpose and direction in life. In my opinion, whether one is religious or not it alright to describe commitment to one’s nation as religious in spirit. One’s country is certainly something that should inspire self-denial on behalf of the greater group.

In modernity, nationalism has become a functional equivalent of religion. Expressed in a stronger way, nationalism has today become a religion, a secular religion where god is the nation. Not only does the modern nationalism has all the rituals and trappings of a religion, but also similar to a religion, modern nationalism has tapped into the peoples’ emotional reservoir. Nationalism operates at the same level as religion, a level of deep elemental emotions. It involves commitments to one’s nation as religious in spirit, even if one is secular. After all, people make sacrifices to nations—sometimes their lives—and they perform rituals that involve acts of deference to symbols like flags, icons, and texts.

However, other scholars argue that societies experience the emergence of national identity whereby nationalism causes secularization. It assumes the place of the central framework for organizing public life hence pushing religious outsets of authority to the margins.

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