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National Identity and Sovereignty: Summer 2022 Vol 111

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In his 1882 lecture ‘What is a nation?’, French historian Ernest Renan examines a number of essentialist theories offered in explanation of the ‘right of nations’ – unity of race, common language, religious affinity, natural geographical frontiers – and he rejects them all. These, he thinks, are mere ‘metaphysical and theological abstractions’. Yet, even though Renan may count as the first of the great constructivists – those, that is, who see the nation as an invented or imagined cultural unit rather than one given by nature – his empirical view of national identity still has a certain mystical ring to it. ‘A nation is a soul,’ he says, ‘a spiritual principle’. This soul has two constitutive elements, the first concerning the past, that is, having ‘common glories’, or ‘a rich legacy of memories’, and the other concerning the present, namely the desire to continue investing in this heritage. The nation survives, therefore, only by virtue of the express will of the people to continue a common life; but

the validation of that common life, Renan thinks, relies on an understanding that is more mythic than historical. Mythic above all because it is built on an act of forgetting. National unity, Renan believes, is always ‘brutally established’. Violence – war, vengeance, terror, maybe even extermination – has gone into its making. This must all be forgotten. ‘Forgetting, I would even say historical error,’ Renan writes, ‘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’.

There is clearly much in Renan’s view that needs to be revised or rejected, especially in the light of the atrocious crimes committed in the name of nations in the twentieth century. Is it really acceptable to build our sense of national identity on a mythology or on a forgotten past? With the terrible lesson of German Blut und Boden (‘blood and soil’) nationalism before our eyes, it seems imperative, as many contemporary theorists aver, to configure

our national self-understanding in accordance with a remembered and continuously interrogated past. Also to think of the nation less sentimentally – less in terms of national pride or a glorious past, and more, as with Jürgen Habermas, as a project to be realised through adherence to democratic norms, a ‘politics of memory’, and a commitment to public reason.

All well and good. Habermas’s ‘constitutional patriotism’ helpfully provides grounds for political unity without relying on nationalist forms that are easily weaponised against ethnic, ideological, cultural or religious outgroups. But is it full-bodied enough to sustain a sense of common identity and belonging? Can it feed the imagination and inspire enthusiasm? It is strong on the cognitive, of course; but Habermas appears to underplay precisely those affective, even mystical, elements in national identity which may, rightly directed, enhance the civilising effects of culture. Nationalism, after all, is not strictly an ideology, at least not in the sense of liberalism, conservatism or socialism. It tends, rather, to set the stage for these ideologies, on the left or the right, to perform. Benedict Anderson observes in his influential Imagined Communities that a cenotaph for the Unknown Soldier is a meaningful emblem of the culture of nationalism, but how absurd it would be to have a ‘Tomb of the Unknown Marxist’ or ‘a cenotaph for fallen Liberals’. And the reason, Anderson notes, is that ‘nationalist imagining’ has a ‘strong affinity with religious imaginings’. Both nationalist and religious thought, in their distinct ways, involve themselves with apprehensions of life’s contingency, the ‘links between the dead and the yet unborn’, and the kinds of connectedness and continuity which inform our sense of who we are. Ideologies remain silent on these questions.

Things can go terribly wrong with nationalism, of course, as they can with religion; but worst of all is when nationalism and religion go terribly wrong together. Nationalism has shown it has the power to wrest religion away from its own essence and reconstitute it as the very thing it exists to stand against. In other words, instead of witnessing to transcendence, to a vision of human dignity and solidarity under the providential attention of God, religion has not infrequently found itself in service to one or other form of vicious pagan immanence. The transcendent God becomes the god of the household, the god of the homeland, the god of the tribe or the race or the nation-state. This god favours us over our enemies; desires our victory, not theirs; answers our prayers, not theirs; supports us in our misfortunes but doesn’t much care about theirs; speaks our language, likes things just the way we like them, approves of our desire for bourgeois comfort, and shares our disapproval of migrants or gay people or the homeless or the poor or anyone else who might make us uncomfortable.

It is closed nationalism of this kind that Pope Francis opposes fiercely. The leitmotif of his entire papacy has been the Christian call to fraternity and solidarity which, because it is modelled on the mercy of God, refuses to make the mean-spirited distinctions which are now commonplace even among people who strongly self-identify as Catholic. Over and over, thePope has denounced this ‘age of walls and barbed wire’ which, in the United States and in many European countries, refuses to welcome the stranger – though only if the stranger is Not Like Us. This is a sign of what Francis calls ‘the shipwreck of civilisation’. He acknowledges the innate tension between the local and the global, and he is not opposed to strong identification with one’s own nation or culture. Far from it. In Evangelii Gaudium (235) he writes: ‘We need to sink our roots deeper into the fertile soil and history of our native place, which is a gift of God’. But we should do so from within a ‘larger perspective’. Francis then sets this vision of human culture within a much wider theological frame:

The Gospel has an intrinsic principle of totality: it will always remain good news until it has been proclaimed to all people, until it has healed and strengthened every aspect of humanity, until it has brought all men and women together at table in God’s kingdom. The whole is greater than the part. (237)

The whole is greater than the part; our belonging to common humanity is greater than any of our kinship or national affinities. Yet the ordinary way for us to be immersed in the greater reality is to have firm roots in the lesser, the local, the concrete cultural realities of our immediate world. Anderson, writing Imagined Communities in 1983, when the murderous ethnic nationalism of the mid-century still cast a dark shadow over expressions of national pride, noted the error of those who thought that the day of nations was over. He wrote:

In an age when it is so common for progressive, cosmopolitan intellectuals (particularly in Europe?) to insist on the near-pathological character of nationalism, its roots in fear and hatred of the Other, and its affinities with racism, it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often self-sacrificing love. The cultural products of nationalism – poetry, prose fiction, music, plastic arts – show this love very clearly in thousands of different forms and styles. (141)

The challenge, though, is to cultivate narratives of national identity while eschewing the exclusionary posturing of populist nativism. Critical thinking, a commitment to remembering, openness to change, and a sense of responsibility to the world outside: it is dispositions such as these which ensure that a sense of national identity carries with it a sense of belonging to the greater world of humankind.

 

With respect to exclusionary nationalism, a distinction must be made. History and context are important. As John Langan SJ, one-time professor of Catholic Social Thought in Georgetown, put it in response to an open letter ‘Against the new nationalism’ by a group of American Christians in 2019, ‘we should respond in very different ways to the nationalism of powerful majorities and the nationalism of oppressed minorities’. The nationalism of the powerful is dominant and threatening’, he remarks, ‘and can be very dangerous both to peace and to victims’. The nationalism of the minority, on the other hand, is a form of opposition to imperialism and is ‘likely to be an effort to preserve autonomy and local culture’. As such it tends to be exclusionary, at least as it detaches itself from the coloniser. During that time of what postcolonialism refers to as abrogation, the refusal to accept the occupier’s language use and cultural norms as standard, there tends, understandably, to be an inward turn. The singularity of the native culture is emphasised. The hope must be, however, that cultural revival would not merely restore the past but rather that it would recontextualise it in the light of present realities and that it would be open both to the outside and to the future.

The Irish experience is relevant here. This year is the centenary of the establishment of the Irish Free State, the beginning of the last phase in the struggle for independence. As is well known, armed resistance to the colonial presence was powerfully supported over the previous century by a revival of Irish language, literature and culture – at least the elements of these that would foment or cultivate national consciousness. A broad intellectual culture – science, philosophy, economic thought, or educational theory as these were advanced in the scholarly world at large – was of no interest to the revivalists, in spite of the pleas of Anglo-Irish nationalists such as AE (George Russell). Irish distinctiveness was what mattered – culture just to the extent that it inculcated a sense of national consciousness, that it taught us who we ourselves (sinn féin) are. To this extent it was exclusionary. Yet an essential aspect of Irishness over the following decades was the effort to situate its political and cultural narratives within the bigger story.

In a sense though, Ireland, for all its geographical insularity, has always belonged to wider currents of culture and human experience. Specifically, since the fifth century it has been immersed in the great cultural stream of Christianitas, so it has shared a governing vision of life and life’s purpose with most of the great cultures of the West. The diaspora of the Irish monks to Britain and the continent in the sixth and seventh centuries gave depth and durability to this connection – as indeed did the many Irish diasporas since then. It should be noted that the cultural interchange was a two-way affair. In Part I of his essay on ‘An Irish Dante’ in this issue of Studies, Daragh O’Connell identifies some likely influences of the vision and quest literature of medieval Ireland on Dante’s great narrative, the Divina Commedia. And in Part II, which will be published in the autumn 2022 issue, he casts light on the surprising extent to which the great figures of late modern Irish literature – Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Heaney, and others – have in turn looked to Dante for images and motifs. Regarding the possible influence of the Irish on Dante, O’Connell shows in this issue how two stories of Irish knights travelling through the realms of the afterlife, those of Owein and of Tnugdalus, may well have provided a frame for the Divina Commedia. The Navigatio of St Brendan may also have contributed.

In John O’Hagan’s essay on the Navan artist Patrick Reel we are given a contemporary instance of an Irish aesthetic sensibility that remains open to outside forms and traditions. Reel, who is only now receiving the attention he is due, has shown this receptivity throughout his lengthy ‘life in paint’– ‘A life in paint’ is the title of a major exhibition of his work, at the State Apartment Galleries in Dublin Castle until August 2022. O’Hagan, who cocurated the exhibition, writes here of how Reel has been influenced both by Irish landscape, especially his own Boyne Valley, as well as by non-Irish artists such as the German-British artist Frank Auerbach, the nineteenth century French portraitist Jean Corot, and the Spanish painter Antoni Tàpies. The cover of this issue of Studies features his 2010 painting ‘The road to the sea (1).’

In the decades after Irish independence, Irish historical study tended to be dominated by a narrow ‘sectarianism’ – history in the service of the national project. Eventually this gave way to a revisionist programme committed to what one of its chief proponents, TW Moody, called ‘liberation from servitude to the myth of Irish nationalism’. The matter was more complex than that, of course, but there was no doubt that Irish history needed some of the dispassionate rigor that had been invested in the human sciences elsewhere. Economic historian Cormac Ó Gráda, who writes here on the Irish famine, belongs to this tradition – and stands in resolute opposition to Renan’s judgement that a national history is only made possible by forgetting and by error. ‘The responsibility of historians of all hues,’ Ó Gráda writes, ‘is, above all, to establish what happened, as best they can, and no matter how inconvenient that may be for people in the present’. His own study of the famine here exemplifies this contextualist approach. He illustrates how the documentary record of human behaviour and attitudes during the Great Famine corresponds with that of other famine experiences, such as in Ukraine, Russia, or Holland, and calls into question some of the narrative templates often used in portraying the event.

The political culture that emerged with the founding of the Irish state one hundred years ago is meticulously scrutinised by Tony White in ‘The Irish General Election of 1922’. Again we see the tension between the local and inward-facing on the one hand and a wider perspective on the other. In the 1918 general election, Sinn Féin won a landslide victory and effectively wiped out the Irish Parliamentary Party. Four years later, after the War of Independence and the Anglo-Irish treaty, the Irish electorate had to set the shape of politics in the nascent Free State. The results were more complex. Of particular note in White’s analysis is that the election results helped establish that Ireland would be a mature parliamentary democracy and that it would have neither a military nor a one-party government – a true sign of the newborn state looking beyond itself and its immediate experience for political orientation.

Questions about nationalism, the nation, and the nation-state have become increasingly complex in recent decades, particularly in relation to the issue of sovereignty. For much of the time since the emergence of modern nations in the 16th and 17th centuries, and more specifically since the rise of nation states out of the revolutions and independence movements between the 1750s and the 1830s, it was possible to think of sovereignty in relatively simple terms. Internal sovereignty, whatever form of political legitimacy it relied on, concerned the maintenance of law and order within the borders of a state’s territory; and external sovereignty related to the recognition of the integrity of those borders in international law. In both respects, sovereignty denoted supreme authority in decision-making and intolerance of interference from below or from outside. Contemporary realities, however, have complicated things. Developments such as globalisation, multiculturalism, large-scale migration, the need for humanitarian intervention, and climate change have meant that the interests and fortunes of each nation are inextricably bound up with those of others, all of which have made sovereignty appear less and less relevant.

And yet sovereignty is back in the conversation now. The COVID-19 pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine are two of the events that have occasioned a rethink. Responding to this revival of interest in sovereignty, Michael Sanfey, Visiting Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute (EUI), Florence, organised a workshop on the theme, which was held on St Patrick’s Day at Villa Schifanoia. It received financial support from the Department of Foreign Affairs. More than twenty international scholars and experts came together to look at sovereignty from a range of different perspectives. We publish three of the related papers here, plus an essay composed later by Dr Sanfey himself. In his essay on ‘The strife about sovereignty’, Giovanni Giorgini relates how the notion of sovereignty was gradually eclipsed after World War II. At first, the emergence of supranational and international entities was the cause, and in later decades it was continued by such factors as neoliberal corporations eluding state sovereignty and social networks serving to exert pressure on state authorities. Since the turn of the century, however, many states have begun to respond to crises such as terrorism, the 2007 financial crisis, large-scale migration flows, and the pandemic by reclaiming national sovereignty and taking unilateral decisions. It might be noted that this reassertion has not always been unquestionably positive. German philosopher Immanuel Kant is often invoked as an early proponent of supranational institutions, but Susan Meld Shell argues in ‘Sovereignty and its limits: some Kantian lessons’ that Kant’s understanding of national sovereignty was more robust than is usually supposed. He imagined supranational associations providing protection from outside forces, not exerting sovereign authority itself. Shell’s ‘Kantian lessons’ include that, given contemporary conditions, the nation state (‘or something reasonably like it’) and state sovereignty remain necessary for guaranteeing human rights in a manner conducive to world security. Kant’s ideal, Shell holds, is closer to the model of NATO than it is to the model of the EU. The nature of the latter is ambiguous, especially as it promotes EU citizenship even though it is neither a sovereign state nor an alliance for collective defence. Vulnerabilities in the EU are also a central concern in Ronan McCrea’s essay on ‘Democratic backsliding and the unravelling of the EU legal order’. The European Union has generated robust habits of cooperation and coordination, made stronger, not weaker, by crises such as the 2007 financial crash, Brexit, and the pandemic. But this development relies on the ability of the Union to pass legislation that is truly taken as binding by the member states. This can no longer be expected in all cases. The greatest danger lies with the direct and repeated resistance to EU legal primacy and judicial independence mounted by Poland and Hungary. If the EU is to remain effective, McCrea argues, other member states will have to combine and take action against offending nations. They should not suppose, however, that every failure to implement desirable liberal goals undermines the essential system of the EU.

In an essay written specifically for this issue of Studies, ‘Sovereignty and Culture’, Michael Sanfey observes that the world has not gone in the direction that some western commentators expected thirty years ago. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, it seemed certain to them that liberal democracy would come to stand as the only tenable form of human governance. However, China in particular has demonstrated the disquieting truth that authoritarianism is a viable system, even under conditions of modernisation and globalisation. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine adds another dimension to this ideological friction. Is it right for some in the West to seek to ‘cancel’ the immense and invaluable culture of Russia? Sanfey holds that a distinction must be made between a nation’s cultural legacy and its political form. Culture is a transnational phenomenon. It may have the enriching effect of transcending ‘the boundary walls of sovereignty’, but globalisation can also cause culture at large to be cheapened and banalised.

 

Contents

  • An Irish Dante, Part 1- Possible Precursors to the Commedia

    Daragh O’Connell

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    2021 marked the septicentennial celebrations of Dante’s death in Ravenna. Despite the restrictions brought about by the global pandemic, scholars and creative practitioners around the world ensured that the anniversary did not pass unnoticed, with online and in-person conferences, seminars, readings, performances, adaptations, translations and dialogues taking place on a daily basis.

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  • Behold a Pale Horse- Horrors and Heritages of Famine

    Cormac Ó Gráda

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    In late January 1849, a woman in her sixties was bludgeoned to death in her own home in Rooskagh, not far from Athlone in the Irish midlands. Margaret Kelly, née Doran, was by all accounts an unpleasant woman.

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  • Democratic Backsliding and the Unravelling of the EU Legal Order

    Ronan McCrea

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    The political world of the EU has often been accused of being a Potemkin village. It had a flag, a parliament and elections, but behind this façade the voters were not really engaged. This has fueled a tendency to easily perceive existential crises for the Union.

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  • Patrick Reel- A Life in Paint

    John O’Hagan

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    I first met Patrick Reel around fifteen years ago. Initially I was drawn to the quaintness of and the atmosphere in the shop, house, studio, and gallery. In time we were delighted to become regular visitors to Ludlow St to meet Patrick and his sister Esther, and we became familiar with his wonderful life of artwork, the subject matter of a current retrospective exhibition of Reel’s work in the State Apartment Galleries in Dublin Castle.

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  • Political Theology- Three trials – Antigone, Socrates, Jesus

    Paul Corcoran

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    A traveling circus in Denmark had caught fire [in front of a numerous public]. The manager thereupon sent the clown, who was already dressed and made-up for the performance, into the neighboring village to fetch help. … The clown hurried into the village and requested the inhabitants to come as quickly as possible to the blazing circus and help to put the fire out. But the villagers took the clown’s shouts simply for an excellent piece of advertising, meant to attract as many people as possible to the performance; they applauded the clown and laughed till they cried.

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  • Sovereignty and Culture

    Michael Sanfey

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    In a 1931 article entitled ‘World Sovereignty and World Culture: The Trend of International Affairs Since the War’ the historian Arnold J. Toynbeeconcluded by saying:

    The need of the hour is to enable the public in each country to understand their neighbours’ point of view. Understanding, of course, does not necessarily bring agreement in its train but it does take the sting out of disagreement. People who really understand one another can disagree without rancour; people who disagree without rancour can discuss their differences with frankness; and a frank discussion of differences is a sovereign means of arriving at an agreement in the end.

    If only this were true.

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  • Sovereignty and Its Limits – Some Kantian Lessons

    Susan Meld Shell

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    This is rather a different presentation than the one I would have presented a few weeks ago, before the gallant people of Ukraine along with their morally inspired leader, reminded us that announcements of the death of (popular) sovereignty may have been premature. Their actions might also call to mind Kant’s designation of an earlier act of republican courage, namely the storming of the Bastille, as prompting a ‘sign’ ‘never more to be forgotten’ that the future of the human race is not hopeless.

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  • Sovereignty and Strife

    Giovanni Giordini

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    Sovereignty is the power of command in the last instance, the power to make the ultimate decision. It may include different prerogatives in different political orders, but it has the intrinsic characteristic of being ultimate, the final decision; this means that no one has the right to oppose or overturn the sovereign’s decision.

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  • The Irish General Election of June 1922

    Anthony White

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    The general election of 16 June 1922 has not been widely regarded as especially significant among historians. It has been overshadowed by the inevitable concentration on the civil war, which commenced within two weeks of that election. It can nevertheless be argued that it was one of the most important elections in the history of Dáil Éireann and of the Irish state.

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