(all original material on this site © Pamela Kyle Crossley)

[8.6.2016] Myths, Nationalisms and Historians

I previously mentioned Xu Hong's specific characterization, which I regard as essentially correct, of American historians as skeptical of nationalism in historical narratives. This question arises again, as it will again and again, in regard to the current American election process, and it is always worth reflecting on the position of any historian in regard to myths.

A narrative that promotes or reinforces a fundamental value is a myth. We have personal myths, community myths, national myths. They may have high factual content, they may be in stark contrast to facts. The test of a myth narrative might be its vulnerability to factual tests. If in the minds of readers, writers and educators it is highly resistant to challenge from evidence, it is a myth. But that is symptom, not an etiology. A national myth is not by definition essentially false. It is a narrative whose relationship to evidence in less significant that its relationship to national coherence.

A historian who cultivates a certain awareness of his or her ideological cradle will probably realize that there are three basic choices regarding those myths to which the suggestive dynamics of education has made him or her subject. One can work in harmony with it, lading it with facts if possible, with argumentation if not. One can work in conscious skepticism of it, using every opportunity the evidence offers to deface or deflate it. Or one can work free of it (not as easy as it sounds) and create an understanding of history that has whatever coincidence with myth that the evidence generates.

I have suggested in an earlier note that historians in the United States and historians in China work in contrasting relationships to public narrative, including myth. For the most part, historians in the USA are not shapers of public opinion or educational policy. They are free to publish any findings they can support. Nobody much will pay attention to what they say. In China, historians are regarded as pillars of public opinion, and support of certain myths --especially national myths-- is a fundamental part of what they do; quite a lot of people pay attention to what they say, and so tolerance for deviation from the established myth is discouraged and contradiction of it is not tolerated. The belaboring in China of a lot of minor myths relating to the supposed "school" of "New Qing Studies" shows that this also works the other way. You can protect a myth by pre-emptorily identifying its enemies, impute to them simplistic ideas that are useful straw men for vindication of the myth, and then denounce them individually as enemies of the myth (implying that there is a global hue and cry by the destructive, benighted or jealous against the myth).

The election year in the USA reminds me to make a qualification here. Not all historians working in the USA have the same relationship to public myth, or the same freedom to explore and be ignored. I think all of us in fields outside of American history realize that our colleagues who specialize in US history teach and write under a spectrum of constraints that do not closely resemble those that apply to us in other fields. Some of the constraints are self-imposed; like many historians, these colleagues can be slow to develop awareness of their own absorption of consensus, or reluctant to forego the rewards that await those who work agreeably within the consensus. Others are implicit in the attitudes of the gatekeepers of the profession, who will affect skepticism of any novel interpretations. Still others will be derived from the dearth of reading for students from outside the realm of tame, consensual narratives.

The upshot is that American historians tend to avoid certain subjects. For instance, Not all will teach the history of the Ford company, or National Cash Register, in Nazi Germany. It is rare for them to look closely at the millions of documents released in the 1990s after the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act; indeed, they are rarely shy about using "Lee Harvey Oswald" as a metaphor for the happenstance of history, or the danger of armed and uncontrolled individuals in society, even if they have never looked at any of the new information. Virtually none will deal with any narrative of 9/11 that falls outside Zelikow's The 9/11 Commission Report, despite the fact that virtually no professional intellectuals --including history professors-- think that the report has any significant factual content. Speaking with no relation to fact is no problem for them when they are confident that they are speaking under the protection of myth. This does not create a relationship for historians of the United States, working within the United States, that is exactly like the relationship of historians of China working within China. But it certainly has similarities.

When it comes to nationalism, myth narrative is its essential ingredient. This is because "nationalism" as a historical phenomenon is a comprehensive transformative force. it generates community and state forms in transitional periods when previous patterns of rule are disintegrating. It was a primary force behind the creation of the United States and it was a primary force behind the creation of stable, centralized government of China. Nationalism depends upon a species of myth, which itself relies upon prescription of fairly primal affiliations in order to achieve specific goals. This is often "racial," in the sense of tailoring ideas of physical descent to the necessary scope of action --meaning that the racial features prescribed could be descent from a single ancestral lineage, or affinities with a specified homeland, or the notion that ancestral language or religion has an ineluctible but ineffable relationship to a national "mind" or "soul." Some writers on nationalism, probably best known among them Walker Connor, have made nationalism an axiom, a natural cohering force based on primordial characteristics of language, race, religion and vicinage. I think, and my current writing is exploring this, that there is nothing primordial about these criteria.

Plenty of people agree with that, but they do not always explain why this particular set of criteria was (falsely) regarded as primordial in distinct societies from Sweden to Japan, from Russia to India. It is probably worth clarifying this point here: The ideation of primordial affiliations is a distinct phenomenon, and some modern research shows that it is particularly effective in shaping the prejudices of people at the lower end of the intelligence spectrum; certainly, many nationalist leaders of the later nineteenth and early twentieth century admitted that they appealed to the basest racism available in their local rhetorics in order to politicize the greatest mass of people. On the other hand, the content of primordial affiliation is in my view entirely taught, and originates in imperial publishing and educational programs of the early modern period. I think there is plenty of evidence that the criteria of identity were taught by the early modern empires for reasons very clearly related to their priorities for expansion and stability; the fact that much later the same criteria had an ironic effect in the disintegration of these empires only underscores the point that nationalism --no matter how generated-- is a transformational force. Those hoping to create a state might welcome it, those leading an existing state should be alarmed by it.

In the case of North America, the roots of nationalism among Engish immigrants and their children lay in the argument that they were being denied the rights and privileges of their racial brethren. By virtue of their Englishness they were deserving of rights that the "king" (meaning the English government, including Parliament) was denying them. By revolution they hoped to reclaim their racially-based rights, and they originally had no very great interest in the rights of Africans, or Native Americans, or even Germans, Dutch, Spaniards and Frenchmen who were also in the land. Something similar to this lay in the original racial invective of Sun Yatsen, who argued (with an extremely indirect relationship to some scholars who lived through the seventeenth-century conquest of China by the Qing) that being subordinate to a Manchu emperor was not the destiny of those who would claim ancestry as Chinese --as sons of the Yellow Emperor. Like the Englishmen of North America, the nationalists among the Chinese under the Qing described themselves as having a political condition not compatible with their racial identity.

By the time of the writing of the American declaration of independence, words had been proposed to generalize the natural rights of Englishmen to an implicit "mankind," which sounded more like the rhetoric of the Enlightenment, but of course these were words only. Non-English-speaking male European creoles or immigrants were understood to have these universal rights, but they were clearly not meant to extend to women, or non-Europeans of any origin. The restriction, in practice, of these rights to males of European descent coincided in time to establishment and stabilization of the American political structure. That is, there came a point (probably after the Civil War) where "nationalism" was obsolete in the United States, and when patriotism, and patriotic service, was understood to be in the service of American ideals --specifically democracy and capitalism, and increasing justice and respect for African-Americans, women, Native Americans, Jews, immigrants and their descendants, homosexuals and transsexuals. Since the later half of the nineteenth century, there have been no grave challenges to the American state form, and no threats to survival of the nation.

China's twentieth-century history was profoundly different. The state form had to be rebuilt after the fall of the Qing empire, and the struggle to create a stable, unified government kept the focus on primordial interest-group definition until the 1950s. As in the United States, the written word led the way to universalization of values, instead of primordial racial rights. From the Articles of Favorable Treatment of 1912 to the Jiangxi Soviet Constitution of 1931 to the PRC Constitution of 1954, the rights of cultural minorities in China, and then of women, were established in law, and then in policy. Words aside, it would be hard to argue that before the later 1950s (when the state was strong and confident enough to break off relations with its former sponsor and champion, the Soviet Union) the state form in China was strong enough to make nationalism obsolete. But by 1960, it was surely the case. In both countries, social commitment to values of equality and justice regardless of color, creed, language or gender has lagged far behind the stipulations of law or the ideals transmitted through education. But it continued to advance through the late twentieth century. By then, nationalism as a historical force was obsolete in both China and the USA, since the state was accomplished and unchallenged. Moreover, each nation was completely capable of using international tools of trade, diplomacy, foreign aid and when necessary war to secure the safety and prosperity of their populations.

But, in the early twenty-first century, each country is experiencing a resurgence of ostensible nationalism. If nationalism is the historical force that creates national state forms, then its appearance in a society with an established, competent state is ominous. Nationalism is a transformational force. It destroys existing governments and potentially creates new ones. Anybody who thinks that "nationalism" is an ideology that reinforces an existing state is a fool. Nationalism is not loyalty, paranoia, idealism, altruism, resentment, responsibility, patriotism, liberalism or conservatism. It is an argument to radically reformulate the basis of state legitimacy, on the basis of a re-defined constituency (and as in A Translucent Mirror, a "constituency" is not people but a collective narrative regarded as a constituent element of state legitimacy).

Today, American nationalism is what it was two and half centuries ago --an argument that white American men do not have the rights they should have. Of course its context is different. It is a demand to take the country "back" from liberals, immigrants, "minorities," and women, all of whom nationalists believe have undercut the status and interest of the true national group. With respect to foreign relations, it can either be a call to completely abandon obligations to other countries and focus American money on "true" Americans, or it can be a demand to use the American military to pursue the wealth and power of the United States anywhere, by any means. To achieve the goals of American nationalists, the American government as we know it would have to be remade --its laws, its interpretation of the laws, its tax structures, its diplomatic agreements. The movement appeals to white, Christian men who dislike life without the privileges they enjoyed in a previous era, and it is also supported by Americans of various races and genders who see combinations of Jews, women, Muslims and bankers in an international conspiracy against them.

These nationalists have been with us throughout our history, even after their ideology became obsolete and they became maladaptations, but today they have a champion (whether or not he sees himself that way): Donald Trump. He was propelled by the force of resentment, paranoia, frustration, and plain ignorance to the top of the Republican Party, because of specific defects in the Republic Part that date back to at least the 1980s (when Reagan's speech writers carefully cultivated a contempt for representative democracy). The threat to society at large comes from Trump's encouragement and legitimation of a volatile minority who do not support of the nation as it is. They want a redefinition of the "nation" and transformation of the state. It is odd to me that a number of journalists, not all of them foreign, have seen Trump's rise as indicative of something new, deep and widespread in America (see for instance Holger Stark,
"An Exhausted Democracy: Donald Trump and the New American Nationalism" in Der Spiegel. To me it looks more like a flaring up of a latent but always minor theme in American political and social life: The wish of a threatened, once central and controlling, segment of the population to reclaim their privileges and prestige by sheer force. This impulse is always there, and so far it always loses to a deeper and broader love of stability, openness, democracy and decency. in 2016 Trump is going to lose the election because the forces he is unleashing are too threatening to state stability, and a majority of Americans see that. American nationalism --which is a genuine nationalism-- is a threat to democracy, and is hostile to American representative democracy in particular --mocking the presidency, the Congress, the Supreme Court, suggesting that life would work more smoothly and more justly in the hands of a well-armed militia. It is threat, as all nationalism is a threat for existing governments. The number of people finding Trump and his nationalists to be credible is a product not, I think, of huge problems in American political culture, but specific failings of the Republican Party and of the embarrassingly sub-standard American press.

But the nature of nationalism is always part of the inimical play between established state forms and the movements that denounce them as illegitimate. Across the globe, authoritarian, jingoistic movements that claim the title of "nationalism" all have agitating effects on each other. American chauvinism reacts to chauvinisms from elsewhere, and draws reactions from the same or others. It is not a coincidence --though it may be only indirect effects from other causes-- that authoritarianism and reactionism in China is rising in sound volume, whether or not it truly represents the breadth of Chinese opinion. it is not "nationalism," because increasing the authoriatrianism of an authoritarian state cannot be nationalism. The only nationalistic force in China today --the only movement challenging the basis of the state form-- is the democracy movement. Official campaigns to encourage condemnation of democratic sentiment online, to exclude democratic activists from employment and to make them disappear into the prison system for months or years are pushed by the state in the guise of nationalism, which is what is to be expected from authoritarianism. Like many states in difficulty (and I mean difficulty only; I do not see destabilization of the Chinese government as imminent in any way), the state attempts to use fear of foreign encroachment, or the threat of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers, to unite the public behind its policies of firmness (in some cases expansion) abroad and repression at home. This can work. It worked across Europe and in Japan n the middle twentieth century, it worked in the United States in 1950s, it works in Russia and Turkey today. Some hope that it will work in the United States again. While the campaign to "take America back" will fail (which doesn't mean it will disappear) in 2016, the campaign to take China back --to Mao-style leadership, to Socialist Education Campaign political purges, to Tang- and Qing-style expansiveness, to Confucian social and political values-- will have a profound impact across the fields of law, journalism, education, and perhaps ultimately science and technology. Historically, these are the areas where a genuine nationalist movement is nurtured. In this decade, it is likely that an authentic (if, in China, weak) transformative nationalist force will be suppressed by state policies falsely claiming to be "nationalist" in character.

It is this use of the "nationalist" aegis by political actors promoting authoritarianism, social conservatism, and chauvinism that makes American (and, certainly, European) historians skeptical of nationalism in history. Most of what claims to be nationalism is not, and where genuine nationalism appears, it means prolonged instability, (as, for instance, in the French Revolution) probably a good deal of violence, and bad things for people on the wrong end of the nationalist transformation. The "nationalist" imposters, of course, have the same need for nationalist myth that a true nationalist movement has --more, perhaps, since the ends achieved by an imposter movement will not be nationalist transformation, but something else in the line of political repression and militarism.

Modern authoritarians understand very well something that the Qing emperors knew: A myth is best enforced by allowing the evidence of its falseness to lie around in plain sight. Intellectuals and other opinion-makers put between an irresistible demand to conform to the myth on the one side, and glaring evidence of the official lie on the other, will as a group collapse into learned helplessness; stubborn resisters can be picked off through legal process or direct intimidation. Audacious state mendacity is the most persuasive form of repression. This is actually an idea that would sit very well with Donald Trump, who apart from an outright (and very short) coup will never gain the reins of American government. But it also sits well with Xi Jinping, who at present is the leading man --not to say the man who has control-- of the Chinese state. To Xi, his patrons and his clients, the myths of Chinese benevolence, justice, and cultural homogeneity are more important than they would be to a more open, more stable, less worried group of leaders.

It is the dynamics of myth that makes it important for some historians to specialize in societies other than their own. The enchantment of any myth can certainly extend to foreign historians, and in the case of American historians of China it clearly has, in at least two waves --the culturalist myths of the 1950s (to be crude in marking this) and the political myth of the 1960s and 1970s. But in the most productive international discourse, historians help each other see and free themselves from the effects of their own myths. In the contrasts, the controversies, the competing coherence of their narratives, historians would hope to disenchant themselves and understand something of real human experience. The increasing number of historians working outside the United States, on American history, is already leading American historians to examine their accepted views --sometimes resulting in revision, sometimes resulting in affirmation. One hopes that China will one day appreciate the deep interest of historians outside China in seeing profound global patterns and distinct local variations in the broad fabric of Chinese history.