Thursday, August 28, 2008

On students, revolutions and nationalism...

When I was an undergraduate, I mostly devoted myself to studying really hard so that I can get good grades. Some years later, when I became a graduate student, I understood a lot about the context of my undergraduate years. Among others, it forcefully hit me that I was a nationalist. That I have never really critically engaged with this idea that there is a nation, and I am a part of it, thus sharing its features. Living in a multicultural country, I never registered the signs of multiculturalism. I should have: I would always travel past the Greek cultural center on my way downtown. I have heard a lot about the Gypsies - and would not shy away from calling them Gypsies to their face (not to mention the fear of being 'stolen' by one of 'them' or of having my gold earrings violently pulled from my ears by Gypsies...). And every now and then, stories of mixed ethnicity in my family were retold at family reunions.

Yet, I never registered them with a critical eye. They never told me that there is something else beyond the nation to which I was belonging. Hey, they never told me that my nation was to be questioned, dissected, or interrogated. I was a believer. But then I switched sides, and I 'blame' it all on grad school. My colleagues and professors made me want to look for more, made me think of those things I took for granted. I read, I learned, I started paying attention - first and foremost to myself. And I became convinced that - just as in 1848, students actively stirred the social unrest and participated in the shaping of their cities - students nowadays will once again shape their societies by challenging and deconstructing racism, intolerance, xenophobia, sexism, nationalism and so on. I embraced the May 1968 events with the (somehow bizarre) optimism that universities are the last bastion of critical thinking.

As I'm now doing some reading on nationalism, my own story as a student came back to mind. The article I'm just reading - Jon E. Fox (2006) "Consuming the Nation" - briefly reflects on the role of students in nationalist movements. Students, writes fox, are the "torchbearers of their respective nations". Yes, with the caveat that some of them do change into the critiques and challengers of nations altogether.

Photo credits: Somewhere on the internet...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The constraints of national identity

I have discussed Wayne Norman's book on Negotiating Nationalism in a previous post. Here I want to talk about national identity - and why I find it so limiting, annoying and unsuitable for a world in which we would like to be mobile, to have our human dignity recognized and to challenge/ change/ sanction physical and systemic violence. In chapter 2, devoted to National Identity, Norman outlines some of the underlying assumptions, beliefs and sentiments that make the national identity. And here is exactly why I think we need to become creative, get rid of national identities and imagine new ways of mobilizing loyalties and justifying the social contract:

National identity, argues Norman, is based on the following sets of:
- beliefs: that there is a nation of which I am a member, which has a homeland. Furthermore, you cannot become a member of the nation just by moving there, although in some situations (certainly not if you are of Turkish background in Germany for instance) being born there out of immigrant parents may qualify you as a national. In other words, one remains eternally (or at least for the duration of one's life) defined by his/ her nation and his/her homeland. One is eternally doomed to be a stranger, should he or she decide to move somewhere else. One cannot never be 'part of us'. Now, I find this not only narrow-minded, but increasingly unsuitable for our contemporary world (read a very interesting article on this by Arash Abizadeh)

- still under the rubric of beliefs, national identity is informative - in that it tells something about yourself to those who do not know you. Now, again, this is not only paternalistic, but also absurd. If I tell you I'm Canadian, you'll feel you know something about me. But what you think you know are stereotypes. You'll make assumptions and you'll place a label onto me - without ever trying to get to know me. How can 33 million people be defined by some common traits?

- last, but not least, national identity means I'm morally obliged to my fellow-nationals - and more so than to non-nationals. This is what I would call a double standard: one cannot be committed to the idea of human rights, of individual dignity and respect derived from one's humanity, and to the idea of the nation. How can one believe in human rights, but apply two different sets of moral principles to co-nationals and 'others'?

- and finally, my favorite: even if I live in another country and become a citizen, I would always be a citizen of my nation.

No, I am not. I beg to differ. I realize I am embedded in a Western system of thinking, but I am who I am. I am not who the group decides for me to be. I may be marked by the things I have lived through, but the way I have experienced them is mine in a way too complex to even start describing. I share experiences, symbols and ideas with my friends, but not with 33 million people. And more likely my belonging to the middle class has marked my tastes and values more than anything else (well, class and the books I've loved to read throughout my life).

Now, before you jump and say: oh, you are so wrong, you are marked by your national identity in ways you cannot even began to grasp, through education and socialization, through being immersed in an universe of meaning and symbols yada yada... let me ask you to think of your own identity:

- You think (assuming you buying into the Western ontology) that you are a distinct human being. Do you think it's legitimate to have one morality for yourself and one for say your brother, your friend, your teacher - who are all 'distinct' and therefore 'others' to you?

- Are you exactly the same as you were 15 years ago? Have you reconsidered some of the things you believed in when you were a child?

- How do you react when others tell you who you are? When they tell you what you believe in, what are your traits, what and how you think?

Then why would you still buy into this national identity thing?

Friday, August 22, 2008

The male gaze

Broken Mystic, via Racialicious, wrote about the first female muslim Xmen character (hm, i just realized they are called 'men'...). She talks about how Dust may bring female muslim presences into the mainstream public sphere, only to quickly realize that it is in fact an object of 'male gaze' (as she puts it, male gaze refers to "female characters being depicted and presented in ways their heterosexual male writers, artists, and audiences would like to see them"). Or rather, a western heterosexual male gaze, where an image of the 'woman-in-burka' is becoming a label for muslim women.

I'm struggling with putting my thoughts together on yet another type of characters, the avatars of Second Life. If you've never heard of it, it's just an online virtual world where you interact with other people through an avatar you build and customize.

There's something very sexual about this world. Everyone is so fit, so sexy and so scantly dressed. Or at least that's how it appears to me. So, I'm torn between wondering how my own system of values and my own fears play into my view of the world. I see the liberating potential: you can feel empowered by building yourself any way you want and by interacting with others without any inhibitions/ constraints you may have in face-to-face communication. But I also see how feeling liberated by fitting into a particular shape of a woman is in fact reintroducing a very patriarchal vision, where women are first and foremost sex objects. Where women come to measure themselves up to this avatar ideal of big boobs, small waists and long legs, of weaving hair and perfect symmetry ...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

It's not a 'bond', it's nationalism

I'm always surprised by how 'nationalism' does not feature in the North American vocabulary. It is as if the whole critical scholarship on nations and nationalism has been almost absent from the public discourse on this continent, maybe except references to Anderson's 'imagined community' (which I personally think are more a matter of being fashionable and quoting a popular author without really understanding where the author is coming from).

I read an article the other day on the Canadian Chinese diaspora's newly discovered bond with the former homeland. I'd like to challenge this title: it's not about 'fostering a bond' - it is all about plain and simple nationalism. In the article, a radio show host talks about how the Canadian Chinese audience is no longer willing to accept any criticism of China (and in particular things like human rights violation or censorship), accusing those who voice them of being traitors and diminishing the Chinese nation.

Mr. Kwan, who admits to a new-found sense of pride himself, said he worries the sentiments being expressed will be mistaken for "ugly Chinese nationalism" instead of shows of dignity and cultural pride.

I do understand that for some people there is a difference between 'ugly' nationalism (by which they generally refer to violent xenophobia) and patriotism. And I do understand that the latter can be a source of empowerment especially for those relegated to the periphery of the West (read Eastern Europe, 'Third World' countries etc.). But the only difference between the 'ugly' and the 'good' side of nationalism (yes, patriotism does count as nationalism - you are proud of your country, of its implied territorial boundaries, of its assumed common national values, ideas, sensibilities etc.) is the visible violence it may or may not entail.

As long as culture remains a political domain, as long as collective identities are the basis of ethnic politics, as long as we identify with an amorph and unknown mass of people called the 'nation' (with whom we share nothing in common, except we happen to inhabit a common state whose boundaries were arbitrarily drawn) - as long as these things are still there, in the background of feeling proud and feeling 'part of' the nation, then we remain nationalists. We are not 'open' and 'tolerant'. We see the others in terms of 'belonging to a particular group', on a particular territory. We defend our culture against the 'invasion' of the foreign elements (and I'm not saying here we should all accept cultural imperialism, quite on the contrary). We still remain subjugated by a national label which we have to carry with us like Sisif had to carry his stone.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Married with children

I was thinking earlier about those men who tell their girlfriends that they won't continue the relationship unless they want to have children. I was thinking how patriarchal this is. And how it objectifies those women. What does it mean, that if she doesn't want to have kids, he is no longer interesting? So, what really interests him? Her? Or her womb? And what happens if, say, down the road, after 1 year of dating and getting engaged, she suddenly gets sick and cannot bare children anymore. Will he dump her? Will he look for another woman who can give him what he truly wants - the children?

I have this friend who's on the market for a girlfriend. He'd like to marry and have kids. And he met this girl in her '30s who was planning to go for med school. "But when will you have kids then", he asked her. No wonder she never called him back. I know I wouldn't.
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