Sunday, August 19, 2007

We don't need another hero

Nationalist movements have their own 'star systems': in constant need of good guys, men of action, and nefarious villains to either protect or threaten the nation, they push bit players into major roles. At times, the nationalist conception of the world resembles nothing so much as professional wrestling (and one wonders if the audience is the same)- Will the Iron Sheik and the Islamic Bomb tag team Ragin' Rudy and the Super Cops?!? To call it stupid is beside the point; nationalism points out the fatal flaw of democracy- it's not sufficiently theatrical.

Benedict Anderson has become important in historiography for arguing, in his 1983 book Imagined Communities, that nationalism is an exceedingly modern phenomenon created by mass communications and language standardization. In this sense, he simply expanded Marshall McLuhan's earlier claim that the printing press created nationalism; but the strength of his book is in showing that 'National Identities', which are constantly said to extend back into the mists of time and root down deep into the soil, are relatively recent fictions tied to a certain type of state. And, it should be said, tied to the development of modern democracy.

Lucy Riall has a new biography out which applies these insights to the figure of Garibaldi, freedom fighter of the Italian Risorgimento.

Alexander Stille reviews that biography for Powell's:

"Anticipating Che Guevara by a century, Garibaldi more or less invented the persona of the modern freedom fighter. (Unlike Che, he was actually interested in freedom.) After participating in wars of national liberation in Latin America, he adopted the look of the gaucho, wearing a poncho, a scruffy beard, a simple red shirt, and a dashing handkerchief about his throat -- a free and rugged horseman who was content to use his saddle as a pillow. Garibaldi knew how to strike a pose. When he wanted to win over a middle-class audience, he could suddenly appear with a trimmed beard in the uniform of a Piedmontese general, and the next day he would be back in his poncho and red shirt when he needed to play the role of the anti-establishment rabble-rouser."

The heroes of nationalism are more image-conscious than any diva. From Mussolini posing with a zoo lion to Napoleon's ridiculous paintings in which he rides up mountains on a white steed, we see the same sort of narcissistic strutting and posing. It's as ridiculous as it is surreal, proving once again that people are not solely motivated by reason. Strangely, it still seems to work, even though the storyline never changes. Believers in democracy have consistently made the mistake in thinking that you can rationally argue against nationalism, but all those Germans who still loved Hitler in the last days of the war suggest otherwise. In fact, as far as I can tell, nationalist bully boys (and they're always men) are only vulnerable to one thing- ridicule.

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