Wednesday, September 27, 2006

American and Chinese Nationalisms

Pei Minxin has an excellent quote on American nationalism:

"Any examination of the deeper sources of anti-Americanism should start with an introspective look at American nationalism. But in the United States, this exercise, which hints at serious flaws in the nation's character, generates little enthusiasm. Moreover, coming to terms with today's growing animosity toward the United States is intellectually contentious because of the two paradoxes of American nationalism: First, although the United States is a highly nationalistic country, it genuinely does not see itself as such. Second, despite the high level of nationalism in American society, U.S. policymakers have a remarkably poor appreciation of the power of nationalism in other societies and have demonstrated neither skill nor sensitivity in dealing with its manifestations abroad."

His full article, The Paradoxes of American Nationalism, goes on to mix criticism of U.S. patriotism with an appreciation for its spontaneous, grassroots (i.e. not top-down, propagandistic) quality and spirit of volunteerism.

Where does Chinese nationalism stand in contrast to America's? My sense is that it is more self-conscious / self-aware and more clearly defined by historical memory than its U.S. counterpart (specific historical events appear to ultimately hold comparatively little importance for America's self-image, which is more grounded in a grand "sweep of history"). But China's patriotism shares with the United States a "completeness"--for lack of a better word--that I don't know of any other countries possessing. Outsiders are only ever guests in the formation of our nations' respective nationalisms.

America's "remarkably poor appreciation of the power of nationalism in other societies" has been shown in its tragic intervention against essentially patriotic movements in Vietnam and elsewhere. Hopefully, U.S. policymakers will show more awareness as they come up against China's dreams.


giscard said...

A most intriguing post, Manfred. Mulling it over. Not sure I fully understand the point you make about the completeness of American and Chinese nationalism.

Manfred said...

By "completeness" I mean that our--America and China's--nationalisms do not rely on the outside world for their sense of mission, unlike the nationalisms I see in, say, European or Latin American countries that are very much built in contrast to their perceptions of their immediate neighbors--England vs. France, Chile vs. Bolivia, etc.

Of course, there is always an "Other" at work. America has always contrasted itself favorably to old, scheming Europe and, more recently, to the Middle East's "irrational" terrorists. China has its ideas of Japanese culture and of the culture of its "barbarian" neighbors to the north and west.

But constructions of "the Other" are, I think, a given for any culture. What is remarkable is how little China and America really preoccupy themselves with "the Other."

These two countries imagine their own traditions as so dazzlingly glorious that anything else is just an embellishment.