Sorry I haven't been blogging much lately. I'm transitioning back into school and work.
You may not be aware of it, but "the nation" is under attack. It is under attack intellectually in academia. I do not mean policies are under attack or that people are being anti-American. I mean the very concept of "nation" has for some time been denigrated as an "imagined community" with no basis in reality. This common perspective has some validity, but it can be questioned on numerous grounds. Furthermore, reinterpreting the facts can teach valuable culturist lessons.
Nations, it is true, are not as old as we often imagine them to be. Followers of this line of thinking particularly like to point out the not-too-distant disconnect between royalty, the people, and the nation. Under monarchy, the king was deserving of veneration, not a nation. The people spoke many different languages and thought of themselves as subjects, not citizens. The King himself often spoke a different language than those in administrative posts. It was only with the rise of republics that the people became attached as a community to a nation. "Nations" did not really exist until popular revolutions identified the people with the state and national destiny.
The newer nations of South America and Africa present even more stark cases of creation. The boundaries of these newer nations represent adminstrative divisions and not indigenous cultural of geographic features. Early maps did not even have nations. When Bolivar told people to think of themselves as Peruvians, he was creating a new category of peoples. Westerners discovered Cambodia's Angor Watt and Mexico's Chichen Itza. Before they were exploited by new nationalists, they meant nothing to the locals. History creates artificial ties to the past in the name of reifying unnatural categories of persons.
This position, first championed by Benedict Anderson, has some validity. It helps understand that nations are not eternal forms of political and identity organization. That said, we must, as Anderson does, make sure that we differentiate degrees of this reality. Some nations have virtually historical precedence. But some, as in England, have real and cultural ties to the past. English may have been standardized recently, but it was not invented out of whole cloth. It's selection by England as their language, was not totally arbitrary. The person who best represents this view (in the sense of being a great scholar and a great read) is Anthony D. Smith of Oxford. He has pointed out that Western connection to Greece, for example, while it has ebbed and flowed, is not arbitrary. No Western nation ties its existence to something that did not occur on its soil.
What if, though, nations are "imagined communities?" First of all, they are not so imagined anymore. After 230 years, the American nation has a history. We have a political founding, a Civil War, national politics, and collectively fought international wars that prove our national "narrative" is not totally fictive. Our nation has an undeniable basis in reality. Beyond this, though, why would nations being invented be a bad thing? In the West we celebrate invention. Is the lightbulb less valuable or more valuable for havinng been an invention? Our constitution is ingenious. We do not deride it because it was just "imagined." We should be even more proud of our nation for its being imagined and subsequently implemented.
The real issue herein, however, are the motives of those who started the debate being described. While the search for objective understanding might have merit, the need to "problematize" the idea of the nation is not a motive that can be said to be neutral. Many of these people are the same ones that championed social history in the 1970s. They said we should focus on ordinary people and not just politicians. If that is neutral it is fair enough. But when they are then hostile to including any great men, presidents or other political leaders in history, they distort more than rectify history. There was a backlash against not having governments in history. Now "Atlantic history" seeks to show that all governmental histories are intertwined. So when we cannot focus on happenings below national sovereignty, we transcend it internationally. The idea that nations are imagined falls suspiciously within the post-1970s pattern of nation depricating by historians.
Nations are good things! One definition of nation is an area within which there is peace. Rather than having warlords and tribes fighting eachother every two miles, you now have large regions in which there is no war. Historians seem to have not heard that modern anthropologists have established that life was previously very bloody. Since nations have risen, war has declined. Furthermore, communities, real or imagined, bring good feelings. Nature, anthropology and common feeling show that people like to belong. On some level it is ridiculous for me to identify with my sports team (GO LAKERS!), but I love it. Beyond this, common languages and trust, a sense of shared history and destiny, facilitates economics and democratic politics. We can trust eachother in business and in politics to not be ruthless. We agree that, when all is said and done, Democrats and Republicans are Americans and want what is best for it. Without this shared narrative, we can break into hostile groups and violence can errupt.
This brings us to the role of historians in the world. Everyone who writes on this topic notes the centrality of historians to the process of nation creation. Historians have to find old heroes and literature and bundle them to concoct a national heritage to celebrate. One can look at this and see it as an artificial manipulation of the identities of generic people. But, first of all, this overlooks the fact that before nations people still had imagined communities and shared cultures; the world before historians was not peopled with unattached individualists. Secondly, we can celebrate this as an act of valuable conscious creation of community. Like the story tellers of old, historians have fostered unity. To the extent that they have used Western sources, they have done so on a moral basis we should celebrate. Historians used to glory in telling of the deeds and values of our past, they should again.
As a history teacher my goal is to reify and glorify our great community. This noble role goes back to the days of the shamans. It is fact-based story telling. I kept this definition of my purpose especially close to my heart as I taught high school history. Teachers and culturists both know very well what people without larger role models can degenerate into. Teachers and culturists both know that without identification with a larger, imagined community, people naturally break off into sophmores and seniors, or races and conflict erupts. For our historians to spend their time deconstructing the nation is pathological. It undermines their profession's great contributions to the world. It, ironically, shows little appreciation for the historic role of historians. It is an abrogation of duty. Worst of all, belittling our nation as "imagined" can destabilize the Western world. And, if we forget to remember the values and examples of our forefathers, I don't want to imagine the very real horrors that might take its place.