Revolt Against The Rootless

If you think of nationalism as a disease, a pathology of ideology, it is indicated by common transnational symptoms. Regardless of the country and its history, nationalism always presents some combination of the following indications: rabid essentialism; misogyny and homophobia/transphobia (since nationalism tends to be masculine); a reverence for simplicity, an expression of national authenticity; hatred for big cities, which are complicated and thus inauthentic, and are also where elites and foreigners live; a quest for cultural purity, since culture is the domain of the essence; an international grudge, a sense that the nation has been repeatedly wronged by some or all other nations; insistence on territorial sovereignty and a related obsession with the sanctity of borders; antisemitism and/or Islamophobia; a weird mix of patriotic kitsch—flags, heroes, public rituals, folksy bullshit— and militant trash culture (sequined TV-shows, criminals as celebrities, women as slutty trophies); a literary cannon featuring books that express ‘us’ best and that must perpetually be studied; a holy writ of some kind, a founding book or two; a systemic memory of a war or a battle in which the essence of the nation was best expressed; the instability of truth as a universal ethical/epistemological system, which is trumped—and I use the pun wisely—by the native sense of one; and, of course, exceptionalism—the belief that this nation is unlike any other, which is why we’re exempt from human history or any kind of global ethos and why we make decisions based only on what we feel is right for us.

The problem is, of course, that the monolithic, monodimensional, essentialist space always starts out as a fantasy. This dream does not come into existence by itself, so it can only be created through violence, metaphorical or literal. Genocide, segregation, ethnic cleansing are all operations whose purpose is a creation of such a space—it is hard to find a nation- state unmarked by a vast crime at its foundational moment. The birth of a nation doesn’t just require eliminating foreign elements from the national space, but also then delimiting the space as that which belongs to us. We’re not them, because it is us who do things to them—historical agency is executed in the policies of exclusion and elimination, at the far end of which is extermination. Trump’s recent edicts and the epidemic of hate crimes that came with them are thus an expression of nationalist reconfiguration—to own the great America again, we have to cleanse it, again.

But there has never existed a domain, at least not in modern times, in which only rooted non-cosmopolitans lived. Humanity is impossible and unimaginable without migration, there is no human history but the history of wandering, which is also the history of (re)settling. All those who come from elsewhere bring with them elsewhereness, a universe of experiences whose presence in the host culture does indeed change it. That is a problem, of course, if you think of culture as an eternal, unalterable domain wherein our transcendental essence actualises itself—in such a culture, ‘elsewhereness’ is a contaminant. However, if you think of culture—and of society—as fluid, as ever changing, ever absorbing more and more of human experience, then it is nothing but a field where our world-sense is actualised.

Nationalists hate complexity. Their dreams and plans are always simple, sometimes genocidally so; their fantasies always feature simple folk and simple self-evident thoughts. But rootlessness—a diasporic world-sense—is complicated. It creates irreducible people, whose complexity appears in an essentialist space the way a multidimensional object appears in a two-dimensional projection. Such a reduction is a denial of individual sovereignty—which is what is at the root of all racism and bigotry—and therefore a denial of human potential, of the chance to go beyond essentialism and nationalism. For diasporic world-sense does indeed allow for seeing things from several different positions and perspectives; it does encourage a rejection of obedient patriotism. Diasporic world-sense undermines the notion of citizenship as fate by suggesting it is in fact a conscientious choice.

This essay appears in full in the 2016 Winter Issue of Jewish Quarterly.

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