Review of Will Kymlicka’s Multicultural Citizenship



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Chapter 5
Understanding or Misunderstanding Nationalism?


Nation has strong significance for Kymlicka’s theory. As we have seen in the previous chapter, Kymlicka seeks primarily to secure national rights for minority nations and to make plain the multi-national character of states. Yet despite the pivotal role that nation plays in Kymlicka’s theory, Kymlicka does not dwell long on questions about the nature of nation itself. As the debate about group rights has become fundamentally normative, conceptual clarity on the definition of nation is much needed. This chapter shall therefore outline the main points that Kymlicka establishes about nation and frame his definition within the larger socio-political debate about the nature of nation.

Kymlicka is not alone in expressing an inability to clearly define nation, as he and Norman acknowledge, “for more than a century political philosophers and social scientists have debated the question ‘What is a nation?’” (Kymlicka & Norman, 2000, p. 19). Anthony D. Smith also describes the “protean” and evasive nature of the nation, and sums the surmountable task: that we have to “try to classify the rich variety of movements and ideologies if we are to make any progress in understanding so variegated a phenomenon” (Smith, 1996). Oddly, most philosophers have remained quiet on this topic despite the strong influence of national identities and boundaries in the modern world. As Benedict Anderson said it, “unlike most other isms, nationalism has never produced its grand thinkers: no Hobbes, Tocquevilles, Marxes, or Webers” (Beiner, 1999, p. 2).77 Perhaps ‘nation’ as a concept has been ignored due to its negative associations, or perhaps it has been held aloft due to the ambiguity of its intrinsic emotive aspect. Nevertheless, key writings on the topic of nationalism ostensibly have influenced the development of the theory of Kymlicka.

Particularly relevant for Kymlicka’s theory is the influx of theories on nationalism written in the early 80s to 90s78, just prior to and concurrent with the beginnings of theories emphasizing community79 and “politics of identity”80 and Kymlicka’s first major work (1989). Writing against the backdrop of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its failed project of ‘Russification’ in the latter part of the 80s, these social scientists sought to bring nationalism back into the limelight81. They sought to understand the political potency the concept continued to have in the world, particularly in the rising nationalisms of Eastern Europe. This post-Soviet rise of nationalism and ethnic pride threw a wrench into Francis Fukyama’s premature “End of History” (Fukuyama, 1989; 1992).82 Political scholars, liberalists foremost, could not understand why human communities would decide to go ‘backwards’ and retreat into the biased prejudices from which liberalism had lifted them. Thus, in the years just prior to and following these global upheavals, a flurry of authors hurriedly tried to explain the attractiveness of ‘nation’ and the rise of nationalist outcroppings across numerous states worldwide, and in particular, to illustrate nationalism’s compatibility with liberalism.

It is no small coincidence then, that the closely following developments in the political philosophy of multiculturalism and identity politics would also try to grapple with this difficult question of nation; if not to explain it entirely, then at least to explain it partially with respect to the importance of culture and community as Kymlicka’s theory sets out to do.83 In the brief survey that follows, I focus mainly on the major theories of nationalism that surfaced around the time of the rise of literature on community, identity, and minority rights, and then will relate Kymlicka’s works to these theoretical debates.


Theories of Nationalism

        1. Ernest Gellner: Modernity and Industrialization


Ernest Gellner offers one of the most influential theories of nationalism. Gellner was one of the first authors to raise the importance of nationalism for political studies. Nearly all writers studying nationalism refer to his theory, even if they disagree with it. Kymlicka himself mentions Gellner in several of his writings and was clearly influenced by him in his own theory. Similar to Kymlicka, for Gellner the rise of nationalism is tied indelibly to the rise of modernity. Indeed, Gellner’s theory would become “patronizingly classed” with the “modernization school” of social sciences at the time (O'Leary, 1996, p. 197). More specifically however, for Gellner nationalism was a necessary corollary of the rise of industry and western capitalist society. In his “unashamedly functionalist” account of nation, Gellner considers nation in an instrumental sense as necessary for human advancement and a requirement of industry (O'Leary, 1996, p. 203).

To a certain extent, Gellner considers industry and nationalism as two sides of the same coin. Both were meant to bring stability and prosperity. To meet the heightened demands and pace of modern industry a skilled and transferable set of higher educated employees was needed. A common “high culture” says Gellner was therefore transferred from the elite to the working classes to elevate them to a standard in which they could fulfil these new requirements of industry, which in turn blurred the distinction between the classes (Gellner, 2006, pp. 34-7).84 Nationalism was the vehicle for this transformation. It provided the required milieu of standardization and homogenization of culture and of languages in which skills became transferable and commodifiable in a way that best served the interests of the industrial will.

To illustrate, Gellner provides us with a fictional story about an empire called “Megalomania” and a people called “Ruritarians”. In the empire of Megalomania, lived a group of people called “Ruritarians”. Gellner says that Ruritarians “had previously thought and felt in terms of family unit and village, at most in terms of valley, and perhaps on occasion in terms of religion.” (Gellner, 1994, p. 69). They had only loose connections to the empire. However, the rise of industrialisation in Megalomania brought about sweeping changes to the land, which in turn disrupted family connections and other previous sources of identity for the Ruritarians. The Ruritarians found themselves both exploited and impoverished from the rise of new industry. Theories of liberalism from neighbouring countries reached them however, and the Ruritarians began to define themselves in opposition to the more prosperous Megalomaniacs and launched a revolution against them, which in turn gave rise to a newfound Ruritania and a Ruritarian national identity. This new national identity was defined in terms of the high culture of the elite, altogether different from that of the lower classes, but which soon spread to them (Gellner, 1994, pp. 66-70).

Gellner uses this illustration to describe how nationalism first arises among populations with no previous national consciousness or history of industry. Nationalism in this account is a tool of the Ruritarian people to facilitate collective action with respect to overcoming inequalities between themselves and the Megalomania Empire. Nationalism is primarily “a new form of social organization, based on deeply internalized, education dependent high cultures, each protected by its own state” (Gellner, 1994, p. 63) (or what Kymlicka would term, “societal culture”).

This nationalism however, contrary to primordialist views, is not something intrinsic to the Ruritarian population; instead, it is a new ahistorical creation that arises to fill a need. As Gellner famously remarked, “nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist” (as cited in Smith, 1991, p. 71). IN other words, nationalism creates nations – not the other way around. Gellner stresses this point in a way that Kymlicka does not: nations are not pre-existing entities; instead, they are primarily social constructions. The basis for this new nationalism however does sometimes have roots prior to its inception, and “sometimes takes pre-existing cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them, and often obliterates pre-existing cultures” (Gellner, 1994, pp. 63-4). Previously loose amalgams of closely associated cultures become unitary and homogenous.

Both Gellner and Kymlicka agree that the development of nations led to uniform language, education, and even health care systems. Official state-sanctioned languages displaced local languages. Common civil criminal codes and labour reforms were introduced in part to increase the health and circumstances of the labourers. The nation-state thereby facilitated the rise of industry and the improvement of the conditions of the working class that fuelled it. In toto, the push for industrialization marked the beginnings of the welfare state, and nationalism was both an offspring and a vehicle of this.

This account of nationalism has been criticized however for hinging on economic determinism and for reducing nationalism to a mere means for capitalism. Further, Gellner is also blamed for overly generalizing the varieties of nationalisms worldwide and for failing to account for various integral aspects of nationalism (such as passions and military involvement in its creation).85 Nevertheless, Gellner’s theory has played an important and reoccurring role in subsequent studies on nationalism.

Gellner’s influence is indeed evident in the work of Kymlicka, who also claims that nationalism brought prosperity through enabling a system which facilitated a single language, universal education, health standards and so forth which all served to create equality within the society and raise its bottom levels. Kymlicka parts company with Gellner however with respect to the diffusion of culture. While Gellner says that nationalism assisted in the spreading of high culture, Kymlicka says (shadowing Hobsbawm) that this was a two-way street, and that with the spread of nationalism both the lower classes were influenced by high culture, but at the same time the upper classes were exposed to “low” or popular culture.86 Kymlicka also departs from Gellner’s purely constructivist account of nationalism as we shall see in more detail later on.


Eric Hobsbawm: “Invented Traditions” - A View from Below


In a vein similar to Gellner’s account of nationalism, Eric Hobsbawm sees nationalism as a contingent development related to a very specific stage of human technological and economic progress. National identity for Hobsbawm marks a shift away from pre-modern identities towards a new and specifically modern sense of identity in that it demands tremendous allegiance and political duty to surpass all other group associations. Hobsbawm agrees with Gellner that “nationalism comes before nations” and that nations are primarily socially engineered constructions (spread by governments and elites by means of mass media and standardized education) (Hobsbawm E. , 1990, pp. 8-10). In his words, nations are invented traditions (Hobsbawm, 1983), that no serious historian should believe in, for “nationalism requires too much belief in what is patently not so” (Hobsbawm E. , 1990, p. 12). Indeed, Hobsbawm quotes Renan in saying that “getting its history wrong is part of being a nation.” In other words, the created national stories and histories though they may have some origins in reality, include many falsities and intentional exaggerations.87

Like Gellner, Hobsbawm sees nationalism as “constructed essentially from above” (1990, p. 10), however he departs from Gellner (but slightly closer to Kymlicka) in describing it as a “dual phenomena” (1990, p. 10) and thus in need of being understood from below. He cites this as Gellner’s chief fault: that he does not aim to understand nationalism “in terms of the assumptions, hopes, needs, longings and interests of ordinary people, which are not necessarily national and still less nationalist” (1990, p. 10). Kymlicka, though he does not mention Hobsbawm at any length in his works, would clearly agree with him with respect to the need to understand nationalism from below and not to disregard the meaning which nationalism holds for the people themselves, though the primary sense of belonging which concerns Kymlicka the most is in fact national belonging and national sentiments (towards one’s societal culture).

Further, Hobsbawm differs from Kymlicka in that he stresses much more strongly the atypical and fluctuating nature of national movements, as compared with the stable cultural background Kymlicka believes nationalism provides for its members (as we will see more clearly in the coming paragraphs). For Hobsbawm, national movements rarely have a uniform impact on the people, often reaching the working classes last88. Further, national identity is never a solitary identity but is always held in combination with others. Nor is it a permanent identity but is constantly shifting through time. Official national ideologies rarely match the national identifications of the people who are subject to them. National consciousness amongst the masses is in fact not even generated in some cases even after a nation state has been made, says Hobsbawm (as in the post-colonial world for example).

More condescending of nationalism than either Gellner or Kymlicka, Hobsbawm believes that nationalism was suited to a particular time in human history but that this time is now nearing its close. His critics deride his pessimism about the future of nationalism and point out to its continuing prevalence in the world (their critiques of his writings are further driven against his commitment to Marxism). Nevertheless, Hobsbawm offers a discriminating assessment of nationalism and moves national theory away from other monolithic accounts.


Benedict Anderson: “Imagined Communities”


Perhaps the definition of nation that best captures the heart and passion intrinsic in nationalism is that offered by Benedict Anderson. In a book called “Imagined Communities” (Anderson, 1983/2003), published in the same year as Hobsbawm’s “Invented Traditions” (1983), Andersen penned nation as an “imagined political community that is imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” (Anderson, 2003, p. 6; see also Puri, 2004, pp. 43-58) According to Anderson, what nationalism marked from all pre-modern societies was a new way of imagining belonging. As Yael Zerubavel says, these “imagined communities” were forged by nationalist movements that used selective forgetting and remembering to form a national narrative to shape the past (Zerubavel, 1995, p. 214).

Contrary to Hobsbawm, who sees nationalism as a primarily a development of the occident, Anderson suggests that national sentiments first developed in “Creole states” (the new world colonies) and thereafter quickly spread to the rest of the world. Three developments gave rise to nationalism according to Anderson: first, the demise of sacred languages (coupled with the rise of the printing press); second, a shift in sovereignty from “divinely-guided” monarchies to “the people”89; and third, a new temporal aspect added to our understanding of community, connecting us back to “time immemorial” and forward into the future.

Anderson's definition is important for understanding Kymlicka because it underscores the aspect of belonging intrinsic to national identity so critical to his theory. As Kymlicka words it, Anderson’s theory explains “people’s bond to their own culture” (1995, p. 90). Indeed, Anderson describes national membership as a deep communal bond, he says though most members “will never know their fellow members…in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (Anderson, 2003, p. 6). This imagined sense of belonging creates a vision of dedicated community that is "always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship" (Anderson, 2003, p. 7). Though the collective memories and boundaries established by nationalism are the product of our creative imaginings, Anderson shows us that they still hold important psychological consequences for our sense of identity and belonging.

Anthony D. Smith: The Ethnic Origins of Nation


Anthony D. Smith, Editor-in-Chief of the scholarly journal Nations and Nationalism (Cambridge University Press) and former student of Ernest Gellner, is another leading scholar of nationalism. For Smith, neither primordialist accounts (irrational “blood and soil” beliefs) (see for example the influential view of Connor, 1993, p. 374) nor modernist accounts (socially-engineered ex nihilo arguments) can satisfactorily explain nationalism. One account treats nationalism as unchanging and immemorial while the other treats nationalism as inconstant and new. Instead, Smith attempts to provide us with an account that (in a fashion similar to Kymlicka) bridges both the primordialist and constructivist views; an account of nationalism which he calls “ethnosymbolism”.90

The term ethnosymbolism arises from Smith’s theory that the origins of nations lay in pre-modern identities or ethnicities, which he calls “ethnies” (somewhat similar to Kymlicka’s “ethnocultural groups”) (Smith, 1986, p. 138). National traditions are not created ex nihilo for Smith, but are woven from fragments of meaning collected from our past. These premodern identities in turn shape our modern identities. Though most nations are polyethnic, all nations have a dominant ethnic “core” says Smith. Similar to Kymlicka, Smith notes that many minority populations will find themselves at a disadvantage, as the “dominant ethnic core” will be promoted.

So far Smith’s theory loosely mirrors Kymlicka’s, however Smith articulates more finely than Kymlicka the nature of these “ethnies” or “ethnocultural groups”: Smith compares nation to a geological strata that combines “all its members’ past experiences and expressions” (in other words, histories and traditions) (1999, p. 171). It is the task of the nation-builder to become an archaeologist says Smith, digging into these deep layers of tradition to renew and reinvent old myths and symbols for the “mobilisation of the present.” (1995, p. 17; 1999a, p. 331)91 As Smith says, "perhaps the central question in our understanding of nationalism is the role of the past in the creation of the present” (Smith, 1995, p. 18). Nationalists are selective of course in the history that they remember and forget; those aspects of history that are repeated or reinvented are those which meet the criteria set out by nationalist ideology, historic data, and public sentiment. (Smith, 1995, p. 19) 92 Nation-building thus is a “continually-renewed two-way relationship” connecting “ethnic past to nationalist future”. This continuous link between past and future gives nationalism its strong emotive power (Smith, 1995, p. 19).

Smith continues onwards to go beyond Anderson’s classic definition in saying that, “the nation is, after all, more than just an ‘imagined community’; it is also a community of will and emotion, purpose and devotion” (2001, p. 447). Like Kymlicka, for Smith the key features of a nation – its myths, its history, and even its territory93 – are essential to the identity of its members. In fact, Smith’s own definition of nationalism (in some places defined by him as ‘civic’ nationalism) is such a close mirror of the definition provided by Kymlicka that it is worthwhile to quote in full:

Nationalism can be defined as an ideological movement for attaining and maintaining autonomy, unity and identity on behalf of a population, some of whose members deem it to constitute a ‘nation’. The nation in turn can be defined as a named human population occupying an historic territory and sharing a common public culture and history, a single economy and common rights and duties for all members (Smith, 2001, p. 442).

This definition is very close to that of Kymlicka, as we will see in the coming pages, however there are subtle differences. Kymlicka never refers to nationalism in terms of it being an “ideological movement” as Smith does, but rather equates national feelings with the important “context of choice” that (national/societal) culture provides for its members (as discussed in chapter four). More definitively than Smith’s focus on the diverse and shifting origins of national culture itself, Kymlicka tends to emphasize the bounded aspects of nation: including territory, language, and institutions.

Smith does proceed along similar lines to Kymlicka and the communitarians with respect to the deep feelings of attachment to one’s nation; like the communitarians, Smith associates this with the basic human need for authenticity.94 Authenticity, for Smith is understood in a very romantic Herderian95 point of view, emphasizing the uniqueness or “purity” (Smith, 2001, p. 443)96 of each culture or nation. He expresses the need not just to preserve the various unique cultures but also to uncover the origins of its “genius, in order that the nation may flourish once more” (Smith, 2001, p. 443). Kymlicka on the contrary, and quite rightly, does not support preservation of a culture for its own sake, but only for the sake of its members insofar as they value it and themselves find it necessary and worth preservation.

Overall, Smith provides an innovative new way of casting nationalism in a positive light. His approach combines anthropology and historiography to provide an understanding of the phenomenon of nationalism, which he says though modern, has origins that stretch back much further in human history. Smith is similar to Kymlicka in that he provides an explanation of nationalism that ties its value to cultural membership (Kymlicka, 2001b, p. 250) and which correspondingly tries to explain the potent emotional attachment people experience towards their nation.


Do Nations have Navels?

Gellner, responding to the critiques of his former student Smith, gave an adversarial lecture in the now famous “Warwick Debate” held between both he and Smith in 1995 at Warwick University, wherein Gellner asked the semi-rhetorical question: “Do nations have navels?” (Gellner & Smith, 1996). By navels, Gellner adroitly uses a metaphor of the debate on the origins of man to explain his take on the debate on the origins of nation. The debate between creationists and evolutionists – as to whether humans were created ‘ex nihilo” or whether they arose as a slow gradual process of evolution, explains Gellner, could potentially be decided by knowing whether Adam had a navel. If Adam had a navel, then mankind was created ex nihilo, but if Adam did not have a navel, then it would indicate that mankind was created from a long process of evolution, of which Adam had not yet gone through – to acquire navels. Gellner, in a move that trivializes the work of Smith and casts doubt on Kymlicka’s cultural-ontological account of nations, says that the case of the origins of nations is as inane a question as “did Adam have or did he not have a navel?” He cites clear examples of nations that were created ex nihilo in modernity (such as the Estonians) and says that to enquire further, whether other nations had “navels” or not (i.e., whether they were created ex nihilo in modernity or were a part of a longer process of development tracing back into human history) would be beside the point. Of course, says Gellner, people have always valued culture; however, the main point is that modernity (propelled by its advancements in science and economics) brought about a fundamental change that marked a shift in how people experience culture and identity.

David Miller: Against Objective Descriptions


UK philosopher David Miller is also a strong pro-nationalist like Kymlicka who advocates a form of civic nationalism. Like Kymlicka, Miller believes that promotion of an overarching national identity (nation-building) is a positive thing for fostering social solidarity. For both, nation springs from a long history of association expected to continue into the foreseeable future. Both Miller and Kymlicka agree that there is an emotional attachment to this nation or community, for which Miller says, we would “sacrifice personal goals to advance its interests” (Miller, 1992, p. 87). For Miller, nation is

not a matter of the objective characteristics that [a people] possess, but of their shared beliefs; a belief that each belongs together with the rest…the community is marked off from other communities by its members’ distinctive characteristics. Where these beliefs are widely held throughout the population in question we have sufficient grounds for saying that a nation exists (Miller, 1992, p. 87).

Miller’s definition, though very close to that of Kymlicka, differs in that it emphasizes much more the created aspect of nation and less its objective aspects. Particularly, Miller shies away from associating the definition of nation from “objective characteristics such as race or language” (Miller, 1992, p. 87), while language and territory (“givens” according to Miller) form an integral part of Kymlicka’s justification for group rights.

The “givens” (that Kymlicka argues connect the circumstances of minorities with the need for minority rights) are disregarded by Miller, who instead emphasizes the “malleability of [national] identities, that is, the extent to which they can be created or modified consciously” (as cited in Kymlicka, 1995, p. 184). This leads Miller, in stark contrast to Kymlicka, to deny the need to promote internal national differences (or minority national rights), and alternatively to propose that the state need promote a much stronger identity than the subaltern identities of minority cultures to avoid segmentation of the society. Kymlicka argues against Miller that “recent history suggests that to some extent national identities must be taken as givens” (Kymlicka, 1995, p. 187). As evidence, he refers to the Quiet Revolution in Quebec97 and recent changes in indigenous communities, which for him are a sign that, although national identities can change over time, it does not weaken their distinctiveness or the emotional attachment of its members.


Kymlicka: Nationalism as a Matter of Choice and Circumstance


Kymlicka’s view on multiculturalism was certainly influenced by the various above-mentioned contemporaneous positions on nationalism. These positions arose in a period marked by rapid shifts in world politics and decreased confidence in the liberal creed. Kymlicka’s account of multiculturalism veers towards a generally positive impression of nationalism (as opposed to other post-national/cosmopolitan accounts by authors such as Jürgen Habermas, Seyla Benhabib, or Jeremy Waldron) and indeed Kymlicka believes that he can salvage liberalism from its communitarian detractors by casting nationalism and culture as being well-suited for liberalism.

So what does Kymlicka himself say about nations? Clearly, for Kymlicka, nationalism is held in a positive light, as a boon belonging to modernity, which brought with it the modern welfare state and democracy98. Kymlicka links the rise of societal cultures to modernity, quoting Gellner as support (Kymlicka, 1995, p. 76). He believes that nationalism’s future in our world is secured for the foreseeable future, as he says, “we can safely predict that nationalism is likely to remain an enduring feature of modernity” (Kymlicka, 2000a, p. 35).

This view is partly due to Kymlicka’s strong association of democracy with nationalism. In fact, Kymlicka seems to imply that liberalism and democracy are only possible within national borders. He holds this position for a number of reasons. Kymlicka says, for one, that nationalism has strong emotional potency because it “valorised ‘the people’” (Kymlicka, 2003, pp. 269-70). Kymlicka also says that nationalism attracts mass support because it lifted the lower classes to an even footing with the upper classes, making “the people” sovereign in place of rule by a select elite. The rule of the people was further reinforced by the spread of a common culture to all national members in the form of a unified language, unified educational system, common history, so that all members could speak the language of the common public culture, or the “politics in the vernacular.” He continues further in saying that, “national identity has remained strong in the modern era in part because its emphasis on the importance of the people provides a source of dignity to all individuals, whatever their class” (Kymlicka, 2003, pp. 269-70). 99 Contrary to popular opinion, Kymlicka says that mass support for nationalism does not entail mere irrationality or xenophobia but is often rooted in liberal democratic societies as a source of profound meaning and choice.

Taking a position that is midway between constructionism and essentialism, Kymlicka’s account of nation combines elements of imagined community and of historic community from the various trends in nationalism studies at the time of his original writing. Similar to Smith’s definition of nation, Kymlicka’s definition lies between a purely primordialist and a purely modernist view. Indeed, Kymlicka provides us with a very straightforward definition of nation that echoes clearly that of Smith:

A historical [intergenerational] community, more or less institutionally complete, occupying a given territory or homeland, sharing a distinct language and culture (Kymlicka, 1995, p. 11).

Kymlicka’s view however emphasizes much more than Smith does (but following Gellner), the institutional aspects of national imaginings, the role of education and state-sponsored languages in the diffusion of national culture and the importance of a homeland territory (Kymlicka, 2007)100. It is important to note from the above definition the central importance Kymlicka’s definition attaches to culture. As we have already seen, for Kymlicka cultural membership gives meaning to one’s life and enables one to enter confidently the political arena and to effectively shape society. Indeed, throughout his writings Kymlicka uses the two terms “nation” and “culture” interchangeably, and even straightforwardly signals in his writings that he will in fact “use the term ‘culture’ as a synonym for ‘nation’” (1995, p. 18). This linkage of terms unfortunately dilutes and adds ambiguity to the definition Kymlicka provides for nation. Like culture, nation has an instrumental meaning for Kymlicka. Neither is an end valuable in itself, instead they are a means to attaining our ends. Nation and culture are only valuable insofar as they are valued by their members and should be supported only for the meaning (or context of choice) they bring to our lives. Members therefore have the ability to opt in and opt out of nation.

This form of “thin” nationalism is understood by Kymlicka in the sense of Renan’s Daily Plebiscite. For Renan, nation is a form of chosen solidarity based on mutual consent; in his words, it is “the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life” (Renan, 1996). Nation is of value so long as its individual members continually reaffirm it. Indeed, like Kymlicka, Renan ties national identity to individual freedom. Renan calls the existence of many nations the “guarantee of liberty” so that humans avoid domination by a single world authority (Renan, 1996, pp. 52-54).101

However, by emphasizing the importance of both objective (given) and subjective (created) elements of national cultures, Kymlicka veers between choice and circumstance in his approach to nation. Nation is of course still a voluntary membership, but to a certain extent Kymlicka’s definition depicts this as a constrained voluntarism, since nation is more than a matter of pure choice but is also rooted in secure cultural structures that are not chosen but are in fact given. These “givens” (Miller, 1995, p. 6) include: the land on which I was born; the distinct history passed down to me by my ancestors; the language I am taught at birth; the habits and traditions I learn as I grow up; and finally the institutions which reinforce all of these.

All of these factors which combine to form my concept of “nation” are in fact decided for me before I am born. Though I may elect to change any one of them - by learning a new language, moving to a new territory, redefining my understanding of family history, disregarding tradition, nevertheless these initial factors have still left a stamp on my person and have inevitably contributed to my worldview. Moreover, says Kymlicka, it is a good thing they do, for nations provide us with a strong cultural structure and identity that lends meaning to our lives and yet these frameworks are open enough to allow members to come and go as they choose.102

Kymlicka describes the essence of national identity in a tremendously similar fashion to Smith’s “ethnic core”. As Kymlicka says,

Of course much of the mythology accompanying national identities is just that—a myth. But it is important not to confuse the heroes, history, or present-day characteristics of a national identity with the underling national identity itself. The former is much more malleable than the latter (1998c, p. 178).

Thus, although Kymlicka tries to avoid common origin and ancestry (ethnicity) as a requirement for nation (as in the case of ‘ethnic’ nations),103 Kymlicka nevertheless refers to something of a common ethnicity at the very heart of nationalism which does not vary greatly over time104. Common historical origin figures prominently among other objective qualities in his justification of the “givenness” of nation. Such resorts to path-dependancy lend a pre-political ontological dimension to his definition of nation, which run counter to his insistence on the elasticity of nation and the possible detachment of its members from its history and setting (Kaufmann & Zimmer, 2004).

So far, we have learned several things about Kymlicka’s standpoint on nation. First, nation is held in a positive light as an “enduring feature of modernity” (1997b, p. 44) closely linked to democracy. Second, nation is a deep attachment that provides identity and context of choice. Third, nation does not inhere in us but is something we choose. Fourth (and counter to point 3), nation is determined by factors given to us by birth – including territory, family, history, language, and so forth. But Kymlicka says much more about nationalism, and to understand his view completely, it is critical to understand his standpoint on the distinction between ethnic and civic nationalism, which is at the root of the justification for his theory.

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