Review of Will Kymlicka’s Multicultural Citizenship

An Attempt to Liberalize the Nation

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An Attempt to Liberalize the Nation

Indeed, Kymlicka’s position on nationalism belongs to a group of scholars who call themselves liberal nationalists. Other well-known names associated along with Kymlicka with the position of liberal nationalism include Margalit and Raz (1990), Tamir, (1993) and Miller (1995). Unwilling to accept liberalism’s neglect of culture, but unwilling to forsake entirely liberalism, liberal nationalism tries to maintain that nationalism can still maintain ideals such as commitment to individualism and universalism while being grounded in cultural norms. It is not a zero sum game say the liberal nationalists; culture, nation, diversity, and individuality can all be recognized and fulfilled within a single state.

Emerging at a time when nationalism studies were describing the nation in terms of ethnocentrism and intolerance, the liberal nationalists tried to redeem the nation. For quite a simple reason, they felt that they had to redeem it because despite warnings about its failings, the national model showed now signs of change and no alternative model had been successfully proposed. The liberal nationalists aimed to impose limitations on classical nationalism in an attempt to prevent it from descending to its excesses and causing harm.

While a number of scholars have written on the topic of liberal nationalism, the most recognized proponent of it, as well as the author whose work has had the most apparent impact on the writings of Kymlicka, is Israeli academic and former politician Yael Tamir. Like Kymlicka, Tamir agrees that the primary significance of national feelings lies in the deep connection we feel to our home group and to our home cultural heritage. This sense of being at home - belonging with others and having roots linking us back to our ancestors, is the reason why national imaginings are so potent and impossible to erase. Acknowledging that nationalism is a difficult concept to define, Tamir finds it helpful to define liberal nationalism by defining what it is not. She defines what it is not as follows:

        1. Self-Determination is not the same as Self-Rule

What liberal nationalism is not is a claim for sovereignty. While the classical definition of nationalism is linked to sovereignty, the liberal nationalists aim to de-link the two. Nationhood no longer requires secession and independent statehood; instead, national rights can be attained by measures bestowing cultural rights upon the minority group to bring it into greater equality with the majority nation. This leads Tamir to distinguish between liberal democracy and nationalism. The right to national self-determination is not a political claim for ‘rule of the people’ but a cultural one of ‘ruling with and for my national culture’. As Tamir says:

The right to national self-determination, however, stakes a cultural rather than a political claim, namely, it is the right to preserve the existence of a nation as a distinct cultural entity. This right differs from the right of individuals to govern their lives and to participate in a free and democratic political process (Tamir, 1993, p. 57).

Like Kymlicka, Tamir says that culture is important for our self-expression and this self-expression naturally occurs within the public sphere. Indeed, it is from within the public sphere that national stirrings originate. However, the freedom to express oneself within the context of one’s national culture within the public sphere is quite a different demand from the freedom of self-rule; i.e., the right to governance. She claims that while “the latter is derived from democratic theory, the former is grounded in a theory of nationalism” (Tamir, 1993, p. 9). Tamir believes that the demand for cultural rights is more in accordance with liberalism than the demand for self-rule (1993, p. 58). Behind Kymlicka and Tamir’s arguments is an emphasis on the essential need to reconceptualise the concept nation through severing the traditional nation-state connection, and to recognize that many multiple nations can and do live together within any single state.

Liberal Nationalism is not Homogenous

Contrary to ethno-nationalists, liberal nationalists like Tamir and Kymlicka are strong supporters of multiculturalism and indeed believe that multiculturalism is necessary both for liberalism and for the future health of the community. Liberal nationalists argue that within national group identities, diversity is always present and therefore must be accepted. Indeed, liberal nationalists aim to bring our various cultural identities into the political limelight and engage them to enrich the political process itself. Tamir firmly rejects the former homogenous model of the nation state and its colour-blind criteria, which she says restricted culture to the private sphere. This led to what Tamir calls a “schizophrenic life”, wherein individuals tried to hide their culture and leave it behind at home and not in public, leading to the “Enlightenment catch phrase – a Jew at home, and a Man in the street” (Tamir, 1993, p. 95). In the days of the classical homogenous nation, this attitude on the part of citizens was to be expected. Indeed, in the early days of modernity, the homogeneity of a nation (and restriction of culture from public life) was viewed positively as a sign of liberation from insidious divisions from cultural particularities (or what is understood nowadays as diversity), which was then seen as a threat to state unity. This former expectation of hiding one’s cultural background in today’s multicultural world however, is no longer legitimate. As Tamir says, “multiculturalism is about the ‘outing of identities’” (1993, p. 95). State unity is no longer predicated on cultural similarities she says, and in fact, such insistence on the “hiding” of culture was never feasible in the first place anyhow.

Liberal Nationalism is not Thick Nationalism

For this acceptance of inner diversity to be possible, nationalism cannot be a thick identity. For the liberal nationalists, national identity is to be understood in a “thin” sense. Unlike the former monocultural nation-state, the new nation state is much thinner, less focused on ethnocultural homogeneity and more open to cultural diversity. Ethnic minorities today enjoy equal rights with others within the society because they have been accepted into the nation; as such, their particularistic faiths and cultures now form a part of the larger nation. Indeed, Kymlicka says the nation-state has been so tenacious precisely because it has been able to adapt and restructure itself to our new pluralistic reality (2003, pp. 273-280).

Liberal Nationalism is not Optional

Finally, despite whatever failings of nationalism its detractors wish to point out, the liberal nationalists rightly say that nationalism remains the dominant mode of political organization in the world today and therefore we must find a way to make liberalism and nationalism “accommodate one another” (Tamir, 1993, p. 6). Since nationalism is not going anywhere anytime soon, it is necessary to do what we can to humanize nationalism and to soften its harsher edges. Racial and ‘gender-coded’ notions of nationhood need to be replaced with conceptions that are more egalitarian. Any “homogenizing” attempts at nation must be countered by the new “liberal” model of the nation, if nation is to overcome the juxtaposition between itself and illiberalism. State cohesion is not to be obtained through adherence to monoculture but through other means. In sum: multiculturalism and multi-nationalism must form the basis of any liberal state.

Liberal nationalism thus insists on several things that diverge from the classical definitions of nation: First, that nation and state do not, and should not, necessarily coincide, and second, that the model of the “civic” nation advocated a monoculture which in today’s world is untenable, if it at any time ever was. While liberal nationalism is understood in a ‘thin’ sense, Tamir and Kymlicka point out to us that this does not mean that thinned national identities are weakened ones. Finally, whether we like nationalism or not, it appears to be here to stay – therefore we have no choice but to try to make it adapt to the changed political circumstances of our highly pluralistic societies and take precautions against its failings, particularly with respect to minorities and/or non-members. Which leads us to the next pressing question,

Who is a Member of Nation?

The next step is to determine who is a member of the nation and who is not. For Tamir, the answer wavers somewhere between the contractarian and the communitarian view. Membership on the one hand is voluntaristic because anyone is free to join a liberal nation, however a nation is also a “community of fate” because to a large extent liberal nations continue to prioritize membership based on familial ties, and selectively control immigration to filter out those who do not share a common history or culture with that of the majority nation.

Indeed, Tamir says that it seems there are two criteria for entry into membership in liberal nations: 1. “Civic competence”, which is a willingness to engage in rational dialogue with one’s fellow members in the public arena, and 2. “A shared culture and identity – the competence to act as a member of this particular society” (1993, pp. 128-129). In other words, new members must essentially agree to assimilate to the shared history, norms, and future-orientation of the particular nation they seek to join.

Living within one’s own “national culture” is of course more meaningful, says Tamir, than living without this home culture and instead being surrounded by cultural strangers. Tamir says this is because cultural community provides stability and reassurance in a world of constant change. Nationhood, according to Tamir, gives us recognition from those closest to us and provides a reaffirmation of our self-worth, allowing “individuals to enjoy a degree of self-fulfilment they cannot experience on their own” (1993, p. 84). Basically, communal membership leads to shared goals, shared norms, and shared concern. Our sense of care and obligations extends outwards in concentric circles, Tamir says that we care most about those who are closest to us, but that does not diminish our care for others further away (1993, p. 109).

Indeed, Tamir sees a liberal nationalist view of the world family of nations as “polycentric”, something which she compares with Walzer’s “reiterative universalism” (Tamir, 1993, p. 90). Coming from a strongly Herderian point of view, Tamir believes that there is “one civilisation but many nations” (1993, p. 90). Each nation has something unique to contribute to the world, like a family coming to the table to sit together with one another, each is to be considered equal to one another, however they each play a separate role. This polycentrism is what Tamir believes distinguishes liberal nationalism from other more intolerant versions of nationalism such as in imperialism or fascism (Tamir, 1993, p. 93). Thus, liberal nationalists can prioritize and value more highly members of their own nation, but they must do this in a way that does not de-value or antagonize other nations.

Yet despite Tamir’s insistence on the need for multiculturalism and diversity, she also implicitly leans towards monoculturalism in her contradictory insistence that multiculturalism be grounded in common norms and that a common ideology is the best ground for pluralism. Indeed, Tamir disputes the Rawlsian thought experiment about the Veil of Justice on the grounds that it is predicated on the idea that we can make rational decisions separate from our communal ties and obligations. Tamir says this is simply untenable. She further questions why so many seem to find admitting to partiality and favouritism “so morally worrisome,” (Tamir, 1993, p. 112) for she believes that it is natural that we care about those who are closer to us, as she says, “the morality of community justifies favouritism” (Tamir, 1993, p. 114) (emphasis mine). The key, says Tamir, is to distinguish who is a member and who is a non-member, for while “partiality towards members is justified, one ought to be impartial among members” (Tamir, 1993, p. 111). In other words, when providing services intended to facilitate the cultural community of a particular group (Tamir provides the example of an Afro-Caribbean community centre), it is acceptable to prioritize those of this same cultural background, yet within the cultural group, group members are to be treated impartially; that is, equal to one another.

Yet, while Tamir’s example seems not entirely off target with respect to a cultural centre specifically intended to represent a certain cultural background, her theory is not limited to community centres alone. If it were, then it would certainly be less “morally worrisome”114. When culture becomes intertwined with the whole state apparatus and is not limited to cultural centres and mere recreational or language social activities, but has to do with allocation for state resources, funding, schools, and even separate law-making, then favouritism and preference for group-members above and over non-group members becomes indeed morally problematic. The wider implications of the favouritism that Tamir advocates are not explored by her, nor is this topic picked up by Kymlicka, however similar ethically problematic results are attained by Kymlicka because he too, like Tamir, runs up against the irresolvable tension between mixing liberalism with a preference for cultural community.

Kymlicka’s Definition of Liberal Nationalism

Kymlicka defines national liberalism as nationalism that is non-ethnic, open, proud, and accepts the promotion of a single culture.115 To ensure that nationalism lives up to this definition and is a truly “liberal nationalism” it must meet certain criteria. These criteria as listed by Kymlicka are as follows:

  1. Membership of ethnocultural groups must not be imposed by the state, but rather should be a matter of self-identity;

  2. Individual members can question and reject their ethnocultural identity, and if they choose they may exit their group;

  3. These groups must not violate the basic civil or political rights of their members; and

  4. Minority rights must reduce uneven power relations between groups, and not be used to grant a particular group rights that would set them in a dominant position against the others (Kymlicka, 2001a, p. 66).

Let us examine each of these criteria in turn.
        1. Membership is not imposed

The first criterion is “Membership of ethnocultural groups must not be imposed by the state but rather should be a matter of self-identity” (Kymlicka, 2001a, p. 65). This criterion indicates that national cultural identity should not be an artifice constructed by the state (as many nationalist theorists have described it as we have seen in the previous chapters), but as an organic outgrowth of pre-existing cultural/group identifications. Basically, those states which blindly impose a cultural criterion upon their members without taking into consideration their own traditional values and self-identification are to be considered illiberal. If Canada, for example, were to continue to blindly impose Anglo-culture upon Francophone Canadians as they did in the past, instead of giving them recognition of their own group rights and unique self-identity, then they would be practicing a form of illiberal nationalism.116

Right to Change and Leave Group Identity

Second: “Individual members must be free to question and reject any inherited or previously adopted ethnocultural identity if they so choose, and have an effective right of exit from any identity group” (Kymlicka, 2001a, p. 65). This criterion follows directly from the above claim, that national culture should reflect the identity of the people in a liberal nation. Those who feel that the cultural identity that has been passed down to them by their ancestors or the society they joined is no longer in keeping with their own values and cultural identification, have an option to leave the group and not be bound to its cultural mores. Within Canada, this may mean that aboriginals can decide to leave the reserves and join English or French Canadian society, or it may mean individuals can migrate from French Canadian to English Canadian society, or vice versa. In other words, an illiberal nation would be one in which group members were restricted from leaving the group either to which they had been born or to which they had previously joined, often under the rhetoric of “lack of stability” or “threat to the cultural fabric” if such change were to be permitted. Often, justifications against such mobility would be based on a fear of the diminishment in numbers (and hence power and position) of the minority group against the majority to maintain its cultural cohesiveness and strength.117

Upholding Basic Rights

Third: “These groups must not violate the basic civil or political rights of their members” (Kymlicka, 2001a, p. 65). This is an obvious point to be made of any state that wishes to consider itself liberal. Where it becomes unclear however is to what extent cultural rights are to be considered and accepted as basic political rights and in which ways these rights are to be best enforced without impinging on other rights.

Different Rights must Make More Equal

Fourth: “Accommodations for national minorities and immigrant groups must seek to reduce inequalities in power between groups, rather than allowing one group to exercise dominance over other groups” (Kymlicka, 2001a, p. 65). Again, this statement is clearly demonstrated in Kymlicka’s referral to the case of Canada, where minority group rights have been positively used to reduce the influence of the largest cultural group “Anglo-Canada” over other minority groups, to raise them to greater levels of equality. Kymlicka says that minority rights have been given a bad reputation however because of their abuses, since they were used in the past to disempower groups in nefarious ways. Such abuses of minority rights however are clearly unacceptable as liberal practices. Despite the bad reputation that these incidents accrued to the concept of group rights, Kymlicka insists that group rights need not hinder groups but can be used as a way of making more equal. This final criterion is indeed the cornerstone of Kymlicka’s whole approach.

In Sum: Liberal Nation States must be both Multicultural and Multinational

As Kymlicka says, nation-building has often been greeted with open arms by minority groups hoping to adapt to their new home culture, as he says,

Because these nation-building projects can be seen not merely as ethnocentric prejudice, but rather as an extension of freedom and equality to all citizens, they have not always been resisted by minority groups. Some ethnocultural groups have accepted the call to integrate. And in some countries, the result of these nation-building programs has been to extend a common societal culture throughout the entire territory of the state (1998a, pp. 181-182).

The extension of a country’s national culture (or societal culture) across its borders is mostly successful and welcomed by its citizens. Those who consistently reject such nation-building are those who had in fact societal cultures prior to the extension of the national culture of the majority. It is therefore these national minorities who should be given special status and the opportunity to have their own national continue to flourish and be protected in the same way as the majority nation – should they so choose.

The nationalism Kymlicka supports is post-ethnic and he calls for states to be both multicultural and multinational (Kymlicka, 1999a, p. 73). Kymlicka sees the liberal nation (and the increasing national trend towards liberalization in the west) as an inevitable step in the progression of nationhood. Indeed, Kymlicka holds the nation-state to be the ideal ground for pluralism because it offers a shared identity that does not rely on shared conceptions of the good or on the necessity of the people belonging to the same ethnic group. Kymlicka says that Rawl’s concept of drawing social unity from shared conception of justice was missing a crucial “ingredient”; namely, shared identity (1998c, p. 183). Kymlicka says that this shared identity “derives from the commonality of history, language, and maybe religion” (1998c, p. 181). 118

Unlike Tamir who sees liberal nationalism as “making a virtue out of necessity” and who openly addresses the flaws of nationhood, Kymlicka does not see nation-building as problematic in itself. Kymlicka defends his use of nationalist language, preferring to wrap his theory in nationalist terminology than in terms that typically have been considered neutral for their distance from culture such as “political community”. Kymlicka says that although in some instances the use of nationalist language obscures the problems of minorities, in other respects it is nevertheless important because other more “neutral language” obscures matters even worse. Kymlicka cites the United Nations declaration that “all peoples have the right to self-determination” as an example of extreme vagueness in terminology that makes the legal application of the declaration itself difficult, for the challenge it poses in defining who is “a people” (1998b, pp. 131-132)119.

Nationalist language serves several functions says Kymlicka. First, it allows distinct cultures such as the Quebecois or Aboriginal peoples to appeal to international courts for their rights. Using the term nation further allows minority nations to distinguish their claims from other groups, such as those of immigrants, which lends itself to greater legislative clarity. The language of nationalism also “adds a historical dimension” to group claims, being a demonstration of the long-term struggles for recognition these groups have been fighting for, and shows that the demands are not just recent. And finally, Kymlicka states that the terminology of nationalism gives greater strength to minority nations because they are no longer perceived in numerical terms as a smaller subset of the larger nation, but as co-equal partners with the majority nation (Kymlicka, 1998b, pp. 131-132).

These “strategic reasons” are important justifications for continuing to use the language of nationalism, however they are not the only reasons. Kymlicka says in addition to strategic value, “these groups are nations in the sociological sense…historical societies, more or less institutionally complete, occupying a given territory or homeland, sharing a distinct language and societal culture” (Kymlicka, 1998b, pp. 131-2). Kymlicka convincingly argues that the “power to name itself is one of the most significant powers sought by any group in society” (1998b, p. 132). Majority nation-building typically has prevented minority nations from the ability to name themselves. As a result, in response to nation-building, claims of secession have swept the globe and have cleaved communities.

Heritage, Cultural Community, and Preferentialism

Given the blackened record of the nation-state, liberal nationalists like Tamir and Kymlicka have tried to paint a kinder face on nationalism. These authors aim to show how even the nation-state, despite its historic record to the contrary, can be made to accommodate difference. Both Kymlicka and Tamir want to “separate nationhood from blood and soil and move it to the grounding of choice” (Tamir, Liberal Nationalism, 1993, p. 12). But is this really attained and is nation a true guarantor of freedom?

As Norman points out, the language of “liberalism” which Kymlicka defends group rights against, and even the “need for a healthy cultural context as a necessary condition for individual autonomy” is simply not how the majority of minority group leaders frame their appeals (1999, p. 61). Instead, they

Appeal to national identity and sentiments (rather than citizenship and sentiments of justice), to shared historical “memories,” a common destiny, and rights to national self-determination (Norman, 1999, p. 61).

Indeed, even liberal nationalism mimics the historical monocultural nation considering the insistence that liberal nationalists (including both Tamir and Kymlicka) put on maintaining heritage, cultural community, and preferentialism (or in other words, roots, ethnicity, and bias).

        1. Roots

The liberal nationalists have a strong attachment to the past, though they proclaim they are committed to an open future built by new generations. As post-colonial cultural theorist Homi K. Bhabha writes, “the language of national belonging comes laden with atavistic apologues” (1990, p. 293). While on the one hand Tamir thinks it is more natural to “follow in the footsteps our parents and social environment” she at the same time affirms a commitment to “social mobility” which is something that the older generation did not value, for rejection of nation is “rejection of something dear to them” (Tamir, 1993, p. 28). Tamir admits that the new generation, due to impact of new technologies available to them, are significantly different from the older generations and yet she still claims they find it more “natural” to adopt the lifestyle of one’s parents. Kymlicka too, despite his claims that culture is intrinsically mutable, says that among the national minorities’ goals is to maintain their culture into the “indefinite future” (Kymlicka, 2001a, p. 73)

However, when we speak about maintaining a culture into the “indefinite future”, we are no longer speaking about culture as ground of meaning but of institutionalized, and to a certain extent, “artificial” culture. As Appadurai says, “the modern nation-state, in its preoccupation with the control, classification and surveillance of its subjects, has often created, revitalized or fractured ethnic identities that were previously fluid, negotiable or nascent” (1993, p. 799). How is freedom (even cultural freedom) to be maintained when culture is perceived and maintained as such?


When it comes to membership, certainly there are other markers we could use to discern which members are a part of the nation, but as Scottish theorist of nationalism Tom Nairn says, in nation-building ethnicity is very often assumed as natural and self-evident. Because the majority of ethnic markers are so unclear and alterable (e.g., one can acquire a faith, learn a language, etc.) it becomes easy to focus on the subethnic category of race (and kinship). In referring to rule by the Kmer Rouge in Cambodia as well as in Syria and Iraq Nairn says, "nationalism sanctifies nepotism" (Nairn, 1998, p. 114). When Tamir is speaking of the unchanging aspect of the nation and the proud inheritance from forefathers, what else is she referring to other than the cultural continuity of a particular ethnic group?


Strangely, Tamir finds no dissonance between liberalism and nationalism because, as she says, her conception of liberal distributive justice “is particularistic and applies only within well-defined, relatively closed social frameworks, which favour members over non-members” (Tamir, 1993, p. 10). But how are we to define who is and is not a member of the nation? Can we really define “non-members” if we are committed to diversity? Does this not inevitably descend to the level of ethnos?

Beiner makes a pointed criticism of this preferentialism that seems to have no sound answer from the liberal nationalists: how do we privilege the majority cultural identity in civic membership without making minorities second-class citizens? (1999, pp. 9-12) By promoting cultural uniformity, indeed we end up forcing citizens to align with a dominant cultural hegemony. How this differs widely from the previous homogenous model state concept is not clear. As Walzer says, “one nation’s independence may be the beginning of another nation’s oppression.” (1999b, p. 214) Taylor also elaborates on the liberal nationalist conundrum, as he says:

Of course, liberal nationalism suffers strains. All are citizens without distinction, and yet the state has its raison d’etre in a cultural nation to which not all citizens belong. There are tensions here to be managed. But there is no question of sacrificing universality on the altar of the nation. For this would be a betrayal of identity. (1998a, p. 215)

While liberalism advocates a goal of neutrality, shared identity involves clear prejudices: I decide to live with you and have social solidarity with you because I like you better, I feel more historically or culturally related to you.

The tendency of newly inaugurated nations, says Walzer, is to begin to treat their own minorities badly. Walzer reasons that this is because “sometimes they are genuinely insecure in their newness, uncertain of their own political unity and physical safety” (1999a, p. 552). He also says that new nations are so concentrated on themselves to see other minorities, leading them to be “self-absorbed and blind” (Walzer, 1999a, p. 552)120.

To truly remove nationalism from blood and soil then we ought assuredly to no longer speak about ‘rooted” or ‘historic’ communities, which both Tamir and Kymlicka seek to preserve indefinitely. Choice is the purview of democracy – rule of the people, wherein the people decide by themselves how they will lead their own lives. However, the liberal nationalism which Kymlicka and Tamir promote is a distinct phenomenon from democracy. Such cultural nationalism is no longer simply rule of the people but is rule of a particular culture. Which begs the question: Is Kymlicka truly successful in synthesizing cultural nationalism (or societal culture) and choice?

The Sanguinity of Liberal Nationalism

Much of Kymlicka’s work can be seen as an attempt to legitimize the nation-state in face of its critics. While Kymlicka sees civic “neutrality” as doing harm, he nevertheless oddly considers (post-ethnic) nationalism itself as a benign force. Kymlicka defends his version of nationalism as a thin conception of nation. Yet when we speak of a deep attachment to a national culture as Kymlicka describes, it seems doubtful that this would be towards a “thin” national culture. If we do accept that we have a deep attachment to a thin national culture, then is it really plausible that it is the choice that we value in protecting it (a core presumption at the basis of Kymlicka’s theory), or rather the sameness (and hence removal of choice) which follows?

What is positive about the work of the liberal nationalists is their strong desire to create the possibility of reconciling rights and culture. The pending question however is whether or not this reconciliation can occur within the normative framework of nationalism. Kymlicka does not share Tamir’s scepticism about the nation and the need to make it a “virtue out of necessity” (Kymlicka, 2001b, p. 252). If the face that Tamir paints on nationalism is a softer one, than the face that Kymlicka paints is altogether rosy, attributing nationalism with “remarkable success in ensuring democracy, individual rights, peace and security, and economic prosperity for an ever increasing number of people” (Kymlicka, 2006b, p. 129).

The nation-state marked a new form of belonging, and for Kymlicka this new identity is that which is most suited to the purposes of our new democratic systems. National identity is inherently democratic he says, precisely because of the anonymity and “neutrality” of its definition, since nation is a comprehensive identity that allows for internal difference. This is why “thin national identities have nonetheless proven to be strong and stable ones” according to Kymlicka (2003, p. 281). National identities were bearers of democracy and equality for the masses says Kymlicka. We can extrapolate from this to suggest that rather than being an irrational and illiberal tendency, Kymlicka views the growth of liberal minority nationalism as a further sign of our increasing democratization.

        1. The Darker Currents of Nationalism

Yet, despite these proclamations on the virtues of nationalism in other areas Kymlicka readily acknowledges that even in liberal nationalisms the status of minorities has been reprehensible. In a long list he enumerates “the victims of liberal nationhood” (2006b, p. 130) which include:

(1) Immigrants, who have typically faced exclusion or assimilation at the hands of the liberal nation-states; (2) historic substate groups, such as indigenous peoples or regional minorities, whose distinct national identity and aspirations to national autonomy have typically been suppressed by liberal nation-states; and (3) neighbouring nation-states, because national identities are often defined precisely by antagonism to neighbouring nations, creating the potential for interstate rivalries and hostilities. In each case, people who do not belong to the privileged national group are seen as threats to be contained or suppressed (Kymlicka, 2006b, p. 130).

Surprisingly, despite Kymlicka’s acknowledgement of the difficulties the liberal nation has brought, particularly with respect to forging solidified-oppositional (as opposed to reflexive-intersubjective identities) he nevertheless believes that liberal nationalism is still the best recourse for group recognition.

Kymlicka underestimates the ethno-cultural currents that still remain strong in most nationalist circles. To state as Kymlicka does that the “paradigmatic nation-states” of England, France and Germany were spreading “freedom and equality” when they embarked on their campaign of nation-building can be seen as an extreme and dangerous exaggeration. Coming from a theorist of minority rights and multiculturalism, it is very difficult to accept that “freedom and equality” was extended to the Irish, the Scotts, the Corsicans, the Roma, the Polish and the Jews among the many other minority communities who suffered from the nation-building projects of these states. Although Kymlicka takes an important step forward by theoretically separating nation and state, can the problems of the traditional nation-state ever be separated from the nation?

Political scientist Anna Stilz succinctly summarizes the dilemma posed by the liberal nationalist view in that it “neglects the importantly universalist moral justification for liberal politics, in favour of a form of ethical partiality…based on exclusivist cultural ties” (Stilz, 2009, p. 18). There is an incontrovertible tension between the duties and obligations of cultural membership and liberal autonomy. This leads the liberal nationalists towards some ethically questionable conclusions pointed out by Stilz – such as Yael Tamir’s example of “associative obligations” in her book Liberal Nationalism, whereby she states that members of the Mafia “are bound by associative obligations to their fellow members” (as cited in Stilz, 2009, p. 19). A worrisome comment to say the least, for it reveals the underbelly of liberal nationalism’s commitment to the collective identity (which we are born into) and the role of that pre-determined identity in constituting our selfhood and choices. Stilz rightly says that Tamir’s example of the inability to distance ourselves from associative obligations, even from within morally questionable cultures such as the mafia, flies the in the face of all that liberalism stands for: a self-reflexivity (attained through ability to distance) and hence jeopardizes liberal autonomy (Stilz, 2009, p. 19).

Certainly, the track record speaks against nationalism. The most tragic events of modern times, particularly with respect to minority populations, have nationalism at their root. Kymlicka himself says the liberal nation has been “responsible for some of the gravest injustices of the twentieth century” (2006b, p. 130). While there have always been minority groups that have faced problems due to their status as minorities, their problems have been accentuated by national frameworks. By taking the “illiberal sting out of nationalism” (Beiner, 1999, p. 14), critics point out, the liberal nationalists risk obscuring our understanding of an important facet of modern society, and hence not only risk misunderstanding nationalism but also face a chance that we fail to understand our own selves and the world as it currently stands in a fundamental way.

Kymlicka and the liberal nationalists seek to remove the negative side effects of nationalism and create a nation-state which moves beyond the homogenization, domination, and aggressive expansion of former times, and which – in Kymlicka’s view – can accommodate minorities in a way the former model could not. Yet, the solution Kymlicka provides for minority nations within the national model is nationalism itself. This illustrates a tension evident in his theory: on the one hand, Kymlicka recognizes that nation-building causes injustices towards minorities, yet on the other hand he contends that nation-building in itself is fine and that minority nation-building is the solution needed to counter the effects of majority-nation building. For Kymlicka, national groups need institutional control otherwise their long-term viability is jeopardized (1999b, p. 140). They need to be able to control immigration, education, language rights, resource allocation, etc. By the provision of group rights for minority nations and restricting these rights to those which fall under the purview of his definition of liberal nationalism, Kymlicka aims to provide a third way beyond ethnic and civic nationalism as a solution for minorities.

Kymlicka says that it is intuitively fair that if we permit majority nation-building then we must also support minority nation-building (2001b, p. 29). It is within the context of majority-nation building that Kymlicka adopts his support for minority national rights. This is the context within which minority nationalism must be evaluated – as a response to majority nation-building, using the same tools of nation-building” (Kymlicka, 2000b, p. 165). Yet, what intuitively feels fair is different from being fair.

The Compatibility of Liberalism and Nationalism

The balancing act between culture and civic liberty, individuality and community, is indeed a difficult one. Both Tamir and Kymlicka acknowledge the tensions between liberalism and nationalism. Indeed, Tamir claims that such tensions are inevitable:

Some of these values lead to incompatible policies and many such conflicts...[which] are not the outcome of 'a logical incomparability between duties abstractly defined, but between the actions they require in a given situation.' In other cases, liberal and national values are incommensurable, that is, there is no single scale on which they might be measured and compared. (1993, p. 6)

The liberal nationalist message is that when both culture and community are juxtaposed against one another, it is difficult to choose between them. Community is of great value, because it is my context of choice. However, the right to choose itself may sometimes be jeopardized by the demands of community. Brian Barry, who found the walls between liberalism and nationalism unscalable, argued against this notion,

The point of liberalism is that it is universalistic. It therefore necessarily conflicts with the claim that nations are the bearers of values that cannot, as a matter of principle, be overridden in the pursuit of liberal ends (2001, p. 138).

Barry therefore argued that despite Kymlicka’s avowed commitment to liberalism, his theory in practice is illiberal, “despite his protestations to the contrary” (2001, p. 133).

Despite the liberal nationalist claim that nationalism and liberalism can theoretically speaking “be made to accommodate each other” (Tamir, 1993, p. 6) or “tamed” (Kymlicka, 2006b, p. 133)121 liberal nationalists do not provide us with clear answers on how to go about this accommodation in actual practice, and while there is some merit to the arguments of the liberal nationalists that liberalism and nationalism to a certain extent arose together, this association has certainly not always been “poly-ethnic” in the “liberal nationalist” sense of the term nation. As Walzer deftly points out:

Nationalism has often been a leftist ideology, historically linked to democracy and even to socialism. But it is most characteristically an ideology of the right, for its understanding of membership is ascriptive; it requires no political choices and no activity beyond ritual affirmation. (1998, p. 298)

Indeed, if we are looking to the history of liberalism and nationalism, it has not been the smooth and closely-knit road that the liberal nationalists would have us believe it was. Despite its liberal origins, nationalism quickly became something quite apart from liberalism.

The history of the concurrent rise of liberalism and nationalism ought rather to give us pause for thought, and taken as a signal against their apparent compatibility. As Benhabib deftly puts it, “there are a series of contradictions, historical tensions and even institutional disjunctions in the composite called the ‘liberal-democratic nation state’” (2006, p. 166). Further, nationalism did not always bring liberalism, as is apparent in the development of post-colonial societies. While there were times when liberalism and nationalism were compatible, we should not forget that there are many examples from history where liberalism and nationalism were at odds (Benhabib, 2006, p. 168). Benhabib reminds us that “the substantialistic understanding of the nation has served historically to disenfranchise some and to exclude them from the orbit of full democratic citizenship” (2006, p. 168).

Vatthana Pholsena in an essay in Multiculturalism in Asia, a book co-edited by Kymlicka, also argues that the link between the modern state and national sentiment is a dubious one. Pholsena describes how Kymlicka borrows the functionalist account of the modern economy and its need for a “mobile, educated, and literate work force” (Kymlicka, 1995, p. 77) as an explanation of the rise of common national language and identity (Pholsena, 2005, p. 106). Yet, the rationalized and secular identity which states attempted to create were far from the national sentiments that Kymlicka describes. Pholensa interestingly argues that “if people have strong national identities, it is arguably in spite of, not because of, the modernizing secular nation-state” (2005, p. 106).

Liberalism, nationalism, socialism, industrialization, capitalism, all arose in modernity – but because they arose together does not make them unconditionally linked. In fact, if we examine the sort of liberal state that arose with the nation, it was one that presumed cultural uniformity. A nation by its very definition is based on principles of exclusion and defining who does and does not belong to the nation. Kymlicka and Tamir both acknowledge the problems of the early liberal nation which presupposed cultural uniformity, yet they are unable to see how the same concepts upon which this early concept of nation was founded, are still evident in their own theories.

Nationalism and Political Participation

Another claim of the liberal nationalists, supported only by tangential evidence, is that nationalism increases political participation. Parekh provides counter-examples to dispute this case: the United States is more patriotic than Canada, he says, yet has less civic participation than Canada, Israel has strong nationalism, but is a deeply fragmented society that has not even been able to agree on a constitution (Parekh, 1999, p. 318). It is wrong and reductionist to think that high political participation is the result of nationalism - political participation, heeds Parekh, is the result of a sophisticated number of overlapping reasons. Indeed, Parekh warns that nation may in fact do just the opposite and actually decrease political participation. Since national membership is an abstract “reified” identity, there is very little substantive connection to other members. Nationalism engenders an emotional connection to an abstract “nation” and an abstraction of the perfect citizen (the Unknown Soldier, the man or woman who sacrifices all on the altar of the nation). Against such ideals, actual citizens pale by comparison. Hence, instead of a “spirit of altruism”, we may end up in the communitarian critique of modernity: a world of disconnected individuals each seeking their own interests (Parekh, 1999, pp. 314-5).

Michael Ignatieff too believes that nationalism traps its members in a state of narcissism. He borrows Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s term in comparing nationalism to autism: nationalists are locked into their own world in which having “empathy” for the Other is inconceivable. Nationalists are so in love with their own self-righteousness, victimhood, and over-exaggerated myths of violence he says, that they cannot see beyond their own noses. They cannot, and are not willing, to learn from others outside their own narrowly enclosed sphere. Ignatieff says the problem is not from the sense of belonging, which Tamir and Kymlicka wish us to acknowledge and pay our respects to. This is not the issue says Ignatieff. The principle problem is the insular nature of the ego that accompanies identity politics and how this ego leads group members to find themselves not only set apart from non-members (who ostensibly will be unable to understand them), but also instils exaggerated self-love with their own group before others (Ignatieff, 1999, pp. 96-7).

Kymlicka himself says that majorities have a strong “narcissistic” attachment to outdated identities and are therefore unable to accept their multinational character. It is not the minority who is irrational but the majority for refusing to admit there is more than one nation within the state (Kymlicka, 1999a, pp. 122-3)..Yet is the narcissism of the majority limited only to its refusal to recognize other “nations” within its boundaries? Or is it something much more than this, in the direction of which Ignatieff raises a red flag – of particular relevance for minorities.

Nationalism and Difference

In a similar vein, Parekh describes nationalists as, “profoundly disoriented by difference” (1999, p. 318) and unable to reconcile their nationalist beliefs with cultural diversity. Kymlicka states to the contrary that nationalists in minority groups are becoming increasingly liberal but Parekh disagrees; he explains, “however liberal she might be, a nationalist remains more or less antipathetic to strong forms of cultural diversity” (1999, p. 317). In Parekh’s view, “all forms of nationalism are underpinned by a deep streak of psychological and cultural conservativism” (1999, pp. 317-8). Parekh poses the challenge: how can a nation be both diverse and homogenous? The irreconcilable paradoxes of the liberal nation render it, in Parekh’s view, to be “deeply flawed” (1999, p. 308). Alfred Stepan similarly argues that, “

In multinational or multicultural politics, nation-state building policies and democracy-building policies are conflicting political logics. Would-be democracy crafters in such a polity have to recognize this political reality and search for an alternative set of politics to that of a “nation-state” (2001, p. 189).

Counter to the views of the liberal nationalists, these authors argue that multiculturalism, liberalism, and even democracy, rather than being supported by nationalism, are actually impeded by it.

Parekh says that the impact of nationalism on our systems and psyches has been detrimental to our acceptance of diversity. We are now so familiar with nationalism that much of its impact is commonplace and unquestioned. With respect to the homogenizing effects of nationalism, Parekh states that after three centuries of living in nation-states, we are “so accustomed to expecting a broad moral and cultural consensus…that we feel disorientated by its absence” (1997, p. 54). We no longer understand what it feels like to live in diversity, the nation-state model has been so effective in divesting itself of all difference, that now difference becomes intolerable, and (cultural) sameness quixotically desired – to the extent that even our writings on multiculturalism and diversity in themselves become oratories on the virtues of living within “stable” cultural settings122.

Misunderstanding Civic Nationalism

Finally, it would seem that the liberal nationalists, although quite rightly correct in their severe condemnations of ethnic nationalisms, find themselves in something of a double bind when it comes to their conclusions on civic nationalism. On the one hand, Kymlicka is trying to sever the definition of nationalism from ethnic nation (in the form of common descent or origin), while on the other hand he also veers away from the civic nation which he believes follows a similar homogenizing pattern as the ethnic nation.

Smith himself says that ethnic and civic should be treated ideal types rather than a scheme of classification as they are not normative. There are of course degrees of inclusivity, degrees of ethnic and civic. Civic nations can find ways to make their state more open and more fair. Brian Walker writes against the culturalists and says that they are “wrong to see all cultural choices as analogous to the choice of official language” (1999, pp. 153-4) as Kymlicka himself does. Language is quite a different matter from other cultural claims he says. Official languages will always favour some over others, however this is quite a different matter from other cultural aspects of a nation, such as “the character of public symbols and national holidays” (Walker, 1999, p. 154). Walker cites the example of the Canadian flag (whose symbol is a neutral maple leaf) to be an example of how countries can aim for “cultural fairness” apart from cultural preferentialism (1999, p. 154).

Bader makes a similar distinction between civic nations, comparing the “melting pot” of American society to the “mosaic” of Canada. Of the latter, he says that it “expects comparatively less cultural assimilation of the different ethnic groups and allows for more structural pluralism” (1997, p. 775). While Bader contends that there is still a pull between hegemonic (universalist) forces in Canada against the otherwise pull towards “deep diversity”, it is considerably less “white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, male” than American nationality (1997, pp. 775-6).

Kymlicka believes however that civic nationalism is largely culpable of the same errors of which ethnic nationalism is guilty. Kymlicka rightly points out that aggressive assimilation policies have harmed rather than helped national minorities under majority nation-building. Putatively civic nations such as France and the United States have been able to get away with often brutal assimilation policies towards minorities precisely under the banner of supposed “neutrality” (Kymlicka, 2001b, p. 244), therefore Kymlicka concludes that neutrality is problematic and instead we should openly acknowledge the intrinsic biases of our societal cultures (see Kymlicka, 2002, p. 16 “The Myth of Ethnocultural Neutrality”). His argument against civic nations can be summarized in the following points:

  1. Majority civic nation-building claims to be “neutral”;

  2. Civic nation-building is non-neutral and harms national minorities;

  3. Civic nation-building’s claim of neutrality helps majorities justify maltreatment of national minorities (assimilation); therefore,

  4. We should abandon neutrality and concomitantly acknowledge societal culture (bias).

This argument however has weaknesses. Just because “neutral” nations have been abused in the past and incorrectly used to eliminate difference, this does not mean that claiming neutrality will only bring harm to minorities. Worse still, is that Kymlicka’s alternative in lieu of a failed civic nation is a cultural one which “defines the nation in terms of a common culture, and the aim of the nationalist movement is to protect the survival of that culture” (Kymlicka, 2001b, p. 243). It is not apparent however that rescinding the aim of neutrality altogether makes nationalism more liberal, in more likely will do just the opposite.

There are instances where the claim of neutrality can be an advantage in justice and equality. Take for example,

Case A: A Judge in court must sign an oath of neutrality. He or she should not be partial to either the defendant or the court. In practice of course, a judge is never a “blank slate”, a judge in a court of law comes from a background full of experiences and influences which inevitably form the background picture by which she measures the standard of justice.

Yet, imagine what were to happen if judges no longer swore an oath of neutrality,

Case B: Instead of swearing neutrality, the Judge instead declared openly, “all defendants of the same race and gender as me will receive special treatment and consideration against the rest.”

This could not be considered anything more than an obstruction of justice, despite the fact that, perhaps inwardly under the oath of neutrality, the judge may not be able to prevent him or herself from such considerations.

The difference between case A and case B is that in the former case the judge strives to (perhaps acknowledge) but then to the best of her ability put aside her biases and judge as neutrally as she can. As Walzer says, “[state officials] must exemplify this sort of egalitarianism in all their dealings with citizens of the state…the effective covering law is that all officials should treat their fellow citizens with equal respect and concern” (Walzer, 1999a, p. 530). In case B however, the judge acknowledges her biases, and then proceeds to act upon them through preferentialism and putting her “group” identity before the rule of law.

Case A can be understood as civic nationalism wherein “neutrality” is a goal, while Case B is liberal nationalism such as that endorsed by Kymlicka, which explicitly favours members over non-members of a particular “societal culture”. In the case of A, the goals of neutrality means that as we must aim to identify the ways the law privileges certain groups and rectify these biases. In Case B, we still implicitly accept the biases of the law (over immigrants for example and other non-dominant groups such as women), but do not accept this over national groups for whom we provide a similar license to replicate the dominance of one group over a section of the law over others123.

Of course, the liberal nationalist argument may rightly rebut that in this example the law itself has been written by a particular dominant group and that the “rule of law” itself is inherently discriminating and reflecting the particular cultural values of the majority. Indeed, this is precisely the argument that feminist authors have framed about the hidden biases in supposedly neutral law in “constructing and underpinning gender hierarchies” (Lacey, 2002, p. 7). But civic nationhood’s conception of shared citizenship is not one that ignores cultural differences as if they did not exist or did not matter (Beiner, 1999, p. 14).124 Instead, it is a conception of nation that aims to rise above these preoccupations and to make a clear choice as to when cultural rights and liberal rights are in conflict. For the civic nationalist, in contradistinction to the liberal nationalist, liberty comes first, and “for the liberal, neutrality is a political ideal” (Larmore, 1987/2003).

Yet Kymlicka wants to “replace the idea of an ‘ethnoculturally neutral’ state with a new model…what [he calls] the ‘nation-building’ model” (2001b, p. 26). Yet how his “nation-building” model will veer away from this homogenizing pattern differently than civic nationalism was able to, Kymlicka does not say. He insists however that it will be multi-ethnic and diverse in a way that civic nationalism is not, despite its commitment and affirmation of a particular societal culture (a language, and institutions that promote the specific shared national history and national culture). Cultural nation-building in the form of advocating institutional measures such as those that Kymlicka suggests to be essential for national minorities however can lead us to disseminate and dictate culture.

This commitment to a particular version of non-neutral nationality would seem to fly in the face of Rawl’s anti-perfectionist stance on state neutrality, which is so key to his grounding of public reason and the ability to form an overlapping consensus. Kymlicka himself states that he “endors[es] the principle of neutral concern” (1989, p. 97) which he describes as a “compelling one” which can “serve as the basis for state legitimacy in the culture of freedom” (1989, p. 91). Indeed, Kymlicka believes that overcoming entrenched inequalities requires “reforms that are much more extensive than Rawls or Dworkin has explicitly allowed” (Kymlicka, 1989, p. 91). Yet, certainly, the liberal nationalist, and in particular Kymlicka’s commitment to a decidedly non-neutral conception of nationality, seems to undermine the full force of Rawl’s and Dworkin’s arguments on the need for ensuring equality between all citizens, and in particular Rawl’s (and Kymlicka’s own earlier) commitment to providing a neutral, inclusive pubic space that did not prefer any single conception of the good, and I might add - of any particular group or community over others.

Inter-National Politics

The strongest point in the liberal nationalist’s favour is that the nation-state remains the current model of political organization. In her introduction, Tamir claims that basically nation states are not fading, so we have to make liberalism and nation work together; in other words, since the national system is here to stay so we had better make the best out of it. For Kymlicka, making the best out of nationalism means introducing a form of remedial nationalism and putting certain restrictions on nationalism (such as preventing it from having internal restrictions on the national group). Yet even Tamir is vocally sceptical of remedial nationalism. Nevertheless, Tamir’s solution – isolated national groups living together in a single polity – seems not so very different from Kymlicka’s remedial nationalism. In both cases, we are led in a circle: so long as we refuse to redefine ourselves, minorities and indeed majorities will have no recourse but to define themselves in national terms if they wish to receive international recognition and rights.

The idea that nations are not disappearing disregards however the diminishing role and significance of nation our lives. Although nation indeed remains our unit of international political organization, the significant change which has occurred over the past decades is not in the system itself but in our relation and dedication to it; nationalism as a key source of our primary identity is clearly on the wane. That minority nationalisms and national feelings still exist is only natural so long as our political theories and legal justification of recognition and sovereignty remained tied to the nation.

In conclusion, liberal nationalism remains rooted in a cultural paradigm that verges dangerously close to ethnic nationalism – in a way that may prove to more dangerous for minorities than the neutral paradigm of the civic nation. Kymlicka and the liberal nationalists acknowledge the problems of nationalism and hope to put limitations on these problems. As Tamir acknowledges of the old national model, it was “motivated by a cluster of noble ideas which sowed the seeds of some of the most morally disturbing policies adopted by modern states” (1999a, p. 90).125 Kymlicka believes his thin conception of nation is one that overcomes the old risks of former times, but remedial nationalism can be seen as a bandage solution at best, an illness itself at worst. A remedial national solution ignores the root of the problem minority groups face entirely and ignores many of the implicit emotive and essentializing aspects of nationalism.

It is clear that Kymlicka’s theory has many elements of the ethnocultural nation, whether “thin” or not; for his theory to be truly liberal, it must purge itself of this. Indeed, Kymlicka thinks that “there is no way to have a complete ‘separation of state and ethnicity’…nor is there any reason to regret this fact” (1995, p. 115). Kymlicka believes – correctly – that states can never fully be neutral, they must accept that there are many ethnic groups that compose their society and instead of denying a majority ethnic culture, they must simply learn to deal fairly between these groups. However, can Kymlicka’s minority national rights achieve this lofty goal? Or does civic neutrality, in all its remoteness, allow more fairness between groups than policies that directly support the promotion of a particular national culture?

Although both Kymlicka and Tamir recognize the death of the political paradigm of monoculturalism, they still cling to the national paradigm and try to resuscitate it in new, “multicultural” or in Kymlicka’s case: “multinational” form. But multiculturalism is not the same as multinationalism, and many of the measures Kymlicka and even Tamir agree to may in many instances run counter to multiculturalism itself.126

As we have already emphasized, civic and ethnic conceptions of nation are ideal types, so what we are faced with in reality is a choice between tolerance and intolerance, acceptance and exclusion, diversity and sameness. To the extent that the liberal nationalists espouse the former item in each of these couplets, it would seem to move far away from the multiculturalism and indeed liberalism they claim to adhere to. Yet at the same time, the closer they move towards the latter word in the sets of oppositions, the further away they seem from any recognizable form of nationalism. It would seem that an alternative to “liberal nationalism’s” acceptance of cultural preferences, is that we instead aim to make the dominant metanarrative subject to diverse voices, not to remain committed to separate insular communities.

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