The measles of mankind

Quote on nationalism by Albert Einstein
Quote on nationalism by Albert Einstein

*This article was originally written and published in July 2016 at UNICEF Voices of Youth’s former website. It has since been moved here.


I recently watched a documentary that explores how different nations tend to formulate our national identities around cultural products. “Whose is this Song?” by Adela Peeva is a comparative work about a wandering melody. A number of nations stake out claims on the song. The tune in question is known to me as “Üsküdar’a Gider İken.” I used to sing it in my school choir as a little child. Although it is hardly a building block for our culture, I was shocked to find out that it wasn’t a Turkish song. Peeva starts out from Turkey and travels throughout the Balkans to observe how people from different nationalities relate to the song. Each country she goes—Turkey, Greece, Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia, and Bulgaria—the tune is known as a folk song that originated in that particular territory. Although there is strong historical evidence that the tune is Scottish and migrated to the East through trade, the documentary leaves the inquiry inconclusive.

The significance of the film lies in what it conveys in terms of how national identities are defined by cultural symbols and how easily national sentiments can be manipulated. When Peeva asked about the song arrogating it to a different nation each time, as a defender of the constructivist approach to nationalism—over the essentialist one—I was appalled to hear the some countries suggest that Serbs have no traditions, Bosnians are fools and thieves, Turks and the Gypsies to be the worst nations with the tiniest incitement. Everyone in the documentary relates the song to his or her own history, culture, and nationality—and is deeply offended, even prone to get violent, if suggested otherwise. I couldn’t help but wonder why is the melody a dividing line, an incentive to get hostile, a reason to fly into anger instead of a uniting bond, a happy accident, a commonality to weld upon? Is ownership so important as to let a chance to share and bond with fellow humans slip? How come our minds automatically go to boundary instead of common ground? Why are we so inclined to get carried away when it comes to nationalism?

The construction process of a national identity—of any identity, actually—involves a hierarchy of identities. We tend to define ourselves, our nations, in comparison to others. Divergence provides a sense of peculiarity, so we look for differences between “us” and “them.” We emphasize how we differentiate from other nations, and, of course, try to establish our superiority over the others. Because if there are two different things, say an apple and a pear, one would be better, more preferable, than the other. In the case of nations, each nation struggles to establish its supremacy over the other nations. 

Nationalism provides us something to identify with. As we interiorize our national identity, we incline to find meaning in defending it from identities of “lower quality”, despite the fact that we set the standards of quality in the formulation process. Nationalism feeds off of sentiment, doesn’t derive from it. The constructed nationalistic sentiments can easily lead one to feel and believe that they are protecting their own, especially if fueled. 

Sure, conflicts and wars between communities are primordial, but they emerged out of various reasons, none of which is a sense of national identity. With altered accounts of history, myths and legends about origins, creation of folklore, justifications and manifestations of superiority, manufactured cultural products such as the Scottish tune claimed by almost a dozen other nations, and with a considerable amount of help from romanticism nationalism is a constructed phenomenon. I’m not suggesting that we live this utopic fantasy of ever-lasting peace between peoples. I simply want to point out the absurdity of some constructed, unnatural, altered sensation causing discriminatory, hostile, inhumane doings.