In my post ‘Citizens of Somewhere‘ I wrote about the relationship between war, citizenship and national myths. Various objections could, of course, be raised to my ideas.
One such might be that, for Western countries at least, mass citizen armies are a thing of the past and so national myth as a mobilising tool is a redundant anachronism. To which I reply-
1) Don’t bank on it, life can come at you fast.
2) Entrusting all of your nation’s weaponry to a specialised military caste with its own self-image and particular mythos is a high risk strategy. And
3) War is simply the extreme end of a long spectrum. There are many points short of it where the civil populace need to be encouraged to make self sacrifices in the interests of the common good where ‘common’ means the national unit.
More potently it might be argued that in this modern scientific age our shared lives should be based on facts not myths. However, the notion that ‘the facts speak for themselves‘ is itself a myth. Facts neither describe themselves to us nor select themselves out of a mass of other facts in order to reveal their particular importance in the scheme of things. Nor, indeed, do facts as facts inform us that any ‘scheme of things’ exists at all.
Humans are creatures who unceasingly seek for explanation and meaning. Consequently we are at all times and under all circumstances a story-telling species. When we encounter a complex phenomenon we tell ourselves a story about it. This may involve gathering data but gathering data is not all that it involves. We bring to the phenomenon our pre-existing mind with all the ideas, perspectives, stories and taboos which it already contains. And this mind is what we apply to the business of selecting, rejecting and testing facts. And when we order them to our satisfaction we tell a story about them which does not mean that other investigators will not tell more or less radically different stories when they apply their minds to explaining the exact same phenomenon.
Whatever this might mean in relation to the physical sciences when the thing being explained by humans to humans is human society then subjectivity is an inescapable concomitant to whatever story might be told. When the task in hand is to explain to itself a nation which is centuries old and has millions of inhabitants then it is necessary to tell a meta-story which incorporates history, geography, linguistics, ethnicity and a myriad other elements. Even if each fact used in this story were indisputably true (an impossible condition to fulfil) the act of selection and the narrative framework used would be a product of the creative imagination of the humans involved in the storytelling project.
If national mythology, then, is necessarily fictitious to some degree can it be dispensed with and something else deployed in its place as a tool for mobilising the self-sacrificial impulses of the citizen body? Well, religion could serve that function but few of those made uneasy by patriot stories are likely to be more comfortable with religious one. An alternative might be a shared idea like liberalism or socialism. Even granting this possibility we have moved from an insistence on fact instead of story to an insistence on idea instead of story. Further an idea, I would contend, only has the power to encourage sacrifice for the common good when it is transformed into a story with each individual citizen featuring as heroes in it at times of crisis.
There is also something of a circular process involved in using an idea as the national glue. To the extent that it succeeds in uniting the population of a country it itself becomes the national myth. That is, the inhabitants of Ruritania, say, define themselves as being liberal people living in a liberal country which not only gives them the right to despise non-liberal countries as bigoted or backward but may even impose a moral duty on the Ruritanians to liberalise the rest of the world. Which brings military concerns back under consideration.
What is probable, however, is that no single secular system of ideas will command overwhelming public adherence. If you kick away the overarching support of a national myth you will increase rather than decrease the number of myths in circulation. Because humans need to tell themselves stories about themselves an array of underarching myths will emerge. People will see themselves as primarily heroes in their own individual story, or in their story as an LGBT person or as a disabled person or as a Northerner or as an heartlander, or whatever. The objects for which they will sacrifice themselves will not, however, include the nation which, without a sustaining myth, is merely a bureaucratic instrument for administering in more or less convenient ways the drab and dreary necessities of daily life and births, deaths and marriages.
Where a society does not have a single unifying myth it will be characterised by a legion of dis-uniting myths. It will be balkanised into competing identity groups (some of them international.) Alongside this will be an atomised cloud of those who simply identify as individuals recognising no common good to which they might be loyal or for which they might be willing to sacrifice. Or, to put it briefly those who don’t feel they have a place in their nation’s story, or any other nation’s story, will not care about the common good of the nation as such, they will be citizens of nowhere.
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The picture is from riots at the G20 summit July 2017 credited in stern.de to ‘screenshot twitter’