I must confess that I calculated the headline to be provocative. I mean to provoke, but I also mean to clear my own thoughts a little.
I do not think that it is a far-fetched thought that Nationalist ideas have partly been constructed to support Racism and Slavery. From the multitudes of examples, I could bring up, e.g. Rudyard Kipling, and almost any book he wrote. The attitude towards other ‘races’ is insufferable, insupportable from our point of view. For Kipling, people are always defined by their “racial”* typology, which was about as scientific as homoeopathy or phrenology.
The Atlantic slave trade is a historical example of a systematic, and widespread exploitation and violence towards people who looked different. I can not get over that. In older history, we know that tribal societies have always enslaved members of a “competing” tribe e.g. the Palestinians and Israelis in Old Testament times. But then in OT times slavery was a part of an economic “toolbox”, so a debtor could pay off a debt by slave labour.
We know enough about Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and some others, that seems enslaving members of one’s own tribe became less popular, and, possibly as people became more mobile when political powers enlarged their areas, sources were made available of slaves who came from another tribe, even ones who looked considerably different, until we come to Renaissance Europe, where Protestant Puritanism and Roman Catholicism seem to have considered enslaving one’s equal somehow unacceptable, while darker-skinned Asians and Africans were fine.
Actually, we know that much of the material published by Nazies in Ewige Jude (Wandering Jew) was straight from Martin Luther, who was a rabid anti-Semite. He published a book called On the Jews and Their Lies in 1543. He was only a few years earlier eager to convert the Jews to the true Christianity, but it is possible that he had tried and failed. In his book, anyway, he repeats mediaeval anti-Semitic legends and urges extremely harsh measures against Jews and Judaism.
It is arguably arguable, what the history of citizenship is, or was, in pre-Reformation Europe. Some hold that early Greek city-states had a form of citizenship, which was something of a club membership for upper-class citizenry. Slaves were not citizens, and citizens could not be enslaved. This is, as far as we understand from earlier writings.
That may well be, but that citizenship is hardly the same concept to which it has evolved during post-Reformation Europe and the rise of Nation-State ideology. Still, slaves could hardly be said to be citizens, since they are denied basic human rights.
Jewish “citizenship” is an interesting question in itself, because it doesn’t define a membership of or a status under a political entity, but an ethnic identity. This is actually the most interesting, since we also have the stories in the Bible like that of Ruth, who is a Moabitess (i.e. actually practically a distant cousin of any Jew), and whom Boaz marries, who subsequently turns out to be King David‘s grandmother. I think there should be a lesson, though.
If you think how often racism is based on a twisted idea of “racial” purity, and then if anyone is an iconic person in Jewish history (besides Abraham and then Jesus on Christian side), it’s King David, and if his grandmother is a Moabitess, we should realise that the ideas of “racial” purity are not supportable from the Scriptures. However, Scriptures have been used. There is Noah‘s drunken burst when he realised he had made a fool of himself by passing out naked in Genesis chap. 9, which has been used to justify racism against Africans and enslaving them, from pre-Christian era to very recent times.
I am jumping back and forth a little chronologically, but I follow a logic. Roman citizenship was based on a different concept than Greek Polis citizenship. Rome offered a path to citizenship for conquered peoples, and a way for slaves to earn their freedom (like the Jewish law, too). Interestingly, in the first century AD, one could apparently be both a Jew and a citizen of Rome, as St. Paul appeals to Caesar because he is a Roman Citizen. His father had apparently earned full citizenship.
From there we should have to fast-forward to 1787, when the United States Constitution went into effect. As I referred earlier, it made an important historical compromise by allowing slavery, but only in what later became the South during U.S. Civil War. Slavery was still legal in Britain, and large parts of Europe, but was soon to be abolished (Britain 1833), which put a finals stop to the slave trade in Europe.
By allowing slavery, a conflict was created, which needed some careful navigation around the treacherous waters of politics and religion mixed together. If, as the Preamble stated, “all men are created equal” with those “inalienable rights” as were enumerated there, how in God’s name can you explain slavery and complete alienation of slaves’ inalienable rights? As it turns out, God’s name was, in my opinion, taken in vain once again by appealing to Genesis ch. 9.
I can see that if one has a preconception that one is seeking affirmation for, a dodgy case may be made from Genesis 9:25. I never arrived there on my own, only after I was told to look at that for the justification of slavery and later segregation, I realised it can be used here. It requires some dubious logical leaps, though. From Canaan, one must infer “black Africans”. Then, one must interpret the proper name here to mean Canaan’s offspring forever.
And then there are some really wild stories, that I shall not repeat here. There are some authoritative studies about the history of the U.S. “race” issue.
The reason why I so carefully led us here is, that the U.S. did not exist in a vacuum then any more than now. News travelled a bit slower, but it did. So this U.S. discussion in early 19th century was reflected in many ways. Some of the ways that were more devious than others were eugenics, phrenology, early human “genetics” (which was extremely dilettante and had no actual biological basis), political justification of nation-states in general (meaning a “nation” created by politically defined borders, which makes no sense).
You probably realise that this house of cards remains standing precariously, if at all. That is why status quo has been so desperately defended even by seemingly neutral, unaffected parties, every step of the way, taking the U.S. to a civil war, then post-reconstruction disenfranchisement, segregation, murders of people like Malcolm X–so can you blame him for rejecting the political ideology which had denied him the vote, equal rights before law, basic humanity?–and Martin Luther King, Jr., who was labelled a “communist” too, with dubious justification.
19th-century U.S. justifications for slavery were used as given by Nazis in forming their attitude towards Africa/Africans. Germany was admittedly the last country to rush for African riches, but then they were extremely prejudiced against anything African.
And the same justifications are used by some later phenomena like the Norwegian mass murderer, who wants to call himself a defender of Christian Heritage (cue Mitt Romney’s Anglo-Saxon heritage speech in Britain from last month); the douchebag in Wisconsin, who felt that proving his Christian street cred meant shooting up a meeting in a Sikh temple; the list could go on and on, and every time you find someone who has murdered total strangers in largish numbers, it has always been something like that. Misinterpreted nationalist agenda, or then interpreted 100% correctly, and executed with unusual honesty.
And I started earlier somewhere from Otto von Bismarck. He did not by any means create this out of thin air, but he at least found a plausible link in their common German language. Hitler was Bismarck writ large, with similar ideas, but blown out of any proportion. Nobody seems to know whether he really thought he was going to take everything from Atlantic to Urals and the Indian Ocean. If so, at least he dreamt big.
I seem to be losing patience for now. Hope you can follow my rambling logic. I assure this has been thought through at some point, and if I have proofread this poorly, just ask if you need a clarification.
In short, nationalism is nothing more than tribalism veiled in a fig-leaf of political theory. And the ultimate folly was to dream up a nation-state called the United States of America. Now we are at the century-long tug-of-war between the WASPish Anlo-Saxon heritage and an ethnicity based on citizenship (which must eventually be redefined), which means that your Hispanics and Asian/African-Americans are as much of your nationality as your WASPs.
And after everything else has been said, what about Native Americans, Inuits, African-Africans, and other indigenous peoples? If anyone, they should have a right to their own home land. Unfortunately, European palefaces have felt sufficient superiority over them (based on what?) to have almost destroyed all but Asian and African identities, but even there the borders drawn by colonial Overlords have caused problems and cut through historical connections.
Could we at least admit that that is a problem? That could be a first step towards fixing things up.
* By way of a footnote of sorts, I explain why I’ve tried to consistently use the word “race” and its forms inside double quotes. “Race” is a purely social construct as much as class. However, a member of the underclass may overcome the odds and get a proper education and profession, and become practically middle class. But if your social class is defined by your pigmentation, that is very difficult to overcome. Genetically, there are slight differences between Europeans and Africans, for example, but no more than any mammal populations that live a distance from each other. We are all related in some ways, but we are also different in smaller ways. We have biologically and physiologically much, much more in common than what would separate us. So please, let go. It is a win-win any way you slice it, if you’re just willing to see the brother or sister in the other human.