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“Imagined Communities” with Real Consequences

Written by: on January 12, 2017

In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson seeks to propose a nuanced perspective for how we understand and perceive the origin and spread of nationalism. Anderson does a good job of setting up his argument by walking us through a historical perspective that gives way to the deconstruction of nationalism being a real sense of identity. He sets up his argument by deconstructing the idea that nationalism is determined by ones affinity to culture, power, privilege, race and class. He sees nationalism as an assimilation. One that is  “assimilated to skin-colour, gender, parentage and birth-era – all those things one can not help“1. It is focused on what a person is more willing to sacrifice for the nation. An individual’s willingness to lay down their own life invokes a sense of camaraderie.  He argues that while nationalism does bear national superiority, it is not one that is used as a means to divide individuals within a nation but to unite individuals together as an identity proclaimed against the outsiders (my paraphrase of course).  While I find his book insightful there are two aspects of nationalism that I will choose to discuss further. The first is the way  in which Anderson uses fraternal bond as a means to explain “imagined communities”. Second, I will share my thoughts on the current state of nationalism in this country.

Imagined Communities- A Fraternal Bond

Being an active member of a Sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., I am well aware of the ideals that govern a fraternal bond.  Yes, like Anderson states, there is an assimilation that fosters unity and affinity to the organization. One can also say that the bond itself is deemed more superior than the identity of its individual members. However, in Anderson’s narrative, he does not take into account the various other aspects of a fraternal bond that make the bond worthy of allegiance. There inherently are vows that come with a fraternal association. Promises that are packed within and can be easily overlooked if only looking at the bond from a macro level as being “imagined”.  Nationalism being limited only to ones sacrifice denounces the idea of commitment and fortitude being apart of the creation and formation of these communities. It is not only what one surrenders but it is what they gain from the camaraderie in return. In my search for others who have reviewed this book, I found a critical review written by Matt Cromwell.    In his review, he argues that it is not enough to just disagree with Anderson but one should try to propose an alternative narrative. He cites an alternative proposed by Claudio Lomnitz, which for me give legs to my unsettled feelings of Anderson’s use of fraternal community, ” nationalism does not form a single fraternal imaginary community’, but rather several that include our bonds of dependence on the weaker members of society that strong citizens take responsibility for…Therefore, nationalism does not only promise a compelling fraternity, but also domestic relations, care for the downtrodden, productive work-place relations, etc. “2 An expanded depiction of fraternal bond gives way to how nationalism has currently evolved over time. There is truly a shift in national affinity as one of just sacrifice but towards the inherent promises and benefits that come along with the camaraderie. 

Nationalism-current state of affairs

With liberty and Justice for all.” These are words we proclaim as we recite our Pledge of Allegiance. “The “all”  in our pledge of allegiance denotes superiority and affinity but “limited” in it universal translation and adaptation. Although our Declaration of Independence declares”all men are created equal” our pride as a “united” nation is not in our equality but our superiority and domination of anyone and anything that would not conform to our ideals. One thing I will note is that in our attempt to be what I call “super nationalists” we have merged the ideas of patriotism and racism into the same definition as nationalism. While it is difficult due to our American history to truly delineate them from one another outside of Merriam-Websters definitions. They have forged a dangerous triad that has carried with it destruction and discourse. You cannot begin to discuss nationalism in this country without being prepared to also address the other two. “Isms” in this country continue to keep us from being united and becoming a fortified community whether real or imagined. The values are no longer common among everyone and even the proclamation of “one nation under God” is only true within specific” imagined communities”. Unfortunately, much to Americans disdain, our main stream media continues to project societal illusions that become the platform of the terror “nationalism” brings to our country. The whole idea of “taking our country back” is fundamentally asinine. The founding of America  began with the nation being stolen  from the natives who were already occupying the land. That statement implies that it was stolen from us and not the other way around. The question that remains is “who are we taking it back from?”. That question is what continues to divide us as a country. The notion of “I am  an American right or wrong” is no longer welcomed with great pride and celebration (not sure it ever should have been).  Despite all of this, we continue to perpetuate this sense of false identity and ownership of God’s divine favor in this country as we still shout loudly “God bless America!”  We simply can no longer ignore and deny the truth.  Until we face it head on, we will be left to deal with the “real consequences” that continue to destroy our country and erode at the possibility of hope in our future.

 

  1. Benedict R. O’G. Anderson, Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (London: Verso, 1991), 147.
  2. Matt Cromwell, “A Critical Review of Benedict Anderson,” Scribd, November 2, 2010, 5 , accessed January 10, 2017, https://www.scribd.com/doc/45202059/A-Critical-Review-of-Benedict-Anderson

About the Author

Christal Jenkins Tanks

7 responses to ““Imagined Communities” with Real Consequences”

  1. Mary Walker says:

    I agree, Christal. When will we really have liberty and justice for all?
    I have often wondered if these wars we are involved in are just a distraction. We see bumper stickers all over the place asking us to “Support the Troops”. Don’t get me wrong; I admire the courage of men and women who believe that they are fighting to protect us. But I don’t think the US should be forcing its way of life on other people. We are acting in a superior way as you point out.
    Let’s work on our domestic problems – poverty, injustice to women and minorities. Then maybe we can claim that we are a nation where all men and women are equal.

  2. Stu Cocanougher says:

    Solid post, Christal. I had some of the same feelings as I reflected on my home country while reading the book. What I DID like about Anderson is that he weaved together so many cultures and nations and eras. His knowledge of history was remarkable.

    As I reflect on our nation’s origins, I try to look at it in context. For example, our nation’s treatment of native Americans is inexcusable (by the way, my mother’s great grandmother was Cherokee from East Tennessee).

    At the same time, I reject the romanticized view of the noble savage that seems to crop us every Columbus Day. There is this false concept that native Americans were just nature loving hippies during pre-colonial times. Some Native American tribes practiced genocide and slavery long before the Pilgrims came.

    This book brought a sense of perspective that I appreciated.

  3. Strong voice Christal- Yes, who are we taking it back from? Or the statement, “Make America great again” is troubling as I find us to be so young and immature to the rest of the world, we are like a toddler learning to walk or a rebellious adolescent trying to find their own way. Greatness was never achieved but a continual process. Regardless of what our nation embodies, I strive to live by the principles that “all men/women are created equal” and pray for a nation to fully embody the profound principles they put into place to build this nation. Like you, I am also saddened how the discriminatory, abusive treatment of people became acceptable for the creation of this nation. I wish we had a do-over and applied our principles to the Native Americans and other minority groups who have been used and mistreated. Did I mention I have some Native American in me?

  4. Liberty and Justice for all. What an imagined community but never a reality.
    I am fully aware of the fraternity bond since I have family members as members in those groups. The bond I found to be based on the relationship among the members, especially, the line sisters or brothers.
    I enjoyed the path you created in your post.

  5. mm Katy Lines says:

    Well put.

    I would add that our nation’s understanding of who WE are has continued to evolve in our history. For the founders, “all men are created equal…” and the rights connected with that identity did not include people like you or me as women. Citizenship only counted for African-Americans as 3/5th of a person (when it came to population & representation counts), but 0 when it came to personhood (vs. slave-hood). We see that identity evolving throughout our history, yet continuing to fall short of actual equality for “all men”. To paraphrase George Orwell, “some are more equal than others.”

    One characteristic of America that I love is our unwillingness to settle with that status quo.

  6. Geoff Lee says:

    I think America has much to export to the world and much influence to exert. It seems that, under Obama, America has become more insular and withdrawn, and this has left a vacuum of power in places like Syria that Russia and Iran are filling. I would much rather have America projecting its power and influence and culture around the world than some of these other countries.

  7. Amen, Christal!
    ‘The question that remains is “who are we taking it back from?”. That question is what continues to divide us as a country.’ I am tired of being called divisive because I point out that we are already divided and have been since the beginning of our nation. Racism, sexism, classism, jingoism, and all the other isms that traveled here with the explorers, pilgrims, and founders haven’t gone away and they won’t by simply ignoring them. No infection disappears without exposure and treatment, it simply festers until too much damage has been done.
    It would all feel so hopeless if I didn’t believe that the Spirit is at work. I believe much of what is happening now is the exposure of the things killing our country. It’s ugly and it’s painful, but if we who are Kingdom seekers step up, we can make changes.

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