The “Other”: Power, Identity, and Fluid Relationships in Nationalism

The emergence of the modern nation-state over the last few centuries has coincided fairly directly with the advent of industrialization, and thus new technology, which improved at an ever increasing rate. Coinciding with the industrialized modern nation-state was the idea of “nationalism”, or as defined by historian Anthony Smith as an “ideological movement for attaining and maintaining the autonomy, unity, and identity of an existing or potential “nation.” In Benedict Anderson’s book Imagined Communities, he situates nationalism as uniquely modern—as a self-aware political response by a more educated working class to the traditional clerisy—using “print-capitalism” and modern industrialization as their tool to “imagine” themselves as a part of a single community. “It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” Anderson’s work is elemental to the historiography of nationalism because while he focused on formal nationalisms from modern nation-states, his idea of “imagined communities” can be juxtaposed and interpreted onto smaller groups of people in modern times that go beyond physical borders—such as Palestinian community in Israel, and the African American community in the modern day United States. Thus we can separate the ideas of “official nationalism” that Anderson refers to, concerning modern nation-states post-18th century, and focus our attention on the ideas of nationalism and national identity when it comes to “imagined communities.” In other words, the ideas of nationalism should not be exclusive to arbitrary physical borders, but should apply to all communities that demonstrate nation-like qualities in terms of community relationships and values. Comparing the origins and current relationships of these two disparate examples—Palestinians and African Americans—we can demonstrate that their “imagined community” developed its nationalist identity most heavily in reaction to the threat and persecution of an “other”—a competing identity or community. 

Zionist land ownership in Palestine between 1901 and 1914, following a mass immigration caused by the persecution of Eastern European Jews, allowed there to be a shared feeling of resistance to Zionism by both the felahin and the Palestinian Arab elite—setting the framework for a cohesive Palesitinian identity that would not have occurred otherwise. Beginning in 1901, the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) began a total effort to buy fertile land in Palestine and remove the felahin to replace them with Jewish workers, under the nationalist and socialist ideas of “conquest of labor” and “conquest of the soil.” While there were certainly plenty of violent uprisings by the felahin against Zionists in this time, a consistent pattern of opposition to Zionist colonization did not begin to gain traction until the Palestinian elite began to realize what majority Zionist land ownership could entail for urban populations in the future. This led them to begin to distribute strongly anti-Zionist newspapers to villages heavily affected by Zionist colonization, which quickly became a theme of many prominant Palestinian publications. This demonstrates the importance of print-capitalism in connecting disparate classes of a nation under one cause, and this connection to Anderson’s theory is clearly not lost on historian Rashid Khalidi in Palestinian Identity, where he concludes that the result of the distribution of these newspapers was “a strong and growing national identification with Palestine, as the Arab residents of the country increasingly came to “imagine” themselves as a part of a single community.” However, Khalidi consistently mentions in his book that Palestinian identity was not mainly caused by Zionist infiltration, an idea that he himself even wavers on. “There is a kernel of truth in these assertions: in some measure, as we have already seen, identity develops in response to the encounter with an “other”…the Arab population of Palestine had a strong attachment to their country—albeit an attachment expressed in pre-nationalist terms…” While perhaps Palestinians were not adament or proactive on creating an official state of Palestine from the beginning, with a consistent national identity to go along with it, prior to the Zionist threat there simply was not a reason to create one.  

 In the article “Historicizing National Identity or Who Imagines What and When,” Historian Prasanjit Duara talks about this history of inclusion and exclusion which can define national identity, stating “In other words, the nation, even where it is manifestly not a recent invention, is hardly the realization of an original essence, but a historical configuration which is designed to include certain groups and exclude or marginalize others—often violently.” Duara challenges the notion that a stable community slowly develops a national self awareness like the evolution of a species, citing multiple methods of gaining national identity through “hard and soft boundaries” between groups. While the case of Palestine is certainly one that shows this shifting of boundaries, the relationship of African Americans and the white power structure of the United States, from slavery to modern day, is one that most clearly demonstrates the growth of the identity of an “imagined community” in response to a hostile “other.” 

The institution of slavery in the United States caused African Americas to be treated as a subjegated “other” within the framework of a society that supposedly champions equality and individual rights, causing them to develop an “ethnic nationalism” in contrast to the “civic nationalism” of whites in the U.S following abolition. While it is hardly necessary to get into the details of how African-Americans have been subjected through differing white power structures since the beginning of the slave trade, it is important to point out exactly why a black American does not experience U.S nationalism in the same way a white American does today. This theory on civic vs. ethnic nationalism, developed by Sociologist Patricia Collins in her book From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism and Feminism, recognizes that while African Americans are ostensibly given the same rights as whites, they are treated as second-class citizens because of their inability to become truly white, and be a part of the overarching civic nationalism—unlike other historically subjected outsiders (Irish, Italians, etc.). 

Only White Americans can shed their racial and ethnic identities to stand for the generalized national citizen…Representing the epitome of racial purity that is also associated with American national interests, Whites constitute the most valuable citizens…racial/ethnic groups remain tainted with the stigma of representing particularism, backwardness, childishness, and special interests.

As Collins goes on to point out, this leads African Americans to become like one of the nationalist “family,” similar to how a black caretaker of a family’s children is like one of the family, but can never truly experience the full benefits of being a blood relative. But how has this experience help create African American identity? This treatment of black Americans as less than full citizens both before and after abolition has caused a myriad of poor socioeconomic conditions, which has resulted in a political and ideological homogeneity in today’s society that is absolutely unmatched by whites. In an article by Nikole Hannah Jones in the recently published “1619 Project,” she notes the effect of slavery on modern black identity. 

“No one cherishes freedom more than those who have not had it. And to this day, black Americans, more than any other group, embrace the democratic ideals of a common good. We are the most likely to support programs like universal health care and a higher minimum wage, and to oppose programs that harm the most vulnerable.” It is this experience caused by the treatment of the “other” which has influenced the creation of democratic, “common good” black identity, identity that began to form centuries before that of print-capitalism.

Unlike the “imagined communities” Anderson talks about, created by that of print-capitalism and 19th century industrialization, race is something that does not have to be imagined. It is seen, it is tangible, and it divides modern nations, separating groups from within that supposedly have the same values and visions for the country. Anderson’s theories can be applied fairly cleanly to the Palestinian experience of imagining—all of the elements of print-capitalism and true unionizing between classes are evident. But it is when race and gender get involved, alongside ethnic nationalism, where it is more pertinent to utilize the aforementioned theories presented by Duara as he considers the ideas of fluid relationships determining identity.  “Nationalism is very rarely the nationalism of a nation, but rather represents the site where very different views of the nation contest and negotiate with each other.” What became clear after analyzing these two theories is that while technology has certainly drastically changed how we identify with each other, who we identify with is, and always has been, defined by who we do not identify with—the “other.” And its effect on identity creation is often defined by a fluid relationship of power between the two. 

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