Distinctions in Nationalism

Essay 1:  Distinctions in Nationalism

LaTasha T. Johnson

Professor Robert Melson

POL 543H

4 February 1998

In Michael Ignatieff’s Blood and Belonging, a distinction is made between ethnic nationalism and civic nationalism.  First, Ignatieff basically defines nationalism as a given principal that the world is divided into nations of people.  These nations then have the right to an autonomous government which comes to fruition in the form of statehood.  Microsoft’s Encarta 97 Encyclopedia has two definitions for nationalism.  The first is “devotion to the interests or culture of a particular nation,” and the second is “aspirations for national independence.”  Later, Ignatieff makes a clear distinction between ethnic and civic nationalism.  Ethnic nationalism is exclusive.  The “nation” consists of a particular ethnic group or people of a common descent.  Civic nationalism, on the other hand, is inclusive.  The “nation” is comprised of all who agree to adhere to the laws of a territorial state.  These definitions and distinctions can best be discussed by using examples.  Two excellent examples presented by Ignatieff are the conflicts in Quebec, Canada and Northern Ireland, Great Britain.

For a good synopsis of the situation in Quebec, one must return to the definitions given above.  Quebecois nationalism is an “aspiration for national independence” based on the autonomous principles given in Ignatieff’s definition of nationalism.  It is the “devotion to the interests or culture of a particular nation.”  In the Quebecois case, this nationalism is ethnic in that it is exclusive.  The “people of a common descent” are the descendants of the French.  However, the Quebecois will argue that their nationalism is truly a civic nationalism in that the nation   will be “comprised of all who agree to adhere to the laws of the territorial state”, i. e. , Quebec.  Generally, the Quebecois want to remove the Canada from Quebec, Canada.

Ethnic and civic nationalism often overlap and the situation in Quebec is no exception.  This can be seen in Ignatieff’s interview with Alain Dubuc of La Presse daily newspaper in Montreal.  Dubuc declares that Quebec is his nation, and Canada is his state.  Dubuc is loyal to the interests and culture of Quebec, yet he lacks the desire for an autonomous nation-state.  He has agreed to adhere to the laws of the federal entity of Canada.  While, Dubuc is not alone in his ideas of Quebec as a nation and Canada as a state, not everyone agrees with him.  Other Quebecois view Canada as a former oppressor from which Quebec must break away.  Ignatieff shows that the notion of Canada as a bilingual state with no ethnic conflict is false.  Quebecois claim that anglophone Canada is rapidly increasing at the expense of francophone Quebec.  While the Quebecois maintain their argument that they strive for a civic nation-state, others see that Quebecois truly want an ethnic nation-state.  Quebec has laws which prohibit the learning and display of the English language.  Many find this oppressive.  The defense of prohibitions of the English language is that it serves to preserve the declining French language in Quebec.  The situation in Quebec is complicated.  The very same people who claim to be civic nationalists (those wanting an autonomous nation-state within the boundaries of Quebec comprised of citizens adhering to the laws of Quebec) can clearly be seen as ethnic nationalists (those wanting, in addition to the civic nationalists, a nation-state whose citizens are the descendants of the first French people of that territory).

The situation in Northern Ireland is just as complex as the one in Quebec.  For many in Northern Ireland, they are true civic nationalists.  They do not have aspirations for state autonomy.  They are loyal, patriotic citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.  They are British.  Other Britons will argue against this notion.  As for others in Northern Ireland, they are ethnic nationalist in that they identify with being Irish and despise their British oppressor.  And still others in Northern Ireland identify with neither being British nor Irish.  These people want an autonomous Northern Ireland.  They fit into the general definition of civic nationalists.  The people of Northern Ireland who identify with being British also identify with being Protestant.  This follows the historically British-Protestant tradition established by King Henry VIII and his marital dilemmas.  Likewise, the people of Northern Ireland who identify with being Irish also identify with being Catholic.  The greatest conflict is between these two groups.  So as not to confuse the two groups, myself or the reader, I will refer to them as the British Protestants and the Irish Catholics.  It must be remembered that this reference is in the context of the ethnic conflict in Northern Ireland.  In this context, being Protestant has become synonymous with being British and being Catholic has become synonymous with being Irish.  Ethnicity has been created in an either/or dichotomous relationship.  One cannot be Irish and Protestant in Northern Ireland.  One is either a British Protestant or an Irish Catholic.

In the face of British Protestant nationalism, the mainland British do not define the people of Northern Ireland as British.  Traditionally, mainland Britain has been a civic nationalist state.  Ignatieff attributes this paradox of exclusion and civic nationalism to the historical British failure in Ireland.  In direct contrast to mainland categorizations of the people of Northern Ireland, the British Protestants are the most gung-ho, loyal, patriotic Britons that Ignatieff had ever met.  Ethnic nationalism and civic nationalism meet face to face in the context of Northern Ireland.  This confrontation can be seen as purely ethnic nationalism if one considers that in Northern Ireland, it is very ethnic to be British.  The differences between ethnic and civic nationalism are, at times, distinct and, at other times, overlapping in the case of Northern Ireland as well as in Quebec.

As an afterthought:  Ethnic conflict is not always in terms of ethnic nationalism.  For example, as observed from my own experiences in the United States.  Most U. S. citizens identify with being American.  While adjectives such as African, Asian, Chicano, Latino, and European are used, the second part of these nomenclatures are almost always “American.”  An African American is distinct from an African.  The terms denote people in different parts of the world, on two different continents.  In situations, such as the United States ethnic conflict is often in the context of a paradoxical situation where civic nationalism excludes a group of citizens.


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