All nations are violent. That is fact. The conception of every nation begins (and when it fails, ends) with violence. Nations are maintained by violence, and depending on how much power they possess – power often achieved by violence – they inflict violence on their citizens, some more than others; or on the citizens of other nations. It is one of many reasons while being a lover of culture and peoples in all their diversity, I am skeptical of “patriotism” as it has always manifested itself. But especially in the modern-day nation-state – the country.
The average citizen is taught that one must hold a distinct loyalty to the place on earth, defined by historical events, manipulated by past and present narratives, that they were born into. That in this accident of birth, despite the non-accident of history, there is a certain surrender of self – of mind, of spirit, of body – that the citizen owes the state. Perhaps it is not in so many words that the nation-state instills this construction of the citizen into the individual born within its manufactured borders, or perhaps “naturalized” by its bureaucracies. But however it may come to pass, this is what the nation-state does, this is how the citizen is created and perpetuated. This is how the nation-state survives and succeeds.
I suppose it is only fair that I openly admit that I do not understand patriotism. Not in a conceptual sense or an academic sense or in how I make societal observations, or in looking at how nation-states maintain their identities through a combination of political, cultural and social narratives that are formed through and by historical events, created and explained. No, I understand all these things. But in how it practically sweeps the human being’s conception of self so much so that he or she cannot be separated from that self, connected to the nation, in any shape or form. And not only that, but in the function of patriotism, people, from the ordinary to the most intelligent and gifted, will justify any and all things for the love of country, for patriotism; including and especially violence.
Violence, sanctioned by the state, whether by war outside of its borders, and inflicted upon its external “others,” or within its borders, conducted by the state’s official authorities of law and society, and inflicted upon its internal “others,” will be given synonyms that represent it as something other than violence. Order, rule of law, and patriotism will be some of those names. And without much thought, many citizens will buy the narratives of what they have been told is justifiable violence and what isn’t. Because the nation-state and the institutions it employs will be the ones to disseminate the narratives of violence in the first place, achieving whatever agenda needs to be achieved at the moment.
We have seen it all through history and we live in its consequences. The violence of slavery, of colonization, of racism, of sexism, of homophobia, of destructive capitalism, of war, etc. was justified by the powers that be at every time. The violence it takes to conceive a nation-state, to protect the interests of that state, and even to purportedly protect its citizens who they instill with fear in the first place, is not only justified but conceived as necessary. But when people challenge the nation-state through violence, the immediate reaction by the state and many of its “good citizens,” is always and immediately that such violence is unjustifiable, without need for context.
And that is what we have seen in the latest Baltimore riots. That is why the narrative will call it a “riot” and not an “uprising.” That is why the people who participate in it will be called “anti-American” and “thugs.” And not “resistors” or “freedom fighters.” Or simply, exhausted, oppressed people who were raised in a violent system, targeted by it, and perhaps now respond to what they see seems to work – violence. But notably against people they see as aggressors, and not only people, but an entire system that they deem as violent against the very essence of who they are.
Still, blaming the nation-state and its institutions and narratives seems to place blame solely on the imaginary, however real it is. More importantly, it relieves you and I from blame. The reason why I, for example, can write this is because I can live in a place where I can sleep relatively peacefully at night. And to quote Orwell, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” I certainly do not love the violence that might protect my sleep but I also have no desire to be a (dead) martyr either. So in order to survive, I comply with the nation-state and its orders as many others do, at least to a point. Where and when I can, I resist.
I resist of course with words, as some people always have. And in my resistance, my question today is what violence do you justify? As someone with pacifist tendencies, I want to believe that violence is not the answer. But as history, as politics, as the present shows us, it would be naïve to think that all violence is equal. That is certainly not the narrative, and it is certainly not the counter-narrative. The powerful seek violence as a tool to maintain their oppression of others; the oppressed seek violence to free themselves from their oppression, and oftentimes only when peaceful resistance was not a weapon of choice available to them.
Whose violence then do you celebrate, and whose violence do you condemn? Context of course, will always matter. But even in a world where these are not the only two options, our compliances and our resistances to the nation-state will always answer for us. In our rhetoric and otherwise.