The whole chapter on nationalism is fascinating reading, especially if the main forms of nationalism you’re familiar with are European forms or the muddled thing we have here in America.
African nationalism, this explosive force which has changed the shape of the Continent, is a curious phenomenon. It was, I think, Lord Hailey who pointed out that there were originally few nations in Africa within which nationalist feeling could develop. Nationalism in Europe appears to have been basically concerned to unify people with a common language and culture—the growing awareness amongst people in a given geographical area that since they were a nation, it was time they behaved like one.
With the exception of certain traditional kingdoms such as Ashanti, Buganda, Barotse or Zulu, the basic unit in Africa appears to have been the tribe, which far from having a sense of oneness with its neighbors, often regarded them as mortal enemies. Nor has African nationalism always had the advantage of a common language and culture to act as cohesive factors to bind the people together. More often than not the task of evolving a common culture and language has only begun once the independence struggle is over. Nor, failing language and cultural unity, has there normally been one great religion such as Islam which could provide a focus of unity. Indeed, the opposite is often the case—religious divisions on the African continent have been a major cause of disunity and strife.
Because of these difficulties, Lord Hailey doubted whether the term nationalism ought to be used at all for this political force, preferring the word Africanism. To my mind this is much too imprecise. I think nationalism is a legitimate term because it certainly describes the goal of all our activity if not the natural origins of our sense of solidarity. Our aim has been to create genuine nations from the sprawling artifacts the colonialists carved out all over the Continent.
Reading that, it strikes me that perhaps African nationalism offers a better conversation partner for America today than does European nationalism. To take just one example, Rod Dreher has said many times that the Orban model in Hungary has limited value in America—Hungary’s population is smaller than New York City and it has a long, storied, and well-established common culture, including a common (and unique) language. These conditions don’t prevail in America.
What we have here is more a contrived nationalism built atop a polity unified not by common culture, but by a common idea—and with historic immigration practices that are quite different than those of Europe. For America, the problem is less one of preserving something which already exists and much more one of creating a genuine nation from “the sprawling artifacts” of our history.
Of course, whereas the African nationalists had to figure out how to carve a nation out of artifacts created by someone else in violation of the natural, established communities of the place, the American problem is the inverse: We are attempting to create a nation atop the wreckage that we ourselves made. So the challenges is different. And yet in the sense that American nationalism is inherently a contrived thing that is made more than it is recognized, I think we might have much to learn from the African nationalists.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).