Swelled with na­tion­al­ist pride

In­ter­net has a hand in stitch­ing up new na­tions from the fab­ric of old re­gions

Edmonton Journal - - OPINION - MARCO ADRIA Marco Adria is a pro­fes­sor of me­dia com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the Univer­sit y of Al­ber ta.

If you haven’t no­ticed, cracks are ap­pear­ing from within pre­vi­ously im­per­me­able bound­aries of na­tion-states.

The num­ber of coun­tries in the world is 196 to­day, but it could sur­pass 200 if the na­tion­al­ist pro­grams al­ready in mo­tion were to suc­ceed. What are we to make of this uptick in the for­tunes of na­tion­al­ists?

Que­be­cers have been de­bat­ing the ad­van­tages and dis­ad­van­tages of in­de­pen­dence re­cently as part of their provin­cial elec­tion cam­paign. It’s tempt­ing to re­gard this as noth­ing new, since the prov­ince has staged not one, but two ref­er­en­dums on in­de­pen­dence. But the lan­guage and rhetoric of na­tional iden­tity have been heat­ing up else­where, too.

Con­sider last month’s ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence in Crimea. Many have ar­gued the vote was rigged, but such claims didn’t pre­vent Rus­sia from an­nex­ing the re­gion.

Sim­i­larly, people in the Veneto re­gion of Italy, in­clud­ing the city of Venice, voted re­cently in an on­line ref­er­en­dum to sep­a­rate. Sar­dinia has sim­i­lar plans. It’s not clear in the Ital­ian case what a “yes” vote means in prac­ti­cal terms, since there are no mech­a­nisms in place to al­low an Ital­ian re­gion to sep­a­rate.

Then there are the usual sus­pects, those re­gions that have been dis­cussing in­de­pen­dence for many years and have de­cided to put it to a vote. Scot­land’s ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence takes place this Septem­ber. In Novem­ber, Cat­alo­nia in Spain will do the same.

There are po­lit­i­cal bat­tles, lin­guis­tic ten­sions and his­tor­i­cal an­tecedents for the cur­rent crop of re­gions seek­ing na­tional sta­tus. How­ever, such frac­tures have gen­er­ally been tamped down by na­tional gov­ern­ments that have much to lose by se­ced­ing re­gions. The na­tion-state con­trols the fi­nan­cial and po­lit­i­cal re­sources to slow na­tion­al­ist move­ments within its bound­aries. It also wields the ul­ti­mate weapon to pre­vent di­vi­sion, in the form of a na­tional army. So why the rush on na­tional iden­tity now?

There’s a case to be made that the most far-reach­ing of our tech­nolo­gies, the one that subtly but surely changes how we or­ga­nize our­selves and view our sta­tus as cit­i­zens of lo­cal­i­ties, re­gions, and na­tions, may pro­vide at least part of the ex­pla­na­tion. That tech­nol­ogy is, of course, the In­ter­net. Al­though Scot­land and other coun­tries, in­clud­ing Canada, be­cause of the In­ter­net ac­cess people have to lan­guage re­sources.

The Scot­tish Par­lia­ment has a com­pre­hen­sive and rather ex­pen­sive five-year plan to pro­mote Scot­tish Gaelic, mainly us­ing on­line strate­gies. When a de­clin­ing lan­guage is brought back to life us­ing the stor­age and com­mu­ni­ca­tion ca­pac­i­ties of the In­ter­net, the glo­ries of the na­tion can be re­born.

Sec­ond, al­though the In­ter­net is of­ten lauded as a space within which uni­ver­sal un­der­stand­ing can be pro­moted, the ac­tual re­sults are of­ten the op­po­site. As a pro­fes­sor, I know

“On the In­ter­net, na­tion­al­ists can … raise funds and po­lit­i­cal sup­port quickly and with less op­po­si­tion and fewer dis­trac­tions than they would have ex­pe­ri­enced in the past.”


the In­ter­net can’t be used to ex­plain ev­ery­thing about the surge in new na­tion­alisms, it is part of the story. The In­ter­net can be used to boost the for­tune of na­tion­al­ists in at least two ways.

First, the In­ter­net is a medium by which the im­por­tance of a na­tion­al­ist cul­tural pro­gram can be con­sol­i­dated and ex­panded. For one, lan­guages or di­alects that have been fad­ing in pop­u­lar­ity and us­age over cen­turies can be re­vived.

Con­sider Scot­land. Fewer than two per cent of the pop­u­la­tion in Scot­land speaks Scot­tish Gaelic. Yet the Scot­tish Gaelic lan­guage has been on the up­swing in the last decade in that an on­line dis­cus­sion by my stu­dents can pro­mote a mean­ing­ful ex­change of opin­ions and di­verse per­spec­tives. How­ever, the In­ter­net can also func­tion like an echo cham­ber, a place in which the only voices we hear are very much like our own. We can com­mu­ni­cate with any­one around the world, and we do. But par­tic­u­larly in times in which we ex­pe­ri­ence fear or anger, we can use the In­ter­net to re­treat to closed on­line groups. Within those groups, we can link up— 24 hours a day, if we wish — with those who think, talk, sound and act like us. We can hear lo­cal con­cerns and con­nect them to pre­vi­ously dor­mant na­tional as­pi­ra­tions.

Third, us­ing multimedia, the sto­ries, songs and he­roes of the an­cient na­tion, now bound up as a hu­mil­i­ated re­gion within a larger dom­i­nat­ing na­tion-state, can be re­trieved from his­tor­i­cal ne­glect. They can be pre­sented on web­sites and con­sumed on­line and, most im­por­tantly, re­vised con­tin­u­ally as part of an emerg­ing nar­ra­tive about the na­tional tragedy — the tragedy that can be made right through po­lit­i­cal sep­a­ra­tion and in­de­pen­dence.

In­ter­net the­o­rist Mark Poster, who spoke in Ed­mon­ton as part of the cel­e­bra­tions of the cen­te­nary of me­dia philoso­pher Mar­shall McLuhan’s birth in our city, has sug­gested that the ul­ti­mate ef­fect of the In­ter­net on so­ci­ety is that we ex­pe­ri­ence a new sort of cul­ture. It’s a cul­ture that is “at once more gen­eral and more lo­cal than the na­tion-state.”

I think that what he means by this is that when we are on­line, we com­mu­ni­cate glob­ally and lo­cally — si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

On the In­ter­net, na­tion­al­ists can choose to talk only with na­tion­al­ists. They can cre­ate new web­sites dis­play­ing na­tional pride. They can raise funds and po­lit­i­cal sup­port quickly and with less op­po­si­tion and fewer dis­trac­tions than they would have ex­pe­ri­enced in the past.

The “uni­ver­sal and the par­tic­u­lar” that is at the cen­tre of the In­ter­net ex­pe­ri­ence is a con­tra­dic­tory idea, dif­fi­cult to take in at first. But it may pro­vide a clue to un­der­stand­ing the re­newed in­ter­est—in Canada and around the world — in stitch­ing up new na­tions from the fab­ric of old re­gions.


Pro-in­de­pen­dence sup­port­ers at­tend a rally in Ed­in­burgh, Scot­land. The Scot­tish Par­lia­ment has a five-year plan to pro­mote the de­clin­ing Scot­tish Gaelic lan­guage, mainly us­ing on­line strate­gies.

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