Swelled with nationalist pride
Internet has a hand in stitching up new nations from the fabric of old regions
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.