Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Playing Happy Families

Motherland. Fatherland. Homeland. Patriotism. The national family.

So much of the language that's used to incite patriotism/nationalism is rooted in ideals of home, in ideals of domesticity, in familial ideals. Hearth and homestead, familiarity, good food, comfort, cosiness. Citizens are encouraged to think of the nation as akin their mother or father and of other citizens as their siblings. Sometimes the metaphor is even more defined. The nation is the nourishing mother, the alma mater, the government is the providing father and preserver of her sexual virtue, the pater familias. The citizens are the children, who must be obedient, respectful and above all else, loyal to the family.

Comforting, no? Cosy? Egalitarian and all that, to think of your fellow citizens as your brothers and sisters?

No. It isn't. Not comforting, not cosy and sure as hell not egalitarian. I don't think so, anyway.

It strikes me that when the nation is imagined as a family, it's always a particular kind of family that's imagined. A `happy' family. No divorce or domestic violence here, folks. No custody fights or acrimonious property disputes. No deadbeat Dads skiving off on the child support payments. No sexual abuse to mar the cosiness, no lives of quiet desperation, no skeletons in the closet (or LGBT folk either for that matter), no `Mother's little helper' in the bathroom cupboard. A family where, although people might have their differences, their similarities are more pronounced. A homogeneous family - certainly not a trans-national family - because that would play merry hell with the metaphor. And it's a defensive family, which, though it might have its internal squabbles, will quickly unite to attack any interloper who dares participate in them.

Ah, yes, foreigners. I bet you wondered when I was going to get to them. Because it's not just about who is included when we play happy national families. It's also about who is excluded.

Where does the foreigner fit in this picture of the nation as family?

When they are within national borders, they are the short-term family guest, who will remain tactfully and discreetly silent, keeping their fucking piehole shut for the blessedly brief duration of their visit. They will observe the formalities, tell the nice polite lies, bite their tongue and ignore the desperate weeping from the upstairs bedroom. Good house guests. At best. More often they are the interloper, the unwanted guest, the cuckoo in the nest, the changling in the cradle, the thief in the night. Sometimes they are the `yellow peril,' the `thieving gypsies,' the `flood of immigrants,' the `undesirable element,' the `influx,' the `deluge,' the `horde,' the `false asylum seekers,' seeking to rip `us' off and steal `our' jobs.

Beyond the national borders, they are `them.' Those strangers who are outside the family, who must be defended against, who are exotic, unfathomable, and `not like us.' The barbarians at the gate, the uncivilised Malthusian masses, the threat to `our' society and `our' values. Whose bodies can be bombed, burned and buried with impunity, whose thousand lives are worth but one of `ours,' who are indistinguishable, nameless, faceless, moths at a candle flame.

The nation as family metaphor invites people to divide the world into `us' and `them.' From where I stand, that right there is a huge stroke against it.

But this rabbit hole goes deeper.

The family is a site of intimacy - not necessarily pleasant, happy, loving intimacy, but intimacy none-the-less. Family members usually know each other through long acquaintance. They may not like or love each other, but odds are they know each other's habits, their preferences, their dislikes, their small pleasures, their antipathies. They have learned to live in shared spaces. In most - though not all - cases, the family is a site of particular and private personal knowledge. At their best, families are sources of love, friendship and joy because they are based on mutual respect and private personal knowledge.

Nations are not sites of intimacy. Let me say this again because I think this is really important. Nations are not sites of intimacy. Even the little minnow-nations like Aotearoa/New Zealand are not sites of intimacy. N.Z. has a little under five million citizens and there are about four million people living there. Pretty small, no? But not a site of intimacy. Hell, even my first home-town was not a site of intimacy - I could and did walk around town all day many times without running into a single acquaintance or friend.

This matters because the `nation as family' metaphor is often invoked precisely because it conjures up familial bonds of affection, loyalty and justifiable partiality. Because the family is a site of intimacy, people are supposed to value the lives of family members above those of strangers. When you're offered the terrible choice between saving a family member and saving a stranger, you're supposed to save the family member and let the stranger die.

Within the logic of the nation as family metaphor, you are similarly supposed to save the person who has the same passport as you over the person of a different nationality.

But despite the metaphor, the nation is not your family.

You are not bound to a stranger by ties of affection, shared personal knowledge and personal history simply because you happen to have the same citizenship due to the merest accident of birth. But you could well be bound by real ties of affection, shared ideals, and shared personal knowledge to people who don't share your citizenship.


Another one that I've reposted (in slightly edited form) from dKos, since I am a) a bit preoccupied with some other writing at the moment; b) riding high on my anti-patriotic horse and; c) thinking in a fit of mad egotism that it might not be such a bad idea to have some of the less topical stuff I did there on In Flight.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am so glad you are re-posting these diaries, dove, since I never got to see them the first time around. This diary is really good and thought-provoking.

Its also slightly uncanny because I have been thinking of representations of nations as familial metaphors ever since DTF's reference to the Partition yesterday. So I am going to go off on a tangent.

While the Partition happened in 1947, and I grew up in the '70s and '80s hearing the horror stories from my family, there really wasn't much discussion of the event in the general culture. It wasn't until 10 or so years ago that books, films, academic articles, etc appeared that dealt with the issue in any serious manner.

But, according to a number of cultural critics, the persistence of the motif of brothers separated at birth in endless bollywood movies, was a coded way of referencing the trauma of Partition. Families as nations--huh?


4/25/2006 11:51 pm  
Blogger dove said...

That idea of coding -- allegory I guess -- is really fascinating, especially in light of that surrounding silence.

A friend of mine is looking at how music functions to reinforce/undermine nationalist expression in several Bollywood films (Lagaan is one of the films she's writing on -- alas it's the only one that she's writing on that I've seen I think) I'll have to pass that on to her.

4/26/2006 12:08 am  
Blogger DuctapeFatwa said...

Honorary great-granddaughter, your gift for word writing gives me goose bumps. How fortunate I am to be on earth at the same time as you!

The true family allusion would be to people and not nations. It is those artificial barriers, "borders" that seek to separate us, like poco's Bollywood brothers, who barely miss each other at the mela, stopped from coming face to face every time by something, usually an act of commerce ;)

Midnight's Children is probably the work most accessible to westerners to employ this technique, though Salman takes it out of the technique basket and sets it firmly but vaguely in one labelled something else, understand he wrote this back before he decided that swimmin pools and movie stars were more desirable than the humble comforts of the Family of Man, I doubt he could write it today, nor would he wish to.

dove your friend's project sounds fascinating. Reading of it makes me remember the wife of a dear friend, who confided to me that until she was nearly twenty, she sincerely believed that children came into the world as a result of their parents dancing around a tree. ;=>

4/26/2006 1:28 am  
Blogger DuctapeFatwa said...

OK poco, where is that rant you have promised us?

4/30/2006 6:49 am  
Blogger dove said...

Second that DTF -- poco -- we want more!

4/30/2006 11:11 am  

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