The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest
Nationalism and Beyond: Introducing Moral Debate about Values
(Budapest & New York: Central European University Press, 2001)
313pp. including Biblio. Index. Pb.: £14.95, ISBN 963-9241-12-1
|On the rather dusty shelf of studies on nationalism, Micevic?s book undoubtedly stands out. It is an audacious, entertaining and at times rather brilliant critique of nationalism as a political programme.
At the outset of the book, Micevic informs the reader that for him nationalism is akin to racism and sexism as ?a form of partiality in matters cultural and political? (p53). Having put himself so clearly on the line, the author proceeds to structure his book in an unorthodox manner. With the aim of better introducing the reader to the moral and political debate on nationalism, Micevic adopts the persona of a ?thoughtful nationalist? at various points throughout the book (pxi). This persona presents the nationalist?s case on a range of issues, which Micevic the author proceeds to demolish in turn. While making for an engaging read this approach comes at a cost, the loss of subtlety and nuance in his argument.
Each chapter is devoted to the dissection of an argument the ?thoughtful nationalist? might use to defend their ambitions. Micevic makes a particularly salient point in relation to the nationalist?s claim to the right of self-defence and the redress of past grievances, questioning whether nationalism can be cured with more nationalism. He notes that when nationalists claim this right, the active nationalism of the threatened group is being justified by the attitude of the threatening group, which is in turn actively virulent nationalism itself.
Although the book professes to be nothing more than an introduction to the debate on nationalism, further explanation of the origins and evolution of contemporary nationalism(s) would definitely have added meat to its bones. Whilst Micevic addresses the arguments put forth by three nationalist types (the rather wet ?ultra-moderate? nationalist, the delusional ?even handed? nationalist and their odious colleague the ?invidious? nationalist?) he fails to adequately describe the historical origins of these various shades and degrees of nationalism (p32).
Similarly, the compromise solution Micevic proposes as a political alternative to nationalism materialises somewhat out of the blue. Micevic argues that a ?graded culturalist cosmopolitanism? based upon pluralistic cultural belonging could help prevent all manner of violent conflicts in the future (p4). Crucially, whilst this compromise solution is profoundly respectful of belonging based identity, it is also impartial, refusing to privilege national identity over any other.
It is hard to argue with the spirit of Micevic ?s solution. Tempting though it may sound, there is nothing in this book to suggest how such a solution could be achieved. The author readily admits this at the start of the book. However, without detailed argument to support it, Micevic?s compromise is rendered especially vulnerable to attack by those ?invidious? nationalists that he wards off so well throughout the rest of the book.
One can?t help feeling that perhaps Micevic isn?t quite as detached from the world of nationalism as he would like to think. Indeed, it is really only odious ?invidious? nationalists who are subjected to the full brunt of Micevic?s wrath in the book. By contrast, the ?ultra-moderate? nationalists escape with a mere slap over the wrist. This is perhaps because the author, like the ?ultra-moderates?, seeks to reconcile liberal individualism with group belonging. Micevic comes far too close to stating ?some of my best friends are nationalists? for his vehemently anti-nationalist stance to be entirely convincing.
The book is deliberately polemical, written in such a manner so as to ?spare the reader the subtle distinctions between various real pro-nationalist authors? (p69). At first glance, this reads as if Micevic is both patronising and underestimating his audience. It is more likely however, that the author?s goal is to contribute to the battle for hearts and minds that is so often waged over nationalism. The author, aware of the tragic consequences of this battle, willingly sacrifices subtlety to the cause.
Born of his experiences in the former Yugoslavia, it is understandable that the book should contain so much heart. Indeed, it is the passion and personality that shine through every line of this book that makes it such an involving and seductive read. By its close this extremely ultra-moderate nationalist felt like her wrist had been well and truly slapped, and for this Micevic should congratulate himself.
Helen Lewis, SAIS John Hopkins University
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