The Nation and its Pieces

Nationalisms often employ stereotypical, one-dimensional descriptions of the nation’s subregions in their self-regarding odes. This has a function. Imagine a view of England, say, with the coal miners of Newcastle, the industrial Manchester area, the white cliffs of Dover, and so on. Or France, with the hardy Norman fishers in Normandy, Breton seafarers and ancient citadels in Brittany, medieval castles on the Loire, skiing resorts in the Alps, sunny beaches on the Riviera, red workingmen of Paris, etc. Or America, with the amber waves of grain in the Midwest, the diligent financial men in suits in New York, the decadent film industry camped out in Southern California, pot-growing hippies in Northern California, Southern hospitality and chivalry across the southeast, oil barons in Texas, etc. Each of these stereotypes, taken literally, is impossible; it’s crazy to imagine a Newcastle made of literally nothing but coal miners, or a Paris with only communist laborers, or a Midwest with nothing but cornfields. In fact it’s only possible to imagine at least minimally diverse places, with at least an elementary division of labor between classes and types. So if America is made up of the stereotypical North, South, Midwest, Texas, and Northern and Southern California, it’s only as a whole nation that it makes sense as a place—each part on its own feels incomplete. These stereotypical descriptions are thus both a result of and an encouragement to nationalism.

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.


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