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Imagined Communities Benedict Anderson

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When reading Imagined Communities, it’s hard not to become reflective of John Lennon’s words in his famed hit “Imagine”, which calls for our imagination to do away with barriers that have created such a divide in humanity. It’s interesting to note that in Benedict Anderson’s analysis of the formation of nations; he accredits this process to our imagination of communities that include our peripheral acknowledgement of our fellow countrymen, and is made distinct by excluding the rest of the world from “our” collective identity as a nation. It’s fair to conclude that both Lennon and Anderson believe in the power of a collective imagination when it can either unite or divide humanity. The difference in the perspectives between Lennon and Anderson however, are in their stance towards nationalism. While Lennon invites his listeners to join him in imagining the peace that can exist without the barriers of nations, Anderson believes nationalism is necessary and prevalent for a society to be kept in order. Lennon rejects the notion of sacrificing human life for the sake of a nation, yet Anderson affirms it as an act of love, in his chapter Patriotism and Racism. Within the same chapter, Anderson also counters the argument that racism is not borne out of nationalism, but rather class relations.

It’s hard not to agree with Anderson’s proposal that nations are the product of a collective imagination; it is imagined because while not every individual in a community is well-acquainted with one another, there exists a sense of camaraderie between them in their minds. By nature of default, each individual’s expectations of what and how a patriotic member of their nation would look like, differs. Most of the time, this expectations are subjugated by ethnocentric views that the majority race may have, and that translates into the treatment of minority groups, that become the marginalized community. In order for an imagined community to form, Anderson discusses the limits or boundaries that exist that are differentiated from other imagined communities. He fails to point out the characterization done towards the people outside their nation, and what this relationship would look like, when it becomes “us” and “them”. Historically we can see that marginalized communities are greatly affected by nationalistic undertakings done on the basis that each nation is superior to the rest. Even in colonial times, national pride pushed individuals beyond their communities, under the banner of divinity, to colonize and help civilize “savages”, bringing them religion, in an effort to make them conform to their nationalist ideals. Coming out of this historical context, we still see many communities being disregarded, and national history often streamlined into a narrative that excludes the atrocities committed against marginalized peoples.

In the chapter Patriotism and Racism, Anderson uses a poem written in Spanish by Rizal, impassioned by his impending execution at the hands of Spanish Imperials, as evidence that suggests that colonized peoples don’t mind using the language of their oppressors, or harbor much hatred towards the national identities of their oppressors. In many instances, cultural identity is lost as colonists use assimilation to integrate marginalized peoples into their nation. Nationalism in itself promotes individuals to internalize an imagined solidarity, until it becomes a part of one’s identity. In Germany, Hitler incited Nationalism to control and execute his dispositions against Jewish people, by spreading propaganda that encouraged Germans to protect national interests, before anything else. In interviews conducted with several Holocaust survivors, it was evident that feelings of lingering hate and vengeance was in fact present towards the Nazis, but also towards Germans. One woman in particular, stopped speaking German, her mother tongue, as an act of resistance against the atrocities committed to her and her family during the Holocaust. Her anger even extends to the German culture, and stands in contrast to Anderson’s understanding of marginalized peoples, and the response they feel towards the national identities of their oppressors.

While racism has a correlation to class relations, nationalism’s role in perpetuating discrimination on the basis of race must not be made insignificant. In fact, much of the oppressors of historically marginalized communities justified their racist ideologies on nationalistic grounds. Nationalism propagates discrimination towards “the Other” and the heritage, history and identities of these peoples, prioritizing one’s own national identity that is embedded in superiority and domination. Even after minority races have actively contributed to the independence and economical success of a nation, the majority race that hold the same set of ideologies of a patriotic individual use this shared belief to discriminate, and oppress other individuals.

For instance, in Malaysia, the New Economic Policy ensured the financial and economic success of Malay(Bumiputera) people, expanding opportunities for them to participate in education, and the economy, by decreasing the quotas of other races to participate. Yet, Malaysian Chinese still thrive in education and hold a large presence in professional occupations, while the number of Malays in poverty is disproportionately larger than that of Malaysian Chinese. Still, discrimination from the majority race, the Malay people, towards Malaysian Chinese is still prevalent. One of the main factors of this lies in the national pride Malay people have, in demanding for purity of race in Malaysia, by excluding the participation of other ethnic minorities particularly in politics. This example opposes Anderson’s argument that racism stems from, and is limited to, class relations.

While Anderson’s analysis of nationalism is a significant commentary to understanding the hows and whys of the rise of nation-states, his belief that nationalism is integral to keeping peace, is contradictory to what nationalistic ideals actually promote and encourage. Anderson may have been right in how the development of a nation formed in the imaginations of people, yet Lennon had a critical understanding of the exclusion that nationalism built within the minds of patriots, and offers a greater, more peaceful, alternatively imagined community through his invitation to dream with him, a world free from division and borders.

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