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Constructing National Identity

The nation state is a stage of transition into which larger trading states evolve. For example, the European monetary union of today is enabling a group of countries to trade as one nation. They form the largest trading unit that has ever existed. The benefits of large organisations are obvious, they can demand better value and set higher prices for their own goods. If Britain wants to succeed in the world economy she must unite with other nations, therefore reducing her own sense of national identity and pride.

The Royal family, and politicians are no longer our icons, we are not united in our respect for them, and we are not in awe of them. British stereotypes of either the man in the bowler hat, or the man in a string vest with a hankie on his head are laughable, and no longer traditionally acceptable. Food is now international, and the high cultural music that we enjoy is from overseas. We are slowly losing our Britishness, and becoming European. At such close quarters, it is more difficult to define the reasons behind our changing attitudes.

Without the realisation of individuals, the hegemonic voice has slowly changed our ideologies and perceptions. The united togetherness, which followed the Second World War was a time of solid national identity. Current perceptions probably began to change during the political confusion of the seventies. Thatcher steered the nation away from communism, towards wanting individual benefits, and everyone willingly agreed. Although there are still a minority that stick to the traditional British ideals, most would call them racist, pompous, and prejudiced..

Once an individuals ideological view has changed, because it is accepted as common sense, it cannot be changed on a whim. The frighteningly successful hegemonic voice can manipulate nations to unite, or disband, can change what appears to be an obvious common sense view into a ridiculous notion. Therefore, perhaps it is wrong to blame individuals, or entire nations, for their previous prepuces and ideologies. For the first time, at the end of the eighteenth century, Britain became a nation state instead of a territorial state.

The nation state developed out of economic necessity with the influx of wealth from the colonies, this led to the expansion of production and consumption. Nationalism was increased by a compulsory education system, it was a perfect way of spreading the hegemonic ideology. Once people could read, they could also read that they were superior. They could read about them and us, us were always higher on the human scale. As seen in the presentation, the British construction of national identity was influenced greatly by the propaganda of the imperialist period.

Today, the hegemonic voice is generally communicated through the media, but at the height of empire, written literature played an important role. Many colonial authors perpetuated ideas that natives were inferior and that slavery was right and necessary. The British were doing the natives a favour by taking over the running of their countries, educating them, enforcing the Christian religion on them, and enforcing a superior culture on them. It was accepted that they did not have a culture of their own, their religion was mere superstition, and they simply were not capable of surviving without the rule of the benevolent British.

The idea that Christianity was meant to be practised was brought to the people through the reiteration of the Biblical strictures. Milton explains at the very beginning of Paradise Lost that the story is concerned with the fall of Adam and Eve. In reading the epic poem it seems that he is also presenting an in-depth characterisation of Satan. Seen as propaganda it is the symbolic ‘war’ between the Christian and non-Christian forces of the colonies and the Empire. Satan becomes the representation of the colonial nation as he is seen to battle the righteous minions of the Lord (the English).

Milton does not represent Satan as evil incarnate. The Satan that Milton presents was a great archangel who, through the strength of his negative emotions such as jealousy and behaviours encapsulated within deceit, challenges God and brings about the fall of Adam and Eve. Milton concentrates on the deception that Satan utilises to bring about his purposes rather than demeaning his character. He does this through the device of imagery and symbolism. He also portrays the ‘savage’ as being worthy of salvation while maintaining the idea that British rule

Satan, when portrayed as powerful, is seen as being intelligent and compassionate. When his ‘troops’ are arrayed before him, he is moved to tears. The more ‘good’ that Satan allows into his character, the larger he seems and the more powerful. He also does not need to resort to the disguises that he employs as he loses power, size and, perhaps, self respect, later in the poem. Milton allows the reader to see the individual beneath the evil and the ‘beauty’ that once gave him the distinction of the greatest of the Angels.

This can be seen to represent the ‘noble savage’ to whom the British must act as God acts toward Satan – in a loving, understanding manner while he nonetheless strips him of his power and forces him to live in a way that is reprehensible to him. Gulliver’s Travels uses satire for the purpose of criticising the United Kingdom, however, his portrayal of the class system and fictionalised economic situations brings home the message that the status quo, while having problems that may be seen from a humorous perspective, also has the stability of the national policy and, as such, is extremely powerful.

The depiction of power is a tool used in propaganda to perpetuate the class system. The story is saturated with the financial and imperial policy, a situation that Swift presents as a comedy but that becomes ingrained as truth. Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, is a satire directed at eighteenth-century British society, embedding within it references that would only be discernible to the audience for which it’s arrow is aimed. He provides a foundation for a rebuttal to those who would criticise the Imperialist policies.

As Gulliver explains, Houyhnhnm reason is not a point problematical as with us, where Men can argue with Plausibility on both Sides of a Question; but strikes you with immediate Conviction’ He excuses his apparent betrayal of humanity’s interests by arguing that he did it because Truth appeared so amiable to me, that I determined upon sacrificing every thing to it. Both Gulliver and these ‘Puritans’ present their conversion to truth as an experience that not only is different in kind from all other human experience, but also occurs without human agency.

In The Voyage to Houyhnhmland, Gulliver (Swift) reveals his identification with the bestial Yahoos as a member of humanity, with both the light of faith and the darkness of sin within each individual. That he attempts to reform the Yahoos (humanity) is indicative of the inherent paradox of the aversion to those who sin and the Christian desire to convert to perfection the human nature which it condemns: the secular power of the government and the religious intent of the Church. Like Gulliver’s Travels, there is a myriad of meaning buried in the representation of period writing.

Written in 1688, Oroonoko is a story of an African Prince who is wed to the woman of his dreams and then captured and sold into slavery. It is also the story of an aristocratic young woman who ‘befriends’ the savage. The juxtaposition of the two viewpoints leads to a discussion of the imperialistic practices of Great Britain during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The narrator is a representation of Behn and the society from which she comes. The narrator, the French tutor and the other whites have come largely from England, though Oroonoko’s owner, is Cornish and

Banister, his barbarous executioner, is “a wild Irish Man”. Here Behn sets the opposition of savage and British rule by a reference to the first colony as well as the symbolic representation of superior and inferior classes. The slave trade was an economic necessity for the continuance of class differentiation in England at that point in time. Along with slavery went the belief that race was a determinant of intelligence Behn portrays Oroonoko as both savage (slave) and as a Prince of his own culture.

In this way, she allows credibility to be credited to the colonial argument for especting cultural differences. Behn portrays Oroonoko as a heroic figure with innate nobility as well as royal blood, speaking of his “real Greatness of Soul” and other admirable qualities, and yet is disbelieving of his status as human, wondering “where it was he learn’d so much Humanity. ” She then suggests that “some part of it we may attribute to the Care of a French-Man of Wit and Learning. This is propaganda of the same sort that Milton uses in Paradise Lost, whereby the savage is presented as having the faculties to realise the inevitability as well as the ‘rightness’ of British rule. Behn portrays the English attitude of superiority in a number of subtle ways as well. In the scene where Oroonoko takes the white colonists into the interior for a look at the ‘natives’ (rather like a tour of a zoo), The visitors decide to “surprise” the natives, “by making ’em see something they never had seen, (White People)” .

While Oroonoko hides in the “thick Reeds” to observe this scene, Behn, her brother, and her woman boldly advance into the town, taking control as they must, for they have the superior knowledge to get things ‘done’. In the meeting between the two cultures, Behn presents a scenario that reeks of racial and class prejudices, masked in an attitude of discovery and wonder. “They were all Naked, and we were Dress’d . . . very Glittering and Rich . . . y own Hair was cut short, and I had a Taffaty Cap, with Black Feathers on my Head; my Brother was in a Stuff Suit, with Silver Loops and Buttons, and abundance of Green Ribbon. ” The scene establishes the author and her brother as divine “objects” of admiration and desire, or as gods to be worshipped, in a metaphor that barely disguises the imperialistic tendency toward domination. The attitude of the English when it came to the African colonists is described by Schopenhauer as: “Man is at bottom a savage, horrible beast.

We know it, if only in the business of taming and restraining him, which we call civilisation. Hence, it is that we are terrified if now and then his nature breaks out. Wherever and whenever the locks and chains of law and order fall off and give place to anarchy, he shows himself for what he is … For whatever the reader may have ever heard, or imagined, or dreamt, of the unhappy condition of slavery, or indeed of human cruelty in general, it will seem small to him when he reads of the way in which hose devils in human form … reated their innocent black brothers, who by wrong and violence had got into their diabolical clutches. ”

This propagandist writing which perpetuated the myth of the right of the growth of empire, and the supremacy of the British could hardly be blamed on the authors. They were simply reiterating their beliefs. They could not be blamed for their ideological views; everyone accepted them as fact. Strangely, such is the power of the hegemonic voice in the construction of national identities that, the colonised have absorbed many of these principals as truth.

If we look at successful postcolonial writers, we see their acceptation of British supremacy. R. K. Narayans A Painter of Signs was written in this postcolonial phase when colonial writing has been exposed. Yet, Western architects and scholars such as Bernard Shaw and Einstein are still quoted as being superior. Daisy is westernised, therefore superior. Indians are inferior and backward; whites are on a higher level. Narayan is not the only postcolonial writer whose identity has been shaped by his colonisers.

The accepted Western cannon has shaped the literature created by all nationally renowned authors from the colonies, such as Achebe, Rushdie, and Naipaul. British schooling has played a large part in brainwashing the colonised to believe that west is best. Propagandic literature has played a huge role in the construction of many national identities. The absurdity is that the writers, in many cases, probably did not even realise that they were propagating propaganda for the benefit of the state. They too had been brainwashed into believing that their work was true and fair.

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