22 June, 2021

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Nationalism: Inspiration Or Deadly Decoction, The Tale Of Vlad The Lmpaler

By Kumar David

Prof Kumar David

Nationalism is two-faced, Janus like. It was the inspirer of anti-colonialism that stirred the liberation of nations from India to Kenya, the Middle East and Indo China. It also presided over the most unspeakable horrors that man has perpetrated on man. Gandhi was a nationalist but so was Pol Pot; Saddam Hussein was a Bath Arab nationalist, he was also a monster. Aung San Suu Kyi is a democracy icon and a human rights laureate, but perforce falls silent when Buddhist mobs loot and burn in Burma’s  RakhineProvince where 20,000 Muslims have been displaced. I do not doubt that Suu Kyi is outraged, but I also know that to be an election winner, she dare not speak out; her countrymen and the great majority of people all over the world have not outgrown the primitive mentality of forest dwellers. Is nationalism a force for the good, or is it a pox upon mankind? It depends, it can be this or that, at one time or the other, depending on the tasks that history sets society.

Can it also be that it depends on this or that community? Is one man’s meat another’s poison? That I reject as contemptible moral relativism. When the LTTE terrorises, maims and assassinates, it is despicable, and in making that judgement it matters not whether you are Tamil, Sinhalese or Jew. When the military bombs and shells civilians in the Vannie, it matters not a whit whether the umpire is Sinhalese, Tamil or Turk, it is an abominable crime against humanity.  Nationalism has been a force for progress, more recently it has become a ball-and-chain on humanity. It all depends on when in history and what the struggle, but it never depends on the faith or ethnicity of the observer.

Historically, nationalism was the creed of the early nation state; the bourgeois democratic republic is its highest manifestation. Post enlightenment, nationalism and the modern nation state were laid on the material foundations of capitalism; I will have more to say before I end this essay.  People, that is, mankind in its majority, have been stirred not by justice but by identity. For example most Sinhalese, even those who know the truth about the Vannie, relish what was done to the Tamils, not the just the LTTE. Similarly, Tamils who denounce LTTE terrorism are but few. Identity is the curse the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first Centuries, not withstanding its liberating influence just half a century earlier.

Vlad III, Count of Walachia

The story of Vlad the Impaler is an incredible tale, extreme may be, but quintessential of the truth that identity trumped humanism. In 1462 horrific stories begun to circulate in Germanyand Western Europe of a monster whose writ ran through the principality of Walachia, in Romania. Vlad, a local nobleman, was the embodiment of evil, a fiend who tortured and killed on an inconceivable scale. Told and retold in an admixture of myth and fact Vlad was a personification of the devil. He set up a banquet table outside his camp and feasted and drank as he watched his victims writhe and die in agony; he put whole villages and families to the sword. Historians estimate he killed between 40,000 and 100,000 men, women and children, and bearing in mind what the population of Walachiaand the world would have been in those days, these numbers are difficult to believe. His favourite was impalement where a thick wooden stake is driven through the anus and exited somewhere in the upper torso.

Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II invadedRomaniain 1462 with an army three times as large as the defenders. Vlad did not fight; instead he retreated leaving before the invader a forest of 20,000 of his own people, impaled upon stakes. It is said that the Ottoman generals brought the Sultan himself to witness the scene. The sight so sickened Mehmet that he turned back with his armies saying: “We cannot defeat this monster, he is the devil himself”.

Vlad the Impaler’s father, Vlad II, capitulated to the Ottoman Sultan (Mehment II’s father) in 1443, converted to Islam, and sent his two young sons as hostages to the Ottoman court. It is said that Vlad was sexually abused and sodomised at court and his later obsession with anal impaling was payback to all the world, universal psychopathic vengeance.  He was released from Ottoman captivity and came back to Romaniato reclaim his patrimony; his brother remained at court and converted to Islam.

So Vlad was a grotesque monster? Hey! Not so fast, hang on a minute! In a turn of hagiography that outsiders find difficult to stomach, in Romania and Bulgaria, Vlad is revered as a defender of the faith against the onward march of loathsome Islam. The Ottomans conquered Christian Serbia,Bulgaria,Bosnia,Albania,Herzegovina and Montenegro before they took Constantinoplein 1453. Vlad, a champion on the side of Christendom, was in the thick of this maelstrom till his death in 1476. In the next century, under Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottomans took Christian Hungary and laid siege toVienna.

Vlad is a national hero to the very people, his own, who he impaled in the tens of thousand – not to deny he did not discriminate in granting the same favour to captured enemies! Vlad despised his father and brother for abandoning Catholicism and led successful campaigns against Ottoman troop encampments and occupying armies. He tried to form alliances with Catholic kings in the Balkans and sought assistance from the Pope. Catholics proclaimed: “If he didn’t do what he did we would now be prisoners of the Sultan’s Islam”. I leave you to your moral judgement, as for me I ask the impious question, “Why not convert to Islam and avoid the bother?” As true blooded a nationalist as you will ever find, he is worthy of glorification by Shias and Sunnis, our political Buddhist, the JHU, and the world’s Christian fundamentalists, had he lived in their midst and embraced their faith.

Vlad belonged to the House of Draculesti, and Transylvania is in Walachia. More than four centuries later, in 1897, Bram Stoker wrote a book with a title near eponymous with the name of the House. It had all the vitals; a ritual of blood, evil beyond comprehension, shock and horror, and a stake, but through the heart. To this day it remains perhaps the most chilling tale ever told.

An epitaph to the nation state

An epitaph, already! Of course it’s a little early to carve a gravestone to nationalism and erect it over the still twitching corpus of the world’s nation states. But in the long timescale of history for what do a few decades count? The heyday of the nation state is gone; capitalism underwrote its birth, now capitalism presides over its disposal. Globalisation is conjuring up a world in which nations will have little meaning.  The nation state and liberal democracy are inseparably linked to the rise of the bourgeoisie. The then novo-rich who acquired private property, crafted manufacturing and industry, great voyages and global trade, and thus created the material base of the nation state. Sans this there would have been no demand for representation (“no taxation without representation”), constitutions, or parliamentary legislation. Government of, by, and for the people is the quintessential maxim of liberal democracy; the highest state form of the bourgeois republic.

Fine, so long as the nation state remains meaningful; but for how long in a “globalized” world – pardon the replication, but the adjective has a meaning of its own. Cultural, linguistic and religious pluralism will always survive, and may they forever, but the economic and political import of the nation state is withering away. It happens in paradoxical ways; Scotland may part company with England in 2014 to become a new unit in the European Union; the Basque Province and Catalonia may separate from Spain in 2015, likewise aspiring to be EU members. But is the EU a union of 27 countries (currently) or a super-state? Who will decide the fate ofSyria, or for that mater Lanka?  Nothing will stop the relentless global march of technology, production, labour, communications, trade, commerce and cultural exchange.

In this brave new world, Vlad will become a bad guy again, even in Walachia. Human universality will dissolve nationalisms and capitalism is adequate to cope with an immense emerging new world. Oh yes, it will take a while to perfect the best alternative, but no worry, human civilisation is still so young.

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