American Literary History 15.2 (2003) 422-440
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Can This Nation Be Saved?
How can you connect in an age
Where strangers, landlords, lovers
Your own blood cells betray?
What binds the fabric together
When the raging, shifting winds of change
Keep ripping away?
Jonathan Larson, Rent
The problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of the borderline. As globalization becomes the primary paradigm for analyzing current political and cultural trends, concepts like hybridity and border crossing have become far more than postmodern enthusiasms. They are a fundamental structure of contemporary experience, not just for Internet users and cosmopolitan travelers but for (im)migrating workers, cultural consumers, and global terrorists. 1 In this context, older models of nationally based scholarship are being challenged since, as George Lipsitz has argued, the new realities have disrupted the "isomorphism of place, culture, nation, and state" (15). 2 This is not to say that the nation no longer matters. Just the opposite. With global transformation as the unavoidable context, an examination of the status of the nation—its moral and social groundings and its political efficacy—has become more rather than less urgent.
In the early 1990s two political events suggested the evolving role of the nation in the global order: the US-led war against Iraq in 1990-91 and the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991-95. For many observers the Gulf War highlighted the continuing significance of nationalist ideology as the cultural cement of the warfare state, supporting a potentially aggressive force that can wield an army to invade a neighbor (as Iraq did) or to organize a massive response and retaliation (as the US did). In addition, the Gulf War pointed to the changed global political landscape in the post-Cold [End Page 422] War world in which international institutions (the United Nations) and multinational coalitions (the US-led anti-Iraq coalition) would work together, under US tutelage, to police the globe. In this "New World Order," as President George Bush, Sr., called it, the meaning of American national identity could not be separated from the US global role. In fact, throughout the twentieth century, the making and unmaking of nations has never happened outside the realities of global power politics, treaties, war, migrations, and refugee flows. This has been nowhere more true than for the US, which began the century in the wake of its first imperialist war and ended it as the world's only superpower.
Yet there is another story about nationalism, one no less implicated in the political realities of the end of the Cold War and the intensification of globalization. The disintegration of Yugoslavia into warring factions of Serbs, Bosnians, Croats, and Slovenes in the early 1990s marked the end of what had once been a relatively successful multiethnic state. Although one major conservative thinker, Samuel Huntington, has pointed to the Balkans as exhibit A in his argument against any attempt by Americans in particular to forge a multicultural nation, liberals (David Halberstam among others) find in the Yugoslav example a different lesson, claiming both its successes and its failures as a testament to the importance of a broad, successful multicultural nationalism in the face of something worse—tribalism, ethnic cleansing, and ever-smaller enclaves for the preservation of an imagined purity. 3
The nation as rescue from communal hate or the nation as the cultural logic of the warfare state? Whatever our answer, one thing is clear: in the face of the dramatic political and cultural transformations of the past decade, scholars of all stripes need to stop acting as if Benedict Anderson had solved—rather than defined—a problem. Analytically, scholars must consider how and when nationalism still matters and when other categories or frameworks are more appropriate. In American cultural studies...