Imagined Community, Imagined Kinship
by Michael Vlahos
Michael Vlahos, PhD teaches in the Global Security Studies program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences and is a professor in the Strategy and Policy Department at the US Naval War College. Dr. Vlahos was long a foreign affairs and national security commentator on contract with CNN. His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, The Times Literary Supplement, Foreign Policy, and Rolling Stone. Since 2001 he has been a regular featured guest of the nationally syndicated John Batchelor Show on WABC.
Vlahos is one of our most creative and courageous public intellectuals — exploring political myths and symbolic structures. He seeks to expose our society’s “hidden narratives” — often masked by conventional discourse — that generate violence and rob us of insight.
“Winds of Change Blow in the Middle East”: Michael Vlahos on CNN.
Vlahos speaks about D-Day (June 6, 1944) on WABC: “We had to create a moment of unique American sacrifice. Normandy was the ‘high mass’ of our nation.”
Author: Michael Vlahos
"Michael Vlahos has been remarkable in pointing toward broader connections and deeper historical-cultural roots in the challenges that Western democracies face. He has earned public gratitude for his many books and essays. Fighting Identity is another important and original contribution in helping Americans understand how their conscious and unconscious national beliefs affect their strengths, vulnerabilities, and possibilities in meeting this era's threats."
—James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly
Kinship drives culture, whose rules shape society. Modern nations construct kinship through the belief that all citizens are related, and thus committed to, one another:
- National community in modernity is shaped by imagined kinship and the need for collective belonging and identity.
- The state is the central meditative and celebratory agent for the affirmation of national kinship—especially in war.
- This core dynamic of modern society—the process of building imagined kinship—is projected outward through that nations’ relations with other societies.
The nation most dependent on invented kinship as the basis of its politics, domestic and foreign, is the United States, conferring advantages and limitations:
The advantage of invented kinship is that America can theoretically pick and choose both whom it will call kin in the world, and how important their kinship is to our national identity.
The limitation of invented kinship is that America’s kinship ties to other societies have a life of their own, waning or deepening over historical time. Now America faces a global smörgåsbord of kinship needs and clinging legacies.
Imagined kinship is the foundation of national community. Imagined kinship is the cultural process that permits people in a society to collectively believe that they belong to each other—that they are part of the same kinship construct—even though they are most likely strangers to each other. Imagined community also makes the state the trusted manager of this process—powerfully affirming our connection and commitment to each other, for example, in war—so that the collective kinship construct is essential to the very idea of a modern nation state.
Yet this thought departs radically from the traditional idea of the state as initially developed by political “theorists” in early Victorian times. In the late 19th, heading into the world wars of the early 20th century, the nation could not be conceived as anything like a cultural construct. How could such overwhelming force, completely enveloping us, be no more than our own expression of mere collective belief?
That was the time when the Nation ruled. The “nation state” was real, a living thing, a force of nature, and we belonged to it only by continuously reaffirming our loyalty and allegiance—think the daily Pledge of Allegiance. Nation states existed as entities wholly outside of us—we petitioned to be part of them. If we were a microcosmic part of them, they nonetheless had their own, inherent consciousness. The state was the head (capital, capitol) and the nation was the “body politic.”(1)
Political theorists declared further that this entity had a will of its own as well: “Nations have interests,” they all intoned. Who was to question such postulation? The nation exists; it speaks and acts; and what it says and does—policy and strategy—is therefore all in the pure pursuit of The National Interest.
Enter Benedict Anderson. When he wrote in 1983, many big wars had chipped away at nation state authority. He employed a cultural construct—community as a form of kinship—to describe the nation is an Imagined Community.(2) How is it imagined?
It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.(3)
Think of the nation and its state as just such an inhabitation. The nation has become a kind of architecture. Peoples as nations, each in a great edifice, managed by the state, look out across a larger global reality.
But these national architectures of constitution and institution have together fashioned something no more “real” in itself than the boundary membrane holding our collective belief—which is belief in its reality. Together we spend the energies of our lives sustaining the ongoing harvest, and ever more bountiful treasure of this imaging of ourselves, from generation to generation, as nations.
We may have made such imaging real, but its reality is still sustained only by our belief in one another. Nations remain together, and belong together, because people believe, at some level, that they are a clan, a tribe, a family.
Human imagination is thus very big; for when we were just a gaggle of human bands in peril on the great savannahs of the Serengeti Plain, we knew each other only by our blood relation. Five millions years later we know each other when we embrace as fellow Russians or Italians or Americans.
The nation is indeed a wonder: Citizens can act toward other citizens like brothers, but act together in incredible wartime sacrifice. In the French Revolution and the wars of Napoleon Frenchmen fought with frenzy never before seen for the ideals of Liberté, égalité, fraternité.(4) We also see this fraternal energy in the fated French poilus in World War I, obediently serving as the state bled the nation nearly to death.
But if the nation—however amazing and wondrous—is simply a collective human artifact, then the nation state is a construct within a construct. Arguably the state is even more dependent on conscious collective loyalty than is the nation, its mother.
This judgment has been proven throughout modernity—the epoch of the nation state—as nations since 1789 have overturned state regimes and their establishments by the hundreds. Hence it is understandable, even necessary, that the state do three existential things:
First, it must cement the conviction that the nation and its state form a unitary, which the state rules as the head (capita), and the nation lives as the body: A true body politic necessary only to support the ruling life and thought of the head.(5)
Second, the state must arrange the civic—even the daily personal life—of the nation so that it is always ritually and symbolically reminded in public display that the body serves the state’s sacred vision (again, the Pledge of Allegiance).(6)
Finally, the state must seize the constitutional power to claim the lives of its citizens in times of crisis; where such authority over the body—however sold politically—is understood by all to rest with the state.
The imagined community template for the nation tells us several things.
First, the nation is a construct or artifact, but it is nonetheless a passionate artifact.
Second, imagined kinship creates emotional ties as powerful as blood relations.
Third, the state will use such passion and its controlling power to dominate society.
What Does Imagined Kinship Mean for America?
The United States of America is perhaps the ultimate imagined community, in two senses: 1-Its own identity self-consciously celebrates an American kinship dependent of people who have come here from other places. But they have come here to join us: To commit themselves to the American Idea. This means that they have renounced their former belonging to another community to become Americans.
And American kinship—becoming one of us—requires a public act. This act is a civic-religious ritual in which the prospective new citizen (or original colonist) both renounce their former identity and swear to embrace the American nation—through a sacred oath.(7)
The United States is a fully self-conscious community in the sources and authority of its imagined kinship. You are a national brother if you swear the oath: Nothing else is required, and I will die together in battle as brothers.
America is one of the few national communities that lay existential terms of kinship right on the table. Moreover, this existential postulate of national identity is extravagantly reaffirmed, for example, in every American war movie, because each film is an integral to national liturgy.(8)
This essay focuses on the American existential use of national kinship to constructing its closest relations with other societies.
In other words, America’s relations with the world are far from the postulates of the Realist School of International Relations theory are in fact driven by a desire to replicate kinship terms of relationship as they evolved within the American polity.
What is Kinship?
Anthropologists describe kinship as a complex affair. Imagined, or better still, invented kinship, is yet more sublime, whose terms are undefined.(9) Kinship as central to national polity, and to relations between states, is partly acknowledged—if hotly debated—within International Relations.(10)
American identity depends on explicit kinship rituals and symbols. This stands in contrast to nations built on old roots, like language and religion, as the foundation of kinship, so that belonging historically antedates the nation, and certainly the state. This makes extending kinship to other societies difficult—and even to new citizens.
Yet the United States is free if it wishes to make kinship integral to its world relationships. Moreover, kinship can be almost wholly invented through the political arena. The key to anointing other nations “related” to us requires no more than identifying ties that establish the kinship bond. Media marshalling of celebratory public rituals and symbols will do the rest.
The United States has established kinship relations with other societies through five alternative paths.
Kinship as fraternal vision. Kinship here revolves around the two sacred words, “Freedom” (originally, Liberty) and “Democracy.” First invoked with the French after 1789, it led also the new republic’s first kinship split, between the Jeffersonians who favored France, and the Hamiltonians who favored Britain.(11)
In the last century, others learned to wield the fraternal vision card to build alliance-worthiness with Britain made much of its parliamentary democracy as they pushed America to take their side in the world wars,(12) while today, Israel is constantly repeating the mantra that it remains “the Middle East‘s only democracy.” Just last year, Ukraine tried to leverage the Maidan to the same purpose.(13)
Kinship as tribal tie. The blood tie has always had powerful pull in the establishment of world kinship ties, but with this caveat: It beats strongly only for those of the blood. Hence, for example, Boston Irish wanted the United States to fully back the IRA, yet they ended up funding their own campaign.
Likewise, African-Americans lobbied hard for Ethiopia in 1935, but to no avail in an otherwise racist electorate.(14) Yet race and blood kinship has worked triumphantly in the cause of Israel—and not by American Jewish community alone. Rather, imagined kinship felt by Christian evangelicals turned the tide in the 1980s.
Kinship as mission. Succor the afflicted; champion the oppressed. This is the invented kinship of an American mission rooted in divine redemption. Lincoln positioned this cause at the end of the Civil War. For the first time, “the Negro” became a brother through the act of redemption. This is the congregational community of the saved.
This was a tradition that first took off in the Second Great Awakening, and which has since been repurposed in the pursuit of world relations. We see it today in our bond with the Kurds, or in mid-20th century, saving a part of Korea. Invented ties served us poorly in Vietnam, but was most cynically paraded in Bush 41’s sympathy-bid for Kuwait in 1990. Such can be the kinship press in foreign policy.(15)
Kinship as parental responsibility. If there is no more powerful kinship obligation than a parent to its child, then the United States made this its strongest kinship claim in Asia. It was unfortunate from the start, coined by William Howard Taft as Governor-General of the Philippines.(16) Yet such paternalism could still be reciprocal, like America’s tie to the Philippines. America’s relationship with China, at least until 1950, was a blended kinship of the parental and the missionary in. Until overthrown by Mao, this mix dominated US relations with China. Kinship paternalism foreclosed our relationship with China for 30 years.
Kinship as shared destiny. Geopolitics is about verities, like the axiom that power is destiny; that it is the fate of powerful nation to compete and fight. But Americans believe also in great power kinship. For example, in the 1860s the United States saw Russia as a vaguely kindred spirit: Both nations were enormous, rough-around-the-edges, and destined for world greatness.
Also, in tandem, our president had freed the slaves just as the czar had freed the serfs.(17) At the end of the Victorian era, Americans began to see Brits as brethren rather than old enemies. Navalists like Mahan and geo-politicians like MacKinder pushed an Anglo-American destiny as brothers ruling the future.(18) This suggests that shared vision became shared destiny borne out in World War II, and an Anglo-American-led United Nations.(19) Yet more recently, the United States embraced a titularly communist regime, the Peoples Republic of China, as a world partner.
Why do Americans treasure imagined kinship? First, Americans treasure trust, and what stronger trust is there, than the trust possible in family? Second, the emotional bonds of kinship have the appearance of people-to-people resilient. Third, kinship makes commitment to other nations less dependent on clinical rationalizations of national “interest.”
Not-Kin as Antiphonal Kinship
Just as imagined kinship hinges on ritual celebrations of connection, then not-kin is imagined kinship that relies on similar, but flipped, ritual celebrations of the evil Other: Wholly alien to us, the very opposite of kin.
Yet we all share each the same DNA,(20) and seek meaning and belonging in similar ways. Hence, must be posited so strongly that it overrides any lingering awareness of common humanity.
But positing not-kin is an especially powerful strand in American Ethos, in five incarnations:
Not-kin as Dark Side of the Force. Washington created the Other in his Farewell Address: Monarchies are like Satan, and America is not to truck with them. In more recent times, Bolsheviks and Nazis became not-kin. Above all, not-kin must be the opposite of what we share: Not-kin are the inveterate enemies of Freedom and Democracy. Yet looking back to 1796, we have been cozy with dark princes everywhere. Was Yoda right? “If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”(22)
Not-kin as the left behind. In their renunciation of the true path, not-kin are likened to those who deny God and are left behind. Hence resistance alone makes them enemies of the American idea, so that Islamists, Russians, and Cubanos are not simply evil, but also lost to freedom and democracy.(23) Meanwhile, the saved among them who convert and come to us are living testament to our exceptionalism.
Not-kin as Pied Piper People. On the other hand we may designate not-kin as people collectively drugged or hypnotized by the music of evil. Ideology is like the Pied Piper, seducing a people without their consent. Hence not-kin can represent a halfway house in which a people may yet be freed from their shackles when the veil is lifted. Pied Piper people are not like left behind: They are still worthy of reclamation. They know not what they do. There is hope, and that hope is us.
Not-kin as Lord of the Flies.(24) This path to not-kinship tells us that a people (implicitly childlike) are now beyond our help. This is a kind of dispensation that permits us to throw up our hands and do nothing. This is an unvoiced declaration that they are beyond help. The United States has invoked this dispensation many times in its history—as in Afghanistan in the 1990s—and will again.
Not-kin as the Demiurge.(25) A Manichaean or existential threat is a declarative imperative—that an opposing human reality that must be completely crushed. Like the Islamic State and AQAM, or Germany and Japan in World War II, or the Soviet Union in the early Cold War. But announcing such evil creates an impossible problem: Evil must be destroyed, or it may destroy you.
Not-kin ascription works, but there are two drawbacks to assignment not-kin status. First, as above, if we cannot destroy not-kin, the American idea begins to lose authority. Second, not-kin ascription is inflexible: As Bush 43 enunciated: “You are either with us, or with the terrorists.”(26)
Moreover, not-kin status is like an emotional foreclosure. What if we want to re-engage an enemy that has changed? What if changed circumstances that make association suddenly desirable? Can we rule out a United States’ relationship with the Islamic State? Or Iran? Yet not-kin status can shut down options and opportunities in the national interest. We saw this conundrum in our Cold War shutout of Red China.
- Kinship is as much an artifact, as national community. Kinship identification and belief, tied to deep kinship emotions, are at the core of American national belonging. Kinship with other nations is simply an extension of the central civic investiture in American Life: The public affirmation to each other as Americans, whether through the sacred venues of football, or an episode of The Simpsons.
- Kinship is as important to relationships as “interest.” From the beginning, Americans have put kinship ahead of national interest in its world relations. Yet interest and kinship nearly always find a way to work together—even in the Saudi case, where America wildcatters and oilmen forged an enduring link with Abdul Aziz and his Bedouin in the 1920s.(27) Rather, it is when longstanding and intimate ties are missing in action that American foreign enterprises are at risk.
- Kinship belief can grow or wane. When France presented the statue of Liberty, and when we saved France twice in the last century, our kinship with that nation was never stronger. Yet in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, French abstention led to media invective, like renaming French fries, “freedom fries.”(28) The last time a popular fast food item was angrily renamed was after declaring war on Germany in 1917, when wieners were renamed, “hot dogs,” and sauerkraut, “liberty cabbage.” Kinship can be a fickle and emotional embrace.
- Kinship ties move across cultural dimensions. For example, from 1905-1950 Italy moved from a limited tribal tie (represented by the Knights of Columbus and Columbus Day rallies)(29) to fraternal vision (as allies in World War I), then to the Dark Side of the Force (as Mussolini joined with Hitler after 1935), and then to become join the American mission, as afflicted and oppressed (in the latter part of World War II), and finally again, shoulder-to-shoulder, as Italy joined NATO.
- Kinship can come to dominate a relationship. The belief that we are all related as Americans has deepened. This means that emotional ties to other nations also deepen over time. “Kinship” can become more and more real, to the point where it dominates national strategy and policy considerations. In the 20th century, emotional investment shaped America’s ties to the British Empire.
Even today it is “the special relationship”—and we see Australians and Canadians as blood brothers: “America has no truer friend than Great Britain.”(30) But the strongest ties can dominate American strategy—excluding other “interests”—as our Israeli bond suggests.
This argument is outside mainstream schools like realism and geopolitics. Yet a cultural vantage offers something that such old school theory cannot. Imagined kinship unlocks an elemental dimension in the political life of the nation. The romantic determinism of Victorian geopolitics and power-driven politics of International Relations theory have ignored culture—centrally, kinship and identity—in world politics.
Foreclosing kinship as a key dimension in modern state relations has meant turning a blind eye to the very sources of foreign policy conduct. Given the defining role kinship has played in our history, its absence in our discourse has serious implications for the study of America’s world relations.
- Richard A. Koenigsberg, Hitler’s Body and the Body Politic: The Psychosomatic Source of Culture (Library of Social Science, https://www.libraryofsocialscience.com/essays/koenigsberg-hb-bp.html)
- Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, 1991).
- Ibid, page 6.
- Richard Cobb, The People’s Armies (Yale University Press, 1987), pages 11, 182, 224, 321, 345, 380, 443, 460.
- For example, see Arnold D. Harvey, Body Politic: Political Metaphor and Political Violence (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), and Antoine de Baeque, The Body Politic: Corporeal Metaphor in Revolutionary France, 1770-1800 (Stanford University Press, 1997), pages 62, 90, 92, 102, 104.
- Carolyn Marvin, David W. Ingle, Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag (Cambridge University Press, 1999), pages 25, 31, 38.
- Ibid, pages 12, 25-28, and 42.
- Robert Fyne, The Hollywood Propaganda of World War II (Scarecrow Press, 1994).
- Robin Fox, Kinship and Marriage (Cambridge University Press, 1967), offers a still-vibrant foundational starting point, while more focused treatments have aided me in establishing more culturally specific kinship patterns. For example, T.M. Charles Edwards’ Early Irish and Welsh Kinship (Oxford University Press, 1993), pages 21-88, helps to frame how kinship was built-out after antiquity, as in Chris Wickham’s magisterial Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford, 2005), in the chapter, “Political breakdown and state-building in the North.” This is the sort of tracing necessary to track down the lineages of what later became the basis for invented or “imagined kinship.” Here, as another example, David Hackett Fisher’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford, 1989) is a rich extrapolative source. An extensive glossary of kinship terms is available here: http://anthropology.ua.edu/Faculty/murphy/436/kinship.htm
- The Constructivist School of International Relations explores a social, in not quite cultural, perspective. One of its leading and best known voices, Alexander Wendt, incorporates some culture-sourced concepts in the Constructivist approach to the discipline, showcased in his marquee book (Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Relations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. One Realist critic describes his core contention, that “there are “intersubjectively shared ideas that shape behavior by constituting the identities and interests of actors” (Dale C. Copeland, “The Constructivist Challenge to Structural Realism,” International Security, Vol.25, No. 2 (Fall 2000), 187-202, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/international_security/v025/25.2.copeland.pdf). However, any fuller exploitation of cultural concepts, as developed in Anthropology, has been foreclosed by the needs of the discipline to argue within the reality-lexicon of International Relations theory.
- Francis Cogliano, Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson’s Foreign Policy (Yale University Press, 2014).
- J. Lee Thompson, Politicians, the Press, and Propaganda: Lord Northcliffe and the Great War, 1914-1919 (Kent State University Press, 2000), pages 7, 16, 47, 71, 125-26, 141-47,
- Maidan has proto-Indo-European roots meaning Town Square or central place of meeting, and in Ukraine, from the more modern Arabic, highlights the Ukraine’s roots as a borderlands’ crossroads of cultures and empires. The Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kiev was the square in which the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution began. “Senators McCain, Murphy join massive Ukraine anti-government protest, threaten sanctions, Fox News,” December 15, 2013, http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2013/12/15/senators-mccain-murphy-join-massive-ukraine-anti-government-protest-threaten/ https://volksbetrugpunktnet.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/c73a4-mcckli2.jpg
Robert Dallek, Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945 (Oxford University Press, 1995), pages 112-113. William R. Scott, “Black Nationalism and the Italo-Ethiopian Conflict, 1934-36,” Journal of Negro History, Vol. 63, No. 2 (April, 1978), pages 118-34, http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2717305?sid=21105946802051&uid=3739680&uid=3739256&uid=2&uid=4
Nayirah al-Ṣabaḥ, Testimony to Congress, October 10, 1990,
James Bradley, The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War (Little, Brown, 2009).
See, for example, the extended visit of the Russian Fleet to New York in the winter of 1863, Rick Beard, “The Russians Are Coming,” New York Times, November 8, 2013, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/08/the-russians-are-coming/?_r=1, and others: http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1935-05/visit-russian-squadrons-1863
Halford MacKinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction (Henry Holt, 1919), http://mercury.ethz.ch/serviceengine/Files/ISN/139619/ipublicationdocument_singledocument/eda9e313-7e1b-41f3-a9d7-44b84da4ae5f/en/1942_Democratic_Ideals_Reality.pdf
M. Todd Bennett, One World, Big Screen: Hollywood, the Allies, and World War II (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), http://www.amazon.com/One-World-Big-Screen-Hollywood/dp/0807835749/
A map of the world pathways of human DNA can be viewed at http://www.coussins.org/Family/DNA PAGE 2 map.jpg
Felix Gilbert, The Beginnings of American Foreign Policy: To the Farewell Address (Harper Torchbooks, 1965).
For origins of American antipathy, see Louis A. Perez, Cuba Between Empires: 1878-1902 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998).
William Golding, Lord of the Flies (Capricorn Books, 1954). Golding’s novel became a Western metaphor for the stripping away of civilization’s veneer, and the ever-looming return to the primitive, which was easily transported to Western attitudes toward former—often African colonies—that seemed to slough off their veneers of Imperialism’s “civilization.” The first chapter is here: http://www.enotes.com/documents/lord-flies-chapter-1-sound-shell-53829?action=view_embedded
President George W. Bush, Address to Congress, September 20, 2001, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bNNoAEvmBQ
Anthony Cave Brown, Oil, God, and Gold: The Story of Aramco and the Saudi Kings (Houghton, Mifflin, 1999) http://www.amazon.com/Oil-God-Gold-Story-Aramco/dp/0395592208/
Peter G. Vellon, A Great Conspiracy Against Our Race: Italian Immigrant Newspapers and the Construction of Whiteness in the 20th Century (NYU Press, 2014).
President George W. Bush, Address to Congress, September 20, 2001, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xo7X6lAzFQ
This paper originally appeared in CTX Journal.