The Myth of National Characteristics

There once was a very bad TV situation comedy called ‘Mind Your Language‘. The basis of this unfunny comedy was a well-meaning hero teaching an adult night class the English language to a cliché-ridden group of non-English speakers. Stereotypes abounded.

There was the sexually attractive French girl in a short skirt, the randy bottom-pinching Italian, the very proper but dull German and a wide variety of stupid Orientals and Asians. The whole thing was complete nonsense and it says much for the better informed prospective audience that the whole thing sunk without trace after a short run. Although this particular attempt at national characteristics failed the notion that whole groups of people from a particular geographical area are genetically programmed to behave in particularly predictable fashion is very widespread. It would be almost impossible to watch TV or read a newspaper without observing a reference to ‘Latin temperament’, ‘Germanic thoroughness’, or even ‘American brashness’. In journalism so-called national traits are the norm. In tabloid journalism like the Sun or the Daily Mail they are almost mandatory. What lies behind this crass affectation? After all journalists are not stupid and they must recognise the wide variety of human foibles and unique behaviour patterns that exist amongst people. The basis of this pernicious poison lies in the misguided nationalistic aims of the mass media. These means of communications exist not just to sell and make a profit they also have a very important function to perform for the owning class.

It is imperative for the smooth functioning of a class-divided society that the working class imagines that they share a common identity with their exploiters. Thus we have deluded wage slaves on the last night of The Proms puffing out their chests and chanting ‘Land of Hope and Glory‘. This is a world-wide illusion. Be Proud That You Are British or exulting in the American Way of Life are all of a cliched pattern.

It is impossible to imagine how capitalism would function so smoothly without the poison of nationalism. In the event of an economic crisis we must learn to buckle to and beat Johnny Foreigner. In the event of a war we must fight and die for ‘our country’. In reality of course the working class have no country. It is an accident which country you were born into – it is probably even an accident that you were born at all. There is nothing to be proud or ashamed of the country you happen to live in. `

So wake up to reality, Bertie Wooster! You are not British. Put your non-existent monocle away and stop sticking out your pinky when having a cup of char. Aunt Agatha isn’t going to call shortly.


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