This is a post that I have been meaning to write for some time. Its title kept changing as I wanted to express different ideas; but I’ve gone with the simple version to try and capture it all. Because it’s an important one – underpinning so much that is going on at the moment across the world.
Let’s kick off by briefly specifying what I mean by a nation. The OED defines it as:
A large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory.
Now that’s not the same as a state – though that is very common in the current world – and it is actually a very modern idea. It is far from being a bad idea, though, and I think that having this as a fundamental building block of our political world – an entity that represents people who have common ties of language, culture and history – is a good thing. I would wholeheartedly defend nations and their role in the world. They are – and always should be in my view – the key unit of the political world.
Problem is: nations aren’t always defined well. Catalonia versus Spain, Scotland versus Britain, Brittany versus France. People living next door to each other who consider themselves to have different nationalities; and even more who consider themselves to have both nationalities – to consider both to be a part of their individual identities. This upsets some people because they want to force you to choose one. Why?
The answer lies with nationalism. Going back to definitions again, the OED defines this as:
Identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations
I think President Trump gave a shorter version of this, though: “America First”; and those two words explain the problem with multiple identities in many people’s eyes. After all, if you believe you are two things, how can you believe one part of you should go first? It would tear at you; so those that don’t have that issue want you to choose. Are you with them or against them? Are you part of “the first” or are you in the way?
But what Trump’s definition doesn’t give is the reason behind that position. However, I would say that is painfully obvious, sadly. You don’t give your side more and the other side less for any other reason than you think you deserve it. That’s the core behind nationalism. Sometimes it’s dressed up as an idea that somehow “we’re exceptional”. Well, everyone thinks they’re exceptional. Sometimes, it’s portrayed as fair because of some historical incident; but we can all do that if we go back far enough. Sometimes, it’s just blatant racism – we’re better people than you are because we are. However it is presented, though, it boils down to the same simple idea “we should get more, we should be first because we are better.”
Now what happens when you have a group of individuals in a room, there’s a single hatch to get food, and everyone wants to be first? More than that, what happens when everyone in that situation believes with a passion that they have a right to be first and can take all they want?
If we saw that group of individuals in that room behaving like that, we would consider that they were being selfish. This is nationalism. Selfishness at a state level, where grabbing what you want is all that matters and everyone else can go hang (anyone want to try and say the current US foreign policy isn’t following this approach?). It is not a sensible long-term policy as it always ends the same way…
(Slight deviation; but bear with me) One of the most significant things I took away from the Harry Potter series of books was the portrayal of Voldemort. Unlike in so many stories, the villain of the piece had depth and motivation, which frankly made him even more chilling. This was a man for whom the only thing that mattered was himself and him living forever. He was so scared of dying, that he was prepared to murder people to create Horcuxes to protect himself. A man who – to try and claim the best wand – murdered someone who he thought was a loyal servant. Someone to whom others were just things to use and dispose of for his own enjoyment. Nothing mattered except what he wanted. In short, he was the pinnacle of selfishness.
This is selfishness; and in its extreme I have no compunction about calling it what it is. Evil. How many atrocities have been committed against a people because it was considered necessary to save one of the chosen tribe? To consider other lives to be less worthy because they are not of your group is selfish. In extreme, such people are no longer even considered people. Once you reach that point, you can class them as cattle or vermin in your mind and can justify any atrocity. I’m not exaggerating! Read the accounts and interviews throughout history of the people – normal people who loved their children and families and you’d meet at the club – who committed these atrocities in their day job and that’s how they justify it to themselves. By being so selfish that no one outside of their chosen group matters.
My apologies for being heavy; but this is where these things lead. But not inevitably. Belonging to a nation, being proud of that nation and wanting it to do well does not make you a nationalist. It’s selfishness that does that – the naive idea that we are somehow better than others and therefore deserve to be treated better. Preserving one without the other should therefore be the goal.
I always think of it like your family. You don’t choose your family, it’s where you are born and grow up. It is what it is and you love them, even if they drive you mad. Do we consider them to be better than all other families? Not really; but they are ours and we want the best for them and love them. In national terms, that’s patriotism. I’d say that’s commendable. But the moment we start thinking we’re better than others and somehow that means we should get more than others, then that’s nationalism and conflict will follow.
So my point is a simple one. Nations are a key part of our identity; but our identity is much more complicated than an “America First” position allows. As such, we should be looking to respect nations and peoples at all levels and not get hung-up on only one form of political structure – especially one which in its determination to be the only one has led to numerous conflicts. Instead, we should aim to work together, embracing all that diversity, celebrating all the different nations whilst rejecting the idea that any of us are inherently better than the rest.
Now if only there was some form of association, a union of nations where we could do that, working together equally and fairly to the benefit of all. Something that can preserve our nations while avoiding the conflict that has plagued nation states throughout their history. An organisation based on the idea of cooperation to improve all rather than on the selfish aggrandisement of one.
Wouldn’t that be a union worth joining?