Nationalism feels so natural to us — to all of us, during this age on planet Earth — that we barely question it. We could solve a few problems by questioning the basic concept of nationalism itself.
Virulent public arguments over immigration reform are currently taking place in the United States of America (a controversial bill may become law this week). Immigration reform has many facets; it involves taxation, employment, ethnicity, health care, education, voting patterns. But with all the talk that’s flying around, nobody on either the liberal or conservative side ever acknowledges that the concept of immigration rests upon the more basic concept of nationalism, and that nationalism itself is not a necessary or historically deep-rooted political reality.
In fact, nationalism is a relatively recent phenomenon on planet Earth. Historians agree that nationalism began with the American Revolution, French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. It gradually came to dominate Europe and the Americas, and spread to Asia and Africa in the 20th Century. Earlier, Wikipedia says:
In Europe before the development of nationalism, people were generally loyal to a religion or to a particular leader rather than to their nation.
The word “nationalism” was coined by a interesting Prussian philosopher and critic, Johann Gottfried Herder, who appears to have been some kind of proto-sociologist and precursor to Max Weber and Carl Jung. (I think I’ll learn more about J.G. Herder and write about him again on this blog soon). Herder was not a proponent of nationalism, but rather an observer of the nationalist crazes that began with Napoleon’s redrawing of the Central European map at the height of his imperial success. Even after Napoleon’s defeat by Austria, Prussia and Russia, it was clear that a nationalist state of mind, originating with Napoleon’s revolutions, had become the norm in Austria and Prussia (this led to the creation in 1871 of a nation called Germany, which would develop an occasional habit of taking nationalism too far).
It seems that the Napoleonic empire’s brief sweep over Europe amounted to a “European Spring” for many potent ideologies, including nationalism, socialism and communism. It’s interesting to realize that nationalism’s historical roots don’t actually go much deeper than those of communism or socialism, and may be no more natural to the human race than either socialism of communism. We take nationalism for granted today, but perhaps we shouldn’t.
What is a nation? Functionally, economically, politically, militarily, it is a unit, a community, a group self. We tend to take our citizenship seriously, and we’re not kidding when we call non-citizens “aliens”.
I’m supposed to feel a kinship with a person in Oklahoma that I’m not supposed to feel for a person in Mexico. Why? Because the person from Oklahoma pays into the same tax pool that I do? Okay, well … the person in Mexico shares the Atlantic Ocean with me. I would prefer a concept of citizenship that allows me to express my kinship with every person in the world, and I’m not at all convinced that such a change would create a political or economic calamity.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a chapter in my memoir of Silicon Alley in which I had a surprising revelation. After a year in which I experienced great financial success due to a dot-com IPO, I discovered that I was not a bit happier than any other year, because the success was just my own, but other people in my life were still going through various traumas and crises (including, at the time, cancer, alcoholism, divorce).
I realized at this time that a person can’t be happy if he’s surrounded by loved ones who are unhappy, and that this is the obvious reason that personal success often fails to bring happiness. I think the same pattern holds true for nations.
I can’t feel the United States of America is prosperous if the nations we share a border with are not prosperous. I would happily trade some of the abundance of modern American society — it would be good riddance, in many cases — if I could share some of this abundance more widely. So I really don’t know why I shouldn’t support immigration reform that helps my country be a more generous neighbor, and a better citizen of the world. Sure sounds like the right idea to me.
On a broader front, I’d love to illuminate the often tiresome public debates about immigration by questioning the more fundamental presumption of nationalism that underlies our debates about immigration. Why do we cling to hard to our nationalist pride, our patriotic (but globally alienating) sense of a collective self? If we consider that World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Iraq Wars all revolved around virulent presumptions of national interest, and virulent expressions of nationalist patriotism, it becomes clear that nationalism has not had a great track record on planet Earth.
I’m sure I’ll be accused of going all “Kumbaya” for suggesting that we can all be citizens of the world. Well, I’d rather sing “Kumbaya” than “Duetschland Uber Alles”, or “Le Marseillaise”, or “The Star-Spangled Banner”.