The Nation State Fetish

We didn’t talk about the Old Country much in my family – never with my dad, (who, like a lot of Americans, seems to have had too many old countries to feel any real attachment to any of them), and rarely with my mom. One of the few bits I remember from conversations with my mom is her off-hand correction whenever I’d refer to our Bohemian ancestry – her family was Moravian. Calling them Czech was OK – Bohemians and Moravians, as well as Slovaks, speak Czech. But the distinction  was important enough to her to make it. Maybe it had something to do with the ethnic slur of her childhood, where the real Americans ™ of Texas called those funny-talkin’ immigrants ‘bohunks’. No, she was not a bohunk. She wasn’t even a Bohemian.

(Even more complicated: her maiden name was Polansky – the Pole. Her dad always claimed his family was Polish nobility chased out of Poland some centuries prior as a result of some political misfortune. Plausible enough. The relatives did not seem overly impressed by this claim, however.)

In a book that I can’t lay my hands on at the moment (buried in The Pile) on the Paris peace conference, they mention the problem with Wilson’s plebiscite idea: the people in the villages in the disputed areas didn’t think of themselves primarily as members of a nation, but as members of their villages. That they spoke German or Polish or Czech might incline them to identify with other speakers of those languages, but didn’t necessarily mean they thought of themselves first and foremost as members of a nation comprised of speakers of that language. I wonder how the votes (assuming they took place – did they?) would have gone if it had been presented thus:

  1. You can vote to be identified primarily with speakers of your language. If speakers of your language win the vote, you get to keep your village, and all speakers of other languages will be driven out, presumably to live among speakers of their languages. If you lose, YOU get driven out and lose everything. You are voting that the interests of villages are second to the interests of nation-states.
  2. You can vote to leave things as they are, to hell with some progressive’s desire to divvy up everybody into conveniently managed nation-states. If so, everybody has to be cool with everybody else in the neighborhood, but everybody gets to stay and keep their stuff. You are voting that the interests of nation-states are secondary to the interests of villages.

Not saying this would work, but I find it interesting to contemplate. My mother knew the exact Moravian village her family had come from (one of those places with far too many vowels).  The son of a friend from Croatia recently went back, found the village of his family’s origin, showed up unannounced and showed his name in English to the first people he met. Within an hour, he was invited into homes of more or less distant relatives, and treated as a sort of prodigal son in the good sense – he visited and smiled and took pictures and ate food, all with people he’d never seen before and whose language he couldn’t speak. While it was family that gave him the welcome, it was the village that enabled him to find them.

Next, how much of human progress has taken place in city-states versus nation-states? For more than a few centuries, Athens and Florence punched far above their weight as civilizations. Adjusted for population, we Americans are comparative pikers, once we allow for that whole ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ thing, where we got a HUGE leg up from, among others, Athens and Florence. I look at my own home town, with a population of 120,000, twice the population of either Athens or Florence at the time they were setting the world on fire. In the last 100 years, we’ve produced a famous actor, a famous jazz musician, an Olympic swimmer – and that’s about it. The only interesting buildings in town are a few old Victorians and an adobe hacienda. The less said about the public art, the better. There was a 100 year period in Athens where she produced 2 of the greatest philosophers and several of the greatest playwrights while artists build timeless monuments and carved unsurpassed sculptures. Florence, in under 100 years, produced Dante, Giotto, and Chimabue, among others – and this was before what is usually considered the beginning of the Renaissance, when Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Fra Angelico, Lippi, Botticelli,  Galileo, and so on lived and worked there.

That 350 million Americans manage to create reality TV and comic book movies is just not that awesome by comparison.

I’m kidding – a little. I’m a big fan of the modern age, and wouldn’t want to live any other time or place than here and now. It’s the medicine, food and indoor plumbing. And law, the police and all that. But the idea that somehow civilization (which, after all, means ‘city life’) only got going once gigantic, centrally-governed nation-states took hold is clearly wrong.

The point here is that assuming the trade-offs favor nations over cities isn’t always true.

But the real thing that’s been nagging at me is this: that there are attitudes that derive from being part of a great nation that are opposed to the attitudes of the city or village, and that we’ve adopted them without thinking, and certainly without thinking we’ve surrendered anything. Yea, yea, everybody knows this, I suppose, but I’ll take a shot: how we see ourselves in relationship to other people becomes how we define ourselves. Catholics and other Christians often think of ourselves first as the Body of Christ – surely, that is a very different self-image than to think of oneself as primarily a voter.

Yet, is that not how we Americans think of ourselves, when we think of our primary relationship to the community with which we identify (“I’m an American!”)? Isn’t the very definition of unjust discrimination denying somebody the vote?  How detached from our neighbors do we have to be to think this way? How is it that we think our identity is tied, not to the guy next door, or the people we see at church on Sunday, or the parents of the kids our kids play with, but with this incomprehensible abstraction that is our nation-state? Perhaps this is why we Americans love war: in war, in the foxhole or on the ship or marching in formation, we form bonds with other ‘Americans’. The soldier next to us, in whose hands is our life, might be a farm boy from Iowa, a hustler from Queens or a suburban kid from Los Angeles – but we are all Americans.

And this is beautiful and good. The bond between soldiers fighting for a good cause is one of the noblest things on the earth. But when there is no war? We return to our lives, return to detachment from those around us. We Americans are not like the people from that Croatian village, or that Moravian village with too many vowels in its name. We are not Florentines like Dante, or Athenians like Socrates. We – too many of us, me – grew up with little or no attachment to our hometowns (blessed are those who have kept that attachment!). My parents were born of people who were not from where they lived: Cherokees and Scottsmen ended up in Oklahoma; Moravians ended up in East Texas; two of their children ended up in Southern California; I, their son, ended up 500 miles away in Northern California. The best I can claim is that I fled less far, and that I love my state. But do I know my neighbors?

It’s odd how love of place, especially love of birthplace, inspires so much beauty and sanctity. Dante is not Italian, fundamentally, but a son of Florence; Socrates is not in his heart a Greek, but an Athenian. How many Americans feel that way about their hometowns in their hearts? And look at all the medieval villages with their gorgeous Gothic churches – towns one tenth the size of my American suburb managed to build for themselves and the Glory of God an immovable masterpiece, a piece of art as permanent and solid as the town itself. As often as not, the people who started it didn’t live to see it finished – and they didn’t care. If their grandkids got to use it, that was enough.

The vote is good. Democracy is good. (Although representative democracy under law with prudent checks on ambitions and guarentees of personal rights are even better – heard we had one of those, once upon a time.) But our highest expressions of communal life – of civilization – is much more like the building of a church than the casting of a vote.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

6 thoughts on “The Nation State Fetish”

  1. Whenever anyone asks, “Do you know what institution has caused more bloodshed than anything else in history?” I want to answer “Yes. The modern nation state.”

  2. I think this is one of your best ever – sorry that I’m a week late in reading it (real life and all that).

    “God and country” was the mantra when I was young, a perversion of the Gospel’s “God and my neighbor.” Who could imagine that modern-day Americans might have adopted ideas without thinking?

    1. Gosh, thanks. I suspected it was one of my least-focused essays (and that’s saying something!), because I was really struggling to say some things that I’m not sure I understand myself. There are things wrong with us that fall under words like ‘disassociated’ or ‘abstracted’ or just maybe plain ‘lost’. Don’t know if you’ve read any Walker Percy, but his novels ‘The Movie Goer’ and especially ‘Love in the Ruins’, certainly capture the mood I’m feeling. Maybe I should just recommend those novels and be done with it. But what’s the fun in that?

      I plan to keep trying. Thanks for the encouragement.

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