The Nation State Fetish, continued

(More musings, continued from here.)

It seems so automatic, thinking of oneself as the citizen of a great nation. While many of us are proud of our home towns, more of us, it seems, are willing to leave it with few regrets. It’s often the price for climbing the corporate ladder or for even having a job at all. Isn’t that why our ancestors came here in the first place? Because the grass (and the mega-fauna hunting) was greener on the other side (of the Bering Straight)?  With the occasional exception of people who think of themselves as New Yorkers or Chicagoans to their core (there are still people proud that they’ve spent their entire lives in the 49 square miles within the city limits of San Francisco), we are a nation of nomads whose place of birth is as arbitrary and meaningless as the spot on the steppes where the tribe pitched the yurt for the night.

A randomly-chosen Moravian village church
A randomly-chosen Moravian village church

We all know this. Old hat. I’ve been thinking about the attitudes such rootlessness generates, and how the rootless view of the world  results in, first, identifying with a nation-state rather than with a village, a people, or a religion (insofar as those are different) and an identifiable set of attitudes that inform what it is that is most important to us and what most offends us.

The cause versus effect issue is fascinating: did the collapse of rural/village culture bring about the rise of the nation-state, or did the nation-state crush rural/village life? I don’t know enough European history to say, but in America, both factors seem to be at play. From birth, America has had tensions between the city slickers and the country bumpkins, starting with the New England bankers and traders and the Virginian farmers. Those issues continue to this day, although it’s hard not to see the actions of the pro-rural elements as the twitchings of a fresh corpse. It seems more than a truism that someone who tries to live the (no doubt, idealized) life of an independent small farmer ends up hating the machinations of a government that seems bent on destroying him. See for example the stories of the corn farmers and Polyface Farms in the Omnivores Dilemma.*

As this country – this nation state – passed from majority rural to majority urban around 1900, the willingness of people to welcome, accept or tolerate the intrusions of the national government into their local and personal affairs accelerated. When the Great Depression hit, that welcome switched to demands. We now demanded that the nation-state, as incarnate in our leaders, fix everything. The government completed the transmogrification from rulers who fell under the watchful eyes of patriots, the people acting as fathers to their nation, to leaders who were those fathers watching over us, their children; from those charged with keeping order within which a person (and a family, a farm and a town) could pursue happiness, to those who would lead us to that happiness. Since country bumpkins could hardly be expected to be able to see the various Promised Lands and Worker’s Paradises our new leaders wanted to lead us to, and, in fact, more often than not had no interest in going there when they caught a glimpse, we slipped into a new social order, characterized by dishonesty and subterfuge: we don’t even expect our leaders to tell the truth anymore, aren’t even a little outraged when they are caught in lies – just so long as they keep moving the ball forward on the right side of history without turning the clock back – and so on and so forth.

A case can be made, perhaps, that, taken all together, the nation-state is a good development, and that the trade-offs are worth it. Usually, the argument runs along the line of the individual in the modern world needing governmental protection from the unencumbered greed of the powerful, just to level the field. In this context, the farmers and other romantics (isn’t it odd that farmers, among the more hard-headed realists in the world, get lumped with the out-of-touch dreamers?) don’t feel the weight of the evil corporations as much as the exposed factory worker does, thus their disinterest in getting the state involved in all economic activities. One must simply ignore, I suppose, that Goldman Sachs and a few other large corporations control key parts of the government (as a horseman controls the bit), in order to imagine, somehow, our trustworthy fox is keeping those bad foxes away from us hens. I won’t be making that argument today.

Of course, this switch didn’t happen all at once, and even today there are pockets of resistance. We’ve reached the mop-up stage of this operation, where all that’s left is for our leaders to identify and neutralize whatever opposition still exists to our great and glorious future.

Got off track, there, a bit. A result of all this is that a people with little connection to place & tribe to begin with has now lost it completely. Such a people is definitionally insane. I am insane. My mind is as lost as my place of birth, 500 miles away. My thoughts, actions, and beliefs, my loves and my hates, are not measured against a family or town or group of life-long friends and the culture and beliefs we all would hold in common. Nope, instead I stand like Agent Smith at the end of the Matrix trilogy, screaming, amid all the ugly that is the world he created: This is my world! My world! And I would hunt down any who do not reflect me, and make them like me, or destroy them, until my battle with Neo is witnessed only by a crowd of clones.**

Is that not the dream? A dream not of brotherhood, but of identity?

* The book as a whole has its flaws – here, I’m just referring to the attitudes expressed by the three real farmers profiled.

** Even a bad movie can have its moments.


Author: Joseph Moore

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

4 thoughts on “The Nation State Fetish, continued”

  1. I live about 11 miles from where I grew up. This is not because I’m terribly happy living here, or proud of where I come from. In fact, it no longer feels like home because of the massive influx of foreign immigrants. I don’t hate immigrants, in fact I married one. But it’s a fact that so many of them came, so fast, that the “look and feel” of the place has fundamentally changed. But maybe this is just another manifestation of what you’re talking about: People, in this case foreigners, who feel no need or desire to stay in their original place.

    1. This can get complicated, clearly. I think there’s also a difference between the kind of immigrants who flee from something or to something, and people who are fundamentally rootless. The first may be looking hard to put down roots, while the second don’t even understand the question.

      My family of origin falls strongly into the second class. For you, 11 miles can be nothing or everything – and the complications of having your home town change beyond recognition. Very complicated.

      1. “there’s also a difference between the kind of immigrants who flee from something or to something, and people who are fundamentally rootless”

        I see your point. I suppose I fall into the “fundamentally rootless” category, since I would move to another state in a heartbeat but for the fact that my wife doesn’t want to be away from her family. This just doesn’t seem like the *kind* of place that you can grow roots in, since even if you do stay rooted, everything constantly changes around you. Maybe that’s how it is everywhere else in the U.S., and maybe that’s your main point. : )

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