The concept of the nation-state has been in flux throughout history. It is really only since WWII that the entire globe has pretty much become divided into what we think of today as nation-states, which have defined geographic borders and centralized governmental control. Exceptions certainly exist, but they are considered violations of the norm. The United Nations was formed to provide a formalized venue for nation-states to interact with each other on a broad basis.
A nation-state is more than simply a geographic area. Various lists of common elements that define a nation-state frequently include common culture, common language, common mythos, etc. But every such list I have seen carries at least one element that is not universally applicable. I think it would not be terribly inaccurate to say that modern nation-states each have a defined geographic area and a belief in the nation by enough people to enforce its recognition. By this definition, nation-states have been around for a long time. But they have not always been the norm. Only when they became more general were institutions formed to aid with inter-national interaction.
I was born into a world of nation-states, so history sometimes seemed strange to me when it discussed instances where this concept was not common. It took me years to understand cities and regions that regularly shifted alliances, small localities that acted like semi-autonomous nations, and nomadic groups that were not tied to a particular chunk of real estate.
WWII showed the world that nationalism could be extremely evil, but the war paradoxically also strengthened the institution of the nation-state. Many nation-states developed in answer to the demise of European colonialism. But the evil of nationalistic fascism sewed the seeds of eventual weakening of the nation-state.
Shelby Steele contends here that the demise of the once-widely-accepted thesis of white supremacy has so shocked Western culture that mostly-Caucasian nations equivocate about anything that could remotely be construed as appearing to demonstrate white supremacy. Everyone now recognizes the stunning immorality of racial supremacy, and the cultural heirs of those that once perpetrated it now act in everlasting penance for the sins of their fathers.
Mr. Steele argues that this self-flagellation prevents the U.S. from implementing a coherent immigration policy along its southern border, while having no problems creating an endless nightmare for Western European immigrants. He says that it prevents the West from effectively engaging in any military action with any less-white nation, for fear of appearing too superior.
I think Mr. Steele makes an interesting point. But I also think his theory could be extended to just about any cultural moré that suggests superiority, justifiable or not. Let’s just call it superiority guilt. While there were dissenters in the U.S. during WWII, the country largely banded together in one long, glorious push of nationalism. We intended to be decisive, and we were. We made mistakes, oh so many costly mistakes, but these were all seen in the context of achieving a greater good. There was nothing we could not accomplish.
But the ugliness of the nationalism we saw in Germany and Italy gave us pause. Later, as we fought the Cold War, we saw the awfulness of imposed nationalism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. Privacy did not exist. Personal expression was not permitted. Only after the Soviet breakup and the re-emergence of Eastern Europe did we discover how horrid it all was.
Beating Ourselves Up
We have become so determined not to repeat the mistakes of nationalism gone awry that there has been a great anti-nationalism push. The idea is that nationalism of any kind is bad. And patriotism is considered part and parcel of nationalism, so it’s on the outs as well. Oh sure, there was a wild flare-up of nationalism and patriotism in the wake of 9/11, but that has all pretty much subsided, leaving us feeling somewhat vulnerable.
We know we need security, but we constantly shudder about the least thing that could in any way make our nation look remotely repressive to individual expression or disrespectful of personal privacy. So we now tolerate and celebrate the outlandish and the abnormal. Also, as Mark Steyn notes here, we demand better intelligence and allow invasive searches of airline passengers so that we don’t have another 9/11, but we schizophrenically rage about government computers looking at our phone bills cleansed of personal data.
If we were to fight WWII given our current culture, we would not win. Victor Davis Hanson notes here that we didn’t quibble much about the mistakes made in WWII that cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars. But now our daily dosage of self-humiliation about Iraq prevents us from pursuing a decisive course there. This ethos is evident in everything we do, including the leaders we elect.
When I was in 7th grade toward the end of the Vietnam War, my junior high school faculty became very concerned about the students’ apparent lack of adequate patriotism. They worked with a National Guard company to provide us a three-day experience living in the military totalitarian State of Triangula. The military took control of the school one morning. The commander issued a new set of rules that included imposed order, no talking whatsoever without direct permission, and no displays of American patriotism. All American Flags were replaced with State of Triangula flags.
You might call this tactic highly manipulative, but it had the desired effect. By the end of the third day many of us had become rebels. I was sentenced to hard labor in the library for a display of patriotism. Students smuggled American Flags into the school and secretly organized Pledge of Allegiance ceremonies. At the close of the third day, “U.S.” military troops came and retook control of the school and put the faculty back in charge. The soldiers hauled the Triangulite troops away while the student body cheered loudly. We were proud to be Americans that day.
The interesting thing is that I later discovered that the whole exercise had been designed by one of the teachers as part of her doctoral thesis. She later became a professor of anthropology. I had always considered her quite liberal and assumed she was anti-war, but it turned out that she wanted her students to be as proud of her country as she was.
Today it’s still easy to find people that are proud to be Americans, but a significant number of our citizens either do not feel this way, or only feel it in a sort of lukewarm way. Many feel guilty that we have so much compared with other nations. It seems we are obsessed with pointing out our nation’s flaws and with emphasizing anything we perceive that another nation might do better than us. I do not deny the flaws and the need to address them, but some of us look at a handful of bugs on the tree and see only bugs but no tree. Many of us are so overcome with superiority guilt that we can’t even stomach the idea of borders or national sovereignty. It’s not just the U.S.; Europe has gone so far as to create the European Union, which is meant to engulf its various nation members.
Toward One World
Is the nation-state on the decline? Has it hit the high point in its life cycle? Indeed, many would welcome its demise. They see a new border-free world community where all have equal opportunities. That’s a wonderful utopian idea. But how should it be pursued? One idea is to slowly dissolve borders, allowing cultures to blend. Some people behind this theory promote diversity as perhaps the highest virtue. However, this method seems to require the dilution of principles that give America its strength, and there are no examples I know of where unilaterally dissolving borders has worked well, so that the chances of achieving the desired utopian result are highly dubious.
Another theory is to demonstrate leadership and export to fundamentals of American ideals around the globe in any possible degree to any nation willing to accept and adopt them. Promoters of this theory suggest that reality dictates that while utopia is unlikely to ever be achieved, many elements of it can make life better for people around the globe. Of course, this theory requires the acceptance of American exceptionalism, the idea that the U.S. is actually superior to other nations in many ways. While this idea seems to be increasingly abhorrent to some Americans, many people around the world recognize it as fact, even if they are jealous of the U.S for it.
Of course there are other theories as well (including the theory of shoving our ideals down others’ throats), but that’s all I’ve got time for today.
What Should We Do?
In reality, even the most unabashed America-haters recognize American exceptionalism, even if they couch it in unflattering phrases. The question, I suppose, is should we feel guilty about it? Should we feel guilty that the U.S. offers the most freedom, peace, and opportunity of any country on the planet? Will that guilt help bring these virtues to others? And regardless of whether we feel guilty about it or not, how can we help those less fortunate receive the blessings we’ve got? I suspect the answer to that has little to do with beating up on ourselves or with relinquishing our sovereignty.