The first poem I learned by heart was Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” (here)
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,And towards our distant rest began to trudge.Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hootsOf gas-shells dropping softly behind.
If any question why we died,Tell them, because our fathers lied.
My father was the person who suggested the poem by Owen; I suspect he was concerned by my interest in military history, and thought perhaps that I was going to turn into a war-lover. I always understood that concern; I played a great deal of war-games, read a lot, and went to see “Seven Samurai” anyplace and any time it showed.* I wasn’t glorifying war, I was fascinated by the balance and trade-offs of strategy and tactics and luck and … and I was always puzzled why anyone would do such a thing. To fight for one’s county. “Pro Patria Mori” Even to die for one’s country. People have always done it; perhaps people always will. I hope not, though. Because countries are lies.
Political science, going back to the earliest writtings of philosophy, is about how a people form a state (“polis”) and the interactions between the people and this thing. This imaginary thing, defined by imaginary lines on a map. This thing that people are willing to kill and die for. Constructive political philosophies in the enlightenment moved away from the divine right of kings and toward a model in which the government governed by the consent of the people. It’s odd to me. It seems as though people have had their brains hacked by Martian hackers that have implanted the idea that there is such a thing as a country, which is separate from them, superior to them, to which they grant authority and to which they sacrifice their lives.
National identities are not merely culture; culture is things like “we invented pizza” and “home of The Ramones” – those remain real regardless of the fluctuations of nationality: if I make pizza and move to Sweden, I am still a person who enjoys pizza. I do not need to mourn my loss of identity; more importantly I do not need to make my non-pizza-loving neighbors miserable with my national identity as a pizza fascist. Growing up without religion, and reading too much history, I couldn’t help but see religion and national identity as parts of the same lie: there is something bigger than you, to which you owe loyalty and life, which controls you and may call upon you to sacrifice your all. Yet, if you look at what religions and nations do, they bear more resemblance to a manipulative cabal of thugs than anything else. Eventually, I realized that the resemblance was real: nations and religions are just hacks to maintain social control.
“Religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool.” – Mark Twain
Twain forgot to mention the con man’s boss, who was the first politician.
Here’s a way of curing yourself of nationalism: heed the words Ted Sorensen, speech-writer**, put in the mouth of John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!” Rather, “Ask yourself, ‘is this my country’?”
Perhaps you love it, but does it love you?
There are so many examples of where people seek to be loyal citizens of a nation, only to have the nation turn around and macerate them to a paste between the gears of its politicians’ ambition. Ask the young Britons who died for inches of mud in Flanders fields. Never mind, they can’t answer. The lies pile deeper and deeper. Dulce Et Decorum Est.
The other day I learned of something horrible I hadn’t heard of before: during WWII England, Canada, and Australia conspired to ship their poor citizens to Australia – ostensibly to protect them from the war, but really for racist motives, and motives of convenience. Around 100,000 or more children were taken from “their homeland” and sent away to Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. If you want to cast that in terms of nationalism: “ask not what your country can do for you, it wants to get rid of you.” As usual, when you have vulnerable children being placed into new situations, there was a litany of abuse and molestation. The response of the UK has been to try to run out the clock on the problem – a trick they appear to have learned from the Roman Catholic Church.
Migrants, dispossessed, and displaced – they understand the lie of nationalism all too well. Along with the child migrants of WWII there are stories of other “migrants” relocated to Australia and elsewhere. There was a heart-rending account in BBC’s “Witness” podcast, of the “Kindertransports” – shipments of children from nazi Germany, many of whom arrived in England in search of shelter, only to be stuffed onto a coffin ship headed for Australia. This was far from an isolated event – jews attempting to flee Germany on the St Louis, a liner out of Hamburg, thought they had visas to enter Cuba, but were turned away, then sailed to the US and were turned away (there was a depression on, and the jews were going to steal American’s jobs)(Plus ça change!), so they returned to Europe – Belgium, France, the Netherlands, where the Vichy French government shipped many of them to the death-camps. Nationalism is a pretty obvious lie to migrants: they’re on the wrong side of it, and all they see is the ugliness.
Of course it doesn’t stop there: many citizens of a nation – good, contributing, hard-working taxpaying people – find themselves on the wrong side of nationalism. During WWII the US famously interned citizens of Japanese descent: outright racism, apparently predicated on the idea that having descended from Japanese one’s national identity was prone to suddenly flip-flopping during a war. In England, the same thing happened: British italians were interned. British Germans were sent to prison camps. In a terrible irony, some of them were Britons of jewish descent who had fled Germany, only to be swept up by “their” new nation, and sent to an internment camp on the Isle of Man. In Canada, citizens of German descent that had been in the country since a wave of immigration in the 1880s, were still swept up and interned in prisoner of war camps.
The only possible reasoning that can support such internments is that national identity is genetic: someone is genetically “Japanese” or that Japanese-ness is a heritable trait. We have always known that’s a lie, of course, because human populations immediately begin mixing – whether voluntarily or no. What, did the deranged nationalists of the 1940s think that Japanese-American citizens were like Mendel’s peas: 50/50 they’ll pick our side or theirs? Absurd.
That’s just one of the many charges that can be laid against nationalism: it doesn’t even believe its own lies. There are so many more, it ought to be obvious that nationalism is a con, yet we still see many many people sacrificing on the altar of the god that isn’t.
It’s important to remember this, since the US election is coming up. One of the candidates is trumpeting a form of ultra-nationalism based on racialized national identity. One of the candidates*** says to “Round Them Up” – ironically, that candidate is a descendant of the German-Americans who immigrated in 1885 – he would have been one of the German-Americans who was eyed with suspicion by his fellow citizens, upon the outbreak of World War I. Since he was out in the Klondike, a wild part of the country still in the process of being ethnically cleansed of indigenous people, he probably didn’t get much static. By the time World War II happened, most of the German-American immigrants had been literally “grandfathered in” and Japanese-Americans were targeted because, simply, they looked different.
I’ll offer a slightly constructive view of nationalism. Since this is my opinion, I will not salt every sentence with “it appears to me that…” qualifiers, but you should assume that every sentence is adorned with disclaimers.
If government is democratic, it arises from the people – it is an emergent property of the people. As such, there is no such thing as a “nation” there is a region on a map defined by the plurality of opinion of the people that identify themselves as “belonging” in that region. The question of “belonging” is purely cultural: if one individual’s way of identifying as an American is because they like The Ramones, that’s just as valid as if they identify as American because their ancestors have lived in that region for generations. As government is an emergent property of the people, any attempt to disown or deny someone identifying as belonging to that body politic is dangerously fallacious: it is simply one group of members of a club wishing to revoke the membership of others in that club. Per Groucho Marx, “I wouldn’t trust any club that tried to exclude any of its other members” because I might be next; I argue that when a nation (remember: emergent property of the people) tries to exclude part of itself, it is no longer a nation; it no longer exists.
In other words, nationalism is a culture club and nothing more. Would you go to Flanders fields and fight and die for your bowling team?
New York Times: “Apology Opens Wounds of Migrant Program”
S.S. Asturias website: “The Lost Children”
BBC Witness: “Italian Internees”
BBC Witness: “Kindertransports”
(* This was back in the days when one did not simply own copies of movies. “Seven Samurai” was the first laserdisc, the first VHS cassette, and the first DVD I purchased.)
(*** To be fair, I don’t think he means it.)