Saturday, September 20, 2014

Country versus Nation

There has been a fierce debate about whether nations are necessarily diminished by the absence of statehood, and about the thin line between honourable patriotism and xenophobic nationalism.
"Scotland independence vote exposes the established order", Financial Times, 9/18/14
Where do you come from? I could answer "the United States of America" or "I am an American". There is a difference. The first statement says something about the country of which I am a citizen, the second about the culture I share with others of my nationality. How is it that we choose to be part of a national culture? Did the majority of voters in Scotland choose to be "British" or did they choose to be "Scots living in Great Britain"?

The History Book Club to which I belong recently discussed a history of Poland, during which we considered the fact that Poland, which had once been the largest country in Europe, ceased to exist as a state by the end of the 18th century; for many decades a stateless people, the Polish kept their desire for a state of their own alive. Now they have one. I recently read a memoir of the Civil War, and that book also raises the issue of the nation versus the state. (See my post on the book.) I am now reading The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds; President Wilson brought the issue of statehood to ethnic nations to the peace conference ending World War I and the book deals with nations and states explicitly. It occurs to me to post on the topic of the nation state in this blog.

There seem to be two different kinds of nationalisms:
  • Civic nationalism: Membership of the civic nation is considered voluntary, characterized by the "will to live together". Civic-nationalist states are often characterized by adoption of the jus soli (law of the soil) for granting citizenship in the country, deeming all persons born within the integral territory of the state citizens and members of the nation, regardless of their parents' origin. 
  • Ethnic nationalism: The central theme of ethnic nationalists is that "nations are defined by a shared heritage, which usually includes a common language, a common faith, and a common ethnic ancestry".
A state is an organized community living under one government. States may be sovereign. The term state is also applied to federated states that are members of a federal union, which is the sovereign state. 

Nation State: A state is a political and geopolitical entity, while a nation is a cultural and ethnic one. The term "nation state" implies that the two coincide, but "nation state" formation can take place at different times in different parts of the world, and has become the dominant form of world organization.

The Evolution of the United States of America.

The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union were passed in 1777 and created the United States of America as a federal union of sovereign states. Thus 13 former colonies of the British empire declared themselves to be sovereign states and confederated in a perpetual union for mutual defense, to secure their liberties and for their mutual and general welfare. 

I suggest that at this time in U.S. history, the people of the states were not at all sure that they formed a single ethnic nation. They shared a history as colonies of the British Empire and a common language. They did not share a common ethnic history in that there had been colonies founded by countries other than England in North America and ethnic groups from those colonies had been incorporated into the British colonies such as ethnic Dutch in New York and ethnic French in Canada (which the Articles explicitly allowed to enter the Union). Moreover, the cultures in the different colonies had evolved over more than a  century under different circumstances. They did not share the same religion; Virginia in 1777 continued to have the Anglican Church as its established religion. Moreover
Congregationalists and Anglicans who, before 1776, had received public financial support, called their state benefactors "nursing fathers" (Isaiah 49:23). After independence they urged the state governments, as "nursing fathers," to continue succoring them. Knowing that in the egalitarian, post-independence era, the public would no longer permit single denominations to monopolize state support, legislators devised "general assessment schemes." Religious taxes were laid on all citizens, each of whom was given the option of designating his share to the church of his choice. Such laws took effect in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire and were passed but not implemented in Maryland and Georgia.
The Constitution was written in recognition that the government of the Confederation could not achieve its purposes, especially those of mutual defense and securing liberties of citizens, and that a more powerful central government was required. However, the ratification of the Constitution involved the agreement to amend the draft which was done in 1789. The 9th and 10th amendments secured to the people and to the states the rights that were not explicitly granted to the federal government.

I suggest that many in the United States of America prior to the Civil War continued to view it as a federation of independent states, in part because they did not see themselves as a single nation. The nullification crisis during the Jackson administration indicates that the government of South Carolina thought the state had the right to opt out of federal laws. In the secessions of 1861, seven states declared themselves Republics and then joined in the Confederated States of America, again implying that their leaders believed that their states had the rights of sovereign states. Indeed, until the Civil War the "Unites States of America" was a plural, and only after did people say "the United States is" rather than "the United States are".

The United States has been described as "a nation of immigrants". As the son of immigrant parents, I know from personal experience that immigrants are part of a "civic nation" in the sense that they have voluntarily chosen to live under the laws of the United States of America and to live together with other citizens of this country in spite of the fact that they have different backgrounds than the majority of their fellow citizens. The USA has also been termed a "melting pot" in the sense that people of many ethnic ancestries have come to share many aspects of the same culture.
“We have come to realize in modern times that the ‘melting pot’ need not mean the end of particular ethnic identities or traditions”
John F. Kennedy, A Nation of Immigrants
I think Kennedy's insight is correct. My enthusiasm for Irish folk music may not be shared by my Hispanic friends, nor need I share the enthusiasm of Argentine Americans for the Tango. Yet I think the state depends on a willingness to share a respect for values such as those for liberty and democracy, and for the Constitution and laws of our state.

I also know that even though the son of immigrants, I am culturally a Yank. I have been quickly recognized as such in many countries by many different people. I remember especially an occasion on my first visit to Ireland listening to an account of a phone conversation of my aunt's. (Incidentally, her son has been mistaken for me in a black and white photo.) My aunt was asked "Who was that Yank I saw you with downtown this afternoon." My aunt answered, "That was my nephew. Why did you not come up to be introduced?" Response: "I couldn't as I was a block away." I was recognized at a distance, with my Irish aunt as an American. I stand and walk like a Yank, I talk like a Yank, and I dress like a Yank, because I am one.

I went to school in the United States of America, and schooling is a powerful means of aculturation. The friends of my age for many years were also Americans and I learned our culture from them; indeed, moving from Boston to Los Angeles in the 3rd grade, I discovered that Boston culture did not sit well with the LA kids, and I would have to acquire the LA accent and my friends tastes in clothes. I have lived through countless hours of American media. I may have had immigrant parents, I may have lived abroad for years and traveled to some 50 countries, but people still have no difficulty telling that I am a Yank/Gringo/Estadounidense.

Today I think the United States of America is indeed a nation state, in which most of its citizens are ethnic Americans, albeit many with pride in aspects of their special ethnic heritage from other peoples, and some as members of our nationality by choice.


The interest in the ethnically-based nation state apparently developed largely in the 19th century. That was the time of the unification of Germany and Italy as states of people sharing a common language and cultural heritage. It also seems to have been common in the wave of revolutions that swept Europe in 1848, eventually affecting some 50 countries.

Nationalism and the nation states had a rebirth in World War I, in part as a result of Woodrow Wilson's 14 points. I find it interesting that Wilson was a southerner, born before the Civil War. (He remembered seeing Robert E. Lee as a child. His father served as a Confederate chaplain in the Civil War.)  His family held slaves, and must have been affected by their emancipation. He saw the destruction of the cities in which he lived as they were conquered by Union troops, and lived in the south through the reconstruction. Were his views on the rights of conquered people to determine their own fate derived from his childhood experiences? Did he see the forced conversion of a people who conceived themselves as a separate nation into members of the nation state of the United States of America as comparable to the history of the Polish, Belgians and others whose fate he championed? Perhaps.

Of course, World War I also saw the fall of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian empires and the creation of a number of nation states from those empires. The situation seems similar to the earlier fall of the Spanish empire, the creation of many states from former colonies, and the search for a national identity in those states.

There seem to be many ways to assemble people into "nations" if we look at history. Thus, it appears that people who define themselves as English, Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish also have chosen to consider themselves a British nation. The United States of America continues to mold a nation of Americans from people of many historical ethnic backgrounds. Israel saw Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi and other smaller communities of Jews -- all originally speaking different languages and having lived in many different countries -- define themselves as Israelis and learn a common language. In the same general geographic area, Arabs living in several countries, largely sharing the same Muslim religion, but denied citizenship in Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan define themselves as Palestinians. In Mexico, the descendants of indigenous Indian tribes, Spanish colonizers, African slaves, and immigrants from many countries have been forming an ethnic Mexican people for many years. (Certainly Mexican culture is easily distinguished from that of other former Spanish colonies in the Americas such as Costa Rican or Argentinian culture.)

Perhaps China and India are more like the multi-ethnic empires of the past. Their huge populations include people of many ethnic backgrounds. Those countries strive to build a civic nationalism, and may well be on their way to their own form of ethnic nationalism. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, ethnic Russians were found in Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as well as other Republics formed from the former USSR. We are watching a historic process of sorting out of the consequences of that fact. Yugoslavia discovered that the southern Slavs did not all regard themselves as members of a single Yugoslav ethnic nation, and the country broke into smaller more ethnically individual countries.

I suppose that the difference drawn between civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism is taxonomic but that real nations have aspects of both civic and ethnic nationalism in their makeup. Perhaps it is an indication that I am a Yank, but I like the idea of a nation that is united by an allegiance to a common form of government and common laws, and by respect for common values such as democracy and liberty, that still allows and values cultural diversity. How much more interesting is a country with a variety of food cultures and music cultures? How much more effective in a globalized economy is a country with people who speak other languages and understand other cultures? In a world of constant change, is it not useful to have people with different ethnic heritages who can suggest new ways of doing things?

Of course, history suggests that nationalism can be a source of conflict. In some countries, nationalism became (and perhaps still is) so ethnocentric that it denigrates other peoples and justifies aggression and wars of conquest. How do we build the defenses of peace in the minds of men of all nations? I suspect that aggression is not a necessary attribute of nationalism, and that a healthy nationalism can be achieved without jingoism, without an aggressive stance. We shall see.

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