I had an interesting exchange recently with a friend on the notion of national pride. Like a broken record, I said:
"You should be neither embarrassed nor proud of a nation. A nation is a convenient fiction, created for the purpose of organizing people and for administrative purposes. In what sense does it make sense to be proud of a fiction?"
He responded that one’s nation isn’t just it’s government, but that one could be proud of certain aspects of their nationality while recognizing that other aspects were shameful and embarrassing.
I couldn’t disagree more.
Traditions and cultures are more real than nationality. Nationalities and passports are entirely fictitious constructs, albeit very convenient and useful ones with very real consequences (more on that later). A person born in the U.S, is American even if she grows up in China and learns Chinese culture. She is as American as someone who is born in Hawaii, raised in Kenya and Indonesia, who returns to live in Chicago and later becomes president. Some might say both of these people are just as American as the child off legal immigrants who is born in America but raised in an immigrant enclave and who experiences two vibrant cultures growing up, say in an extended vietnamese family in Boston. Are these people more or less American than someone born in Nigeria to Lebanese parents, raised in England, who moves to the U.S for college and stays to become a citizen?
These people all experience significantly different cultural realities. And before you say that’s what makes them American, I could just as easily have substituted Canada, Australia, South Africa, Britain, or any other country for America in those examples.
In that sense, the notion of being American (or any other nationality) has no broad meaning except categorization regarding which passport a person is eligible to receive.
When you say "a nation isn’t just it’s government", I’ll press you to tell me what a nation is other than a representation of people who are generally eligible for the passport of a geographic state or national entity. Yes, there are metaphoric uses of the word "nation", but they typically refer to other realities that are better described by reference to culture and tradition than by reference to any nations.
Cultures and traditions do not know borders. They are fluid. Like the human experience, they evolve. They are shared by people with different passports and even languages, even within the same family. (I have a close friends who is born in Rwanda, fled Rwanda to Norway, went to college in Minnesota, there met his Moroccan wife, who now lives in the Cayman Islands with their two kids who were both born in the U.S and carry American passports. They once took a road trip from Boston to Montreal with his father who is now a citizen of Belgium, and the border guards were perpetually scratching their heads when this one family handed over 4 different passports!)
National identity is but a fiction invented during the historical evolution of statehood. There once was a time when people owed their allegiance only to their families and extended families. Then this expanded towards their tribes and people who shared their language. Then with the beginning of empire, people began firming alliances and coalitions and creating allegiances based on agreements, often solidified through marriage and intermingling of bloodlines. Gradually our legal traditions evolved and the notion of statehood and nationality was born. Again, expanding the "in" group to a wider set of people who shared a common nationality, the boundaries of group often marked by alleged allegiance to a flag, set of songs, constitution etc.
This has been a path of expanding our "in" group and reducing the "otherness" of other humans. The next step is to recognize the fictitious nature of our national cages and break free. Which will not mean dissolving or ignoring cultures or traditions.
And we are already moving gradually in that direction through globalization, international interdependency, and the growing butterfly effect in an interconnected world. Our consciousness is slower as we are still preoccupied with the "us" vs "them" thinking that has been hardwired into our dna as a result of our evolutionary past in a competitive environment. But we continue to evolve our thinking and our consciousness.
Which is a very long way of saying, no, I don’t believe nations are anything other than the fictitious borders they represent on a map. Anything beyond that is better defined by culture and traditions, which are fluid things, only contained within borders by artifice and human intervention tied to preserving the useful fiction of national borders. By thinking criticality about these fictions, there is hope that we might one day evolve to the place we need to be if we are ever going to achieve our fun potential, getting the best out of each individual regardless of where he or she is born.
Then we might one day fulfil Emperor Haile Selassie’s vision:
"We must become something we have never been and for which our education and experience and environment have ill-prepared us. We must become bigger than we have been: more courageous, greater in spirit, larger in outlook. We must become members of a new race, overcoming petty prejudice, owing our ultimate allegiance not to nations but to our fellow men within the human community."
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