Thursday, May 05, 2005

Love your Nation-State!

We are indoctrinated to love our Nation-State. In classic propaganda fashion, American school children repeat this mantra every day:

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

But why love your Nation-State? There are two possible answers. The first--because it's MY Nation-State (and that of my Father's, hence Patriotism) is thoroughly irrational. The logic of that justification boils down to this: BECAUSE. The second argument about why to love your Nation-State is because it stands for "noble" principles: freedom, equality, justice, etc. Rather than digress into a debate over the relative merits of freedom vs. equality, let's just assume that these noble principles are in fact "noble", and worthy of our support (whatever they may be). Accepting this assumption highlights the logical fallacy of the second argument: there is no justification for transference of "love for a noble principle" to "love for a Nation-State that exhibits that principle". It MAY justify a love for the policy of a Nation-State that upholds such a principle as individual freedom (for example), but no matter how many times one iterates this process it never makes the final leap of logic to justify love for the Nation-State itself.

This is a critical distinction because Nation-States are dynamic entities. A well publicized history of supporting some noble principle (e.g. individual freedoms) does not guarantee a continued policy of supporting that principle. Let's look at a specific example of this. The principle of freedom of speech is, in my opinion, a "noble" principle--one worthy of "love". Many people--pundits--suggest that we should transfer that love to love for the United States because that Nation-State has a much propagandized record of supporting freedom of speech. This is the critical role of propaganda: to associate through symbols a Nation-State with a set of principles.

But despite the propagandized history of a Nation-State, they can--and often do--abandon these principles in reality. Despite the propaganda provided by the US, about the US, the principle of freedom of speech has been at least partially abandoned in the wake of September 11th. This is why the role of propaganda in transferring love for a principle to love for a Nation-State is so critical--if the American citizenry loved "freedom of speech", but did not irrationally transfer that love to the Nation-State "America", then it would not be possible for "America" to abandon that principle without losing the support of its citizenry.

The propagandized love for a Nation-State constitutes a virtual license for that Nation-State to abandon the very principles that its citizenry rightly found worthy of their love.

Most of us learned of the dangers of nationalism in the lead-up to World War I. Let us now accept that we are still not exempt from the lessons of history: Patriotism, Nationalism and loyalty to a Nation-State REMAIN irrational, and are dangerous tools of the Nation-State for control of the citizenry. Commitment to principles--but not the allocation of those principles as permanent qualities of Nation-States--is a citizenry's best defense against the depredations of the Nation-State. If we do, in fact, assign our "love" to a certain set of noble principles, then in order to defend those principles it is critical that we DO NOT accept the transference of that love to ANY Nation-State.

Sovereignty can exist at exactly one level. The individual can be sovereign, and voluntarily and temporarily loan that sovereignty to a collective entity as long as that entity works to uphold the individual's desired set of principles, and they can recall that loan if the collective fails to uphold those principles. However, if a citizenry, through propaganda, accepts the sovereignty of the collective, then the citizenry places themselves at the mercy of that state--and by definition the collective has become a state because it now exercises sovereignty OVER its citizens.


Jason Godesky said...

My challenge remains, to any who wish to accept. I'll reconsider the pride I take in not being a patriot, as soon as anyone can name just one good thing to come from "patriotism." I can rattle off atrocities it's caused all day; all I ask is one good thing. So far, I'm still coming up empty.

troutsky said...

My question has to do with the concept of soveriegnty as it relates to territory.Assuming one accepts the nation/state as a valid organizational unit ( I don't necessarily) how does one adapt an allegiance which is variable("on temorary loan")to a territory whose borders need consistant defense? Property relations demand unifying ideas as part of the superstructure.

Matt said...

It seems to me that nationalism is a manifestation of the classic human tendency to over-simplify reality into a good/bad dichotomy for the sake of self-preservation in light of individual insecurity.

Consider this example: In the ancient Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, the people of Ur consider the nearby forests of Lebanon to be protected by the god Enlil. Their king Gilgamesh, desirous of glory, decides to conquer these resources for his kingdom and is smited for his disobedience with famine and drought soon thereafter. With the tools of modern science, we now know the essential roles forests play in the hydrological cycle and soil regeneration, but astonishingly the ancestors of these hapless Urians (?) had evolved a theology that protected them from these unknown and threatening mechanisms (perhaps by having once shorn the forests before, and memetically "learning" from their mistake). In this way a crude knowledge of the underlying, interlocking causal mechanism of drought and famine was simultaneously personified and, most importantly, preserved by the fear and trembling it inspired, which in turn preserved the people (even though they didn't understand why).

Similarly, one could argue that the underlying, interlocking principles of American government are the cogs of freedom of speech, the moral scaffolding of freedom of religion, and raw material of peaceful assembly. And yet most people, while perhaps waxing maudlin at the sound of these words, have (1) not been educated adequately to appreciate the role of these principles in the evolution of our society, (2) are as oblivious to their functioning (and hence perhaps as thankless) as fish in water, and (3) are too unsure of themselves, their knowledge, and their livelihood to actively question something as large and august as the United States of America, which apparently sustains them. Thus, as a matter of self-preservation, they think no more deeply than appearances, than identity, and band together around a symbol that enables their survival, even if it begins to abuse them (much like a child will love and sometimes adore an abusive parent). At some point the cognitive dissonance would presumably become too great and revolution occur, but the human capacity for denial (and accountability-destroying infighting) is great, especially when the people are deprived (or deprive themselves) of decent information.

troutsky said...

I agree Matt that fear and insecurity play a dominant role but feel structures of capital and power accumulation rather than "human tendency" create these conditions.And that the inevitable crises inherant in these structures, rather than tension of cognitive dissonance,precipitates rupture. I wish the learning curve were as internalized as the Gilgamesh story postulates but my view of historical development is that we tend to disregard long term consequences and the tendency towards over-simplification affects the dialectic (to the detriment of the many and benefit of the few) but does not determine it.Borders then ,and the nationalistic impulse to defend them are constructs not of individuals but well organized systems.

Matt said...

I believe we are approaching the same model from different altitudes, troutsky. You are describing the macroscopic trends, and I am describing how these trends act upon the individuals who comprise the society in which the trends occur.

You're right to point out the potential for exploitation. The knowledge gradient created by public vs. private schooling, ivy league vs. community college educational structures is most definitely a reflection of the power dynamics within a society. Consequently, the level of knowledge of particular subsets of individuals within the population is also a reflection of these power dynamics. My point was to theorize as to why individuals cling to their nationalistic myths and symbols, even at the expense of the foundational and nurturing principles, and point out that this myth-making is actually evolutionarily-advantageous in smaller group sizes.

Your expansion of the idea into its social context highlights the potential (and I believe actuated potential) for exploitation and manipulation in societies where knowledge is unevenly distributed. Child-like adoration of the nation is a big sterling lever just waiting for someone with superior knowledge to yank. One difference between Gilgamesh's Ur and modern America is that in ancient Ur there was no uneven distribution of the myth, everyone believed, and it sustained them. Today, most of the ignorant masses (or enough at least) believe in the abstracted virtues of "America", and this myth sustains their bonds of brotherhood and common cause (defend the borders, etc), but is ripe for exploitation by the better educated and hence more powerful.

WHen you say crises precipitate rupture, not cognitive dissonance, there is no consideration of the fact that crises are felt, internalized, and responded to by individuals. I am merely trying to speculate on the underlying psychology. For example, the American revolution: at some point, the malignant actions of the British began to clash with the common man's allegiance to the crown. Thus, the economic crisis was lived on a personal level as allegiance-shifting cognitive dissonance, and revolution ensued.

I believe a better definition would be that "Borders and the nationalistic impulse to defend them are synergistic constructs of well organized systems and the individuals that comprise them." The ideas of a "nation"'s "borders" and the accompanying emotional attachment are culturally transmitted, and hence culturally (memetically) evolved, but they must operate within the biological equipment of their host.

Karlo said...

Great article! Thanks!

speedbird said...

Makes me think of the poets of the Great War, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, who struggled to reconcile their absolute love of England with their hatred of the war England had sent them to.

James Kielland said...

I regret to say that I don't think this post lives up to the quality of the rest of this site. And certainly most of the comments on this thread don't, either.

One wouldn't think love is bad, but apparently it is according to several people here. If loving one's country is bad we'd have to conclude that either the opposite or something quite different would somehow be good or at least better. This leads us to possibilities such as "hate your country" is good or "be indifferent to your country" is good, or at least somehow better than loving your country. I'm not sure why this would be the case.

Jeff notes that to love your country because it's your father's country (or otherwise that you're simply born into it) is simply IRRATIONAL and amounts to merely loving your country "BECAUSE." I'm not sure where the exact irrationality is. If it is YOUR country we are talking about and we accept that YOU are a product of your country and that YOUR LIFE and your possible choices are heavily shaped by the quality of the country that you live in, then it would seem that taking action to improve that environment would be a very rational thing. If anything, the true irrationality would be found in being indifferent towards or hating your country, or perhaps just loving some country that you had absolutely no connection to.

Jason Godesky seems to insist that he can rattle off atrocities caused by patriotism while being unable to provide even one example to demonstrate what he means. He states that his challenge remains for anyone who can name just one good thing coming from patriotism.

Well, sheesh.. since the post originally started with "love of country" I'll simply address the example from that vantage point. First, it should be noted that nowhere in this discussion in the horrors and terrors of loving one's country has anyone provided a clear definition of just what they mean by the concept.

Part of the confusion with the word "love" in our language is that it has a variety of different meanings on context. By this I don't merely mean agape vs. eros. What I mean is that many people regard "to love" meaning an emotional reaction or response "a feeling." They don't seem to understand that to love also means to behave in a certain way or commit to a series of actions.

In this sense, what do we take it to mean "to love?" At the most fundamental level, I would take it to mean, "to act as one with." To nurture or to sustain. To behave as though the happiness and flourishing of what it is that you love is fundamental to your own happiness and flourishing.

Put another way, all us are merely cells in a much larger set of tissues and organs and a organisms called populations. Individual humans don't evolve; no individual organisms evolve. Only populations evolve. Humans, while equiped with quirky egos that provide astonishingly powerful illusions of indepedence, autonomy, and self-creation, are, as beings which exist and flourish through memes/culture, merely cells in much larger organisms known as populations.

In our current world, with our current institutions, the nation-state is the primary super-organism. The technology of global transport and telecommunications is clearly shaping a larger global organism, yet it is still rapidly shifting, nebulous, and subject to rapid change. For many of us, it is our nation-states that make civilization as we know it and enjoy it possible.

How healthy can a cell be that is indifferent to the organism it is a part of? Such a cell could be a parasite or merely just a free-rider. At worst, such a cell could be cancerous, pursuing its own whims against the welfare of the body, in which case such a cell is only headed for its eventual self-destruction.

In a like way, we are products of our nation-state. Virtually everything that we have has been given to us by the work of others; from our physical bodies which are the products of genes which are the products of the work of unimaginable numbers of organisms throughout time all the way to our culture and the institutions surrounding us which sustain it (and us by consequence.) Most of us have done very little to earn all that we have received. One could argue that all of which we have received so freely is the result of the love of those who came before us.

To love your country means to behave and act as if you realize that the welfare of your country is your own welfare. It is part of the basis of civilization: not merely doing what you want but consider your actions in a larger set of consequences. Taking actions to preserve things that you may not ever be able to enjoy. Going out of your way to help people even if it seems a nuisance at the time. These and many other civic behaviors are examples of love.

I think a little more love of our families, our communities, and our countries is hardly a bad thing. I'd like to see a little more of it. If we are to ever see a better world, a world where people have more happiness and fulfilment and security, it's going to come about as a result of love. Maybe love of country can one day grow into something even more inclusive. But if we can't even love as something as small as our countries let us not expect to be able to develop love for our species and our planet.

Anonymous said...

First of all, I would like to underscore the point that Kielland makes, which is the problem with having any intelligent discussion without defining what we mean with all the "love" talk. It is a general word with many applications and runs amuck in colloquial speech. I'll assume for this discussion we are speaking of an "emotional longing" when we speak of love, which would assume Jeff Vail's point is, it is fine to have "emotional longings" for certain ideals or principles, but we should not transfer that "emotional longing" (or love) to the nation-state itself as the nation-state itself will most likely cease from being true to those principles.

Vail presents two explanations (the insinuation being these are the only two) of why love for a Nation-State exists, the first being an analytically lazy "just because" (The deadline for submitting this article must have been tight). He then quickly connects the dots to the conclusion "just because" is an "irrational" basis. Indeed it would be if it were so mindlessly simplistic, just as anything so mindless would be. Kielland has already dealt with the problem of referring to preservation of home and habitat as "irrational" so I won't spend too much time pointing out the backward reasoning behind harboring hostile or indifferent sentiment toward life as you know it and prefer it. That should be obvious on its own.

The second reason Vail gives for explaining why one loves their Nation-State contains the major flaw of the article. Making the case that anyone is "in love" with their Nation-State is to assume there is no finer degree of granularity when measuring preference for a Nation-State. Can one not "prefer" a Nation-State over all others without "loving" it? Can one not view the operations of a Nation-State as superior to others without "loving" it? Vail, in offering "love" as the only response to a Nation-State available to those who do not despise it is attempting to portray preference for a Nation-State as zealous and irrational probably because Vail does not care for Nation-States. Therefore, anyone who does care for Nation-States, or even worse, their own Nation-State, must be irrational zealots hopelessly "in love" with everything it does. Fortunately there is an infinite prism behind the black and white picture Vail paints where citizens of a Nation-State can determine for themselves that policies A, B, and C are good while D and E aren't, and judge whether this Nation-State is superior to another that operates primarily by policies D and E.

Vail warns us of the danger of "loving" our Nation-State by rebutting his own two sloppy explanations of why anyone would harbor those feelings, but what he left out was the answer to the gigantic question mark his article creates which is, how would being indifferent, unconcerned with, or despising your Nation-State be beneficial? Withholding love or any other favorable expression toward your Nation-State by default would only make sense if you were laboring under the assumption that Nation-States are negative to begin with. Once we establish the evil and wickedness of a Nation-State, despising them now appears "good" and "reasonable". Vail is simply working backward to present the concept of a Nation-State as evil by warning against favorable views.

The preference or "love" of a particular Nation-State is not always induced by propaganda. Sometimes there are very real qualitative differences that lead to a preference for a particular Nation-State. Vail mentions the Pledge of Allegiance recited in schools as a contributing factor in national conditioning. But what then explains the unprecedented flood of immigration toward the shores and borders of the United States of America (since Vail mentions specifically America in his article)? Are they flocking here because they hate this Nation-State? Since Vail concludes love should be reserved for principles alone, and not the Nation-States that facilitate them, could these principles not be loved while waiting to die in a Gulag? Could they not be cherished and favored apart from the Nation-State that incorporates them while being hung on a crane for professing a belief in Jesus? Certainly. But what good does that do for the dead man? It could be said that he loved freedom, but why isn’t he breathing anymore? You see, another fundamental error Vail makes in his article is dismissing the vehicle of those principles we love. A principle that exists exclusively in our heads or our hearts has no functional value. That principle must be transformed from the abstract to the tangible, and the machinery for that transformation today is the Nation-State. You must find a Nation-State that implements the principles you love in order to experience them and when you find such a Nation-State, though you don’t have to “fall in love” with everything it does, favorable gratitude for such a country certainly isn’t too much to ask for.


Jeff Vail said...


You said: "You must find a Nation-State that implements the principles you love in order to experience them..."

I appreciate your critique, but I think that the above quote shows where it falls apart. The key is "Nation." The problem, as I think my original post focuses on, and the critiques summarily ignore, is that "nation" is the root of the problem. Contrary to your statement above, there is absoluely no prerequesite to find a state that is composed of your nation in order to experience the principles that you "love." The point of the post--and, in my opinion the shortcoming of the above critiques--is that there is no connection between the "national" component of a Nation-State and the identified principles. Drawing one--going further, even, and highlighting that fictitious connection as the basis for affection--is what is irrational. Irrational because it is based on no rational connection between the national-composition of a state and the principles it adheres to.

Anonymous said...

"Nation" has at least a couple different meanings, but since its use isn't defined and judging by your last response, I assume you're using it to express the idea of an ethnic unity rather than simply a "large body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficieintly conscious of its unity to seek or possess a government particularly its own" as another definition describes the use of the word.

If that is correct, then I agree that a united ethnicity plays no role in defining its principles. This would mean that a nation composed primarily of whites is inherently more likely to manifest principles A and B while a nation composed primarily of blacks will side with D and C, which I doubt.

So if that is truly what you intended in your use of the term "Nation-State", I have to ask then, is the intention behind your use of the term "Nation-State" the same as others? For example, your complaint about the Plege of Allegiance which mentions "one Nation under God" ... do you honestly feel this was intended to mean "one White nation under God" rather than "one large body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficieintly conscious of its unity to seek or possess a government particularly its own" under God?


Euthydemos in Athens said...

I thought this might be a helpful addition to the conversation. It is something I read at Orcinus.

"Authoritarian Followers tend to be highly conforming, deeply invested in their own righteousness, absolutely trusting in their authorities, and extremely aggressive when they believe those authorities are threatened. Altemeyer developed a scale to assess people's tendency toward right-wing authoritarianism; he calls those with high scores "high RWA."

There's also a very distinct -- and fortunately, much smaller -- group of authoritarians who are driven by their high need for social dominance. This group tends to be manipulative, amoral, mean, and driven by their unquenchable thirst for power. Altemeyer calls these "high-social-dominance (or "high SDO") types.

And, finally, a very small percentage of the population are "double highs" -- people who manage to combine the worst traits of both. The thesis of Dean's book was that the Bush Administration is staffed, almost top to bottom, with double highs -- and that this fact has profound implications for our future as a democracy.

Altemeyer tested this theory by running a three-hour Risk-type global simulation game with various combinations of high and low RWAs, high and low SDOs and double highs.

The results confirmed his earlier observations: double-highs will always put their own prestige and power over every other concern, even if the fate of the world is at stake. They're more interested in wheeling and dealing and driving the other guy to the wall -- fine if you're in business, but not so fine if you're trying to establish programs or institutions aimed at solving large-scale problems like overpopulation, pollution, or global warming.

They're also far more interested in military might and bullying than they are in diplomacy or compromise (if you're a double high, you can't count it as a win until the other guy is writhing on the ground in front of you, begging for his life. Any other outcome is a loss.)

In these simulations, their prejudices translated in a predictable ethocentrism that often blinded them to their own best interests. Predictably -- and chillingly -- putting double-highs in charge guaranteed ecological catastrophe, mass starvation, and global nuclear war."

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