From Liberty Street
We humans -- I guess by our very nature -- like to organize ourselves into groups. We do it for a variety of reasons: for companionship, to protect ourselves from danger, and, particularly, from other groups, to carry out pleasurable and practical activities, and perhaps most urgently to offer ourselves that mysterious feeling which we call meaning.
We tell ourselves that some groups are more important than others. To be, for example, a Baptist is generally considered more significant than being a Yankees fan. At different times in history different groups come to the fore as the group above all others, the one that counts the most, the one that has the right to tell us to sacrifice ourselves for its well-being.
Over the past couple centuries, that group has been the nation. It is the only one that is thought to have the legitimate power of life and death over all its members. No other group loyalty is supposed to come close to the loyalty one owes to his or her nation. Even the family recedes in importance when the demands of the nation come into play.
This is not a logical condition but, rather, a historical one. And consequently, as time passes, the condition will be modified. The change will occur even if few at the beginning of the process can imagine it. We are in the early stages of such a transformation and the nations, feeling themselves threatened, are in great confusion. Until recently, they considered themselves the possessors of such unassailable power that no other grouping could challenge them. Now they are beginning to have to face the truth that their power is often ineffective when a group different from the nation rises up against them.
The United States, as the country which has relied more than any other on the force and legitimacy of nationalism, is having the hardest time of all in learning how to engage anti-nationalistic movements. That's because the political leaders of the United States can't actually imagine such a thing. They say to themselves, "We beat Germany and Japan. It's ridiculous to think we can't subdue a few dissidents who have far less potent resources the Axis powers did during World War II." American officials can't yet see that the Second World War was a story of strong nations defeating weaker ones, whereas, now, the so-called war on terror involves not a struggle of nations but instead the determination of non-nationalistic groups to get out from under the control of the strongest nations.
The United States likes to pitch the situation in moralistic terms, with the nation being the only grouping that has the right to untrammeled action. This is why Americans believe, with a religious fervor, that those who wear the insignia and uniforms of the nation have the right to kill in mostly unrestrained ways whereas when a person wearing a ragged tee shirt kills some of his enemies that's viewed as disgusting terrorism.
The trouble with the American view is that a growing percentage of the world's population doesn't see the nation as its principle object of loyalty. This is not to say that the groups that do command non-nationalistic loyalty are necessarily any better than nations are. It is simply to acknowledge that they exist and are in a process of growing stronger. To denounce them as non-nationalistic or to try to kill everyone who gives his or her prime loyalty to such groups is not going to solve the problem they present.
This is why the American effort in Iraq is such a mess. The U.S. is bent on making everyone in Iraq bestow loyalty on an Iraqi nation which can be brought into the orbit of the more powerful American nation. Anyone who refuses has to be repressed in one way or another. The difficulty of course is that at least 80% of the Iraqis are refusing, and the United States is pouring out treasure endlessly, and futilely, trying to force them into line.
Nations, of course, aren't going away any time soon. They will continue to be major influences on how people live. But I doubt they'll be able to dominate life to the degree they have over the past century. And from my perspective that's not altogether a bad thing. The nation always declares itself to be sovereign, which, in other words is to say that it has the right to unrestrained power. And the latter leads always to misery and corruption.
The notion, much advanced of late by Republicans, that the path to paradise will be constructed by making the American nation the paramount, unchallengeable force in the world is juvenile nonsense. We, the people, will be far better served by politicians who know that complete command of the world by Americans is not possible and who have the intellectual capacity to perceive how the world is changing and how the needs of various groups, nations as well as religions and economic units, can be sensibly managed.
(Please include your name so that we may publish your remarks.)
Articles may be quoted or republished in full with attribution
to the author and harvardsquarecommentary.org.