HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

August 4, 2008
From Liberty Street

Two Separate Things

John Turner


The main effect of my awayness, here in Newfoundland, has been to sharpen my understanding of the difference between country and nation. Newfoundland surely is a country, but it has little of the nation about it.

A country is the emotional connection between land and people, the sense of comfort that comes from the familiar, the affection that arises when we recall occurrences and connect them with where they happened. The nation by contrast is a social structure built for the sake of amassing power and indulging the emotion we commonly designate as glory.

A nation is a pattern of laws and privileges imposed by a portion of a people on its country. A nation does not have a great investment in the well-being of most who live under its rule. In fact, it will use them up ruthlessly whenever the strength of the nation can be enhanced by their sacrifice. This using up and casting aside it calls patriotism. It invests a great deal of energy and invention in convincing the people they have a vital stake in the process.

The history of the United States over the past several decades has been, primarily, the transformation of a country into a nation. The country has counted for less and less, the nation for more and more. The figures who attract our attention nowadays are essentially nationalistic actors. The current Republican candidate for the presidency has almost no country at all. At times, he comes close to bragging about it. He is, in his essence a creation of the nation, and in seeking power he does it with only the nation in mind. The country means little to him.

In a country, the landscape is paramount because it serves as the symbolic reality of the lives of the people. This is where someone was born. This is where a dedicated nurse saved a life. This is where the people gathered to protect one another during a natural disaster. The contours of the hills and valleys, the shape and clarity of brooks and rivers, the animals that roam in the fields mean everything to a country. The preservation of them is the primary social duty.

The nation has entirely other goals. Enhanced power is its reason for being. And if anything gets in the way of enhancing power then it has to go, no matter what it is. If a mountain has to be cut away, if a stream has to be diverted from its traditional route, if people in one area have to be uprooted and moved to another, if certain animals have to be extinguished, that's okay so long as the power is increased. In the nation, power rides on wealth and so the creation of vast wealth is the engine that drives the nationalistic vessel.

A country has no interest in smashing other countries. None of its own goals are achieved thereby. But, historically, the main purpose of nations has been to smash other nations. How else can their desires be fulfilled?

Given the sharp differences between country and nation, it's to be expected that politics would become a struggle between them. In a two party system, one party would exist mainly to preserve the country whereas the other would work to promote nationalistic power. And that is, indeed, the case in the United States. We have much wailing over the bitterness of partisanship, but the truth is it's impossible to put partisanship aside when one party essentially stands for the country and the other stands for the nation. Their interests rarely overlap.

The government must, necessarily, be split between the two loyalties. The blather about socialism versus free enterprise is nonsensical. The real struggle lies between country and nation. There is, for example, a Department of Defense -- which actually has little to do with defense -- and a Department of the Interior, including a Park Service. And inevitably they fight with one another for government money. There's not much doubt lately about which side has been winning. The calls for national power require all else to bow down before it. Forget about paving roads and cleaning up lakes when fervent politicians declare that national security requires a new destroyer.

All of us will be pulled between the two interests, and most of us will find ourselves divided. For myself, as I grow older, I care more and more for the country and less and less for the nation. I am not, at times, without my nationalistic twinges, but as time passes I find myself becoming essentially a country man. The country appeals to the parts of me I don't mind acknowledging, the nation to parts I would just as soon forget.


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