Socialist Standard, March '08
Nationalism is a perversion of a shared identity in the interest of some local elite.
Home – where the heart is; the place with overtones of permanence, belonging, security, comfort, childhood memories, bonds between people, familiarity with how things are done, habits and customs taken for granted. People go home, go back to family, village, mountains woods, familiar streets, smells, sounds, to the things that framed them and in doing so strengthen the impressions of who they are and what they stand for. Different worldwide communities share a culture of 'going home' for high days and holidays, religious festivals or annual visits. Airports, seaports, train and bus stations are crowded at certain times with passengers loaded with their symbols of how good it will be to be together again. Home is where differences and similarities are known; not automatically accepted, respected or approved but understood without explanation; the background culture, the very fabric of the culture being so second nature that words aren't necessary to express fundamental emotions.
For millions living in exile with only memories of home, painful memories of seeing family members taken away, tortured, killed, for children born in refugee camps and now old enough to be parents themselves in the same camps, never having seen anything of their homeland, home conjures up images of lost and stolen lives, physical pain and deep emotional scars. Traditions and places only heard of now and little expectation of ever being able to reclaim them. In these situations home for the child is not the home of the parent. However hard the parent tries, however passionate their ties to their original life, the child's impressions can only be second hand, severely lacking in emotional sustenance, expectations manufactured out of hope. For migrants, both forced and voluntary, 'home' may be different for parents and children. Having emigrated or relocated internally the parents' notions of home are 'there' but for the children born in a new place it is 'here'. Which team shall they support? Where shall their allegiance lie?
In a broader context home may be perceived as a wider geographical area, a country, a homeland standing for something more than a family's local community. The 'one-world' home, in common to all of the human species, has 200 or so artificially created entities called 'nations', almost all armed and ready to arrest or attack anyone who crosses a boundary without permission, the same boundary showing little or no obstacle to trade or capital or wealth. What is it a nation offers its individual inhabitants and what is their offering to it? What do they require from their country and it from them? The country is a geographical, physical place; large, small, populous or sparse, barren or lush, mountainous, coastal, frozen, earthquake-prone, temperate, fertile or harsh, requiring nurture, husbandry, protection. Physically it can offer minerals and crops depending on its situation and in proportion to the care given it. The shared identity of the inhabitants of the nation will be as has developed over generations – history, customs, religion, community relations, occupations, way of thinking – something impossible to enforce as empire builders and nation creators have been reluctant to accept. A shared identity with universal, mutual respect and acceptance cannot be enforced. It is surely the shared identity, that elusive quality, love of one's birthplace, hopes, dreams, aspirations, that people feel when they talk of 'their country', the tangible and intangible connections.
Mark Twain said that the country is the real thing to be watched over, cared for, that the institutions, the government are extraneous. Confusion of the country with its institutions brings the problems of nationalism and patriotism, "my country, right or wrong". One of the (ill)-effects of nationalist thinking is a loss of sense of proportion as in the justification of the invasions responsible for the killing of tens of thousands in Afghanistan and Iraq because around 3,000 people died in U.S. on 9/11/2001. Fighting for a country, dying for what? – the pursuit of happiness? – brings grief and despair to both sides. One nation's moral purpose, promoting democracy, saving lives, eliminating threats, is recognised by another nation merely as expansionism, access to vital resources, a way of diverting attention from domestic issues. One side's vision of globalisation for humanity's sake is felt as rape, plunder and aggressive war by the other. Nationalism, whilst a powerful tool of oppression, was created in part as a defence against imperialism and colonialism, against dominance from outside and in fear of being denied the rights of self-determination. It manifests itself like a sophisticated tribalism, with pride, tradition, attitudes of superiority, patriotism, national security, enemies real and imagined, flag-draped buildings, glorification of all things military and biased history tying populations into misconceptions of themselves and others.
Xenophobia becomes a useful ally in promoting nationalism. In the early 1700s Jonathan Swift recommended it in "The Examiner" thus – "the first principle of patriotism is to resent foreigners." This method, of setting one section of population against another, has been used ultra-successfully all around the world – so successfully that great swathes of people can now rouse themselves, with no apparent external cue, against the newest threat, the most recent immigrant group, asylum seekers, anyone who looks or sounds like they may be from a group that's not their own. In one part of the world Arab look-alikes are held to be suspicious – in another an American accent is not welcome. Groups engineered to see themselves in opposition to others, in manufactured fear. Or fear of fear. And those who dare question the status quo become unpatriotic internal defectors. Enemies are required by the state elites. Enemies within and without, social, cultural, economic enemies to keep the population vigilant against all possible threats, to keep them fully occupied, suspicious of each other, divided, protecting the national interest against any wayward individual or group – including themselves.
Under constant construction are barriers of one sort or another, the US/Mexico wall mostly through desert where hundreds die every year seeking a better life but where the wealthy aren't hunted by vigilantes; the Israeli/Palestinian wall and multiple check-points favouring one group and harassing and humiliating the other; the entry to countries at airports, ports and road crossings. Stand in line, don't step over this line. For some apply weeks in advance for a visa – or just for an interview to seek permission to apply for a visa – the rich may pass, for the poor it's a lottery.
Within our communities are guarded apartment blocks, electronically monitored residential enclaves, embassies on distant, secure sites, schools with guards and alarms, tourist sites with armed guard protection, 5 star hotels with walled-in grounds denying visitors the view to the local residents in their shanty towns on the other side of the wall, living in the seeping filth from the hotel sewage system.
Chop up society into more and more pieces, more separate entities, create more divisions, more fears and suspicions and when the globe is totally criss-crossed with walls, fences, barricades and border posts shall we allow ourselves to become so paranoid, afraid and suspicious of each other that we finally close the door to our minds? What hope for humanity when imaginations are so closed to the others' humanity that they can't even see, aren't even aware of, the physical barriers all around them? Ill-considered rhetoric needs to be confronted, contested at any and every opportunity. Self-replicating, regurgitated mantras built on lies, fears and hatred need overturning without hesitation.
The frontierless world begins with frontierless minds. The challenge is to dismantle the barriers which deafen, blindfold, shackle and dehumanise us. A mind without barriers can step over any line, has endless possibilities, unlimited potential, can acknowledge and appreciate the diversity and congruent value of humankind. The frontierless mind can value the vision in which all have their own, inalienable home.