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National Identity

You are a citizen of many different things. You belong to a city and a neighborhood, a state or province, and a nation. The word “citizen” is something like a title in that it implies there are certain rights and privileges that are at your command, in addition to a few obligations to maintain the entity.

More important, however, is that citizenship is an identity. While the various actions required by law or custom only come up once in a while, your kinship is a constantly defining force. You might travel around the world and meet someone who shares a citizenship with you, and there is an instant bond.

But what does any of this mean to the ever increasing number of people who call themselves “global citizens”?

No, they don’t use clipboards anymore.

The poll was taken in August of 2016 by the BBC, one of the few organizations with a truly global reach that could possibly have collected the information. They found that the majority of people around the planet, 58% in total, consider themselves to be “global citizens.” This includes 43% of Americans.

This poll has not been taken since, but at the time it showed that support for this view was waning in the developed world and gaining in the developing world. In China, for example, 70% agreed with the assessment.

Given that citizenship is an identity at many levels at the same time, none of this precludes any strong sense of national identity, or for that matter civic pride in place. But given that more and more people around the world see themselves as one entity, what does this in fact mean? Are there similar obligations and rights? Are we now a big family or tribe? What parts of our identity our global, and which are local?

In terms of politics, it begs a different question, however. What is the purpose of a nation?

The modern nation-state is a concept which in many ways dates back to 1648. In the Treaty of Westphalia, ending the Thirty Years War, the nations of Europe agreed that what happened internally to another state was simply not their business and they could be whatever religion they saw fit. This concept is often called “Westphalian Sovereignty,” a phrase far more popular in cultures not from European ancestry. Pointing this out is a way of saying, “This whole setup was your idea, not ours.”

Is this the real American Century?

Through colonialism and the deconstruction of empire into what we have now, the concept of national sovereignty has remained the standard. Borders between nations are the fundamental building block of our political planet, whether we like it or not. If you are Uzbeki or Nigerian or Paraguayan or Australian, your fundamental set of obligations and rights comes from whatever that nations says they are. Your relationship to it is defined by your passport and who was willing to issue it.

Within that nation, there is almost certainly a unique politics. It’s a reflection of the prevailing religion, history, difficulties with resources, and other considerations that someone from the outside will have trouble understanding. Ideally, it all makes perfect sense to the people involved and the rights and privileges which come with that passport are meaningful and empowering.

It could easily be argued that the main function of a nation-state is to protect these rights, broadly defined to include property rights and other privileges of citizenship. There are many other aspects of personal development that could be included which allow access to the rest of the world in the form of skills and understanding, the development of which increase national prosperity by making the best use of the greatest resource of the nation, its people.

Where everything becomes interesting, however, is that this is rarely where a nation’s sense of itself stops. Industrial nationalism teaches that all production and income is, to a certain extent, a point of national pride or even property. Socialism is rarely defined in international terms any longer, instead referring to the sharing of resources within a nation in a way which seems equitable.

Many hands make lighter work. Many different hands make the work a triumph.

Given that a majority of people around the planet see themselves as citizens of the planet, the role of nations naturally comes into question, however. Is a nation slowly becoming more like a province or a city, a provider of essential services? Is it really more important than anything else, in the grand scheme of everything?

More importantly, if there are rights and privileges which are more universal, perhaps even endowed by the Creator in some sense, what kind of institution should there be to protect those for every citizen around the world?

The ongoing reduction of industrial nationalism is much more than an economic concern. It is increasingly about the very essence of life in a time when the planet draws closer together every day. It comes down to fundamental values and identity, the most personal perspective on all connection to the different people everyone meets every day.

None of these question shave easy answers. What we can say is that a politics based on a trade-off between industrial nationalism and socialism is a politics that has run shrieking back into the definitions and challenges of a century ago. It has remarkably little to do with not just the economy of today, but the personal identity and aspirations of today’s global citizens.

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5 thoughts on “National Identity

  1. I’ve always wondered about the idea of national sovereignty. I do think citizens of any particular nation have the right to determine their own culture and laws. However, no nation has the right to hurt its own citizens. If a nation’s government begins a practice of genocide or torture or war on its citizens, I don’t believe that government has a right to continue. I think the rest of the world has an obligation to step in and remove the government from power. Control must immediately be given to the citizens of that nation to re-establish their government. In other words, no other nation or world body can claim sovereignty – it still belongs to the people. The rest of us must only offer support.

    One obvious way to know when to step in is when people are leaving their country in droves, and showing up at the borders of nearby countries asking for asylum. The people in control of that country should immediately be brought before a world body (the UN or something else), removed from power, and face justice, including recompense to the people.

    We always seem to just bemoan the fact that the people in control have sovereignty and we can’t do anything about it. You know what it looks like from my point of view? An “old boys club.” The leaders causing these problems are nearly always men, and the other men of the world are reluctant to take action against them. It’s a big circle of protection and we need to stop doing it.

    I know this is radical and I understand we would need many safeguards in place. But the bottom line, to me, is that all people deserve equality, safety, and control of their own lives. If a government is not allowing that, then that government must be stopped.

    • It comes down to how we would do any such thing. National sovereignty as we know it is generally rather absolute – though Iraqis in the audience can chime in now and tell me otherwise. That seems like an extreme position, but it’s understandable. Arrangements like this were reached after decades of horrific war.

      We do not know what to do with nations that have failed in some important way. These include Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, and probably a few others. Your list might be longer than mine. For example, is Saudi Arabia’s terrible human rights record a “failure”?

      I do not have the answers to everything. What I can say is that more and more people see themselves as citizens of the world. We’re not all Rick Blaine in Casablanca, but I get the feeling that there’s a certain tough outside with a soft inside which comes with that. I simply think it’s worth exploring at this time.

      My only solution is to develop a global sense of culture. Any global government of any kind has to come after that, IMHO. It may also nto be necessary if we do it right.

    • I have a little joke when I meet a struggling young painter. I ask them if they are a vegetarian, and if they are I tell them, “You’re just like Hitler!”

      (No, I don’t do that very often. Like once. Yeah, it’s not likely to be taken well.)

      The point is that such comparisons are never useful. Should we have some kind of global entity? Well, a majority of people on this planet already do. What should it be? I’m a strongly federalist kind of guy, so I would say minimal.

      In fact, what I am leading to in all of this is what I stated previously 0 that in a world where there is broad agreement on that is decent, moral, fair, and good there is little need for any such “government.” I really think that’s the direction we must go, no matter what.

      So .. am I calling for a world government/ Not in the slightest. Not even close.

      And eat your veggies if you want to grow up to be big and strong and command vast armies.

  2. I’m not really advocating for a global government. Just a global court or organization with enough real power to handle the bad guys. It’s a danger, because I’m sure we’d screw it up somehow. There are enough horror stories already about soldiers who are supposed to protect a population but end up running prostitution rings or smuggling drugs. So my idea is mostly a plea to recognize that we must stop murderous regimes, but be very careful with the detailed inner workings of whatever we come up with.

    We have organizations now – United Nations and the World Court come to mind, but we are too stuck on the “right of sovereignty” for them to be effective.

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