Diversity, Top Stories

The Importance of Cultural Nationalism in an Era of Distrust

“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” ~Mark 12:31

“My brother before my cousin. My cousin before my neighbor. My neighbor before my countryman. My countryman before a foreigner.” ~Arabic proverb 

We are living in an epoch of escalating distrust. Whether within nations, international unions of nations, or trade deals, we are growing increasingly suspicious that others are free-riding and not holding up their end of reciprocal bargains.

Germany thinks the economic laggards within the E.U. ought to step up. Some E.U. nations, meanwhile, think Germany is using its control over the union to keep prices in developing markets artificially inflated so that German exports will not be at a competitive disadvantage. Trump is tired of our NATO partners not pulling their weight. All over the first world, concern is growing that immigrants are not truly committed—or constitute an outright threat—to the nation-states that host them, and are either leeching away jobs or state benefits.

Muslims suspect the West of imperialist aggression while the West suspects Muslims of being potential jihadists in-waiting. Distrust between rich and poor has resurfaced under the banner of ‘economic inequality,’ and we are seeing more class-baiting than at any point since socialism’s heyday, as populists on the Left and Right call out the free-riders of the ‘Establishment’ or the ‘billionaire class.’ Whites and blacks fight over disparaging caricatures of one another: white America’s notion of the lazy, entitled black ‘welfare queen’ and black America’s notion of the coddled, entitled beneficiary of insidious ‘white privilege.’

All over the world, we are falling out along tribal lines which are beating back universalist principles. As the New York Times columnist David Brooks lamented on October 3rd, “The whole point of America is that we are not a tribe. We are a universal nation, founded on universal principles, attracting talented people from across the globe, active across the world on behalf of all people who seek democracy and dignity.” But this neoliberal/neoconservative consensus vision of America, indeed, of the world’s bright, interconnected future, is collapsing. Why? And why now?

The answer involves an understanding of anthropology and evolutionary theory. In his 1999 article, “Symbolism as Reference and Symbolism as Culture,” the U. Penn anthropological researcher Philip G. Chase addressed the difficult problem of how large groups of people can achieve cooperation and harmony. Cooperation and altruism are present within families or other closely related groups, even in the animal kingdom. This can be explained by the evolutionary biologist W.D. Hamilton’s notions of kin selection and inclusive fitness, which postulate that, by aiding the survival and reproduction of a closely related being, we are effectively furthering the propagation of our genes (including the genes that make such altruistic behavior likely).

Within a small group that is not quite as closely related, cooperation still submits to evolutionary logic. Wolves hunt together and this benefits each individual group member, so any attempt to cheat by a single wolf and steal all the meat will be readily punished by the group. As the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers has shown, such cooperation can and does exist even among members of different species when the paths of the same individuals repeatedly intersect.

But once a group’s size increases past the point where the same individuals interact with one another again and again, the incentives of the prisoner’s dilemma flip. If the free-rider is not a wolf obliged to depend on a small pack but a person who can take more from a large society than he gives back without ever being called to account, free-riding rather than cooperation is the better welfare-maximizing strategy for the individual, even if this approach works to the detriment of the group as a whole.

As Chase puts it, functional communities are possible only “when cheating can be eliminated, that is, when those who put short-term benefits ahead of cooperation are punished by being deprived of the cooperation of others. Normally, this can only occur when all individuals in a relationship expect to interact fairly frequently in the future. When this is not the case, then cheating is always the productive strategy for the individual.” And yet, as Chase observes, “there is one thing that extant humans can do that other primate species do not do. We organize very large social systems, networks of interaction that require cooperation between individuals who may never see one another before and who expect never to see one another again.”

So, how is such cooperation made possible? Chase’s answer is ‘symbolic culture’:

[C]ooperation with strangers is usually made possible by incorporating them into culturally defined categories with whom cooperation is mandated culturally….The symbolic web includes the rules, definitions and the like that explain what one is expected to do. However, it usually involves a set of symbolic concepts, usually embedded in mythology, that explain why one must do what is expected….No longer is behavior to be judged solely by the concrete results it produces. Rather, its symbolic meanings and symbolic (cultural) results are equally important—and often more so. Action is motivated by culture; action is justified by culture; action is even defined by culture.

In addition to kin selection, in other words, there is cultural selection; the creation of cultural kinship categories that unite and can embrace numbers far in excess of those that could be bonded together by genetic relatedness or a web of repeated interactions. Furthermore, the content of culture, the particular norms it inculcates in a people, would generally evolve to be sustaining rather than self-destructive, as the evolutionary biologists John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry have argued.

In his 1999 article, “Culture, Honesty and the Free-Rider Problem,” Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar examined the ways in which culture creates shorthand proxies for overcoming free-riding, “an intrusive problem in the large dispersed social groups that characterize our species.” In the kinds of rapidly developing, often perilous interactions in which early humans might have been involved, the assessment of whether a stranger could be trusted or had to be fought or feared had to be completed quickly and efficiently. Cognitive shortcuts and rough heuristics were more effective than nuanced analyses for this purpose.

Moreover, the rules for telling friend from foe had to be readily acquired and rigidly maintained by individuals to avoid time wasted searching for solutions and to achieve widespread communal agreement on the standards for telling who did or did not belong in the fold. Cultural “badges”—shared styles of dress, elaborate hairstyles, or tattoos—could serve this purpose, but such badges could be imitated. Harder to counterfeit, Dunbar explained, are languages and, especially, dialects. The need to use language as a proxy for kinship may have contributed, Dunbar argued, to an evolved ability to acquire unaccented speech in childhood, a faculty that diminishes with age. An accent of any sort is then an indication that someone is an outsider. As such, per Chase, such an outsider can be identified as less likely to be immersed in, and loyal to, the dominant cultural mythology and traditions that cement allegiance to the reciprocal norms common to a community.

Marked and even subtle differences in the way members of different ethnic groups look, particularly in their facial physiognomy are another possible indicator used by humans to distinguish compatriots from outsiders. Although this is an indicator to which we would have been far more aware back when our societies were less diverse and more uniform, it is one to which we remain sensitive even today.

As the mythological and religious bases of cultural cohesion began to decline in the West following the Enlightenment, the modern pluralistic nation-state emerged to fill the void. No longer composed of a single ‘people,’ the nation-state nonetheless still had to offer a solution to the hard problem of creating cultural unity and avoiding free-riding. A national identity had to be forged, a sense of what G.W.F. Hegel called ‘civil society,’ which could mediate between atomic individuals and the abstract geopolitical unity of the State.

As the French historian Ernest Renan explained in an 1882 lecture entitled “What Is a Nation?”, a nation is not a matter of race or geography, but rather, “a soul, a spiritual principle,” “a moral conscience,” a people “having common glories in the past and a will to continue them in the present,” “a great solidarity constituted by the feeling of sacrifices made and those that one is still disposed to make.” In his much-discussed 1983 book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, the political scientist Benedict Anderson argued that national newspapers fulfilled a major role in forging this solidarity by uniting peoples through a single standardized language and a stream of events (‘news’) that help create a publicly shared reality.

In addition, traditional mythology was replaced by a shared patriotic ‘history,’ comprising the benignly mythologized origins of the particular nation-state, built on the shoulders of larger-than-life figures (the wise, benevolent, and far-sighted Founding Fathers in the American version of this story). In fact, in a remark pertinent to our current obsession with revisionism and iconoclasm, Renan argued that “the progress of historical studies often poses a threat to nationality” because forgetting and even obscuring our origins and the violent and unsavory details of history are essential to the creation of a nation that believes in itself. A nation, as well, must have distinct national symbols—flags, coinage, monuments, etc.—and rituals, such as the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance or the ritualistic performance of national anthems before significant events—sports, inaugurations, political conventions, etc.—that serve to drum up patriotic fervor.

There must be national literatures and other aesthetic canons and more-or-less standardized educational curricula designed to impart such basic categories of knowledge to new generations. In this way, even though people will not ultimately agree about everything, at least they can stipulate shared terms of debate and reach a consensus as to the fundamental notions of fair and foul. As the Ancient Greek rhetorician Isocrates wrote in his Antidosis, “Because we developed the possibility of persuading each other about what we want, not only have we got rid of a savage manner of life but, coming to live together, we have created cities, established laws and discovered arts and crafts.”

And, of course, a nation must have heavily defended borders and barriers to immigration so as to distinguish between domestic and foreign, and between citizens and those who are something less than that. In a recent interview, Baylor University professor and author Alan Jacobs observed that, “In a pluralistic society, people struggle to deal with difference. One of the ways in which we typically deal with difference is by drawing really clear lines of belonging and not-belonging. To be able to signal ‘who is with me’ and ‘who is not with me’—in-groups and out-groups—is extremely significant for human beings.”

As much as we might wish to bury such seemingly atavistic instincts, even in our cosmopolitan, pluralistic, multi-ethnic, modern nations, our evolutionary heritage—our sensitivity to sameness and difference, to how people look, talk and behave, to who is with us and who is against us—remains. The more diverse we become, the harder we must work to achieve trust and unity. In place of primitive tribal identifications of clan, ethnicity, and race, a new social compact is necessary in which a shared culture becomes our totem. For Americans of every creed and color to put aside their more obvious superficial differences, they need to be reading the same books, worshipping the same cultural or theological gods, and drawing upon  the same traditions.

The Emersonian exaltation of the self; Walt Whitman’s broad-shouldered, ecumenical vision of “the varied and ample land, the South and the North in the light, Ohio’s shores and flashing Missouri, and ever the far-spreading prairies cover’d with grass and corn”; Emily Dickinson’s wildly original hermetic transcendentalism; Hart Crane’s liminal broken romanticism; Frost’s plain-spoken, seemingly homespun ironies; Wallace Stevens’s dazzling, ecstatic myths of inner journeys through our necessary solitude; Melville’s sweeping, apocalyptic grandeur; Faulkner’s hymns of the triumphs and tragedies of the fallen American South; Fitzgerald’s great American Dream passion play; Pynchon’s hyperbolic, paranoiac explosions, and so on: this shared cultural heritage helps to make contemporary America what it is. It is the climate we inhabit, even those of us who do not know its sources and cannot call them by their names. This is how we come to know ourselves and each other by becoming more what we already are.

For those of us unable or unwilling to engage on this exalted level, there are other paths leading to the great wigwam of the American tribe. We find ourselves in pews, schools, or stadiums, standing shoulder to shoulder, singing the same songs, cheering on the same teams, mourning the same losses, celebrating the same victories or just giving ourselves up to the simple, primal pleasure of chanting “USA! USA!” Not one of these measures by itself is indispensable, but if we are doing none of these things, then we risk a spiral of fragmentation.

If all the symbols and rituals that once served to unify the nation and foster assimilation in a single identity are undermined, then pandemic distrust can take hold. If, per Anderson, the emergence of national newspapers served to forge the imagined bond constituting the nation-state, then what will happen when national newspapers give way to a fragmented media landscape that feeds filter bubbles, echo chambers, and mutually exclusive realities? What will happen when universal educational curricula and aesthetic canons give way to demands for ‘representation,’ for different standards for different identity groups, for syllabi narrowly tailored to the particularist affiliations of each citizen rather than the national identity that once held sway? What will happen when national mythologies are desacralized, when the reputations of the Founding Fathers are dragged through the mud and monuments to them are literally dragged through the mud, and when national anthems are met with protests and flags are burned? What will happen when the melting pot of national identity gives way to a salad bowl bursting with myriad unassimilated tribes? We know what will happen because we are living through it: each group will accuse the other of free-riding, and identitarian movements focused on those older, atavistic evolutionary bonds of ethnic and racial kinship will re-assert themselves with a vengeance.

We cannot continue functioning as a nation if we do not first start thinking of ourselves as a nation once more. And thinking of ourselves as a nation means thinking of ourselves as one tribe. It does not have to be—and in the interconnected, globalized world of the twenty-first century, it cannot be—a tribe constituted on the basis of ethnicity or race. But David Brooks is wrong: we cannot merely be “a universal nation, founded on universal principles, attracting talented people from across the globe.” Abstract liberal values of tolerance, pluralism, and equality are surely not enough to bond us together. While racial or ethnic tribalism is to be eschewed, cultural nationalism is indispensable. If our primal evolutionary biases are to be overcome, we must do more than integrate. Paradoxical though it may sound, to avoid the extremes of a resurgent chauvinism, we must assume a national identity; we must assimilate.


Alexander Zubatov is a practicing attorney specializing in general commercial litigation. He is also a practicing writer specializing in general non-commercial poetry, fiction, essays, and polemics. In addition to contributing to a variety of publications, he makes occasional, unscheduled appearances on Medium. You can follow him on Twitter @Zoobahtov


  1. Most Americans identify with empire, nonchalantly discussing over breakfast whether the US should or should not invade, bomb, change a regime. Most Americans are convinced the US is the world leader in emancipating categories of individuals, the cause of world peace and prosperity, the nation that judges and sanctions. The empire is crumbling and that is why people are scared. How to let the imperial superstructure die while preserving the nation is the task at hand.

    The US is not one more nation that can be analyzed as others. It is the sole global superpower, emitter of the world’s reserve currency, military hegemon. The future as a common nation without imperial authority is what must be addressed openly because it is happening anyway.

    • Robert Paulson says

      I really liked this article and I agree with it in principle, but sadly, your comment brought home the reality that we face. Imperialism has hollowed out our cultural/national identity as much as multiculturalism or immigration has. In fact, it might the imperial aspiration to establish a hegemonic liberal order that may have lead to the latter two. If you believe that we are at the end of history and that our values are universal, then you have no basis for strong borders or the particularitst cultural nationalism the author speaks of. All must those must be dismantled to make way for the ultimate triumph of liberalism.

      • And again, the obvious, yet apparently unspeakable, “truth” that it is liberalism that underpins these “horrible” developments rears its taboo head.

        How does anyone with a commitment to reason and empiricism and objectivity expect to come up with a ‘mythological’ history of the USA that effectively denies its history?

        • You’re the ones dividing us. This constant harping on everything America has ever done bad, without any acknowledgement of the incredible heights our civilization has achieved, has done more to divide us and make us fight with each other than anything else.

          If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were in the pay of Russian intelligence. Making us fight with each other is Putin’s goal, and whether you know it or not you’re helping him.

    • Skip says

      It seems to me, Rosa, your first two sentences are out of touch with today’s reality, unless you’re talking about the rump of the Trump base.

      Really, mjw51, you think liberalism is the cause of the things Rosa criticizes! You might want to Google “neo-conservatism.”

  2. Robert Paulson says

    Quintessential globalists like David Brooks speak of “a universal nation, founded on universal principles”. But what exactly are these “universal principles”? I don’t know, but in the second half of his sentence we found out: “attracting talented people from across the globe.” Basically the we’re supposed to be a glorified HR department for whose purpose is to staff the neoliberal meritocracy. That’s his “universal nation”. Not exactly something to sing songs and write poetry about….

    • CZ Marks says

      “a universal nation, founded on universal principles”. But what exactly are these “universal principles”?

      We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

      • asdf says

        The founders certainly didn’t believe “created equal” the way its meant today. And The concept of “unalienable rights” has changed drastically as well.

        America didn’t really become a “proposition nation” until recently. For most of its history it was in practice more or less a white christian nation, not some abstract idea.

      • Robert Paulson says

        @ CZ Marks

        The interpretation of these has shifted over time. As @asdf says, we were not a “propositional” nation until recently. Were were a European-diaspora/Christian country before. And if the interpretation is constantly changing, did it ever have any substance to begin with, and where will the new interpretation take us?

        The most recent iteration of the “universal nation” idea is articulated by David Brooks – that we should basically be a global HR department for meritocracy. Implied in his idea of “our nation” is what I think is a deeply materialist view of human that posits the purpose of life is to basically serve the global economy with a nice helping of happy-talk about “diversity” to cover the callous social Darwinism inherent to the system.

  3. The Left has done a bang-up job dividing us into warring camps. Anyone could have told you that multiculturalism was going to lead to conflict – Yugoslavia and Austria-Hungary among them. Both were multicultural and torn apart by different languages and cultures. The Left happily shit all over the Founders. Kids today don’t know Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, they just know he’s an evil man.

    We don’t have “Americans” today. We have hyphenated-Americans who get more rights than unhyphenated. In fact, ordinary unhyphenated Americans are considered deplorable. They are the oppressors that makes the whole rotten system stink. In fact, we’re good people who have been betrayed by elites who want to ruin us so that they can rule the world. The former CEO of NPR spent a year traveling among us and found much to his surprise that we’re not evil stupid bumpkins who hate science and love Hitler. Instead, we’re good people with very real concerns who are struggling to keep our heads above water. He came around to a different point of view and no longer calls himself a Leftist.

  4. dirk says

    If I see programs on lifestyles of yung people in Moscow or Peking, and the dresses, shouting and habits of those youngsters, their assertive and self confident attitudes (= liberal humanism), then I realise that the US has won the globe, definitely, no doubt about that, even without any military or economic domination.

    • This is what I mean by imperialist culture that must be discarded if a national culture is to emerge. Assertiveness and self-confidence are human attributes that exist independently from the US. The notion that humanity is aping Americans, that the US has won the globe simply by being their exceptional selves, self-centered ignorance of the world, in short, exceptionalism, is the mythology too many Americans cling to and politicians and the media peddle. This is where the rot is coming from.

      Americans are normal people just like everybody else. If Americans are capable of having a thought, a virtue, a vice, so does everybody else. Forget about leading the world; just try to keep up.

      • dirk says

        Same as Germany is leading in Europe, even against their own purpose, so is the US leading the world (in lifestyle), whether willing so or not, I fear. And it all starts with education of the toddlers (in the NL they are now very, very assertive, unlike in my youth, all due to Dr Spock (a WASP) from the USA, whose book sold second only to the Bible).

  5. CZ Marks says

    This article misses an important implication of its own premises. As long as cooperation was produced only by genetic evolution, it could only extend to groups of genetically related individuals. (Yes, it was possible for mutualistic interactions with non-relatives or even other species to evolve, but only to the extent that they also benefitted the mutualists own genetic fitness.) Because culture can be shared among non relatives it provides an evolutionary basis for organizing larger cooperative groups, for example on the basis of religion or patriotism.

    But the expanding circle of cooperation doesn’t have to stop there, because culture doesn’t evolve only through competition between such groups. It can also spread from one group to another. That can happen when individuals or groups actively adopt ideas from others because their practical value is apparent. It can happen when individuals or groups use reason to persuade others of the correctness of their ideas. And, unfortunately, it can also happen via appeals to baser aspects of our nature like xenophobia and hatred.

    In any event, the fact that culture can spread in this way means that it is absolutely possible to envision and work toward the long-term goal of universal human cooperation based on an understanding of our shared humanity and on universal principles that arise from that understanding, including human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. These are basically the values arising from the Enlightenment, which were enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

    Many of the conflicts that are becoming so apparent in American society, and elsewhere throughout the world, arise because some portions of society are actively pushing toward the realization of these universal human values, while others (on the right and left) cling to narrower visions of cooperation and conflict based on racial, ethnic, or nationalistic identity.

    There is no easy way to reconcile these differences just by rallying around a shared national identity. The question is about the nature of that identity. We are divided by ideas that cut across national boundaries.

    • Robert Paulson says

      “Many of the conflicts that are becoming so apparent in American society, and elsewhere throughout the world, arise because some portions of society are actively pushing toward the realization of these universal human values, while others (on the right and left) cling to narrower visions of cooperation and conflict based on racial, ethnic, or nationalistic identity.”

      If people are rejecting these so-called “universal values”, then the must not be all that universal. This is the basic problem that the liberal humanists have. By assuming that they’re values are indeed universal, they don’t allow for any opposition and “progress” becomes a one-way street where all opposition is the result of “hate” or some pathology that needs to be irradiated by doubling-down on the push towards universalism. In that sense, the ideology is eerily totalitarian since it does not allow for the existence of other values and its goal is to subsume all people and value systems and replace them with a version of itself.

      • “If people are rejecting these so-called “universal values”, then the must not be all that universal.”

        LOL. Furthermore, most of humanity is literate and has access to an internet connection and can read Locke and the US constitution for themselves, it’s all on Wikipedia. Why the need for a global hegemon armed to the teeth to spread 18th century philosophy?

        It’s not like the US always leads the world in liberal emancipation and decriminalization. Haiti emancipated slaves in 1804, Uruguay granted women the vote 1917, Vatican City decriminalized homosexuality in 1890, the Bolsheviks decriminalized abortion in 1920, South Africa instituted gay marriage in 2006, and Japan granted trans self-identification rights in 2003. One may well argue that the US is just a follower of world-wide trends.

        “its goal is to subsume all people and value systems and replace them with a version of itself.”

        Yes, universalism as a global imaginary mini-me under threat from the Bush Doctrine.

        • Wow, Rosa, in my boundless ignorance I never realized ’til now that we have been surpassed and overtaken by our global betters in accomplishing this great list of superior moral and political attainments: abortion, gay marriage, trans self-identification. Where do I sign up?

  6. Designer says

    In your introduction you imply the NATO partners to be free-riders profiting from US military ‘protection’. But military hegemony is not constructed to protect European Nations rather than maintaining the US empire and it’s geopolitical dominance and European Nations serve as vassal states. The US created a hysterical concept of an enemy of Russia, while Europe tries to maintain good neighbourliness and doesn’t feel threatened. Europe invests not as heavily in military expense but pays the resulting costs for US military actions that are intended upon economic profits. When you argue for a cultural nationalism for the US you should grant the same to other nations.

    • Europe is not a vassal state. Vassals pay their liege for protection. America pays Europe for the privilege of protecting it. I don’t know what the word for that is, but it’s certainly not vassal.

      NATO nations are free riders. They do not spend on their own defense and sneer at the Americans for doing it for them.

      • Designer says

        It seems you don’t have the slightest cue about geopolitics and NATO. The first NATO Secretary General Baron Ismay described the purpose of NATO as” to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down”. Today there are 47.055 US troops on 38 bases in Germany, next to 200 nuclear warheads. Then compare the numbers of Middle East refugees that have come to the US and to Europe. Europe doesn’t need the NATO, because it serves solely American purposes.

        • Skip says


          Not solely. Forward deployments are essential to protect interests shared by both Europe and the U.S. For example, unfettered oil markets are essential to industrialized nations, at least for the present. Desert Storm woud not have been possible without such deployments. And should Iran some day attempt to close the Straits of Hormuz….

          Similarly, countering Russian machinations in the Ukraine would have required joint action if the political will had been there on both sides of the Atlantic.

  7. Johan says

    The US is not an empire. After a war the US leaves or try to set up some sort of democracy.
    The last empire was the USSR. They didn’t leave.
    Victor Davis Hanson explains this very well on YouTube.
    Superpower it is. Being from Sweden I really hope the US stay as the top dog. Is China the better alternative?
    China seems to buy up Africa. Land and mines. Sneaky imperialists?

    • dirk says

      @Johan: and why are the Chinese (generation as of now) so succesful in buying up mines and lands in Africa? Because they’re not talking about democracy and human rights, that suits the governments in those nations much better than all that talk about rights and democracy.

    • 1) Substitute “top dog” and “superpower” for empire;
      2) fail to imagine that there are alternatives to a global system with a single “top dog”;
      3) express that it is more comforting to you, as a Westerner, to have a Western “top dog” instead of a sneaky Asian one;

      and you get the mythology of Western supremacy, no longer based on racial supremacy, that it too 19th century, but on moral and ideological supremacy. This is at the center of Western decadence.

  8. Jack B. Nimble says

    “…..As the mythological and religious bases of cultural cohesion began to decline in the West following the Enlightenment, the modern pluralistic nation-state emerged to fill the void. No longer composed of a single ‘people,’ the nation-state nonetheless still had to offer a solution to the hard problem of creating cultural unity……”

    This paragraph is where the article by Zubatov really goes off the rails. We need to distinguish first between nation and state. A ‘nation’ is a group of people who share a common cultural and genetic ancestry or heritage, and these people may or may not have a state. Hence the Nation of Israel is all persons who claim Jewish ancestry/affinity regardless of where they live.

    A state is a geopolitical entity typically with laws, borders, armed forces, etc. This state may be composed of one nation or pieces of several nations. For example, the State of Israel is inhabited by two groups who claim two different national affinities: Jewish and Palestinian. Great Britain, the former Austro-Hungarian empire and modern Iraq are also classic examples of states with persons who claim different affinities/ancestries.

    To be clear, an American Jew living in NYC is considered by him/herself and by the State of Israel to be part of the Nation of Israel. A Palestinian living in Nazareth, Israel is obviously not part of the Nation of Israel.

    The modern nation-state was NOT a pluralistic project. Instead, it arose primarily in Europe and was in part a response to the sectarian wars that had roiled that continent for many decades. Historically, the most important examples are the consolidation of many German-speaking states into what we now call the Nation-State of Germany. Ditto for the consolidation of many Italian-speaking states, kingdoms, principalities, etc. into the Nation-State of Italy.

    The USA, with its birth-right law of citizenship and lack of an official language or common religion, doesn’t fit into any of these models. Maybe that is what politicians in the USA mean when they talk about American exceptionalism. In any event, this situation makes it more difficult but not impossible to forge an American national identity.

    Past conflicts over an American identity have been resolved, obviously with the US Civil War but also with the anti-Catholic and anti-Asian panics between roughly 1850 and 1950. So I expect and hope that the current conflicts over immigration, etc. can be settled amicably.

  9. dirk says

    We should certainly not forget here to mention the recent book of Amy Chua: Political Tribes. Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. She criticizes the US for naively seeing themselves as a hegemonial supergroup, a unique blend and community of the very diverse groups, thereby not seeing the blind spot of the reality of tribalism. Not only in their own land, also in, e.g. Irak and Afghanistan (“don’t mention the wars”). She especially notes the tribal left of the elite West Coast and NwYork. My Dutch newspaper critices that book for emphasizing too much on those lower human instincts (I do not agree here) and her too easily getting away with her thougts of problem solving by more discussions and an open eye for each other ( here, I agree with my newspapers criticism). Can we shake hands here Rosa??

    • dirk says

      correction: -of the very diverse groups-, must be,- of the very diverse immigrant groups of once-.

  10. Adeimantus says

    There’s a delicate balance that needs to be struck. Our society needs to be held together with this symbolic-symbol-glue, but should also be criticized to keep us fresh. Many of the things we feel we should maintain at all costs are sometimes just cultural left-overs that anthropological studies would suggest are not so “universal”, and sometimes are pathological. Freedom of speech and valuing debate are ideas that come to mind that are meta enough so as to be vital.

  11. Gilded says

    Tribalism bad, therefore we must form a nationalistic tribe that will ignore every crime the nation commits and tries to murder people like Palestinians or others nations that can’t match our military strength all for “the good” of the nation.

  12. Immigration undermines civic nationalism because it’s all about extended families: I gotta get my cousin a visa because my grandmother and aunt won’t stop nagging me until Cousin Abdul has his own 7-11 in Dubuque.

    Of course, extended families are what racial groups are made of.

    If you can’t cut way back on immigration, like the US did during it’s ultra-successful mid-20th Century peak, you can build a lot of patriotic cohesion.

    Of course, you also have to ban affirmative action for anybody from an immigrant background. Otherwise, all the incentives are for new arrivals to whine about how they are being oppressed and need more quotas and more visas and more power.

    • Levi Shoshan says

      My sense is America is just about to (if it hasn’t already) reach a point of no return wrt immigration. Even if we shut the border in a 20th century style moratorium, the internal birth rates of unassimilated populations are outpacing the assimilation rates of those populations. It is not difficult to predict the long term consequences of this trend, and it’s not obvious what the remedy to this problem is.
      Obviously a total halt on inflow is essential, as well as a complete removal of all unlawful residents. The problem is US law deems you an American on the basis of the side of the border you happened to be born on. Perhaps a retroactive reversal of this policy could help

  13. Baron Von Plow says

    “It does not have to be—and in the interconnected, globalized world of the twenty-first century, it cannot be—a tribe constituted on the basis of ethnicity or race.”

    Is this saying that NO nation can do this? Because globalism? Tons of successful 21st century nations are still ethnostates. No diversity to speak of at all. Ands thus none of the questions of identity and lack of trust facing the open borders nations of the West.

  14. Ad Francis says

    I’m a little baffled by the author’s choice to introduce the article with a reference from Matthew. But he did, so I’ll take him up on it. And I promise I’ll make it connect with the theme of this article…

    Any honest discussion of “my neighbor” must lead to the question that one expert in the law asked Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” (In other words, define the terms.) Jesus replies with the famous story of the Good Samaritan. Two thousand years later, this story strikes us as rather anodyne. But what Jesus said was radical, even dangerous. For a number of reasons, ranging from legitimate to dubious, Israel considered Samaria to be a cultural, political, and physical threat. (If Jesus were telling this story today, he would be talking about the Good Palestinian, perhaps even the Good Hamas Fighter. Or, if his audience was Palestinian, Jesus might talk about the Good Likud Party Member.)

    In any case, to make a short story shorter, Jesus talks about the Good Samaritan. An Israelite is on the road outside Jerusalem, and he gets beat up to within an inch of his life by street toughs. As he lays moaning on the road, he is passed and avoided by two fellow Israelites. Then a Samaritan comes along, bandages the broken man’s wounds, and puts him up at a local inn at his expense. Of the three passersby, the Samaritan is, of course, the man’s neighbor.

    I take two things away from this story that strike me as pertinent to this discussion:

    1. Community is a choice. What we are talking about here – whether couched in the language of “nation,” “state,” “tribe,” etc. – is community. This might sound Pollyanna – it certainly would have sounded naive to a younger me – but I am convinced that this is the truth. We humans come up with infinite ways to separate ourselves. We can also choose to find ways to integrate with one another. Showing kindness to hurting people as we cross paths is as good a start as any.

    2. History is important, but it isn’t insurmountable. When Jesus told this story, he could have easily given his characters generic identities. Two guys pass by, third guy stops; guy number three is the neighbor. Instead, Jesus chose to weigh the narrative down with cultural and historical baggage. We need to grapple with history – with our triumphs and failures – but we can choose to move on and create new identities. This, however, won’t come without personal costs. It cost Jesus his life, and many men and women since.

  15. dirk says

    Good point Ad, moving, and I fear yes, many more men and women and children will follow suit.

  16. dirk says

    And, by the way, did you know that Tolstoy’s place was called Yasnaya Polyana? Tolstoy, the devoted pacifist, and writer of War and Peace.

  17. Steve says

    Universalism appears to be the seemingly enforced ideologically trend in the 21st century but this concept is muddy. Is it that traditional modes of cultural unity will need to coexist with fluid, tribal (multicultural, multilingual and multiethnic) practices, or will one monopolise the terrain?

    I don’t believe in turning back the clock to the perceived ‘Golden Age’, so how do we find a way to move forward without shared national and cultural interests? I think it starts with the Universities and the upending of postmodernism. We must raise a generation of thinkers who are optimists not fatalists.

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