The Importance of Cultural Nationalism in an Era of Distrust

The Importance of Cultural Nationalism in an Era of Distrust

Alexander Zubatov
Alexander Zubatov
10 min read

“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

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