November 2011 | Status: Second Draft
In an age when discrimination on the basis of race, gender, income, and religion is almost universally condemned (even though it continues to exist in practice), nationalism is one of the few cases of discrimination that remains stubbornly popular and even valorized. But why should the fact that someone was born in San Diego rather than Tijuana have any bearing on what kind of jobs he can legally get and where he can even travel to, any more than the fact that he was born in San Diego rather than Los Angeles?
Why should the fact that someone holds a South African passport, for example, mean any more than the fact that she has dark skin? Why should people feel any more attachment to their country than they do to their city or neighborhood? (A lot of cities used to be independent countries, you know.) Why do we care so much about such accidents of history as the location of national borders? Can’t we stop bothering with all those meaningless things and just be homo sapiens?
Nationalism as we know it is a product of 19th century European romanticism. The notion of the sovereignty of the state (including its modern variant, “popular sovereignty”), on which a lot of nationalistic sentiments are based, is also a hangover from the era of absolute monarchy.
- Peace of Westphalia: 1648
- Hobbes’s Leviathan: 1651
Sovereignty means “supreme authority”, i.e. the right to go rogue without anybody checking it. But no man-made institution deserves this kind of right. Not even your own favorite government. Stringent checks and balances are the only method that has proven to work against corruption, and this applies to entire nations just as much as it does to the various agencies within a government.
Likewise, the whole philosophy of political obligation, i.e. the duty to obey the law even if you think it’s wrong, seems to me like some sticky residue from the days of theocracy and absolute monarchy. We could probably replace the whole idea of political obligation with a combination of some modern ideas: the legitimacy of democratic procedures, the justice (or lack thereof) of the law in question, and the undeniable fact that proper coordination improves efficiency. Because that’s what nations are: a useful construct, and no more.
The concept of sovereign nation-states as the ultimate unit of social organization should have gone down with the Titanic a hundred years ago. Now it wanders, like a zombie, around a world where it is no longer relevant, fanning war and hatred wherever it goes, even as international institutions, human rights watchdogs, multinational corporations, and the Internet erode whatever tooth remains in it.
Remember: if someone appeals to their nationality, culture, or any other mere convention while trying to justify something, it probably means that they’ve begun to run out of excuses.