You are your nation

Before you tell me this is the most boring topic ever, and you feel like you’re reading a text book, imagine yourself a citizen of another nation.  Your membership into a nation creates part of your very identity.  Is the nation state imposed upon you by a more powerful country?  Do you benefit from its existence?  Is it partially defined by having an opponent?  Is it real?

The rise of the nation state
As we tighten borders, minimize access to geographical regions, wage war and label people as non-patriotic, it might be helpful to understand exactly what defines a nation and the meaning of being a member.

It’s almost hard to imagine the absence of nations in the modern world.  Places that have been reluctant to accept this construct, such as the Middle East have struggled in the world political arena.  In the late 1990’s, I wrote about issues that arose with the imposed nation state in Jordan, Libya and Egypt.  Consider their current horrors.

Ernest Gellner and Elie Kedourie argued the spread of  nationalism occurred first in Europe.  Some mark the signing of the the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) with the origin.  Being from the Americas perhaps disposes me to the ideology of Benedict Anderson who sees nationalism as an Americas and Creole phenomena.

Anderson begins his work by bringing up three paradoxes of nationalism:

  1. Nationalism is a recent and modern creation despite nations being thought of by most people as old and timeless;
  2. Nationalism is universal in that every individual belongs to a nation, yet each nation is supposedly completely distinct from every other nation;
  3. Nationalism is an idea so influential that people will die for their nations, yet at the same time an idea difficult to define – just ask someone.

In Anderson’s theory of nationalism, the phenomenon only came about as people began rejecting three key beliefs about their society:

  1. That certain languages such as Latin were superior to others in respect to access to universal truths;
  2. That divine right to rule was granted to the rulers of society, usually monarchs, and was a natural basis for organizing society;
  3. That the origins of the world and the origins of humankind were the same.

As the nation state emerged in the eighteenth century, it was soon adapted and applied to a variety of peoples of different histories and governments.  Benedict Anderson defines the nation as an imagined community, a connection and identification with the anonymous “national” other.  He argues, that as such, it is conceived and created, not simply a natural system.  Anderson writes that the predicament of limited social mobility of the Creoles of the Americas combined with a new popularity of print capitalism resulted in a nation state that soon became a model for subsequent emerging nations.  As a malleable model, the nation state became the popular form of rule.  Even those who have a more tepid and resistant view toward the idea of this construct, such as regions with strong religious identity and dynastic empires have been forced to adapt many of its features.

So, what makes a nation?
One of the peculiar features of the nation state is that it gives the illusion of democracy; it gains a certain appeal by claiming those with political power and influence are representative of individual members.  In this way, the nation state is seen as a horizontal form of government.  This is a great departure in philosophy from dynastic and religious communities that operate in a hierarchal and centripetal fashion which claim the sole position of authority over individuals as well as other governments.  In contrast, the nation state recognizes other nations as equals and has a competitive stance toward them.  In order to solidify alliances, opposition is most effective.

The imagined community gathers allegiance of its members from an imagined past.  The nation claims an antiquity that is fabled, not factual.  In order to create camaraderie of its members, similarities are exploited.  Patriotism and love of country are publicly exhibited at many sporting events, schools and ceremonies through mechanisms like the Pledge of Allegiance (think of those terms).  Recently, San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback, Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the National Anthem during a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers.  It sparked tons of discussion, anger and surges of patriotism, but also press.

A singular secular print language comprehensible by its masses is what Anderson sees as paramount in the spread of nationalism.  Once the language spoken and written by dynastic and religious officials matched that of a general population, a horizontally structured social system was more imaginable.  Print also effectively fixes a language.  Languages evolve at a much slower pace after they are massly distributed through print.  We have seen a quickening of language change, then fix before our eyes with the advent of the text message.  Fixity of language gives unity to those who speak it.  An imagined community through spoken word is also seen in sacred languages, however sacred language differs markedly.

The great sacral cultures (and for our purposes it may be permissible to include ‘Confucianism’) incorporated conceptions of immense communities.  But Christendom, the Islamic Ummah, and even the Middle Kingdom- which, though we think of it today as Chinese, imagined itself not as Chinese, but as central–were imagined largely through sacred language and written script.  Take for example Islam: if Maguidanao met Berbers in Mecca, knowing nothing of each other’s languages, incapable of communicating orally, they nonetheless understood each other’s ideographs, because the sacred texts they shared existed in only classical Arabic.  In this sense, written Arabic functioned like Chinese characters to create a community out of signs, not sounds.  Yet classical communities linked by sacred languages had a character distinct from the imagined communities of modern nations.  One crucial difference was the older communities’ confidence in the unique sacredness of their languages, and thus their ideas about admission to membership (Anderson, 1991; 12,13).

Print language created a new kind of power, as people identified and linked themselves in a new kind of relationship with the governing system.  This imagined equitable relationship altered the way in which governments were structured.  Its equitability had great popular appeal with large populations. Soon this popularity combined with a perceived modality resulted in seemingly different governing systems adopting the nation state construct.

Official nationalism, the willed merger of the nation and dynastic empire, becomes a means for some dynasties to retain control when faced from the 1820’s on with popular national movements (Anderson 1937; 86).  A common language was the bond that served as a determining basis for nationality. Success in part was achieved by making a language compulsory for the emerging nation’s population.  But a single language was not always sufficient for determining membership to a nation.  Ethnic and religious backrounds could be prerquisites for national membership.  No matter the criteria, within two centuries, the globe was territorially mapped in the modern world by ruling nation states.

The nation state places importance on having defined boundaries.  As the nation state spreads, other systems such as kingdoms and dynasties also become part of a nationally mapped world. Prior to this time, dynastic states were not territorially preoccupied.  In the Middle East, the areas that fell outside the Sultan’s realm were considered the land of the tribes (siba).  Religious territories extended as far as the farthest member lived.  Certainly, however, no geographic area was expected to contain a community of fellow believers.

Territorial boundaries were and continue to be a matter of dispute among the recently mapped world. It is not unusual for properties to be allotted, traded or gained by ruling nations.  Ruling nations have also reserved the right to create new nations while redrawing boundaries.  My area of study- Libya and Jordan were two such nations. They have been created within the last six decades through territory gained by influential powers. The recipe for nationalism has a basic list of necessary ingredients, but each nation’s unique blend results in innumerable versions in the final product, each reflective of a certain cultural creation of reality.

What’s happening to our nation?
The illusion of democracy, an imagined past, print language and defined boundaries are all features of a nation. In recent years, there are signals that these features are eroding.

A few examples include:

~The illusion of having direct impact on elections (democracy) – Republican leaders refused to back Donald Trump for US Presidency despite the popular vote.

~An imagined past- Manifest destiny is no longer applicable.

~Print language- has become electronic and viral, spreading through the world.

~Defined boundaries- This has become controversial with refugees fleeing war, persecution.  Some argue, boundaries are unnatural.  

We are rapidly shifting perception of what defines a nation, and consequently, what defines us as an imagined community.


Consider what it means to be American, French, Jordanian, Libyan.  Which would you rather be, and why?  What part did influential nations play in determining your decision?  Can you imagine a different construct that is not reliant on having an opponent for unification?  


Posted in Editorial, Political, Social, Social Commentary, Sociology.

One Comment

Comments are closed.