Aug 2nd, 2017, 01:26 PM

A Case Against Nationalism

By Isabel Guigui
Image Credit: Pexels/Unsplash
Today our national identities drive us away from one another, and our era's savviest politicians are capitalizing on it.

If you went to the "Father of Brexit" lecture, you know me. I'm the loud-mouthed hippie who stalked off the scene after scolding Sir Cash for five minutes. Am I proud of this conduct? No. Am I ashamed? Certainly not. I wish I had been able to formulate my rambling accusations into the essential question on my mind—rather than being told to be quiet and then leaving. The following is an analysis on how personal identity shapes, and can be shaped by, politics and society. 

The state of the world as I see it follows a pattern. It is a cycle of vicious stories of terror attacks provoked by the dropping of bombs by superpowers who perpetuate senseless wars in which millions suffer and die, all in the name of money. And though, I agree, this is a rather dramatic synopsis of international affairs, and though, yes there are beautiful stories in the news, the fact remains that the globe's most influential players continue to pursue their egocentric agenda while lying to their people about their true intentions. 

Let me explain myself. To give you the short version, I was born in the German part of Switzerland to American and German parents, and I grew up in Zurich and New York. "So you're Swiss too?" In fact, I am not, as Switzerland does not grant the droit du sol. But, one might say, don't you feel Swiss, having spent such a formative period of your childhood there? Well, no. The Swiss are a prideful people, and many do not feel warm about the vast population of expats residing in their country. These sentiments managed to trickle down even to us when we were just in grade school. Since most of us attended Anglophone international schools we didn't speak Swiss German as convincingly as perhaps we should have, so naturally, we didn't fit in in the neighborhood. While some kids ignored us, others genuinely looked to pick fights. That's right, the showdowns and fisticuffs of my life happened on a playground when I was five. Don't get me wrong, I recognize the privilege of having lived in a country as safe and sound as Die Schweiz, but the fact remains that while I have many beautiful memories from those years, there is no lingering sense of homesickness. 


Zürich. Image credit: Isabel Guigui

The same proved true stateside. As it were, my father is a first generational, his mother of German and his father of Moroccan descent. Coupling our family's embryonic "American-ness" with the fact that we laid our foundation in New York and built our lives there resulted in me, a child with little sense of patriotism. "I'm not American, I'm a New Yorker," twelve-year-old me would assert proudly. But even that identity, that I so dearly wanted to cultivate, hasn't rung true for me. My coming of age was spent hidden away in a Connecticut boarding school, which, though I loved, thoroughly impeded me from getting to know my city the way I have gotten to know, for example, Paris. And now here I am, loving my way of life, putting down my own roots for the first time, and yet try as I might to assimilate myself to the culture, there will always be those clients at my brasserie who want to know where my petit accent charmant is from. So I can't pretend French nationality either.... 

What of my German citizenship, you ask? Though I grew up speaking, reading and writing the language, and spent many lovely summers with family in das Vaterland, I can't say I know its slang, trends, scandals and pop culture the way I do the American. This leaves me with two nationalities with which I cannot identify, a country of birth that bears no influence on my character, and the random quarter of Moroccan blood that gave me a rare last name. 

I am currently majoring in International Comparative Politics, and as such am taking some very engaging courses. Take that factor into account with our residence in a world metropolis, an epicenter for global politics (summits like COP21 are a beautiful example), plus the imminence of the French présidentielles—not to mention Brexit, the disastrous results of the American elections, Russia's annexation of Crimea plus their interference in multiple elections, the dragging on of the Syrian civil war and Assad's renewed use of chemical weapons, and the alarming regression of republics like Hungary and Turkey to illiberal democracies—and you might now understand the cause of my anxiety, frustration, and tension. So in Comparative Politics last semester, our professor, the eclectic Dr. Oleg explained to us the differences between nations, states, and nation-states. 


New York. Image credit: Isabel GuiguiGuigui

A state, he explained, can be defined as a sovereign, self-governing body characteristically claiming legitimacy through its territoriality and its monopoly of legitimate violence—that is to say, its institutions of law enforcement like a police corps and justice system. On the other hand, a nation may simply be a group of people whose members share a common identity. So your friend from Hong Kong or Singapore lived in a state that had no nation; your Palestinian or Tibetan buddies hail from nations that cannot claim state status. This means that traditionally countries like France, Germany and the U.S. are considered nation-states. But here is my issue: with all my stories about failing to find a national identity with which I identify, even academics are drawing my attention to this subject. For how can the U.S. consider itself a state with one nation? Would it not be more appropriate to designate it a collection of nations governed by one state? 

Here is the fundamental problem, something I discussed avidly with the French in the run-up to the American elections. When I arrived in Paris, some would taunt, "But Donald Trump is leading in the polls, aren't you concerned?" To this, I would just scoff that his campaign was a media stunt to return some public attention to a fading figure. He'll never even make it to the primaries, I asserted. But here we are, two years later, and more than six months into Trump's term. How could this have happened? Although Clinton still won the popular vote (with a sizeable margin of three million votes) I was shocked to see the cold facts that nearly 63 million Americans voted in favor of such an unabashed bigot. 

But the explanation behind this phenomenon is simpler than it may seem. In our discussion in class about nations and states, we also considered the concept of consociationalism: the principle of power-sharing among political institutions in countries with highly diversified citizenries for the sake of efficacy and compromise. However, as lovely as this idea sounds, the only examples of consociational countries our professor could offer were all (coincidence ?) small, like Belgium, Lebanon, and Switzerland, all of whose populations are equivalent to or less than the average for a metropolis like Paris. The United States, from its founding, has been divided by a system that innately favors the existence of only two parties. Combine that with the vastness of the States, which span six time zones and comprise over 320 million people from all walks of life, and it is easy to understand why consociationalism is a concept that cannot be put into effect there. When people live so far apart from one another, when millions of Americans lead their lives ignorant or intolerant of people unlike them simply because they do not come into contact as often, it makes sense that a media mogul on a populist platform could garner a following, especially following eight years of a Democrat in office. 

Paris. Image credit: Isabel Guigui

This quality of the 'Divided States of America' explains not only how someone like Trump could have been elected, but also why, from the get-go, voter turn-out is so pitiful. You look at France, before its first round of the presidential election, and you see a populace confused about the many (eleven!) candidates and platforms presented; some polls found that as many as 30% of citizens were still undecided before going to vote that Sunday. And though there were quite a few people who decided to vote blank, you nonetheless have a citizenry before you that feels its power to mobilize change, manifested in the incredible voter turnout.

Regardless of a given country's voter participation rate, identifying along national lines no longer resonates with many of our generation. As we grow up in a world that is more conscious of its surroundings, we become less attached to our states of origin and consider instead the nations to which we belong. Although a nation—a group of people who share common characteristics—may be united according to shared ethnic, linguistic, or cultural heritage, I would like to make a case for a nation of people who share a set of values. Rather than letting nationalism as we know it drive the populist platforms of reactionary leaders, why not strive for a nation of humans who embrace difference; herald the power of diversity to unite us by bringing to light our similarities over any nominal distinctions; and promote cooperation above dissent? Why not strive for a consociational society of peoples, assembled under the common dream for a more peaceful world?