Collections: My Country Isn’t a Nation

I hope everyone will forgive me taking this week to break from our normal diet of history-and-pop-culture (though we are discussing a key historical concept here – it is me after all), but it is the July 4th weekend and I have been meaning to treat this topic for a while now. I must further beg the indulgence, of course, of all of you international readers for I am about to – in the proper tradition of my country- go on at some length about my country. I have at times noted that I chafe at the use of the word ‘nation’ or worse yet ‘nation-state’ to describe my country, the United States of America. And that distinction has come up more than once in the comments, with requests for more to elaborate.

So let’s talk about it. What is a nation and why isn’t the United States one?

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In case anyone was unclear which country I was talking about.

Nationless States

First, we ought to note at the outset that it is not a new thing to describe the United States as a nation, at least in very general terms. No less authority than George Washington did so in his addresses to Congress and his farewell address, though in reading, Washington’s use of the term is doesn’t quite map on to its modern meaning; he tends to use nation when he wants to stress the constructed unity of the country (as, in the farewell address, the various parts of the country being “directed by an indissoluble community of interest as one nation” despite the fact that he had spent an entire paragraph noting regional differences significant enough that by the technical definition of nation, they ought to disqualify the young republic). Of course the United States has all sorts of ‘national’ things – museums, parks, cemeteries, debt, etc. And this sort of usage – where ‘nation’ is really metonymy for a citizen body and the state that serves them – is well enough so far as it goes, so long as we understand the degree of imprecision.

The problem is when that metonymy (which is using one word in place of another related word, like saying one owns ‘wheels’ instead of an automobile) is mistaken for true, narrow, literal or technical meaning, as if someone thought that putting ‘boots on the ground’ meant that we need only drop some footwear out of a helicopter to solve a problem. One sees this all of the time, where arguments begin from the proposition that there is an identifiable American ‘nation’ (often with an identifiable ‘people’ that excludes quite a number of American citizens) or that the United States is a nation in a narrow sense rather than some other thing, like an ideology. And the error here is simple: by the narrow, technical definition, the United States is not, and has never been, a nation and is unlikely to become one in the near future.

Here it is necessary to clarify that ‘nation’ doesn’t just mean ‘country’ or ‘state.’ After all, there are quite a lot of different kinds of states and countries and only some of them are nations (or nation-states, which is when the nation and the state are coextensive). A ‘country’ is a territory and its associated polity; some countries are not states at all (Wales, for instance, is a country within the multi-national state of the United Kingdom) and while most of the world is divided up into states now, it was not always so. Mongolia was a country long before it was a state, for instance. There are, after all, quite a lot of historical polities which were not states.

And states come in different forms too. Quite a lot of post-colonial states, once one gets into it, are actually composite multi-national states functionally masquerading as nation-states (this, I suspect is one reason they tend to be so fragile; the notional form of the state doesn’t match its actual foundation). There are still several very clearly imperial states on earth as well; one may argue the United States is an empire in the technical sense (though large parts of that argument hinge on either substantially redefining ’empire’ or focusing the argument on Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa) but there are also traditional, unambiguous old-fashioned empires still. Several European states still hold vestiges of their old empires, Russia still controls 22 ‘constituent republics’ reflecting areas of non-Russian settlement with functionally no autonomy, making it quite clearly an empire under the traditional definition. And of course the People’s Republic of China also meets that traditional definition, it’s three largest ‘autonomous regions’ (Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia) being fairly obvious imperial possessions which are both ethnically different from the PRC itself (which openly presents itself as the Han Chinese national state) and also quite brutally subjugated by that state. Collectively those regions make up more than a third of the land area of the state; China may thus be a nation, but the People’s Republic of China is not a nation-state, it is an empire.

(Since I have opened this can of worms and we are here talking about the United States, I would argue that the better term for the United States’ global network of bases, economic arrangements and alliances is hegemony rather than empire, as a purely descriptive matter. Empire, as a technical term, is a system of direct territorial control (not for nothing does the term come from Latin imperium, meaning ‘command’). The American system, which aims to achieve the same sort of influence without direct territorial control, is something new and properly ought to be recognized as such. Of course new doesn’t necessarily mean good, but that’s an argument for another time.)

The rather unusual modern configuration of states, I think, fools a lot of people into imagining that the nation and its political expression, the nation-state, are the normal way that humans organize themselves. Or alternately that the nation-state is the ideal state. The nation-state, we should clarify, is sometimes framed as what you get when a nation acquires statehood, but quite a number of current nation-states are dictatorships run by individuals for their own benefit and the benefit of their cronies and historically speaking many (potentially most) nation-states emerged as a product of power-consolidation by the state rather than as an expression of the will of the people so the more limited ‘a nation-state is when the boundaries of the nation and the state mostly coincide’ will have to do. And since most of the world’s states right now are nation-states, or at least try to present themselves as such, many people are quick to assume that the nation-state is normal or even the correct form of state; other forms of state are often presented as archaic holdovers from an earlier age.

So What Makes a Nation?

Well, ‘Nation’ is one of those words with a long history and many definitions, some of which are like the metonymy we discussed – rhetorical fudges on the core definition. The root of the word is the Latin natio; it had the narrow meaning of one’s birth. Thus, for instance, Claudia Severa inviting her friend to come ‘ad diem sollemnem natalem meum,’ or “to my birthday party” – natalem here being a form of natalis, the adjective form of natio (that letter, by the way, is fascinating, not only for the look into every day life, but it is also the oldest confirmed example – where we can know and not just guess – of a woman’s own handwriting in Latin and perhaps in any language). But even during antiquity a natio could also mean a common birth, and thus come to mean a breed or species of something and thus a tribe, race or people. From there, the word entered French as nacion, meaning birth or place of origin and from there into English. The definition has changed little, as the fact that classical Latin remained a core part of the education of elites in both the Francophone and Anglophone worlds meant that the meaning of an obvious Latin loanword like ‘nation’ could never drift very far from its original roots. After all until quite recently, elite users of the word were likely to be continually exposed to it in its original, Latin context where it meant ‘birth’ and from there a group of people united by a common birth or origin.

(Latin’s other word for a common descent group, gens, has similar connections, being linked in its origin to gigno, ‘to give birth;’ thus for instance, Venus Genetrix, ‘Venus the birth-mother.’ The usages actually blend further; much like nationes (the plural of natio) could mean, in essence, ‘all of the peoples,’ gentes (the plural of gens) could do the same. Thus, for instance, the Roman ius gentium (often translated as the ‘law of nations’ or ‘law of peoples’) was the law in Rome at applied to all individuals equally, regardless of citizenship or origin, distinct from ius civilis, civil law, with applied to citizens only.)

Consequently, the idea of the ‘nation’ has always been fixed around the notion of a common birth or more correctly the myth of common birth. There are other elements in defining a nation of course: the group typically needs to be large, inhabit a shared, recognizable territory, and share common elements of culture (especially language) and a common history. But it is no accident that the common birth, the natio of nation, is central. A nation, precisely because it is supposed to share a common culture and history, is an entity that is imagined to extend both into the past and into the future, recreating itself, generation to generation; it is through the common birth that the common culture and history are supposedly shared. After all, a common history assumes some commonality stretching back to a prior generation.

Now we ought to be clear here that we are stressing the word ‘myth‘ in ‘myth of common origin’ quite strongly. As demonstrated by the work of folks like Benedict Anderson (Imagined Communities (1983)) and Azar Gat (War in Human Civilization (2006)) the nation in this sense is not a social or political form that exists in the wild, but is instead a thing that humans can invent and is usually the product of state-building rather than an organic cultural expression (for instance, the uniformity of French is a product of the government in Paris’ efforts to make it so, not an organic feature of the ‘French people’). Nations and nationalism and especially nation-states are relatively recent things; we are discussing people who until quite recently did not see themselves as having a common origin or destiny and who now claim their ancestors to have been of common stock typically in contradiction to the views of those very ancestors. Often national myths will paper over this with a myth that the nation was once, in the distant past, a single tribe or polity which expanded, splintered and must now be reunited (you will recall that notion showing up in the Fremen Mirage), but of course polities in the deep past were generally smaller and more fragmented; such myths rarely pan out. None of which is to say that the nation-state is an invalid form of polity, merely that we should not imagine it is the only valid kind of polity or that it is somehow more grounded and organic (or less artificial) than other polities. Like most polities, the nation-state is fundamentally built on a fiction.

As an aside, the traditional view of historians has generally been that nationalism (the ideology) and the nation itself are essentially modern phenomena, emerging in the 18th century. That position has been challenged, with arguments suggesting that various pre-modern polities ought to be understood as nations and even that certain pre-modern rulers harnessed something we might call nationalism in their messaging (e.g. A. Gat, Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism (2012)). My impression is that most historians remain profoundly hesitant to retroject the modern concept of a nation, nationalism and the nation-state back before the late-18th century. I share that hesitance, particularly on the question of if that national feeling extended below the elite in these potential pre-modern nations (which I think is essential for the definition; it isn’t enough for the French nobility to feel French, the French peasantry must as well), but I am not an expert on these particular societies and so reserve judgment. More broadly it seems to me that differences in mass-literacy and communications must make pre-modern nations meaningfully different from modern ones. At the same time, it is hard not to notice the formation of mega-ethnic groups even in the ancient world and the tendency of our sources to think about them in fairly ‘national’ terms; Egypt is often offered as the oldest example and there isn’t nothing to that idea.

The Un-Nation

So we have our definition of a nation: a people, historically connected geographically coherent territory, with a shared language, culture and myth of common birth-origin. The United States obviously fails this definition. It isn’t even remotely close.

To find a common ancestor or ancestral group – a national natio – that connects even a fairly modest majority of Americans, one would have to go back to proto-Indo-European-speakers living in tribes on the Pontic-Caspian Steppe around 5,000 BC or so – a place notably neither within the United States nor hearkened back to as a historical homeland by many Americans. Americans would also share that notional origin, if we go by language, with roughly 3.2 billion people, or about half of all humans on the earth (not all of whom, or – depending on one’s definitions – even most of whom, are white, I should note). Such a classification, “the United States is an Indo-European-speaking country” is true but only a bit more precise than “the United States is a country populated by humans” – the descriptive potential here is very limited. National identities are, after all, not merely about inclusion but also about exclusion; they do not typically overlap. While, as noted above, national myths of common origin generally are myths, in the case of the United States, even the myth-making collapses. Attempting to find a common birth origin for even a slim majority of Americans is a hopeless case (and as far as I can tell, only occurs to people who think ‘European’ is an ethnicity, apparently blissfully unaware that ‘Europe’ is a fairly big place with quite a number of different groups of people).

Common history is likewise a dud here, but that may require a bit more explaining. After all, there are certainly a set of historical events related to the American polity itself – the founding, the American Civil War, the World Wars, the Civil Rights Movement and so on – which form a key pillar of American civics. But these stories are connected to formation of the key institutions of the state; they are not stories of personal origins. While stories of the American founding tends to focus on the role of English settlers, only around 20% of Americans claim British ancestry and about half of those hearken back to Irish immigrants who arrived well after the founding. Needless to say, the ‘common history’ may not seem quite so common for those whose ancestors arrived on slave ships, or many decades after the founding, or the 13.7% of Americans who are foreign born, or, of course, those whose ancestors arrived over the Bering Ice Bridge perhaps twenty thousand years ago. For my own part, my ancestors filtered over the Atlantic during the 1800s and early 1900s; to the best of my knowledge, none of my ancestors fought in the revolution.

(There has been some frustration with that 20% rough figure above. So let’s break it down. The 2015 American Community Survey uses self-reporting; we might quibble with self-reporting if we were trying to actually chart the genetic history of Americans, but we’re not – this is about identity and so self-reporting is actually ideal. The relevant potentially ‘British’ ancestry reports are: Irish (10.6%), English (7.8%), American (7.2%), Scottish (1.7%) and Scotch-Irish (1%). While the survey notes that the English Americans were a meaningful undercount, note that the primary cause of this is those individuals reporting as ‘American’ so by simply including self-reported ‘Americans’ we have recaptured most of that potential undercount. And, because our question is identity, folks who might have English ancestry but identify as, say, Polish-American are safe to remove from the sample. We can also safely remove almost all people reporting Irish descent; the overwhelming majority of Irish Americans arrived in the 1800s. That leaves us adding English + American + Scottish + Scotch-Irish to get people whose reported identity might cause them to hearken back to ancestors who were present and free at the founding and we get 17.7% (7.8+7.2+1.7+1), having recaptured most of the English-ancestry undercount by including everyone identifying as ‘American’ (which in turn also includes a lot of people who don’t think their families go back to the founding). Or – with a generous upward rounding – about 20%. So yes, I did, in fact, account for the undercount of self-reported English-Americans. I’d add that the fact that this group can’t be meaningfully larger than around 20% is also pretty clear from just working backwards from all of the other reported ancestries.)

By raw numbers, none of these origins has much of a claim to be the ‘main’ shared history. This is a striking difference between the United States and many (though not all) other countries which I think isn’t much appreciated; there is no core American ethnicity in the sense of raw numbers. This is often obscured because ethnic distinctions which would be broken out in other countries are collapsed into large categories (like ‘White’ or ‘Hispanic and Latino’) in census documents and discussions. But 76.4% of Germans are ethnic Germans; none of the constituent countries of the UK is below 75% its core ethnic identity. In that context, with the great majority of people having most (or in some cases all) of their ancestors having lived within the bounds of the modern state for generations (in the case of Germany, typically generations before the formation of that state) there really is a ‘shared history’ stretching back quite some distance.

By contrast, as noted, Anglo-Americans make up perhaps as much as 18% of Americans (if we add together ancestry responses of English, Scottish, Scotch-Irish and simply ‘American’), which probably captures the lion’s share of individuals tracing their families back to free persons present at the founding (and a number of people whose families do not go that far). That’s not meaningfully larger than the slice of the country which reports German ancestry (14.7%) most of whose ancestors arrived between 1850 and 1930. It’s also not meaningfully smaller than the slice reporting Italian, Irish and Polish ancestry (collectively around 19%), groups arriving mostly between 1840 and 1910 but who often faced pronounced anti-Catholic bigotry in the predominately protestant United States. And those slices aren’t very different in size from the 12.4% of Americans who report Black African ancestry, most (though not all) of whose ancestors arrived on slave ships between 1619 and 1860. And that isn’t very much larger than the roughly 11% of Americans who report Mexican ancestry. And of course none of these groups is very much larger or smaller than the roughly 14% of Americans who were born somewhere else, immigrated and naturalized.

I could keep going, but the key thing here is that no group is really large enough to demand that their story be the central core narrative. “My ancestors were with the founders” has to coexist with “my ancestors were held in bondage by the founders” has to coexist with “my ancestors got here in the 1800s” with “my ancestors were here before the United States was and were forced in by violence” has to coexist with “my ancestors got here in the 1900s” has to coexist with “hey, I just got here!” For many people, they will have several of those stories in their personal ancestry. There is no single dominant American story, but a collection of American stories, none of which can claim primacy because none of them represent even a significant plurality of the population’s own personal origins, much less a majority. Instead, the core historical narrative that ends up in schools is a civic narrative, focused on the evolution of institutions and key moments shaping the modern idea of American citizenship rather than a national narrative following a specific ethnic group (which is why, despite the United States’ relatively recent origin, that civic narrative is generally not stretched very much further into the past than the colonial era; the history is a history of America, not Americans).

And territory is also a bust. Of course the United States now occupies a defined territory, but as noted, very few Americans have a longstanding attachment to this land stretching into the mists of time. In historical terms, most Americans got here only fairly recently. Moreover, the tale of American expansion is one in which the ‘soil’ of America was repeatedly notional; the United States was where Americans went (and of course we must note that the places they went were not empty, but seized violently from the inhabitants). The United States can travel and indeed has done so. Moreover, ancient claims to the land – either arguments for autochthony or greenfield settlement – for the majority of Americans, are simply impossible; we all know darn well that we weren’t the first people here and that the United States does not have the most ancient claim to this land. Most nations claim to occupy a sacred, ancestral homeland; the United States is fairly open (if quite conflicted) about the fact that it occupies someone else’s sacred, ancestral homeland.

(As a necessary aside, of course there is one group of Americans who can quite correctly claim to have nations of their own: Native Americans. Individual Native American nations check all of the boxes: a historic tie to a territory stretching into the deep past, a myth of common origin, common language, culture and so on. To speak of Native American nations is thus not empty rhetoric, but simply correct usage of the term. Consequently almost everything I say about America and the nation needs a caveat that it doesn’t necessarily apply the c. 1.5% of Americans for are Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders; a truly national identity is still an option for those folks if they want it.)

If I may go a step further, it is not merely that America happens not to be a nation, but moreover that to be an American is to reject claims of the nation on one’s self in favor of association on different terms. This is something that makes the United States different from many (though perhaps not all) other non-nation-state polities. Many states which are not nation-states are not because they have some ethnic or national group that lives both on their own traditional land and holding to their own identity, but within the borders of a larger state, either as a subject people (like the Uighurs) or as a constituent people in a multi-national state (like the Scots). They are, in essence, multi-national states, with several nations existing either in a state of equality with each other or a state of domination and subjugation. But to be an American means that someone, somewhere in your heritage (likely many someones) broke the chain of connection between you and whatever mythical notional nation you may have otherwise been part of (mind you, not all Americans’ ancestors were given a choice in that rupture). Of course many Americans may still feel a connection to ‘the old country’ (wherever that may be), but the vision of ‘shared destiny’ that in theory unites a nation is shattered by adopting a different land, a different state and in most cases a different language and culture. Often at considerable personal cost. To be a United States citizen is fundamentally to have abandoned the nation as an organizing principle.

The United States is not just not a nation, it is a country that, by its very nature, actively rejects the nation as a form, at least for itself (again, obligatory caveat that I am not saying nation-states are bad – some of my best friends are nation-states! – merely that the United States rejects being one itself).

What is the United States?

The United States is thus quite an oddity (though again, not necessarily unique, just odd). It is not a nation-state, nor is it a multi-national state, but rather a de-nationalized state. It is the un-nation. This is not to say America lacks a culture (as is sometimes oddly asserted); indeed, it has quite a few with wonderful regional variations which unfortunately include South Carolinian mustard-based BBQ but fortunately also include all of the other forms of BBQ. And of course the mass-marketing of culture and particularly of education has created a shared ‘national’ literary, entertainment and consumer culture, though in many cases these are part of an emerging globalized consumer culture.

Instead, with no national core, it is the legally defined identity, citizenship, which forms the core of the United States. In this, the US has something in common with the Romans whose core identity, as we’ve been seeing (and will continue to see) was heavily dependent on citizenship as the key identity-marker over other ethnic, religious and cultural signifiers.

One may fairly ask why all of this haggling about definitions matters. But this brings us back to the mistake at the beginning: mistaking the metonym of calling the United States a ‘nation’ for the reality of it. Attempting to make policy on the assumption that the United States is a nation begins with a category error; the carpenter does not know that he is sitting in front of loom; attempting to whittle the weft will not produce results. Take for instance the idea of ‘national unity,’ a phrase which gets used and in the broad sense is useful but of course in the narrow sense relies on the same metonym as every use of ‘nation’ to refer to the United States. Consequently, attempting to foster unity through the nation (as a concept) is a hopeless effort because the unity was never ‘national’ in a real sense to begin with. After all, what shared history, shared myth of origin will you draw upon that all Americans will find valid and applicable to them? I will leave it to you to spot the politico-historical projects which have foundered on these grounds, but they are many. Because of course what you could actually have is civic unity, a different thing with different causes which connects to the one shared identity, citizenship rather than a shared past.

But an appeal to the nation for unity is always going to leave quite a lot of American citizens – perhaps even most of them – cold. Try calling Americans to war to fight for the ‘bones of their ancestors’ and you see the problem immediately: whose bones? Which ancestors? Buried where? Different Americans will give very difference answers to those questions! But call Americans to war because “your fellow citizens were attacked” and the response is real and emotive. I’ve always suspected this is the same reason for the particular centrality of the United States’ founding documents; we do not all have the founding itself in common, but we do have the Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in common because those documents are understood to apply to citizens, regardless of where they fit in one’s ancestry and to guide the country as it exists now (this is presumably why the Articles of Confederation, no less historic, do not inspire the same patriotic feelings).

Worse yet is the idea that what the United States really needs is a national project, the sort of ‘nation building’ which transformed the fragmented states of Europe into a series of nation-states, to forge a national Blut und Boden (‘blood and soil’) identity out of United States citizens. It cannot be done; one may as well attempt to throw a pot from a bag of granite rocks, the raw material is wrong. Efforts to try to build this kind of national identity run aground on the same problem: whatever distant common history or myth of common origin one selects as the foundation for this kind of national project inevitably won’t be shared or understood in the same way by others, either because their ancestors weren’t here for that moment or found themselves on the unpleasant business end of it. This is not to say that Americans are immune to bad ideological projects, or that all national projects are necessarily bad (though some very much are), merely that the effort to form a nation generally fails because the basic ingredients are wrong. The necessary binding agent has been actively removed, though that hasn’t stopped regular efforts to replace it with crude populism and xenophobia. In a way, one may feel pity for the born-American who emotively longs for the comfort of the nation because it is something they cannot have, but then there ought to be a country for the people who would rather not be in a nation and here it is.

None of which is to say, as I have seen said, that the lack of a national consciousness weakens the United States, or represents some sort of flaw or failing. There are many ways to build a people; nationalism is only one of them and not necessarily the best. As we’ve been discussing, by the first century relatively few Romans could connect to a Roman ethnic or national identity (Livy overflows with alternate Italic identities rooted in different origins and ‘common’ (to them and not the Romans) histories; on that see P. Erdkamp, “Polybius and Livy on the Allies in the Roman Army” in The Impact of the Roman Army (200 BC – AD 476) eds. L. de Blois and E. Lo Cascio (2007). What is clear is that by Livy’s day there was a fairly vibrant literature stressing the heroics of allied contingents in the Roman army, distinguished by their then non-Roman identity, and although such narratives may have had at best a thin relationship with actual events, they speak to the alternative identities newly enfranchised Italians might have held to. That disconnect would only grow greater in the centuries to follow as Roman citizenship spread out of Italy and embraced people who truly had no connection to Rome as a place or the Romans as an ethnic group, but rather connected to the Roman polity as a citizen. Common origin wasn’t the glue that held the Romans together, common citizenship was, collective belonging to a polity which did not require shared ancestry or history.

(As an aside, I suspect this is the reason for another thing Rome and the United States share in common: multiple-choice foundation myths. For a Roman, Aeneas, Romulus, Ti. Tatius, Numa Pompilius, Servius Tullius, and L. Junius Brutus were all options for different sorts of ‘founder figures’ accomplishing different sorts of foundations. A Roman who didn’t much like the (patrician) story of Lucretia could emphasize the (plebian) story of Verginia to much the same effect. C. Mucius Scaevola (a youth, presumably unpropertied given that he is given a land-grant, Liv. 2.13) and P. Horatius Cocles (a patrician) and Cloelia (a patrician woman) provide in rapid series a set of alternative heroes; pick the one you like! Likewise, Americans have shifted emphasis from one framer, hero or founder figure to another; the multiplicity of framers makes it fairly easy, for instance, for Adams and Hamilton’s to come to more prominence lately as compared to say, Jefferson and Madison. Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. share the National Mall with George Washington; pick your monument and the moment of foundation that fills you most with that pride of citizenship. Again, not one common history, but a collection of histories connected to citizenship and the country.)

Successful efforts to actually unify Americans are thus likely to focus not on national identity (which we do not share) but on citizen identity, which we do and which lends itself to many other shared things: an attachment to the country’s laws and stated principles, the documents which set out those principles, the institutions we maintain together and on the community of interest that shared ownership of a polity create. Those unifying projects, in turn, can only succeed to the extent that citizenship really is held in common; it falters when the citizenship of some Americans is (or feels) only second-rate. But citizenship over nationality has its advantages; the nation is an exclusive identity, but citizenship co-exists more easily with other identities – a necessary advantage in a country as preposterously diverse as the United States. And the emphasis on the citizen body over the nation is clearly a factor in the United States’ exceptional ability to embrace large numbers of immigrants successfully.

And so my country isn’t a nation, but a collection of citizens drawn from all of the nations, setting aside those national identities; a family of choice, rather than a family of blood, united by common ideals rather than common soil. We haven’t always lived up fully to that high ideal. Sometimes the siren call of the nation haws pulled us down away from it. But the ideal and the republic built around it remains. And that is what I will be celebrating come July 4th.

223 thoughts on “Collections: My Country Isn’t a Nation

  1. The key point is that what makes a nation is constructed. Blood and soil was a common theme in the C19 (building on the myths of ancestry that are common everywhere). Language was a big part of the C18/C19 – see Linda Colley’s Forging the Nation on C18 Britain, but not all that important previously. Allegiance to common institutions was very salient in the C15/16 (France: “une loi, une foi, un roi”, or one lord’s reply to Henry VII: Parliament made him my king; if Parliament maketh a stook king, I will fight for the stook”). It could also be religion, high culture (Homer and Virgil) or participation in ceremonies (Olympics, Delphi). In the longer view, the US is not that exceptional.

    A related point is that, just because it is constructed, what makes a ‘nation’ is usually contested. The C19/20 in Europe was unusually vigorous in insisting on adherence to a straitly defined set of standards – probably as underpinning to mass mobilisations (cf Sandra Halperin), but again this is not usual if one takes a longer view, and was fading by the 1950s. The current culture wars in the US and elsewhere are part of this. EG – a few days ago I attended a graduation ceremony for fire-fighters (daughter-in-law now a firie) here in Australia. The ceremony included acknowledgement of Aboriginal ties to the land and a speech by a local elder in the Ngunnawal language. 30 years ago this would have been no part of the Australian ‘nationality’ – now it is mostly accepted as routine (we are still working through the political implications).

    1. And I also think its important that there can be multiple national identities layered on top of each other: A middle-class man from 19th century Prague might consider himself german (his language) czech (where he lives) and austro-hungarian (the empire he is a subject of) all at the same time.

      And of course, there is the other coin of national identity-building: “We are Not Those Guys”. Be they oppressors or oppressed. (and I definitely think the US has a history of this kind of thing, defining itself in opposition to native americans/enslaved africans/catholic descendants of spanish settlers to various extents.

      And again, these things can and do change.

      1. You see the ‘we are not those guys’ happen a fair few times with the States. The Cold War is a prime example, where for a lot of Americans their country (and culture) was defined in opposition to communism in general and Russia in particular.

        I wonder whether that extends more presently to the middle east and China, or if that’s more the narrative of a few rather than something the majority buy into.

      2. Identity in general is almost definitionally expressed with reference to those who lack the identity. Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about their identity as ‘human’ but in Planet of the Apes they do.
        Equally, living in a rural European village I don’t think of myself as ‘white’ most of the time because ‘non-white’ isn’t a relevant day-to-day category. I *do* think of myself as a Hollander, and as a non-native of my village, because that comes up more often.
        This is why I get annoyed when people police what type of identity is ‘important’, because almost all identity is contextual.

    2. An additional point is that, being constructed, the key themes of national identity do not have to correspond to reality. Australian somehow think of laconic country-folk as the quintessential Australian despite being one of the most urbanised societies on earth; British think of themselves as reserved and stoic, while their European neighbours think them overly sentimental; Americans pride themselves on liberty while others pity the grip their employers, neighbours and many levels of government have over them, and so on.

  2. Hi Prof, I deeply appreciate and agree with all that you said, but I have a question. US allows dual or even triple citizenship, hence someone can have dual Irish US or Israeli US citizenship. How does that detract from the strength of the US polity? Would you recommend to stop allowing dual nationality?

    1. Why should that detract from the strength of the US as a polity? People with dual citizenship are marginal fringe cases, a negligible fraction of the overall population; they have little enough power to add or detract from the relevant strength.

      It certainly didn’t seem to be a problem for the Romans- as far as they were concerned, you could be a citizen of Rome and a citizen of Athens at the same time, for instance. Though the Athenians certainly had a far more exclusionary standard of citizenship than Rome did.

    2. This is not entirely correct. The US doesn’t recognize any split citizenship. If you are a citizen of the United States, then only that is the only legal fact of citizenship recognized by US law.

      The US Congress granted citizenship to the Marquis de Lafeyette and all his heirs and descendants. To the extent that there are any special privileges or barriers in US law that would come with say French citizenship, a descendent of Lafeyette wouldn’t be effected because US law wouldn’t recognize the fact that France also considers the individual a citizen.

  3. What of the rest of the Americas, that underwent a similar process of colonization? Do they feel nationalism more strongly than the United States, or do they also organize their people on shared ties of citizenship?

    1. Rest of america has a very country based identity, they organize very much on ties of citizenship than any previous asociation (wich tends to a be a fictious one in the rare cases where it exists , like peru and incas, and mexico and aztecs, since almost no peruvian or mexican are either actual nor desendant from aztecs or incas).

      But i asure you, the flag waving the US likes to partake in for no reason seems to be a US only feature of the place.

  4. Un-nation doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. Two other terms that sometimes get used are `proposition nation’ and `civilization state.’ Do you consider either appropriate?

  5. Outside of the US, the term “Scotch-Irish” is confusing (not to mention irritating). It is worth clarifying that this is a term used in the US to refer to Ulster Protestants and their descendants.

    1. For a fuller explanation for non-American readers (and Americans who aren’t familiar!), the term “Scots-Irish” only arose in the era of the Potato Famine mass-exodus from Ireland. In the 1840s-1860s, a substantial portion of (what would be legally and culturally considered) white Americans traced their roots to “Ulster Scots”– that is, Protestant Lowland Scots who’d been encouraged by the English to settle in Northern Ireland to act as a border force monitoring Irish Catholics. (Mainly but not only in the county of Ulster, hence why I call them Ulster Scots). The British government later encouraged the Ulster Scots to settle in the American colonies to act as a border force between native peoples and British colonists (the case I know most about is the Quakers, who wouldn’t be in an army themselves for religious reasons but whose civic leaders still wanted the military force).
      In the 18th century, the Ulster Scots were called Irishmen- indeed, this is what they were called when they were making up a substantial part, possibly even a majority, of the military force of the Continental Army. When you hear about Irish people in the colonies and early Republic, this is mostly who they mean.
      When the mostly-Catholic Irish refugees started immigrating en masse, Ulster Scots whose bigger immigration waves had been a few generations prior saw all the anti-Irish anti-Catholic sentiment and wanted to distance themselves from the refugees, so they coined the term Scots-Irish: cultural and ethnic Scots whose ancestors had lived in Ireland before coming to the American colonies/the US.
      If you’re at all interested in the phenomenon of using Ulster Scots as border populations, I recommend “Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment” by Kevin Kenny. I haven’t heard of any good books on the later adoption of the term Scots-Irish, but I’d be interested if anyone had a recommendation!

        1. My apologies, I meant provinces. Thanks for the correction!

          I mainly wanted to stress that “Ulster Scots,” “Ulstermen,” “Scots-Irish” and even “Irishmen” in the context of 17th-18th c. American colonists didn’t necessarily mean *only* people with lowland Scottish heritage living in Ulster specifically, just that of the Irish provinces in the north where the lowland Scots were most encouraged to settle, Ulster had the biggest concentration. And also I’m reminded that a fair few “Scots-Irish” were also from northern England, because borders are fuzzy things, but there were even some from Wales, the Isle of Man, Flanders, France and Germany before going to Ireland. The biggest unifier between the groups was Calvinism, which played into their halfway status as less approved of than Anglicans but more trusted than Catholics, hence their recurring place as border communities.

          Comparatively few people whose roots in Ireland went beyond a few generation ended up in the colonies before the Great Famine, hence why there was no strong need to clarifying the difference between (mostly but not all Catholic) Irish and (mostly Calvinist) Scots-Irish. The term “Scotch-Irish” existed even in the 1500’s in the British Isles, but it wasn’t actually popular anywhere until the immigration boom in the US in the 1850s.

          For clarity’s sake, I usually use “Ulster Scots” because it draws attention to the group’s history of movement and often-uncertain status as a border community between higher-status colonizers and more directly subjugated groups. Being midway in the hierarchy meant that they were oppressed and oppressors in turn, and were often the ones getting their hands dirty with the direct violence that higher-status colonizers needed for colonialism to have its teeth. As mentioned previously, Ulster Scots made up a disproportionate part of the army before, during and after the American Revolution.

  6. I think the point where I disagree with you the most here is your emphasis on citizenship. Perhaps it’s a side effect of having grown up in an area with a lot of families of immigrants and my profession involving work with a lot of immigrants, but I don’t think citizenship is really the right boundary. I certainly went to school with a lot of people who were not yet citizens but who certainly thought of themselves and their parents as Americans in addition to being Taiwanese, Mexican, Vietnamese, etc. I guess in my mind I’ve always thought someone was American who a) made a home in US through channels broadly accepted by other Americans (e.g. Visa / green card process), and b) intended to stay (not to imply that later leaving makes a person stop being an American though). By that definition I guess I have a a fair number of friends who became American about halfway through college . I’ll cite as supporting evidence that in law “US citizen”, “US national” and “the people of the United States” are all different things.

    1. Agreed: citizenship does not make people Americans, it recognizes Americans who already exist.

      In my more romantic moments I hold that all it really takes to be an American is that you aspire to be one.

  7. Like many other commenters I think the US is more of a nation than you think. All I have here are anecdata, but they may persuade some. I had a lot of trouble trying to unify these thoughts and eventually gave up. Hopefully this isn’t a chore to read.

    America has successfully created a founding myth. But the mythical origin, 1776, is much closer in time than in the stereotypical European nation, so the myth appears (to those who recognize it as not true) as bad history rather than myth. In many circles if you critique the traditional story of America you won’t be greeted as a historian making corrections, but an enemy of the country, someone who “hates America”.

    If you ask an Italian-American where their family is from, they will tell you Italy. But if you ask them where Americans came from, they will tell you the Mayflower. In my experience Americans do believe in a common ethnicity, even if they recognize that they are not personally part of it. I suspect this is one cause of racism against Latinos, even among people who cannot trace their ancestry back to the revolution.

    Americans also have an attachment to the sacred homeland. We can see this in the (still popular in my hometown!) concept of manifest destiny, and the revulsion Americans feel nowadays at the thought of war fought on home soil. People often talk about 9/11, for instance, as a profanation, not “just” an act of large-scale murder.

    1. I am going to guess you are from, or currently live in the North East?

      The Mayflower was not a meaningful part of my grade school history, growing up in Virginia; we were aware of it, but it wasn’t focused on and certainly wasn’t presented as ‘where Americans came from.’ We had Jamestown, after all, the settlement of which predated the Mayflower (1607, the Mayflower was 1620). And as far as I know, in Florida – I spent some time there doing my M.A., they focused on Fort Carolina and St. Augustine (1564 and 1565).

      1. ISTR hearing that the Mayflower emphasis (outside Massachusetts, anyway) actually started as a post-Civil War thing because of the unacceptability of a state on the Confederate side being the founders of America.

      2. That matches my experience in California. The Mayflower was covered like the Magna
        Carta, kind of a proto-American thing until we got to the Revolution (as was Jamestown for what it’s worth).

    2. I think we have multiple origin myths. There’s the Mayflower/Jamestown myth. The Founding Father’s myth. The Civil War myth. And the nation of immigrants myth. I am lineally connected with the Civil War and Nation of Immigrants but I feel connected to the Mayflower and Founders too. Does one have to be a Mayflower descendant or DAR to feel that they are Our history?

      1. I think you are right. There are multiple mythical origins, each emphasizing different values and national ideas. See my response to Bret on the insufficiency of my comment.

  8. Man, I don’t know that I can get behind the rhetoric of this being a place of people who have chosen nationlessness. Like it seems to me that a sizable chunk of marginalized Americans are descended from people who “chose” nationlessness over, like, death from violence or privation in the old country, which is again to say nothing of black and native folks (or even the spanish and mestizo folks living in the Mexican Seccession) who had absolutely no say in their nationlessness. Nationlessness is a site of trauma for a lot of Americans, I think– both diasporic folks who feel alienated from a national identity that was taken from them, but also Americans who can /tell/ that we lack a national identity like that of comparable states in Europe and feel that lack keenly for whatever reason!

    >In a way, one may feel pity for the born-American who emotively longs for the comfort of the nation because it is something they cannot have, but then there ought to be a country for the people who would rather not be in a nation and here it is.

    This excerpt stood out to me in particular because… a significant portion of Americans are descended from people /made/, forcefully, to participate in this nationlessness thing. The whole thing was stolen piece by piece from the nations that lived here before us (and who still live here, broadly unhappily) so we could exist, nationlessly, where they had already been living. “Rather not” doesn’t come into it for black or native folks, or for Jewish folks, or for anyone who can trace their ancestry back to one of those nation-states United States foreign policy caused to become existentially dangerous or non-existant. It ain’t a choice for the vast majority of Americans!

    I think you could just as well argue that there is an American national identity, constructed around the foundational myth of the Revolution, and that while who gets to “count” as descended from that Revolution is kind of fluid it has at no point in the country’s history included most American citizens, but /has/ included most upper-class people, with everyone else either nationless or holding both a foreign national and an American civic identity.

    1. My Jewish ancestors most emphatically chose to be part of this nation, and it saved their lives. Our kin left in Romania died almost to a man, woman and child in WWII. The Founding myth includes anybody who desires to embrace it, as did my Acadian French Ancestors, my German ancestors, my Romanian ancestors and my maternal grandfather with his Dutch colonial ancestry whick included West Africans, Arawak Indians and Sephardic Jews.

  9. I’ll note that after nationalist patriotism terminally disgraced itself, West German thinking turned to Verfassungspatriotismus, a patriotism rooted in the constitution and its achievements, rather than blood-and-soil nationalism.
    This was a conscious decision, based on the reasoning that constitutional patriotism does not lend itself as easily to the atrocities as national patriotism

    1. That’s probably a false complacency there is nothing inherently wrong in either forms of patriotism. It’s people taking advantage of it, and specific political philosophies such as socialism (whether national or otherwise) which tend to be most harmful.

  10. In fact I am not! I have spent most of my life on the west coast and the midwest. In any case I intended to use the Mayflower metonymously, though this doesn’t come out in what I wrote.

    I wanted to say the country has a mythical founding, which could be Plymouth, or Jamestown, or any other early British colony.* In my experience modern Americans view this founding as papering over some prior ethnic divisions. Not all, though: the Dutch in New Amsterdam are not seen as originary Americans.

    That’s what I meant to say, anyway. In hindsight I have been speaking far too strongly. There is no representative “an Italian-American” who could be polled. This study requires some other method. As I had no method, my comment said more about my views than the country at large.

    No doubt there are lots of ethnographies on this subject, but I have not read them. Book recommendations are always welcome!

    *I am contradicting myself here, as I earlier wrote that the founding was the Revolution.

  11. It’s a peculiarity of the English national myth that it starts with the Romans invading Britain, has the Romans leaving Britain to the tender mercies of the invading Anglo-Saxons, before acknowledging that the current inhabitants of the territory are largely supposed to be those invading Anglo-Saxons, with a governing class drawn from northern France.
    The definitive account of the English national myth is given in, 1066 and All That, Sellar and Yeatman, 1930.
    “The first date in English history is 55BC, in which year Julius Caesar (the memorable Roman Emperor) landed, like all other successful invaders of these islands, at Thanet. This was in the Olden Days when the Romans were top nation on account of their classical education, etc”,
    I’d be interested to know if 1066 and All That is quite as funny to historians who weren’t brought up on the English national myth.

    1. I thought it was hilarious, but I was aquatinted with the myths it spoofs being a history major though American.

    2. Britain is constantly being invaded and colonised by them. First it was the romans, then the anglo-saxons then the vikings and the normans. Most recently it has been an Arab and Pakistani colonial influx, especially in places such as london.

      People invited by our post Blairite politicians who try to impose their culture and and beliefs through violence and still claim a victimhood. Some people might call me insensitive but I believe a religiously free country should not be tolerating grooming gangs or firing teachers for showing pictures of religious figure. It won’t be long till a muslim prime minister begins implementing the Jizyah and rewriting shariah law into magna carta.

      1. The boardgame Britannia makes the point that while Britain hasn’t been invaded since 1066 (this requires you to make a bunch of pretenses about the Glorious Revolution, though), before that it happened *constantly*.

      2. I wouldn’t call you “insensitive”; I’d call you racist. Specifically, attributing to an entire ethnic community the crimes and attitudes of a few, and making absurd projections like “rewriting Shariah law into Magna Carta”.

          1. Garbage. What let the grooming gangs rape so many girls is police misogyny – amply demonstrated in many other contexts – and socialk service overwork due to cuts in funding. The girls were regarded as complicit, or as a lesser priority than younger children at immediate risk of death. The vast majority of child sexual abuse is carried out by family members or family friends. The vast majority of those focusing on grooming gangs don’t give a damn about the victims – they just want a stick with which to beat Muslims (of whom, of course, the vast majority have nothing to do with grooming gangs). That “George” is one of those who just wants such a stick is made abundantly clear by his ludicrous fantasy of a Muslim Prime Minister “rewriting Shariah law into Magna Carta”.

          2. It is moot whether other girls were molested, and where. It is well documented that the police allowed those gangs free rein because of the attitude you are evincing.

    3. It still is, and it has some lovely jokes like the saint “The Venomous Bede” and how Napoleon’s army marches on its stomachs like inchworms.

  12. Several days and many, many comments later, allow me to first thank you for the explanation of “nation,” by way of “country” or “state.” I knew they were not synonymous, but I’ve had trouble keeping the differences clearly defined in my own mind.

    Meanwhile, here is my contribution to proofreading your post:

    definition, it’s three largest -> its
    distinctions which would be broken out -> that would be
    slice of the country which reports -> that reports
    Americans for are Native Americans -> (Bret, please clarify this sentence/?)
    sitting in front of loom -> front of a loom
    give very difference answers -> different answers
    call of the nation haws pulled -> has pulled

    *NOTE: many people will not recognize the correct terminology “throw” a pot, and thus will miss the point. Is there some little bit of information that can be added for clarity?

    1. Replying to my own post because I forgot (again) to check the box to be notified of new comments.

  13. One of the lesser known nations without a territory is the Deaf. They have their own culture and language, but perhaps not much of a common history. A deaf person born in US learns English as a second language. US Sign Language has more in common with Polish Sign Language than with English. Sign languages and communication are very different from spoken languages. Letters are not used except for some proper nouns like company names. A gesture means a whole word. Lip reading is largely a myth. In each country sign language users live in their own small parallel world.

    1. I think this is a really interesting notion – and it will be fascinating to see to what extent a common sign language group/culture arise as video comms and shared video material becomes ubiquitous

      1. I don’t think we’ll see an universal sign language. I’ve read an interview with a deaf guy and he says sign languages evolve for the same reason spoken languages evolve (much like, say, English: you have US, British, Australian and more). A language changes slightly through interactions between people, and because people live in local communities that only come in contact once in a while. Deaf people are either very spread out or they aggregate in bigger cities where shops, facilities, institutions, hospitals are more likely to have translators. They’re more isolated than others, and very few hearing people choose to learn a sign language. American Sign Language has 250,000-500,000 native “speakers”. And sign languages often don’t have a (widely accepted) writing system!

        While communication technology slows the process, mutation still happens. Besides, video communication is the trickiest to get right. If you only consider internet bandwidth usage, text uses VERY little, sound at least 10x more, and video 10x more than sound. Video is typically treated by computers as a sequence of images. You could save a lot of space if you converted that to a vector version (a sign language equivalent of text). You can think of it as a form of motion capture used for computer animation. So a video would be converted to an animated stick figure. You’d lose aesthetics, but save a ton of space.

        You’d think hearing aids would have solved the problem by now, but they’re surprisingly expensive AND they wear out. It’s not that surprising if you consider headphones also wear out all the time, and there’s much bigger demand for them. Audio electronics has some very delicate and sensitive wiring.

  14. Nationalism and nations are quite efficient at building and maintaing states. The Germans have rebuilt their state in 1990 because they were a nation. Hungary was limited to about 50-60% of the teritories inhabited by Magyars because these teritories also held large ethnic groups with clear identities. Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth could have been rebuilt in 1919 because both ethnic groups had the same religion, history and political institutions. They separated from small squabbles (with bad blood due to the Poles occupying Vilnius) and never merged again. The irony is that they continued to share religion and history: democracy, authoritarian regimes, foreign occupation, communism, independence and UE membership. Should they have had the same language they would have formed a larger and wealthier state.

    1. Tudor – nations are constructed. Germany today excludes significant numbers of speakers of German and closely-related languages (eg in Switzerland, Austria, Alsace, the Netherlands), who in the past were accepted parts of the ‘German’ nation. Hungary lost Magyar-inhabited territories to Yugoslavia (now seven distinct states!), Slovakia (remember Czechoslovakia?) and Romania because the Communist uprising of 1920 annoyed the Great Powers. British nationality is quite recent: before 1750 one was English or Scottish (and now the two are diverging again). What makes a ‘nation’ changes over time – religion, language, customs, allegiance to a ruling family, ancestor myths and more have all taken their turn.

  15. I think the Pedant focuses to much on place and not enough on myth. There is very much a national myth of origin in the United States. It’s the “Nation of Immigrants”… and the “Cultural Melting Pot”… how many different peoples came together and collectively made an identifiably American culture. (And I was recently reminded by Dr. Who how identifiably American culture is, from their lack of conversability in it at times.)

    I always see nation as more about a cultural unity than a place unity. Common language, cultural constructs, etc. being more important to the national concept then having lived in one place for long enough. The great example of this in popular media was a bit joke in the remake of “The Karate Kid”: where titular kid was on a flight to China and attempted test his language skills on a fellow passenger who looked Asian. The passenger stopped him and said “I’m from Detroit” – the response to which was the Americanism “Sup?” This is a great example of a semi unified cultural connection between the two characters. Something that both characters, or similarly real world individuals, could identify as being “American”.

    America’s civic myths are important to this nation building cultural myth, through the theory of a shared an open citizenship (even when citizenship isn’t open). But it’s the idea more of the “e plurubus unum”, not as civic construct but cultural, that creates the idea of Americaness. And it is the idea of Americaness that makes the nation.

    1. Except that the point of the post is that the national myths that you mention do not cover and apply to everyone in the US, even if they apply to many.

      “Nation of Immigrants”/“Melting Pot”is a purported concept that Italian-Americans, Greek-Americans, likely many Ashkenazi-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and other clear descendants of waves of voluntary immigration into an established United States identify with and identified with before this latter day period of globalization we’re living in now. Contra the OP, I do think that in these particular myths different groups *are* seeking their communal tie to the polity’s narrative and project.

      But quite a few groups in the US have no connection to that myth of immigration, definitionally and/or by conscious choice: Indigenous Americans, who use a very key term from their perspective to talk about Euro-Americans and other voluntary migrants to North America: settler; Black Americans who descended from the freedmen emancipated from chattel slavery in what were the Union border and Confederate states; white Americans who *socially* identify as *settlers* and make their embrace of “political incorrectness” about rejecting the “every white person in the US is an immigrant” idea; and frankly, more contemporary “globalized” expats/migrants who feel only, by their own open assertion, a partial, qualified attachment to the US and/or have particular perspectives on it.

      I’m thinking of two relatively recent expat individuals in particular but the general perspective of holding the US at arms’ length in the era of being a migrant in a superpower … I firmly believe it matters, and not to the benefit of even civic unity.

  16. Are Black Americans a nation? They have an origin myth, a shared culture, their own strand of history they do not share with other Americans, the United States is their homeland, English is their native language.

  17. I’m surprised you don’t mention “American Nations” by Colin Woodard, who posits that we have at least 11 rival “nations” founded by certain (largely White) settlers from specific areas of Europe (or other parts of the Americas), specific times and specific economic models, all of which deeply influence every state/county government, economy and electoral trend to this day. He also posits that the “borders” of each “nation” shift a bit when a significant critical-mass migration occurs from one “nation” to another, and that lesser-mass migrations tend to find a way to assimilate into the receiving “nation”.

    1. Yes, I, too, was reminded of Woodward’s book.

      When reading “American Nations” though, I was struck by how little he seemed to notice the impact of technology, especially communications technology, over the past century.

      For a time, things like Hollywood, network TV news, and even “national” sports broadcasts did a lot of homogenizing.

      The along come digital, which by its fragmented nature, undoes a lot of that homogenization. It’s partly that subcultures can communicate in their own private space, create their own myths, and create an us/them way of thinking where “them” applies to a huge swathe of the US. By interest, by generation, by political affiliation, whatever.

      But just as important as what digital does, is what it undoes: the homogenizing trend of the second half of the 20th Century. Anyone who grew up on network television entertainment and news grew up assuming a country that came closer to serving as a nation state, and now that is coming apart.

      I think that that is why Woodward’s book (and this blogpost) come as news. The USA kind of forgot that in many ways, we are not a nation, and we are now being forcefully reminded of that fact.

      Only I suspect that the lack of nationhood is far more dangerous now than it was in, say, 1900 because today’s communications technology makes competing nations within the US far more visible and thus far more compelling targets for suppression. Not to mention that far an away the most effective way to empower your own nation is by demonizing another nation. Which, I think, is the main lesson to be gleaned from the Trump era.

  18. I think that the USA is much as empire as China, Russia or France, even if US citizens don’t like being called like that. Britain also had a system of indirect control in India (though, the word `hegemony` was also used to describe it). The USA also imposes direct military control on Iraq and until recently Afghanistan. The USA also conquered native territories and “still holds vestiges of their old empire”.

    1. Late to the party, but still – I think it is also worth noting that the main argument of continental USA not being an empire boils down to the fact that, unlike China or Russia (but like, say, France or Spain), it was much more successful in dismantling the native nations it conquered, either by extermination or by assimilation. The “original” territory of the US is very much the northeast, with everything else being gradually incorporated into the “empire”.

      Mind, this is not a moral assessment – the USA’s relative success in this, as opposed to the examples of Russia and China, are related much more of the relative technological disparity between the actors in America than the unwillingness of Russia and China to do it. In other words, US Empire was able to destroy or absorb its tributaries, Russia and China, less so. But ultimately, all empires tend to hegemonize, so something that might’ve been imperial organization a few centuries ago may not be one now.

      1. I see what you’re getting at here, but basically no one calling the United States an “empire” means it in the sense you’re talking about. When someone calls the United States an empire, they’re almost always claiming that, for example, having military bases and trade agreements in Japan makes it an imperial power.

  19. I don’t think playing with the meaning of words shed much light on the subject.
    In the same vein, it could be argued that parliamentary democracy are not actual Democracy,
    but elected Aristrocracy. Thus, those countries should assert the undemocratic nature of their institutions in order to regain the confidence of disaffected voters…

    I think that to confluate ethnic identity and national identity scramble the understanding of what is a Nation. Bavarian is a lot less debatable ethnic identity than German. Should it mean than Bavaria is a nation and not Germany? Autochthony is not a good criteria either: France, England, Turkey or Russia are all named after conquerors of the land not after original inhabitants.
    Even a shared culture, language and ethnic origin can lead to different nations hostile to one another as we can see in the Balkans.

    1. I would say representative democracy is more like elective oligarchy than elective aristocracy. There’s “rule by a few” but not so much rule by “best people”.

  20. I have long wanted to do a sociological study of Third Culture Children (those who were born in one country but grew up in others). I myself am a TCK, and I do not identify with any political state, nation-based or otherwise. I wonder if other TCK also do not identify with a state

    1. I am, theoretically, one of those, but the Third Culture I grew up in was American Expat, so while there were significant differences between that and the Home Culture, it didn’t prevent the adoption/assimilation by and of me by the Home Culture.

  21. Would you call the Romans an empire post Edict of Caracalla? Because if you do, there’s a good case to be made that the US is an empire, merely one with an unusual habit of granting citizenship to its conquered subjects.

    I agree that we are whatever the hell the Romans were. “Universal state” perhaps?

  22. Was Roman culture, in the anthropological-archaeological sense, ever a nation? If so, when did it stop being a nation? Was the Roman nation maybe reconstituted or reimagined at least once before it disappeared, was subsumed in the greater culture of the empire it created or dissolved into orthogonal localism? Sort of like how there was a significant attempt for at least a century to assert an “Anglo-Saxon” national(ist) myth or culture in the United States before the weight of non-Anglo immigrants

    But then, why couldn’t the contemporary United States follow the path recommended by the neoreactionaries and express nationhood through manifest ethnogenesis of a native-born majority, likely featuring a return to Anglo-Saxonist-era immigration controls (not that any of this would be a good thing)? One might even say that the great strife arising from the process of contestation would alone effectively undergird a national origin for those who remain.

    Tangentially, the US is clearly an empire, as it wages wars of conquest to impose preferred foreign and economic policies or outcomes on other countries. I never heard the direct territorial control criterion as the necessary factor. Guam and Puerto Rico are just the fantasy of empire.

  23. Reading this in the new year while rereading Who Were The Romans, and it interacts interestingly with a lot of my own thoughts about the peculiarities of the US? I’m quite fond of the notion that the single defining struggle of the US, if any, is the conflict (the dialectic, if you will) between the mythic aspirations of the US as an egalitarian state standing up for the least in our society (“We the People”, “all men are created equal,” “inalienable rights”) and the all-too-common reality of the US as an explicitly supremacist project that relegates some citizens to a permanent underclass (the Founders explicitly being against too much democracy and also giving the vote only to land-owning white men!!!). When no one is pointing out this contradiction, the US remains stable (this does not mean the contradiction does not exist; to paraphrase MLK, there is a difference between positive and negative peace, and most of the peace here is a negative peace); when the contradiction is heightened, the US enters internal strife.

    There’s a parallel between Roman expansions of citizenship (and later failures to expand citizenship) and the changing definition of ‘whiteness’: expanding the ingroup who the state is ‘for’ lessens the contradictions, while failing to do so even as it takes in more subjects leads to heightened contradictions. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the scariest times in America have been when the white ingroup feels it’s under threat, whether from the prospect of abolition in 1861, the fear stoked by Fascist leaders in the 1930s, the militancy of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, or the paranoia sparked by 9/11 and seemingly intensified by the election of Barack Obama in our own century.

    Or, put another way, the most stable times are when the majority can believe that America IS, in fact, a nation or something like a nation; when enough people buy into America as an institution and the discontents are small or invisible enough. It’s when that illusion is punctured that we see large scale unrest.

    Not that I’m totally cynical, but then, as a white Jewish American, I’m at least conditionally part of the ingroup, so of course I’m at least capable of admiring my country when it lives up to its ideals (which it does not do very much, but sometimes it at least gets an A for effort). But even, say, Langston Hughes, a leftwing black man writing in 1936, could write a passionate demand to ‘Let America Be America Again.’ I don’t think it’s a coincidence, either, that the time period also gave us This Land Is Your Land, written by an avowed socialist – the most downtrodden seem to become either the fiercest defenders of the American ideal or its most passionate critics, or often both at once. Again, one can see parallels in how fiercely people who might have never visited Rome could defend the idea of being Roman, could embrace this identity as something that cut beyond ethnicity and geography – whereas it was often the rich and powerful of Rome itself who took that identity for granted.

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