Now that I’ve finally got my honours thesis proposal finished and handed in, I finally have some time to sit back and relax. Well, except that I have to work on studying for the GRE. So perhaps not so much relaxing. But at any rate, I’m taking a break from that, so I’ll write something here instead. Maybe it will help my vocabulary skills for the verbal section of the GRE. The more loquacious I am, the more efficacious it will be. I hope I’m using those words properly…
Anyway, with the G8 and the G20 coming up in the near future, and with the World Cup in full swing, it seems as good a time as any to talk about nationalism. I wrote a few things about this on Facebook during the Olympics, and I don’t think people were too pleased with me. It’s at times like these (events that are in a global context) that nationalism and patriotism tend to emerge. To be honest, I find the attitude fairly repulsive. During the Olympics, everyone had their Canada hat and mitts on, and there were Canadian flags everywhere. Perhaps it was partially the drastic change (since Canadians normally aren’t really known for their blatant patriotism), but I found it fairly distasteful. I mean, the Olympic spirit is fairly benign and is certainly not going to fuel any large-scale war or anything, but it reinforces the attitude to be carried over into other contexts. So let me explain a bit further why I find nationalism just so distasteful.
Primarily, I find the thing just so entirely arbitrary. I’m going to run with the Olympics as an example, mostly because I haven’t really been following the World Cup…at all. But okay, so there’s a hockey game between Canada and the US. Now really, what is the difference between the two teams? Yes, they wear different coloured jerseys. One might have some good ol’ free healthcare while the other might not. But what’s the difference between the people themselves? One lives above the 49th parallel, and the other lives below it. That’s about it. They are separated by an arbitrary imaginary line, and nothing else. Their DNA is 99.9% identical, they speak the same language (unless the Canadian is a Francophone, I suppose), they share the same landmass, they probably watch and enjoy the same TV shows and listen to the same music. So why should I cheer for one team over the other, when the people on the teams are identical?
Well, perhaps I should be cheering for the country. But come on – the only reason I live in the country that I do is because my parents happened to live here, and their parents before them did as well. I could have just as easily been born in Uganda or New Zealand or Mongolia or Argentina. I don’t have any special attachment to this land – the dirt, the people (because, like I said, they’re so similar everywhere else), the culture (after all, had I grown up in Uganda, I’d probably like the Ugandan culture very much). Sure, I think that a democratic and stable country is highly preferable, but is that a reason to cheer for a team? Does that make a country “better” than another, or does it just give us reason to help other countries adopt a similar governmental structure? If anything, I would think that I should cheer for the team that has overcome the most, has endured the most hardship in order to compete – they are surely more deserving of praise than a team who has been subsidized by their government and been able to practice their sport with relative ease.
But perhaps I should prefer my country because it is my home. I suppose this has some validity – we get attached to the locations that we live. But again, I could just as easily have been born elsewhere. And if I had, I should much like that place better. Not because it’s any better or worse objectively speaking, but just because I’m used to it. It’s familiar to me. That’s all this is. But why should I prefer something solely because I’m familiar with it? Shouldn’t I base my pride on something a little bit more concrete than that? Sure, that might be why we pick Coke over Pepsi, but something tells me that this strategy is more than inadequate in the context of which country is better than another.
Why should this matter, though? Why am I making such a big deal over whether we root for our own sports team or not? Well, I’m not. This is just an example to show the lack of reasons to be nationalistic. For the most part, I could care less when people cheer for Team Canada. That has few consequences. But let’s apply it more generally.
The G8 and the G20 are two major conferences between the leaders of the top 8 and top 20 richest countries, respectively. They make decisions that have a huge effect worldwide – well, that is, when they ever agree on anything. That, however, makes them extremely important. For instance, despite these countries pledging to increase their foreign aid in order to combat poverty, collectively they have fallen behind on at least $7 billion dollars. That incredibly large sum of money (though not for these leaders, who work with “billions” regularly) translates fairly directly into human lives, health, and well-being, and the failure of these countries to deliver their promised aid has undoubtedly affected millions of people, especially in African countries. My purpose in mentioning this is not to criticize these leaders (though they certainly deserve it), but rather to show that the decisions they make have enormous impacts. And when people like this become nationalistic, things go awry.
Let’s scale it back to an even more general example. What is one of the most consistent promises that politicians today make? “We will increase jobs and reduce unemployment!” In other words, one of the primary purposes of politicians is seen to be securing jobs and keeping the economy growing. But let’s think about this for a second. Freeze time for a moment – right now there are a certain number of tasks to be performed by a certain amount of people in order to supply a certain amount of goods and services. This is a product of the free market, and it definitely changes over time, but provided there are no changes in technology and looking at a global scale, the total number of jobs will remain fairly equal over time. There are only so many jobs to do, and so there are only so many people that can be employed. (I understand this is somewhat simplistic – I’m not trying to discount the influence that education, technology, and new products can have.) So what is a politician really saying when they promise to increase jobs? They’re really saying something like, “We will try to entice businesses to come here to set up shop, instead of anywhere else.”
Therein lies a big issue. Certainly there are some factors that are largely out of the control of any one politician. Businesses need to be close to raw materials, suppliers and markets, and they want to be in a country that is relatively stable. These factors are really just facts of life that lead to natural inequality among countries. If one’s country is largely devoid of natural resources, it’s not likely to attract a lot of business. But then there are many factors that are under the control of politicians. And by trying to attract business, they’re hoping to dissuade them from going anyplace else. That represents a strong sort of nationalism. Take two countries that are exactly equal in raw materials, stability, culture, possible market, etc. Why should a business choose one over another? There’s nothing inherently better or worse about the people in them. If we were to bring in 100 new companies, we should expect that about 50 would start in one country and 50 would start in the other one. Businesses just follow where the money is, and if there’s equal money in both, the decision is pretty arbitrary.
So what is it about a politician’s promise that becomes nationalistic? A purely disinterested observer would try to spread out businesses to benefit people equally. If there are a limited number of jobs available, he would try to give each country an equal number of jobs per capita. But of course, the politician is not a disinterested observer. He or she has to pander to the desires of the local population – and the local population wants jobs for themselves. So instead of coming up with a solution that benefits everyone equally, he advances one that gives one area an advantage over another. It’s a little like the greedy kid at the birthday party that tries to eat as much of the candy himself so that he gets more than everyone else. He stuffs as much in his mouth as he can and then fights everyone else off so he can eat more. There is no regard for fairness or equity. There is only him, the candy, and people preventing him from eating the candy. And so, his interests are purely for himself.
I would argue that it is precisely a nationalistic attitude that causes us to be greedy. We all want to have jobs and make money and buy stuff – that’s a given. But so do the people in Sudan. And Ethiopia. Why is it more important for us to have jobs than them? But yet that’s exactly what we vote for, and what we pressure the politicians to do for us – to get the businesses to come here and give us jobs instead of them. And what’s more, we use the money we already have (as a result of the existing inequality) to make sure that happens. Governments are not opposed to dropping billions of dollars for development and redevelopment to get businesses to come to their area. This only creates a perpetual cycle where North America becomes richer and richer at the expense of everywhere else.
This is nationalism at its core. There is no reason for us to want jobs to come here, except that we think (perhaps on some unconscious level) that we’re more deserving than they are. And so it becomes us vs. them, and in order to fuel that mentality, we somehow make ourselves seem more important or in some way different. Whether that’s by celebrating our heritage or demonizing other cultures or by making little kids stand at attention in front of the flag while singing the national anthem every day – it’s all a way of saying, “We’re important. In fact, we’re more important than other people.” It’s subtle, and certainly I wouldn’t say this is a conscious intent of anyone. But it’s there. And I think it’s crucially important to realize. Democratic societies like to talk a lot about how everyone is equal – there is no difference between a Canadian and a Kenyan that makes an iota of difference to their moral worth. Yet somehow the Canadian is more deserving of his job and his daily fix of Tim Hortons. He’s more deserving of two cars, a big screen HDTV, a nice home, central air conditioning, and countless other luxury items. Why? Because he’s Canadian. Really, that sounds absurd, but I’m trying to think of any other reason someone might give for it.
This is why I find nationalism distasteful. Because it lets attitudes like this grow – not intentionally, not explicitly, but it happens all the same. If people had no illusions of patriotism for their country being a virtue, they might recognize that they don’t need more jobs. They don’t need a growing economy. Or rather, they don’t need these things any more than any other person in the world. But too often it seems the attitude is “let’s make sure we get our own first, then worry about everyone else.” That seems like a disgusting attitude to me.
I could say much more, but the last point I’d like to make is that avoiding nationalism doesn’t mean hating your country, or betraying it, or being completely devoid of any feeling for one’s own country. I think that it’s possible to say, “Yes, I like my country, because it’s my home, and it’s what I know”, without that turning into an attitude of superiority. I think it is possible to keep a subjective attitude of preferring one’s own country, recognizing that the preference is simply because of familiarity – like preferring Coke to Pepsi. I also don’t think that it needs to turn into an inability to criticize the government structures or policies of other countries. I can say that a totalitarian regime is wrong and bad, but that in no way means that the citizens of the country are any less deserving of well-being and happiness.
So go ahead. Get off the swing and let someone else have a turn. Being fair and just has brought more good to the world than nationalism ever could.
(On a related note: If you want to inspire the development of business globally, consider Kiva. They deal out microloans to entrepreneurs around the world; it’s not even a donation – you get your money back!)