Friday, January 29, 2010



What are nations? What are states? Are they the same thing? If you listen to mass media in the United States, you might think they are. Politicians talk about the "American Nation." Colloquially, we hear terms like "all over the Nation" and "nationwide." Somehow, we have equated the word "Nation" with "country" or "state." But the word "Nation" exists for a reason: It has its own meaning. And upon closer inspection, we see that the United States really may not be a "Nation" at all.

Nations are not political entities. Nations are human populations that share common ethnic, religious and linguistic traditions and values. States are political entities. It makes sense to create a State from a Nation, but it is not necessary. In that sense, States are artificial while Nations are genetic. People in a Nation intuitively understand one another because they all speak the same language, look basically the same and represent the same cultural traditions. By contrast, there is no need for people in a State to understand one another. Several Nations can agree to live under the same State. States simply administer the law and keep order. But Nations exist regardless of the State that rules them.

States are artificial because they depend on artificial members: Citizens. The word "citizen" is a technical term. It has a specific definition by law. True, the definition varies depending on the State that creates it. But it is still a legal conclusion, not a genetic fact.

Aristotle defined "citizen" in The Politics. He said that "citizens" are people who are qualified to participate in government and to hold office. The Politics, Book III ch. i § 1275a22. "Participating in government," in turn, means "deliberating or judging" on all matters relevant under the Constitution. Id. at § 1275b13. And only States create Constitutions. Aristotle continued this reasoning by concluding that "a number of [citizens] large enough to secure a self-sufficient life we may, by and large, call a state." Id. He then posited that states only exist to the extent that citizens associate with each other under a particular Constitution. The Politics, Book III ch. iii § 1276a34. By this reasoning, states are technical: They exist only to the extent that citizens continue to recognize a particular Constitution. When they no longer agree to abide by the Constitution, the state ceases to exist. Id.

What is so significant about these definitions? They are significant because they say nothing about nations. According to Aristotle, a State exists only as a matter of law; it does not require national identity. States are technical fictions created by people who want to secure a better life. To achieve that goal, they create a Constitution that delineates government power and the rights of citizens. Citizens take their identity in the State from the Constitution, not from their national origins. As a legal matter, nations are irrelevant to the State. Strictly viewed, states are not nations, and nations are not states.

But that is just the legal view. Reality exists quite apart from law, and reality shows that national identity greatly influences state power. States function more effectively when their citizens all come from the same national background. States are more cohesive when all their citizens speak the same language, represent the same cultural traditions and live by the same basic values. When States create Constitutions to reflect shared national values, they simplify the business of government. No matter what anyone says, it is much easier to govern a relatively homogeneous population in which everyone views life in a similar way.

Perhaps it sounds archaic--or even racist--to suggest that States function best when they comprise a single Nation. After all, popular American rhetoric holds that America's strength flows from its diversity. According to that rhetoric, anyone can be an American "citizen" no matter what "nation" they represent. As long as they "participate in government and hold office" under the Constitution, they are "citizens," even if one comes from Iraq and the other from Holland. In other words, the United States--at least on paper--takes pride in the fact that its "State" represents every "Nation" on earth.

That may be so. But it is inaccurate to call the United States a "nation." Our Constitution certainly makes the United States a "state." Everyone within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States abides by technical laws passed in compliance with a Constitution that every citizen theoretically supports. Every "citizen" under that Constitution may "participate in government or hold office." That suffices to call the United States a "state." But it does not suffice to call it a "nation."

Our American republic is unique among world States because it has virtually no national identity. Our citizens represent every possible cultural, religious, linguistic and racial group. Culture, religion, language and race all influence the values that people hold dear in their lives. As such, the United States is at war with itself; its citizens hold every conceivable value and they frequently clash. There is no simple cultural unity. While every "nation" in the United States might contribute to the state's overall strength, they certainly do not contribute to a united American culture. American culture exists only as far as a particular "nation" within the United States observes it. As such, it is confusing discuss "American identity." To really understand "American identity," it is insufficient to examine whether a person is a citizen. Rather, one must look further into the person's national identity to figure out who he is. And in a state that comprises a thousand nations, that is a hard task.

Despite America's uncertain national character, there are other ways by which to measure cohesion between American "citizens." There are other ways to assess whether people come from the same "nation." Indeed, Americans from every cultural tradition have created "pseudo-nations" that link them in ways that language, race or ethnicity cannot. For example, millions of Americans love football. That makes them part of a "football nation" with a common culture and language. Millions more love television shows. That makes them part of a "television" nation with shared values and traditions. These might be weak replacements for true national identity. But Americans make do in whatever ways they can.

People yearn for national identity. States that encompass a single Nation generally radiate that identity without trying too hard. But the United States is a problematic case. Americans yearn to be "American" without really understanding that there is no "American nation." To fulfill that longing, they rally around things they all like, especially commerce.

Americans are notoriously commercial. They turn to commerce for meaning in life more than many other people in the world. I argue that this is due in part to the fact that they long for something to define them as a national group. If Americans can't all belong to a single value system or cultural heritage, they at least can all represent a worldview based exclusively on commercial success.

For better or worse, this "replacement identity" has stuck: Most people in the world associate Americans with business success, enterprise and "do-it-yourself" entrepreneurship. That is America's "national identity." If the United States cannot be a "nation" in traditional sense, it can simply rewrite the rules to suit its situation.

Commerce is America's national identity. We are a "money nation." We don't all speak the same language or have the same hair color. We don't all worship the same God or observe the same holidays. But money unites us: The maniacal, ruthless, insistent, all-consuming urge to amass cash. German-Americans do it. Irish-Americans do it. Chinese-Americans do it. Russian-Americans do it. Sengalese-Americans do it. Mexican-Americans do it.

That is our Nation. That is our culture. That is our language. That is our common ground.

One Nation, under cash, with liberty and justice for all.


Timoteo said...


Саблезубая said...

O! Excuse me, please. But You repeat nacionalist thoughts of imperialist period (1900-1930th)! The subject of Your article is so old and boring... Do You remember Clive Lewis's novells? (About Narnia, for example.) He wrote about England using Your words and reasonings about self-determination.
Excuse me for my spelling - I can't speak English very well. But I can tell You, that articals like Yours even in our poor and disoriented country (I am from Russia) are perceived like old-fashioned!
Good luck!

Balthazar said...

Well, this is the first time I've ever been accused of being either old or boring!

There's a first time for everything, I suppose.

Nonetheless, thanks for reading.

Are you sure you read the whole thing, or just the subject line?