Nationalism just ain’t what it used to be. Sure, there was a nice surge of patriotism following the attacks of 9/11 when we all realized that we actually had a common enemy, but once we learned how complicated the problem was our focus drifted back to divisive domestic issues and our national pride is as low as ever. I feel a somewhat false sense of nostalgia for the era of world wars, when we knew we had to go to war and that we all had to contribute to this great country to continue on. Symbols carried power back then at the height of the power of the nation state, epitomized by the pride and fear which accompanied the swastika. Now we are all afraid to be proud of any perceived superiority, because we understand how dangerous such pride can be; we are ultimately all afraid of being seen as a NAZI.
The United States of America epitomizes this problem. We consider ourselves the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, the sole surviving superpower after the cold war. There is clearly something that has made America exceptional, but the more we look at it, the more we see these qualities as evil. Our affluent economy is built on a kind of economic imperialism which has had devastating effects on Latin America and countries around the world.
As I pointed out, war is a great way to unify people and create national pride, but we haven’t had a real war since WWII. Since then real war has been far too dangerous, and instead we take “police action,” violating the sovereignty of other nation states through executive order, not decree of congress. The post-war wars we have undertaken have been increasingly unpopular for obvious reasons. When it gets down to it, we aren’t completely comfortable declaring ourselves world police because it’s an extremely arrogant, aggressive, offensive, and expensive path to take. So while presidents expected wars such as the Iraq war to boost ratings and foster nationalism, these “wars” have had the perverse opposite effect. In another attempt to foster nationalism presidents have declared wars on all manner of abstract things, from terrorism to drugs. While it seems sound logic to think that people would unify behind a cause against so obviously evil things, we don’t all agree that declaring “war” is the appropriate measure to combat these abstract problems, and these “wars” again drain money and produce little.
This is all happening in the context of the collapse of the nation-state which I discussed a couple of posts ago. Nations are losing power as information technology empowers smaller entities, and the loss of nationalism reflects our loss of faith in the institution of the state. We are in a transition period, one which will have its share of crises before things level out.
So where does that leave you and me? We all have an urge to belong to a group, a community, and have pride in that group, just as we are proud of ourselves. Our national pride is eroding fast and won’t last long, so we need something to grab onto. Many people already have small communities to go to, but I would like to identify something that all Americans can be proud of, something we can continue to believe in even after the state ceases to function.
To begin, the formation pride is the formation of an identity, and the formation of an identity requires a contrast. Our nation will increasingly suffer from the same faults of other nations and therefore lose an identity separate from them, so we must go for a different way. I propose that an enduring contrast in human society will be the contrast we see between “East” and “West.” This is the contrast of individualism and collectivism, of capitalism and communism, thinking about yourself and thinking about the group. This contrast is one I have mentioned before, and it goes far beyond communism and capitalism; it’s in eastern religious systems like Hinduism and Confucianism which focus on one’s place and role in society. These two ways of thinking, As Buckminster Fuller pointed out, are not truly different, and come together in odd ways. For instance: Western, individualistic democracies with the value of each person getting a vote are the modern epitome of group decision making, while Eastern collective minded societies tend to appoint dictators, the epitome of individualistic thinking.
Let us shift our attention to the Olympics to illustrate the contrast. Every four years even the most anti-nationalist cynical people gather around the TV and shout “USA! USA!” over and over with wide smiles and erupting pride. We can do this because this is the only time that the US competes with other nations on a “fair” basis, without our attack drones and such. Because the USA is a sports team we can love it again, and there is definitely a reason to do so. We don’t just love the USA in the Olympics because it’s our country, there is an actual contrast in the way we train and recruit our athletes: in China the country acts in a communist way, where people are somewhat property of the state. Individuals showing propensity for certain sports are selected out by the government and trained rigorously, shaping the highest quality athletes the state could possibly find. This system is efficient and logical, and one would expect great returns from it, which the Chinese enjoy, yet we still beat them in many respects with our system. Our government lets boys like Michael Phelps do whatever they want to do, and his parents tell him that he could grow up to be the president if he wants to. But he doesn’t. He wants to swim, so he does, and he kicks ass.
I am proud that the West empowers individuals, and I am especially proud of the American dream. Everywhere in Western democracies there is a sense of social mobility, but America is unique in its optimism, in the American dream. American kids grow up told they could be the president if they work hard, while British kids are told it’ll never happen (gross oversimplification). The American dream is an extremely important part of my identity: it empowers me to hold extremely lofty goals even while knowing how unlikely they are; even if I miss the moon, so to speak, I’ll land amongst the stars (I always thought this saying was pretty stupid actually- if you miss the moon you’ll end up in empty space with no hope of returning home). I am proud that I live in a society which promotes this ideal.
A few years back my family housed a girl about 18 years old who had traveled from China. A family friend found her working at a Wendy’s and took pity, taking her in, and somehow she ended with us. Her parents had sent her to the United States to learn how to be an investment banker, knowing it would be a lucrative career which would bring prosperity to the family. She didn’t want to be an investment banker, but knew she had to do what her father said. She asked my father what he wanted his sons to be when they grew up, and my dad just smiled and said “I want them to be happy.” When he told me about this interaction I said to him “That’s really nice of you and good to hear, but even if you wanted me to go to a certain career I’d still do what I want,” to which he replied “good.”
To bring this all back to the singularity, this transition will be a triumph of individualism. Despite what many, even most would want, the billions of people on this planet will not transcend their physical limits simultaneously, a fortunate few will be the first achieve this. The singularity is in a small way a repetition of the renaissance, when wealthy merchants began patronizing the sciences and arts, thereby ushering in the modern world and the increased standard of living for all.