Image by Old White Truck
Like all Biblical stories, the one on the patricide of Abel by Cain contains a fundamental truth about the human condition; a truth borne out by sociological and anthropological research. In places like the Amazon jungle and in Borneo, working with only recently contacted tribes, anthropologists have found that when a man on a hunting and gathering expedition encounters another man from a different band or tribe, both men’s first instinct is to try and kill the other guy. And they often do. There is a reason I used the word “instinct”; it is in fact accurate. Homicide, even patricide (because after all the two men are only separated by a small ridge, a river, a lake) is instinctual for humans. It requires no thought, no deliberation. It is as necessary as recoiling from a poisonous snake, withdrawing from a hot ember. In a world of highly limited resources, another human is unwelcome competition, well-worthy of the risk and the calorie expense of trying to eliminate him. Women of child-bearing age are different of course, because they can be used to propagate the genes of the male. Hence they arouse a totally different instinctual response.
But following the patricide instinct without exception is not an evolutionarily sound strategy, because it precludes the formation of extended families, bands, tribes, and nations, all structures that are essential for successful competition over scarce resources. So evolution made us contain within us the diametrically opposed urges of both killing and loving our brethren. This was obviously no easy task and required the development humanity’s most powerful psychological weapon: nationalism. It is nationalism, the feeling of belonging to a nation, or as the Hebrew Bible would say a “goy” that allows us to be at once loving tender human beings and ruthless murderers. Unlike bees or ants, we do not subdivide the tasks of nurturing and murdering, not really. Even in societies that point to the opposite like medieval Japan, the samurai were only a generation or two removed from being peasants and many peasants were conscripted to the feudal armies and rose to samurai ranks. No, for us humans, it is the same person, a single individual, that can simultaneously be a Gestapo torturer and a loving husband and father.
In order for this evolutionary trick to work, we must be certain, above all else, who and what constitutes our nation, our tribe. The corollary question of who doesn’t is easy to answer: EVERYONE ELSE. Of course, that doesn’t mean that at any given time we must kill everyone else. This matter is best left to our elders, chiefs, politicians, and despots to decide. But the fundamentals are clear: we are nurturing to our own and potentially deadly to all others.
Image by Old White Truck
We live in times wherein technology has enabled within only a few generations near-instantaneous movement of goods, people, and above all information. This development, one that our long evolution had done nothing to prepare us for, presents an acute challenge to the concept of nationhood. The other technological advances, ones that allow us to engage in slaughter on a planetary scale, have made the age-old dualism of nurture – kill, potentially unsustainable as it can easily lead to the extinction of the entire human race.
A dispassionate analysis of this precarious situation must start with an honest attempt at definition; what, if any, are the attributes of a modern nation? Considering that human nature is ever unchanging and that people in Europe have no less of an urge to murder their brethren than people in Borneo, we must rely on countervailing forces, forces that make us adhere to fellow humans rather than kill them to define nationhood. It is these forces of attraction that make nations; the more of them a group of people possesses, the more nation-like it is and the more likely it is to win the escalating battle for limited global resources. But what are these forces of national cohesion? Setting aside political correctness, they are not difficult to enumerate. Let’s give it a try:
• Geographic cohesion. Have the people in question been occupying the same piece of land since they conceived of nationhood?
• Linguistic cohesion. Have the people in question been speaking the same language for centuries? Millennia? Does the vast majority of them count this language as their “mame lushn” their “mother tongue”?
• Religious cohesion. Does the vast majority of the people to be considered for nationhood practice the same religion? Is it the same religion practiced by their ancestors?
• Cultural cohesion. Are there cultural symbols such as written documents, works of art, trademarks, logos, pieces of music, rituals, etc. that the vast majority of the people to be considered for nationhood adhere to as sacred and immutable? Do they tear up, do their heartstrings vibrate when exposed to the same?
• Genetic cohesion. Without belaboring the obvious here, simply ask yourself this: having given people tested for nationhood a careful yet superficial look, do they look the same?
Above is a list of five tests of nationhood, but these are not pass/fail tests, so let’s grade each on a five-point scale, where five makes the statement very true, and 1 not true at all. Adding up the scores for each test point, we can arrive at our final nationhood score.
Let’s apply this test to a few interesting cases, shall we? How about Japan? Is it a nation? Well, on Point 1, geographic cohesion, we must give it a five. The Japanese people arose on the same islands that they still occupy. The same grade applies to their linguistic cohesion; Japanese is the mother tongue of very nearly all Japanese citizens. On religious cohesion, Japan scores lower; Buddhism is prevalent, but it coexists with Shinto and Christianity has been making significant inroads as of late. Also, religion is not a high visibility topic in modern Japan. Let’s call it a three then. The two remaining points, four and five, must earn Japan the highest marks; the Japanese, in the vast majority, adhere to their national symbols of the Imperial family, the flag, and the foundational mythology of the creation of Japan. Genetically, it can hardly be missed that the Japanese people are far more similar than diverse. A total score 23 is awarded to Japan. It is likely the highest that could be found anywhere on our planet. The Japanese are, emphatically, unquestionably, a nation.
How about Russia? The core Russian lands have never changed, so a five on that. While Russia has several ethnic non-Russian speaking minorities, the Russian language is supreme, so a five it is on Point 2. While the 1917 Bolshevik revolution did a lot to diminish the role of religion in Russian life, that role has subsequently recovered, though not to pre-revolutionary levels. With resurgent Russian Orthodox Church in Russia proper and Islam making a comeback in the southern provinces, Russia gets a solid four on that point. Point 4 is a particularly difficult one for Russia. A 100 years ago they would have easily scored a full five on cultural cohesion, but 70 years of Bolshevik rule wreaked havoc with Russian symbolism and many critical symbols such as the national flag and anthem are subjects of fierce debate. On this score today’s Russia fails miserably and gets the lowest possible grade of one. Genetically, even European Russians are a mix of genes from many places including from the centuries-long Mongol occupation. Add to that the various non-European regions that are part of the Russian Federation, and a score of two emerges for the final point, yielding a cumulative score of 17. Russia isn’t much of a nation, a fact well attested to by its current place in the world.
How about a European country that is very much in the thick of the recent debate on migration. Is France a nation? Geographically and linguistically, France scores a combined 10. Even the immigrants quickly adopt the French language and it reigns supreme. Prior to the Second World War, France would have undoubtedly scored a five on the religious test, as the Roman Catholic Church played a critical role in both private and public lives of nearly all French citizens. With the recent rapid secularization of the European French and the introduction of non-native Islam via mass migration, it seems that religion plays more of a divisive than cohesive role in modern France, yielding a grade of only 2. Once again, 70 years ago the cultural symbols of France, the tricolor, the Revolution, the trifecta of brotherhood, equality, and freedom, would have brought together behind them the vast majority of French citizens. Today, it is doubtful that more than 80% would adhere to these principles, giving France a score of 4. On genetic cohesion as well, recent migration leading to a population that is more than 10% non-European, gives us a mark of 4 and a cumulative grade of 20 for French nationhood.
It is unavoidable perhaps when discussing the concept of nationhood to include Israel, a small country, and the United States of America, one of the largest. In Israel, we are never far from controversy and I must admit to extreme subjectivity to boot. Nevertheless, let’s try. On geographic cohesion, five is the only answer. The Land of Israel is the reason the nation of Israel came into being and is still here today. Linguistically, a four seems to hit the mark. Hebrew is supreme and Arabic is co-official, but Russian is a semi-official language now and for many Hebrew is only spoken for the first generation. Religion? There are no people in Israel, from any community, who could be considered truly secular. Whether they like it or not, religion, be it Judaism, Christianity, or Islam play a huge role in the lives of all Israelis. Since all three of these religions are indigenous to Israel (Islam was there since the seventh century), a solid five is the mark on religious cohesion both among Jews and in Israel as a whole. Culturally among Jews, five is the only answer. Since Israeli nationhood is coincidental with and defining of Jewish nationhood, that is sufficient for the highest grade on cultural cohesion to hold sway. Genetically however, it is difficult to justify a grade higher than three. Israelis look highly diverse, even if one looks only at the Jewish segment of the population. While solid genetic markers for Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews exist and many are shared between the two, many Israelis come from semi-assimilated backgrounds and a full 20% of the population is not Jewish at all. So is Israel a nation? Yes, with a second-high score of 22 and a caveat: Israel is a nation of Jews that hosts a very significant non-Jewish, mostly Arab, minority.
Finally, we reach the big Kahuna: the United States. Geography has never really defined America as a nation; it has fluctuated until only a few decades ago, and with possible Puerto Rico statehood, may fluctuate yet again. With that being said, America takes its name from the continent and the capital city of Washington DC hasn’t moved in 200 years, so a grade of five on this count is well-justified. Linguistically, the recent supremacy of Spanish in places like Miami and the lack of official status for the English language, even in as far as the non-existence of an Academy for American English, no grade higher than four is justified. On the religious front, America was founded by Christians for Christians, and yet no religion is enshrined in its founding documents. Christianity in America is under attack, secularism and Islam are on the rise, and the entire topic is far more divisive than cohesive. With that, it is hard to see how a grade higher than unity can be given to this point. Culturally, a seismic shift is taking place. America has the ultimate set of foundational symbols: the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Stars and Stripes, the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance. A few short years ago, five would have been a no-brainer on this point. But not today. High school kids tear up the constitution on live TV. American flag caps and t-shirts are considered symbols of hate and aggression in publicly-funded institutions. The First and Second Amendments are in extreme danger. Taken as a whole rather than regionally, it is difficult to assign a number higher than two on this point. Genetic cohesion was never something America had in spades, but there was a time most Americans were of various European descents. Today, a majority still is. But it’s a rapidly shrinking majority, one that has lower than sustainable birth rates, while non-European birth rates and immigration levels are on the rise. A soft three is the highest that can be given here. The total score for American nationhood is thus a paltry 15, indicative of a nation on the brink of collapse.
Image by Loavesofbread
For now, the forces of division and separation are in tenuous equilibrium with the forces of cohesion, but only just and they are rapidly giving ground. America is an idea, not a geographic location, a gene pool, or a religion. In America, the set of symbols that embody this idea, the American raison d’etre, are the only true foundation for American nationhood. If these symbols can no longer command the fealty and respect of most Americans, then, well, simply put, there ARE no Americans.