Rethinking the rhetoric of nationalism

Opinion by Jasmine Liu
Nov. 30, 2016, 12:57 a.m.

July 4th — a festive celebration of the triumph of liberal Enlightenment values like freedom and equality branded as uniquely American, and once my favorite day to gloat about an ingrained belief in my country’s exceptionalism — has dissolved into an empty construct I find increasingly unsatisfying. Nationalism, not only in the sense in which alt-right enthusiasts have exploited the concept in this election cycle, but as a larger political system of sovereign statehood, increasingly feels like an unfulfilling solution to timeless questions of governance. The idealist within me screams, “we can do better!”

Most immediately, the election of Trump has ignited questions of attachments to nationalism among many, implicitly or explicitly. Although relayed as a joke, the pithy reaction among many opponents of the Republican candidate after Election Day — “time to move to Canada!” — testifies to the shaky presumption that our loyalties lie with a nation. While it might be too early to claim that people are wholly unfettered to their state, resorting to such statements shows that we don’t believe in the necessity to “join or die” with our government. We are invested in our representation at the federal level, but only to a certain extent. For the larger part of history, it has been next to impossible to fathom abdicating membership in one’s political community of birth in favor of gaining acceptance in another developed polity. Today, Americans have gained a new comfort in knowing that there exists the option to renounce their ties to the nation if the government surpasses a threshold of unacceptability. Chris Huhne, a British politician, contends that the rise of right-wing nationalists, on the other hand, is a reactionary response to the increasingly tenuous line between defending national interests and global cooperation. A large portion of the country, unable to share the benefits of increased global links between metropolitan areas and left behind as others flock on a globalist bandwagon, have desperately reacted by clinging to a sense of national belonging.

Of course, there has been vocal pushback recently to this idea that citizens can simply stop caring about the future of their country as a cohesive unit. John Oliver, for example, argued  on Last Week Tonight that beyond monitoring all legislation and voting for representatives, Americans must protect each other against the impending loss of civil liberties through supporting grassroots organizations like the Trevor Project, Planned Parenthood and the International Refugee Assistance Project, and supporting quality investigative journalism. (As a side note, it’s also fitting to note for this piece that Oliver couldn’t vote in the election because he isn’t an American citizen, yet makes weekly calls to action on his show on principally American issues.) At best, efforts to support nonprofits do not affect the swaths of Rust Belt voters who cast their ballot for Trump, and at worst run counter to their core values. Especially because political support for the two major party candidates has been segregated geographically this election, solutions proposed to “help fellow Americans” only speak to a like-minded segment of the population increasingly defined by the divide between cities and rural America.

With the rise of the Internet, cosmopolitans are increasingly finding themselves connecting with one another within and across borders. Correspondingly, many Americans have disavowed lesser-educated English-speaking compatriots in favor of cross-border intellectuals, who paradoxically speak a more common language. Ease of communication and understanding within communities, based in shared language and culture, has deteriorated in the context of a nation and strengthened among modern city-dwellers globally. The rise of the internet has made political dialogue possible across sweeping geographic expanses, uniting activists globally. In a bizarre way then, Steve Bannon captured it best two years ago when lamenting to European conservatives that “there are people in New York that feel closer to people in London and in Berlin than they do to people in Kansas and in Colorado.” The unit of a country is no longer the most cohesive grouping of people that exists. Benjamin Barber, author of “If Mayors Ruled the World,” imagines a future in which the relationship between nations and cities globally is “rebalanced” with local governance taking a more prominent role. Parag Khanna argues in his book Connectography: Mapping the Future of the Global Civilization that because of the growing importance of global transportation, communications and energy infrastructure, the future will be defined by the maxim “connectivity is destiny.” Cities and the corresponding connective activity they foster, then, are hubs of the globalism that is spreading among millennials and urbanites.

Beyond acting as a poor descriptor of the allegiances citizens have with political authority, however, Westphalian sovereignty will not suffice in tackling the biggest issues of tomorrow. Huhne concludes that “scarcely any problem that people care about passionately is any longer susceptible to a purely national solution, even by a country as big, powerful and besotted with the perfume of sovereignty as the U.S.” It is not surprising, then, that many of the domestic controversies of today center around confusion about our degree of conviction in the system of state sovereignty: the refugee crisis, federal policy towards undocumented immigrants, military involvement abroad and America’s role in international climate agreements.

The rise of civil conflict post-World War II is metaphoric of the more general inadequacy of the world system of respect for state borders: What are we supposed to make of a government’s breakdown and subsequent inability to protect its people? The discussion about a country’s pursuit of its own interests feels insular and self-absorbed in the face of 65.3 million stateless people who have been displaced due to war or persecution. It feels morally negligent, even obscene, in such a context to speak about how to maximize benefits to our country, often at the costs of non-Americans.

Not only am I in a privileged position of being represented by a state — I am represented by the United States, which more or less continues to be the hegemon. My confusion has only been exacerbated by the absence of alternatives for a functional global order — even vague, idealistic solutions appear to be missing, an apparent resignation to the irresolvability of a problem so large and systematic. This gap in the literature is perhaps valid, but I refuse to revert to the rhetoric of recommending policy choices based on American interests. Amidst an important national debate about what it means to be American, we must also consider what responsibilities our government owes to those who do not possess an American passport. Does the outer boundary of our empathy reside where America’s borders lie? This is its own brand of pernicious bias that prevents us from seeing others as human.

On election night, I remained indignant at the result because it shook at the core of my understanding of everything that makes America exceptional — the (supposedly) gold standard it places for human rights worldwide, its tolerance and acceptance of diversity, its promise to be lead by example. Yet another part of me couldn’t help but feel it unconscionable that the president, a figurehead of democracy for Americans, may be nothing more than an autocrat for the billions of others around the world who are mailed no ballot to complete, given no option but to see their lives potentially rocked by the ascension of a leader with the power to dictate the economic and political stability in their country. We must continue to hold our leaders accountable for the consequences our country’s actions have on those who are voiceless in the purview of our politicians’ decision calculus. I am reminded of an exchange that occurs in the acclaimed TV show West Wing in which the President questions why a foreigner’s life is worth less to him than an American life, to which an advisor answers, “I don’t know, sir, but it is.” For the time being, we may have to live in the shadow of a larger unjust system. But we can slowly level the differential that exists in the value of human life when we force our representatives to consider the repercussions of their actions worldwide.


Contact Jasmine Liu at jliu98 ‘at’

Jasmine Liu is a senior staff writer and writes for Opinions and Arts & Life.

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