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I graduated from Northern Valley Regional High School at Old Tappan, or NVRHS at OT, which always reminds me of Professor Peter Schickele’s USND at H — University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. (I’ve been to Hoople. There is no university there. There are cows. But then, there was no valley I ever noticed in Old Tappan.) 

In northern New Jersey, our school’s football team played our arch-rival, Hawthorne, and before the big game each year, there would be a pep rally, in which we were inculcated with “school spirit,” and induced to yell, “We’re Number One!” over and over, despite the fact that every fall, Hawthorne trounced us badly. Their players always seemed twice the size of ours and looked more like a farm team for the Chicago Bears. 

Yet, we were “the best high school in New Jersey,” a claim that was patently untrue. (We were a perfectly good school; I’m not complaining. But the other schools were also fine.) All over the country (probably the world) schools are making the claim that they are the best and we should all feel proud of our, what? Accomplishments? We were pimply faced kids, let’s face it. I never did understand the school spirit thing. 

Why should we claim that our group is better than your group. And this goes for nations, religions and ethnicities as well. I never understood nationalism, the metastasized big brother of school spirit. What evidence do you have that America is the greatest nation in the world? “America is Number One!” Number One in what? School shootings?

My point isn’t that the United States is the root of all misery in the world. My country has done many praiseworthy things in the past 250 years. But so have other countries. I have seen no evidence that we are any better or worse — that Americans are any different at all — from other peoples. Yes, there are cultural differences. Germans, Chinese, French, Paruvians all have national cultural tendencies. But under it all, we have the same genetic construction. 

Despite that, nations war, and worse, ethnic groups choose to idealize themselves and demonize their neighbors. And just to make it all just that much sillier, usually these contending ethnicities are almost identical. Ukrainians battle with ethnic Russians. Armenians with Azerbaijanis. Israelis with Palestinians. Croats and Serbs. If one writes the language in Roman letters and the other in Cyrillic, they can claim their languages are totally different, even if they can talk to each other over the phone with no problem. 

When I say we are genetically the same, I suppose that also entails the atavistic gene that makes us tribal. This may have been helpful when humans traveled across the landscape in extended family groups and needed to protect themselves from other groups also seeking the limited resources. But now that we have nuclear bombs, this tendency threatens to be fatal. For the whole species. 

You can’t really have an “America first” without also having a “screw you” attitude to the rest of the planet. And if we do that, where will we get our bananas and computer chips? 

If we wish to think that the United States is better than everywhere else in the world, then why are Danes happier than we are? Why are Cubans healthier? Why are the Swiss better educated? In the most recent rankings, the U.S. is listed as 22 out of 178 countries in economic freedom. Educationally, we rank number 40 in math education, 25 in science and 24 in reading. We are 46th in maternal mortality and 42nd in life expectancy. In standard of living, we are only 13th. In political corruption we ranked 23 out of 198 countries, and that was before the Trump administration. We are only 45th in press freedom. And 21st out of 128 for the rule of law. 

Another place we are not No. 1: Many Americans think we pay more in taxes than anyone else, but actually we pay less than any other developed nation, except Mexico — and that counts Mexico as a developed nation. 

Oh, we have a few titles: We are Number One in child deaths by firearm. And we have the biggest military budget, spending more than the next 10 countries combined. 

Other firsts: The U.S. incarceration rate is 716 per 100,000 population, which is the world’s highest. Even 36 of our states have higher incarceration rates than any country in the world. We’re No. 1 in gun ownership both overall and per capita. We watch more TV than any other nation.

And yes, we are No. 1 in corona virus infections. 

Further, more Americans think the U.S. is the greatest country in the world than citizens of any other nation. We’re even No. 1 in smug self-satisfaction. 

This is all not an attempt to denigrate my home country. After all, we’re a long way from the bottom of most of these lists. But it is to counsel modesty. It is to say we’re not exceptional; we have good points and bad points. Yes, we had slavery and we had a national plan of ethnic cleansing toward Native Americans, but we also had the Marshall Plan, and a long history of accepting immigrants and refugees (this last has always been in danger from the “America Firsters.” Trumpism is not all that new; we had “Know-Nothings” in the 19th Century.)

As has been pointed out, those who believe America is the best country in the world probably haven’t been anywhere else. 

And my main point isn’t to make the case for or against the U.S., but rather to decry the universal tendency for human beings to think what they have, what they do, and what they believe, is better than anyone else has, does or believes, and further, is willing to kill them over it. 

We have had what has been called the longest stretch of world peace in the earth’s history, from the end of World War II until now. But that is true only if you don’t count the myriad regional conflicts and minor wars that have been constant. Wikipedia lists more than 75 armed conflicts since 1945 (counting them is a bit inexact — which are separate and which are just phases of continuing conflict). And even this moment, there are wars in some 20 countries, the major ones in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Turkey, Somalia, and Libya, and all through central and northern Africa. 

We are Israelis and Palestinians; Sunnis and Shias; Ukrainians and Russians; Azerbaijanis and Armenians; Armenians and Turks; Muslim Kashmiris and Hindu Kashmiris; Tamil and Sinhalese; Tutsis and Hutus; Burmese and Rohingya; Hatfields and McCoys; Republicans and Democrats. Us and Them. 

 I get it: We are more comfortable around people with the same values and habits. And we may be put off by the folkways of others. We don’t eat a lot of snails in the U.S. But is that a reason to condemn those who enjoy a bit of the old escargot? We worship different gods (or the same by a different name), but that shouldn’t be an excuse for killing them. One religion crosses themselves with three fingers, another with two. Get the scimitar! (My favorite was the Albigensian Crusade, where the besieging general was asked how to tell the heretics from the believers, said, “Kill them all and let God sort them out.”) 

I am put in mind of the plea of Oliver Cromwell to the Church of Scotland (“England’s Canada”), “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

A little humility goes a long way to helping us recognize our commonality. Our essential humanness. But humility is in short supply. 

“Knowing this and that better cannot be had, know then why old men should be mad.” Or as my late wife used to say — frequently — “We are all just dumb monkeys.”

De ratificatie van de Vrede van MunsterOver several years in the 1870s, composer Bedrich Smetana wrote a series of six tone poems for orchestra that he titled Ma Vlast, or “My Country.” Although the patriotism explicit in Smetana’s music is genuine, the fact is Smetana was a citizen of the Habsburg Empire and grew up speaking German. His most popular piece of music is “Vlatva,” a glorification of the river that runs through what is now the Czech Republic, but is almost universally known by its German name, “Die Moldau.”

It is one of the stranger and unremarked oddnesses of history that most of those Nationalist composers of the 19th century had no nation to call home. Dvorak had no Czechoslovakia, Liszt had no Hungary, Edvard Grieg’s Norway was ruled by a Swedish king, and despite all the mazurkas and polonaises that Chopin wrote, there was no Poland on the face of the earth. Even the Germany extolled in Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” was only a gleam in the eye of Otto von Bismarck.

In truth, they were not so much “nationalist” composers as composers of ethnic awareness. Which brings up an important point. What we mean by a “nation” is a fairly recent concoction, and although we tend nowadays to assume that a map divided into colors bounded by border lines is a natural and inevitable reality, history tells us otherwise.

We hear politicians and demagogues harangue us about national sovereignty and the threat of immigrants diluting our national character, and we tend to regard our country — regardless of whether it is the United States, Germany, China or Iraq — as a fixed and permanent “thing” consecrated by history and natural law. But a closer look tells us otherwise. Our idea of a nation-state is rather new in history, and may have been merely a temporary thing. To take it as unchanging and unchangeable is a serious miscalculation.

Going back before reliable history, kingdoms were just areas successfully defended by military leaders who demanded taxes in a kind of protection racket. No one spent much fret over what languages the subjugated people spoke, or what their ethnic descent might be.

Through the Middle Ages, when we speak of Henry V at Agincourt what we are talking about is real estate. Henry ruled land, not people. He owned most of the British Isle and a good chunk of the Continent. The people living on his land owed him taxes and fealty — meaning a term in the army when needed. There was no legal construct known as England or France or Germany, but feudal cross-relations and family ties securing deeds of title to chunks of real estate. The idea of a nation as we know it didn’t exist.

1492

It wasn’t until 1648 and the Peace of Westphalia that the concept of the nation-state emerged, and we developed a sense that France exists whether or not a Bourbon sat on the throne, and that national borders were somehow permanentized — although, of course, they weren’t. Wars — now between nations instead of between kings — kept those boundary lines in flux.

Later ideas gave us different concept of nationhood, often in conflict with the Westphalian ideal. Ethnicity gave many people a different sense of identity, even though ethnicity itself is a slippery thing, and can swell and shrink through time, including and excluding various groups and subgroups. Are you European? Are you Polish? Are you a Slav or a German?

Ethnicity sometimes falters in face of language identity. We talk of “Russian speakers” in Ukraine. Are they Ukrainian or Russian? Certainly they are Slavs. Where do we draw the line?

The historical result of all these shifting ambiguities can be seen in the unstable borders seen on maps. Let’s take Poland as an example. If we think of the country as it exists currently, stuck between Germany and Ukraine, we might assume this was somehow the true and ultimately proper place for Poland. But the country has rolled around the map of Europe like a bead of mercury on a plate. At times it reached the Black Sea, at times it vanished from the face of the earth. You can see this in a clever You Tube video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=66y49BnxLfQ

Poland pre-war outlined in blue; postwar outlined in red.

Poland pre-war outlined in blue; postwar outlined in red.

At times Poland expanded, at times, joined with the kingdom of Lithuania, after it was split into pieces and annexed by Prussia, Russia and Austria in 1795 it ceased to exist as a nation, until it was reconstituted in 1918 at the end of the First World War. It was invaded in 1939 by both Germany and the Soviet Union and essentially disappeared again. After World War II, because Stalin refused to give back his half, the entire country lifted up its skirts and moved some 200 miles to the west, where it set itself down again and became the Poland we have now — although that is no guarantee that it won’t move again sometime in the future. The eastern half of Poland became part of the Soviet Union until it split off and became Ukraine, while the eastern third of Germany, having lost the war, turned into the western half of Poland and millions of German-speaking inhabitants were politely asked to relocate in East Germany — which later reunited with West Germany to be the Germany we have today.

1918

You might consider Yugoslavia, which is now several different sovereign nations, or the “sovereignty” of Czechoslovakia, which finally gave Smetana and Dvorak their own nation, only to dissolve into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

These constantly unsteady borders should not be seen as anomalies, but rather the norm. You can find another entertaining video displaying the bubbling ferment of national border from roughly AD 1100 to now at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iha3OS8ShYs

(It should be noted that the dates in the animation are not terribly accurate, and should be taken as a general indication of the era demonstrated by the time-lapse maps rather than a precise year-by-year definition.)

1982

We have talked primarily about Europe, but the same sense of unstable borders and the comings and goings of nations can be seen worldwide. Another video worth watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6Wu0Q7x5D0

So when some knucklehead politician tells you that the U.S. should defend its “natural” borders, consider the phantom nature of nationhood and its outlines. The United States itself began as a group of 13 separate nation-states joining together for the common good and soon spread outward and westward, eating up other nations, evicting other peoples and other national authorities, stealing most of northern Mexico and reconstituting that nation’s “natural” borders.

1992

All across the world, there are people corralled inside those lines screaming to get out: Basques and Catalans in Spain, Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, Chechens in the Russian Federation, Russians in Ukraine, Scots from Great Britain, Quebecois from Canada, Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Flemish and Walloons in Belgium, Uighurs in China. Driving around southern France and the Camargue, you will come across angry graffiti demanding Occitan separatism

Nationhood is a dynamic; it is not permanent. Russia is altering the map around the Black Sea and globalization is destabilizing the Westphalian arrangement. Corporations are now transnational, the European Union is subverting ancient sovereignties (with considerable pushback from rising nationalisms) and the post-World War I national borders in the Middle East seem ever more tenuous and artificial. Can the Kurds create their own ethnic state? Can Shia and Sunni ever coexist in a multi-sectarian state?

Instead of assuming that the world cannot change and the Rand-McNally maps we grew up with are the way things should be from now into posterity, we should recognize nations as transient entities momentarily agreed to by whoever is powerful enough to maintain a stalemate.