Nation-state is the last thing to which the United States should aspire
December 14, 2008
William Hamilton, in his Dec. 2 column, “America: Are we still a nation-state?” gave me pause. I am still not sure what his point is.
Is it a yearning to return to the good old days when we all spoke English as a first language and we looked like we were a homogeneous group that came from Europe? Or was this a code-worded tirade against diversity in our society that the election of Barack Obama represents?
We have never been a nation-state as parsed by Mr. Hamilton: an “aggregation of persons of the same ethnic family often speaking the same language,” nor have we been a “sovereign state inhabited by a relatively homogeneous group of people”. We should never want to be one, either. One of our greatest assets is that we are not one.
Yes, many of us have European ancestors. Yes, we have had a dominant European culture based on Judeo-Christian values, but we have never been relatively racially, ethnically, or culturally homogeneous as compared to the rest of the world.
Non-Europeans immigrated here in waves that are still continuing, especially beginning in the 1840s. The exception is slaves from Africa, who have been here since colonial days and who were imported against their will.
Hispanics have always been a significant group, some arriving 500 years ago and others immigrating more recently from Mexico and Central America. While they are mostly Catholics, many of European descent do not consider them part of the their U.S. cultural or racial group.
Many others brought non-Judeo-Christian values. They were Buddhists, Hindu and Confucian. The Japanese and east Indians came as farm laborers. The Chinese came to earn money working on the railroads and the Vietnamese fled Communism. Later Muslims from Iran, Bosnia, and the Middle East settled in our country, like other immigrants before them, fleeing political persecution, ethnic cleansing and war and seeking peace and prosperity.
Are we Americans a homogeneous group? Not now and not in our past. What we do share is the desire to pursue life, liberty and happiness. What we also share is an allegiance to our Constitution and the rule of law. We have a Constitution that protects the interests of minorities, yet permits the majority to rule. That is what I learned in my smelly schools in Oklahoma in the 1940s and 1950s.
I also learned in those classrooms that this country is about one nation under God with liberty and justice for all … not just for those who look like us or who believe as we do … but for all. These ideals were an 18th century Age of Reason product, born of bitter experience with homogeneous nation states. Sadly, some Americans are not passing these ideals on to the next generations.
While we have never been a nation state, we should never want to be one, either. There is a dark side to that nomenclature. It brings to mind the bloody nationalistic, ethnic cleansing wars of Yugoslavia in the 1990s where 300,000 of a California-size population died. The breakup of the Indian continent came as Muslims founded their own homogeneous religious state in Pakistan to escape persecution by the Hindus. This religious strife is still feeding violence and is partly the root of the Mumbai horror.
The result of the ethnic cleansing of the late 20th century is a series of nation states that fit to a T the definition offered by William Hamilton: Of the former Yugoslavia, we now have two dominant nation states of Serbia and Croatia. Pakistan is the a similar example. Each is a group of people who “share a common feeling of nationality.” They speak the “same language” and are 99 percent either Serbian (Orthodox) or Croatian (Catholic) or Muslim within their respective borders.
They are a “politically unified, ethnically homogenous people occupying a definite, sovereign territory.” They are intolerant of those who are not like their “homogeneous” selves. In fact, it is the lack of protection of minority rights that is a major barrier to Croatia being accepted into the European Union. This is not the model we in America would want to emulate.
The greatest challenge to American security interests today is to calm these desires for separatism and ethnic conflict. That is particularly true in the Middle East and South Asia. Iraq has the potential to break apart in ethnic strife; India and Pakistan are nuclear flashpoints. Ethnic genocide in Africa is a blot on humanity.
The greatest asset the United States has to meet that challenge is the kind of example we set: that we can live with diversity without separatism in a country that is the best in the world in reaching the goal of peace and prosperity.
On Inauguration Day, we give a visual, unstated message to a fragmented, hate-filled world that there is a better path to peace and prosperity than ethnic cleansing and super-heated loyalty to a tribe, a religion, or ethnic group.
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