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The Nation, the State, and Travel after 9/11

Common wisdom has it that in political and social matters Americans are pragmatic and empirical, and conversely, that Europeans are idealistic and ideological.

Michael Hoffman

Issue #67, April 2004

Common wisdom has it that in political and social matters Americans are pragmatic and empirical, and conversely, that Europeans are idealistic and ideological. We consider our laureate philosopher to be William James, whose book Pragmatism purportedly describes the American national character. We are the country considered by others as the most successful in practical affairs; we are home to entrepreneurial businessmen and organized crime, the successors to British empiricism and materialism; we are the new Roman Empire, establishers of the Pax Americana. Among the British thinkers on government whom we admire are such realists as Bentham, Bryce, and Mill, while continental Europeans supposedly turn to idealist philosophers like Plato and Hegel and the latter's Marxist successors. They spawn "schools" of philosophy, such as Phenomenology and Existentialism. We remain skeptics and positivists.

But I think we have gotten our categories backwards. Recent events — certainly following the trauma of 9/11 — suggest that on the issue of the nation we, and not the Europeans, are the idealists, erecting our Nation into a glorious iconic ideal and categorizing people from elsewhere accordingly. Europeans — at least those I have talked to recently — seem to take a more pragmatic approach to "others," separating their feelings for the country or its government from their responses to individuals from that country. It is difficult for me, for instance, to imagine any Europeans responding to world events by refusing to eat American food. Their cities are full of McDonald's, Subway, and Starbucks franchises.

These reflections have arisen from a study tour that my wife and I took during April 2003 of Central Europe, where we spent most of our time in Vienna, Budapest, and Prague. The war in Iraq was then in process, but it was well before our president declared hostilities to be at an end. All in all, it felt like an awkward time to be traveling, because American troops were moving through Iraq; as a result, many Americans had cancelled their travel plans because they feared hostility from their hosts. We decided to go anyway, and to our surprise and delight we experienced no discomfort from anyone we met or saw, and this included people from France, Portugal, England, Austria, Hungary, Germany, Slovakia, Russia, Poland, Canada, Japan, Italy, and the Czech Republic. No one I met seemed to equate individual American tourists with either George Bush or the American army. I spoke, for example, with a Frenchman who was working as a tour guide in the German city of Passau. He mentioned that he had been to the States five or six times, traveling there extensively. I told him I had lived a year in Paris. "So what," he said, "if our presidents don't get along. What does that have to do with us? And what is this bullsheet," he went on, "about freedom fries and liberty toast"? We both laughed, and I assured him that I did not intend to pour any of my French wines down the sink. We shook hands and assured one another that we both loved the other's country. This madness, like most bullsheet, would pass. I came away from all my encounters convinced that most difficulties between Europeans and Americans lay primarily in our respective abilities to distinguish between the nation and the state. And it is this distinction that I want to explore in the rest of this essay.

Let's start with some basic ideas. What, for instance, is the difference between a nation and a state? The common definition of a state tells us that it consists, inter alia, of the institutionalized government, the laws, the military, and the economic infrastructure of a society that is organized and located in a specific place. (A "country" refers to a specific geographic location.) What, then, is a nation, if these matters are excluded from our definition of it? The characteristics of a nation most discussed by theorists include language, literature, religion, history, race, ethnicity, and shared, or common memories. But when one reads the literature on the subject one is struck by the divergent ways in which these categories get used.

The concept of "nation" is not just a subject for academic discussion, and it is not an old-fashioned notion left over from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. "Nation" has continued to have great political resonance all over the world; for instance, throughout this last century, and since the demise of the Soviet Union and its satellites, the concept of nation has returned not only as a topic of discussion but increasingly as a political rallying cry in Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East. We all know how Hitler's Mein Kampf laid out an elaborate nationalistic blueprint for establishing a nation that consisted of pure Deutsches Volk. Josef Stalin also wrote a canonical 1913 essay on the national question, in which he said that "a nation is a historically grounded, stable community of people that emerges on the basis of a community of language, territory, economic life, and cultural characteristics rooted in the community." Ironically, for centuries the diasporic Jews were referred to as a "nation," which no doubt made it easier for Theodor Herzl to rally the Zionist movement in its search for the space in which to establish a Jewish nation-state.

In the United States, however, there continued to develop another, and stronger tradition of American nationalism, which surfaced as early as the 1950s in such seemingly bizarre organizations as the John Birch Society and the later militia movements, and was there to be galvanized after the Al Qaida terrorists flew their hijacked planes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. If the extreme nationalist response to those tragic events was a phenomenon for which many of us were surprisingly unprepared, this was not the case for our President, Vice President, and Secretary of Defense. They understood quickly, if not immediately, what constituted the deep sources of the public response, and they were extremely skilled in employing the appropriate rhetoric to further their agendas.

In a recent book, The Ethics of Memory, the philosopher Avishai Margalit writes about the importance of memory in defining a nation. "A nation," he says acerbically, "has famously been defined as a society that nourishes a common delusion about its ancestry and shares a common hatred for its neighbors. Thus, the bond of caring in a nation hinges on false memory (delusion) and hatred of those who do not belong." Although written before the events of 9/11, the statement seems so telling within that context. The past that our President and his colleagues ask us to remember is a heroic, largely symbolic one, full of emblems and slogans and flags, memorializing a history that sees us as America the Good, a utopian nation which embodies a "democratic spirit" fighting against terrorism and serves as the vanguard of redemptive capitalism. The skillful manipulation of public sentiment in the aftermath of 9/11 turned that horrific jolt to our sense of security into a moment of immediate history. Through television, the sight of the falling towers has already assumed its place in the iconography of American patriotism, along with victims who died in the collapsing buildings and heroic fire fighters in their fatal and largely futile attempts at rescue. These events have also given rise to enemies, the terrorists of Arab appearance and, by extension, Arab-American citizens in our midst, as well as those who live in benighted Islamic countries such as Iran, Iraq, and Syria that have not entered history on terms that Americans can accept.

In the years following the fall of the "evil" Soviet Empire the United States did not, until recently, enjoy having an enemy, a phenomenon so integral to our feelings of nationhood. Now we no longer hate people from certain countries but rather people from many countries who subscribe to a religion that they have twisted into justifying acts of terror as a form of righteousness. Such an enemy is different from the kind we have had before. (It might be important to remember here what Isaac Asimov said — that the world will unite only when we discover life on another planet.) Many of the international breed of terrorists are willing to die and kill others for the sake of an ideal that combines religion with a pan-geographic nationalism, but they frequently belong only incidentally to their countries (or nations) of origin or habitation. In the minds of our leaders and in much of the press, they appear to be swarthy, and, to judge from the images in recent political cartoons, big-nosed, something like the Jews who appeared in Julius Streicher's semi-pornographic Nazi journal Der Sturmer during the 1930s and 40s. Political pundits tell us that these religio-political missionaries reject modernization, and therefore capitalism; that they are authoritarian, and are therefore opposed to democracy and its liberal institutions. Most frequently, they seem to come from countries only recently carved out of other state forms, such as the Ottoman Empire (e.g., Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria) or post-colonial countries such as India (e.g., Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kashmir), but according to our leaders, they either eschew nationalism altogether or use it cynically.

The Bush administration will be sorely tested in fighting such an enemy, but that may well be beside the point, because such an enemy is useful in re-defining one's own nation, and that is clearly what this conservative Presidency sees as its primary task. That is why, in addition to the national anthem, at sporting and other public events we now join in singing, with moistened eyes, "God Bless America." (At the recent World Series "God Bless America" was sung by celebrities during the seventh-inning stretch after the more traditional "Take Me Out to the Ballgame.") Such nationalistic sentiments when mobilized on a broad scale make less problematic the acceptance of tax cuts for the well-to-do, the enforcement of "regime change" in countries that meet with our disapproval, and the abuse of the environment here and elsewhere, because such public policies are implemented in the name of the national good. Nationalistic sentiments, as we all know, have great political utility.

One lesson I learned during my recent travels is that in the United States we feel much less disjunction between the nation and the state than most Europeans I met. Because of the great historical and institutional success of this country, we have come to identify the nation with its very institutions of governance. The United States was put together by people from most countries of Europe and many from the Far East, along with the various native peoples whose land the Europeans settled, as well as representatives from many peoples in Africa who were brought here as slaves. The idea of a nation that arose from common ethnic, linguistic, and religious sources does not pertain here, notwithstanding the successful construction of a national identity around English as our language, English common law as the basis for our institutions, and European religions and philosophy as underpinning our national belief system. We have a system of governance that includes fifty states (comparable to countries in a United Europe) under a constitution that establishes a federal government with powers limited to whatever has not been granted the states. Our liberal institutions, including a free press and an independent judiciary, have worked remarkably well — so well, in fact, that we now see those institutions and our national identity as being one and the same. Our mix of nation and state has worked well, and it has been tested more than once — particularly by a Civil War that re-affirmed especially those liberal Enlightenment principles that lie behind our Declaration of Independence (as opposed to the Constitution). The success of this system does, however, frequently limit us when we try to understand the point of view of our European allies, a fact that was particularly evident during the rancorous discussions in the United Nations that preceded the invasion of Iraq.

During one of the study sessions on our recent tour, we attended a lecture in Prague given by a woman in her early thirties, the substance of which was the history of the Czech Republic and its predecessor state Czechoslovakia during the twentieth century. The intricacies of history in that part of Europe require one to go back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and beyond that to the Holy Roman Empire. Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia were formed into a country called Czechoslovakia at the end of the First World War, with Prague as its capitol. A constitutional democracy, it became a Soviet satellite country after World War II, with its government required to stick closely to the policies of the USSR or risk violent suppression by troops from the Warsaw Pact. Citizens of Prague learned this unfortunate lesson to their dismay during the Spring of 1968 when, after a risky attempt at liberalization, they witnessed foreign tanks and soldiers rolling through the streets of their beautiful city. The grim realities of an authoritarian system returned to Prague for another twenty-one years.

Someone asked Martina, our lecturer, what it was like living in a situation in which she could observe one kind of truth but had to speak another one that was prescribed for her. She said that at home her parents would tell her what had really happened in her country and what was going on in it now. They told her about Thomas Masyryk and the tradition of Czech liberalism. They told her what they knew about contemporary life elsewhere in the world, in the way they learned about it from listening to forbidden radio broadcasts. They also told her that she was to listen to what was told her in school, and that she was to tell her teachers whatever they wanted her to say. It is clear, then, that her parents gave her lessons in what the Czech nation was, while her teachers told her about the state. Martina's was a generation that developed a rich understanding of the difference between the two.

When I asked Martina what it was like living through the events of a different Prague spring — this one of 1989 — her eyes became bright, her voice animated, and her articulate, accented English full of infectious energy. We all got very quiet. In 1989 Martina had been a young student at Prague's Charles University, and had participated in the large gatherings on Wenceslas Square which brought about that particular regime change. Although the students were in danger, they organized resistance, smuggled food to demonstrators, stopped attending classes, and put their minds and bodies in front of the threatening troops, equipment, and authorities until they succeeded in bringing about what they proudly call their Velvet Revolution.

It is impossible for someone from the States to understand fully what people like Martina experienced, and it is easy to get misty-eyed over their achieving what we have been able to take for granted for more than two hundred years. And yet, as proud as she might have been to be part of this moment, she has not yet shed the scars of the past. As we were walking later through that very same Wenceslas Square, an immense area that allows no public traffic, a police car entered through one of the barricades on a mission that was unclear to us. Its siren was shrieking loudly, and its young driver was going a little too fast and a little too self-confidently. Martina flinched and turned to me, saying, "I still can't stand it when I hear that sound."

This young person knows, along with many others like her, the difference between the state and the nation, and while these young Czechs are obviously proud of their achieved freedoms and the remarkably clean and picturesque city in which they live, this is a pride that is not dependent on "big ideas." It has everything to do with lived experience, and little to do with slogans, anthems, or even icons like Thomas Masaryk. And it does not confuse the public institutions of government with the more intangible structures of a national culture.

Michael Hoffman recently retired from the English Department of University of California-Davis.

Copyright © 2004 by Michael Hoffman. All rights reserved.