Friday, March 6, 2015


My family created a minor identity crisis for me by moving from England to the U.S. when I was seven. I gradually became Americanized, though somewhat less so than my younger sister, who was only two when we arrived. Later on I realized that I wasn't all that American, and I became interested in England. However, in recent years I've decided that I wouldn't fit in well in England either.

English people are often caricatured as good at administration but not much else compared to other Europeans. There is some truth in this that may even, as some have argued, have a genetic basis, arising from conditions under which the ruling class out-bred the lower classes during periods of disease and famine over the centuries. The success in the governing of Britain goes hand-in-hand with Britain's success during the Industrial Revolution and as a colonial power.

When I was in college I studied Anglo-American philosophy, which, coincidentally, I thought might tie me to my English roots. However, as it turned out, English philosophy confirmed to me the stereotype of small-minded people squabbling over minor details while entirely missing the big picture. I resisted this fact for several years, finally recognized it, and reassessed the situation recently only to come to the same conclusion. Philosophy as an academic subject is given much higher status in the U.K. than it is in the U.S., even when people like me, who have studied it and are now grown adults consider most of it utter nonsense. For better or for worse, Americans are more practical than the British, and academic philosophy here is doomed even as it flourishes in the U.K.

To put England into perspective, I like to recall the early twentieth century, when it had a little artistic and intellectual heyday. Present were Bertrand Russell, G.H. Hardy, G.E. Moore, John Maynard Keynes and the Bloomsbury Group. Russell, Hardy and Keynes were certainly notable intellectuals, but to my way of thinking Moore was a lightweight and a disaster. His best-known work, Principia Ethica, was treated like a Bible by Bloomsbury and became the model for British analytic philosophy. However, the next intelligent person to arrive on the scene, Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian, used Moore as an example of how far someone could get in life with "absolutely no intelligence whatever." Although he succeeded Moore in his chair at Cambridge, he treated him like a servant, because he didn't think he was much good for anything else. Regarding Bloomsbury, it has always struck me how nearly all English art is derivative of art produced on the Continent. With the possible exception of Virginia Woolf, I don't think Bloomsbury left behind much memorable work.

The topic here is national identity, or having a feeling of belonging to one country rather than another. In my case I have lukewarm feelings about both the U.S. and the U.K. This is mainly the result of having a multinational background. I grew up in the U.S. and was born in the U.K. My mother grew up in Greece, and her father grew up in Turkey. This geographic mobility frees one from prejudices about the virtues of one country over others. One would hope that in time people would come to realize that they have no entitlement to any particular geographic location, that people are essentially the same when you allow for cultural differences, and that we are all citizens of the world. However, there are evolutionary reasons why that transition in outlook will be difficult to make.

I apologize for being a broken record on our evolutionary past, but there is no way to avoid bringing it up if one intends to have a serious discussion about many of the problems currently facing the world. The fact is that we are hunter-gatherers who think tribally. Until recently in human history there was enough room on the planet for people to lead nomadic lives without often coming into conflict with other nomadic groups. The end of the last Ice Age changed everything, making agriculture and civilization possible. The world population has since grown by more than 700 times, nomadic life is generally unfeasible, and national borders restrict free movement. We are all fighting over scarce resources.

One thing we have going for us is our tendency toward eusocial behavior. Theoretically, if we could convince ourselves that we all belong to one big group, all global conflict might cease. However, in the eyes of many, the world is inherently composed of incompatible groups that are bound to remain in conflict. This state has been exacerbated by the history of imperialism and by the ideology of capitalism, which creates winners and losers with the unequal distribution of economic benefits. Moreover, the economically successful countries unrealistically expect that poorer countries will immediately fall into place once they receive the benefits of economic growth. In my view, capitalism is little more than an ideology and has a basis no more fundamental than Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, monarchy, democracy, fascism, communism, socialism or anarchism. It is a system that has been adopted but might just as well be replaced by any of several others simply as a matter of choice. One might call it the religion of money, and it is popular at the moment if only because it forces people to participate in it if they don't want to starve.

Nationalism is a modern expression of tribalism, but it often provides few of the benefits that tribalism once did. When you belonged to a tribe, it was possible to know everyone, and you could count on them in a crisis. If a real crisis such as the fictional one depicted by Cormac McCarthy in The Road were to occur now, you would be completely on your own fending off cannibals, while the president of the U.S. and his friends were living the high life in an exquisitely furnished bunker at an undisclosed location. Furthermore, nations don't trust each other, and this can be dangerous when they are heavily armed. Fortunately the countries in the EU have a semblance of cooperation, but you don't have to dig far to find mistrust, and a true political union is still a long way off. There remain a few powder kegs, with Israel and Iran, Russia and Ukraine, and of course there is the Islamic State.

Over the years, political leaders have taken some positive steps, first with the League of Nations and then the United Nations. The UN is mostly ineffectual at resolving world conflicts because of its voting structure, but over time it, or a successor organization, could theoretically evolve into a true world government. However, with my views on human nature, I do not expect a rational world order to fall into place without many years of contention, if at all. How long, for example, do you think it will take for the Israelis to trust the Iranians and the Palestinians? I'm not holding my breath. This is why, in my fantasy futuristic world, computers and robots will run everything and instantly put a stop to any disruptive activities caused by humans. Imagine, for example, how the Islamic State might be dealt with: an army of robots would move in and kill all of its members within a day or two, and they would never be heard from again. If people still wanted to express their tribal, competitive and destructive instincts, they could do so through less harmful means such as sports. Nationalism has outlived its usefulness, and I wish others discussed this more often. I can only suppose that that would be considered unpatriotic, hence a vocational risk to professional writers.

1 comment:

  1. Speaking of "… incompatible groups that are bound to remain in conflict." Can you do a post on race relations in the U.S sometime, thanks…Teresa


Comments are moderated in order to remove spam.