Once upon a time, there was a planet named Terra that teemed with life. These life forms lived by a particular philosophy on how to interact with each other called the “Right to Oppress.” Under this egalitarian philosophy, every creature had the right to oppress other creatures because all creatures were committed to the rule of oppressing other creatures if given the chance. In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians sum up this philosophy in 431 B.C. while explaining to the Milesians why they are attacking their neutral city and wanting to kill the men, enslave the women and children, and take their possessions.
For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences…since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
As millennia went by, one Terran life form grew more intelligent, more collaborative within their groups, and began to dominate the rest, and also sought to dominate each other. For thousands of years, they organized themselves into ever larger and larger tribes to protect themselves from other groups. Eventually these very large tribes were called “nation-states” the role of which was two-fold: to actively protect a population of millions within a geographic boundary and to actively protect and promote the culture of the majority (i.e. way of life).
Following the “Right to Oppress,” many nation-states rose and fell over the centuries as they tried to enrich and profit themselves at the expense of others. Famous examples include nation-states Terrans call “the Romans” and another called “the Mayans.” But one group of nation-states, often called “Western” nation-states, happened to be the ones particularly strong at a moment of two big changes in Terran history.First, unprecedented planetary war. War was normal, but the scale of this war was not. All the most powerful nation-states on Terra devoted their resources to destroying each other. One generation later, another global war took place, this one more devastating. Afterwards, though Western nation-states remained strong, they were not quite strong enough to continue the “Right to Opress” philosophy as usual.
Secondly, they didn’t want to. Under their feet, the “Right to Oppress” had been declining in popularity for some time, dating back to what the Terrans called the “Enlightenment,” which was birthed in Western nation-states. This new philosophy held that creatures did not have a right to be oppress. Instead, the opposite was true. Creatures had the “Right to Not Be Oppressed.” This included rights to be free of things like unfairness and coercion. In this view, people had the right to keep private property no matter who was in power, say outwardly what they thought inwardly, and be able to freely enter into contracts with each other as each individual saw fit. This new “Right to Not be Oppressed” philosophy spread rapidly across Terra and became the general expectation of the governments of nation-states. Moreover, most judged their ancestors who lived under the previous philosophy as barbaric and pathetic.
Because Western nation-states where those most recently “winning” under the now discredited set of rules, they were scorned by others and, more tellingly, by themselves. They felt guilty for their old colonial empires and oppression. At the same time, they did not feel that their culture was currently especially threatened. Indeed, their language and customs was relatively dominant and they were still by and large the most powerful nation-states on Terra. As a result of this, many Western nation-states became merely “states.” These states saw their sole role as protecting a people within a geographic boundary but not actively promoting the culture of the majority. They didn’t want to. It also seemed immoral under the new philosophy of “Right to Not be Oppressed.”
But other Terran nation-states did not feel this guilt. They remained keenly interested in promoting and protecting national culture and identity. Consider, for example, the issue of naturalization, the process in which members of one nation-state becoming members of another nation-state. Though the issues is more complex, limiting naturalization is an important way that nation-states protect the identity, cultural norms, and values of their nation.
For comparison, consider the European Union, which was a collection of Western states with a total population of 510 million. They naturalized about 800,000-900,000 people a year between 2009-2014. In 2014, 2.6 new members were naturalized for every 100 non-new members. The United States was another collection of Western states, though more unified by history and language, with a total population of 320 million. They naturalized 600,000 to 1,000,000 a year during the same time period. In 2014, there was about 2 new members naturalized for every 100 non-new members.
This can be contrasted with naturalization rates in non-western nation-states such as Japan and China. Japan, home of 127 million, naturalizes 10,000 people per year, or about .1 people per 100 (5% of the United Sates 2014 naturalization rate). China has 1.3 billion people, the largest nation-state on Terra, yet it only has a total of 1,448 naturalized citizens in total. If we divide that total across 50 years of naturalization, this means China naturalized on average a mere 29 individuals a year or .00002 new members per 100 non-new members (.001% of the United States 2014 naturalization rate). Furthermore, in many non-Western nation-states, governments actively promoted it’s national character by, for example, banning foreign influences by excluding certain media, monetarily supporting efforts to revitalize and expand traditional culture and values, and even promoting cultural ways of doing everyday things like eating food. In these Nation-States, the “Right to Not be Oppressed” came to also mean the right to live in a state that actively promotes your own values and the general sense of feeling at home and welcome in one’s own country. In these countries, a priority of the government is protecting a certain way of life.
Furthermore, dovetailing with expansive naturalization policies among Western states, new technologies allowed growing communities within Western states to keep their own national identity. They could eat their foods that tasted foreign to locals, build their own buildings that looked foreign to locals (see how Swiss and German nationalist movements pursue minaret ban), interact with those back at home via a worldwide communications network so they made fewer local connections, etc. Furthermore, many states worked diligently to make sure that these communities were given equal resources and treatment, removing power dynamics that typically assist a homogenizing process
The result was unprecedented intermixing with much less homogenization. Many members of western states welcomed and celebrated this new diversity, and in a way welcomed the eroding of the dominance of their culture, which they themselves associated with oppressiveness. Many others, however, felt that though they were truly warm and welcoming of other people into their homeland, and had nothing against their way of life specifically, they resented when these guests were not willing to adopt their host culture. Instead, they found that many of these new members wanted to create mini-nations within their own. They were witnessing, in other words, small, ongoing, lawful, and peaceful invasions by foreign groups into their territory. They felt that their government was keeping them safe, but not keeping their way of life safe.
These frustrations built for about 50 years until Terran history reached another tipping point, though this tipping point was less important and it only happened within Western states. In short, many decided they wanted to be nation-states again. They wanted their government to actively promote their cultural norms and values and they did not want to feel guilty about it. New generations of Terrans no longer felt colonial guilt to the same extent, as those sins became increasingly associated with the work of ancestors than family members. At the beginning of the 21st century, Western states en masse made democratic decisions to close borders, promote traditional values, and make their homeland more distinctively their’s. To those who lost these surprising elections, it seemed like a return to racism, bigotry, and the “Right to Oppress,” and that narrative was not entirely false either. Many were racist. But for many others, this nationalism was not a nationalism against any particular nation, but a positive nationalism for one’s nation.
Moving forward with this new philosophy, Terrans are then confronted with difficult questions. Do Terrans in Western states have the right to live under a nation-state that actively promotes their way of life? Can nations choose to welcome people through their borders only if immigrants adopt the host culture? Who is to decide what aspects of a culture are important, or which culture to promote in a heterogenous state? When a nation makes decisions that make it increasingly heterogenous, can they then seek to homogenize at the expense of minority communities that they previously welcomed more unconditionally? Will Terrans continue to uphold the universal “Right to Not be Oppressed”? Is the future of Terra to be dominated by states or by nation-states?
To be honest, I’m not sure how to answer most of these questions, but I’m sympathetic to the reasonableness of each side. Is this the narrative, or something like it, that many Trump folks and Brexit folks are trying to share? (If it is, please pick a more honest, respectful, and better informed spokesperson next time. I simply cannot promote a nationalism that exalts a figure that represents to me everything crass, ugly, and materialistic about America.) If it’s not, should it be?
I grew up as a white kid in Taiwan for the first 18 years of my life. In Taiwan, it’s really hard to become a citizen, even though I was born there and lived there so long. A foreigner is not even allowed to buy land and the government spent considerable sums of money on promoting local culture. I assumed that is what nation-states did. When I came to America, I was surprised to learn about what seemed to me an immense double standard. I wasn’t surprised that the rest of the world had that double standard–the default disgust mechanism against the loud and powerful is understandable–but Americans themselves had it too. Many seemed fine with decisions of other countries to protect their own way of life, such as how Vietnam actively discouraged American-style burgers and fast-food chains in Saigon, but if New York State outlawed burritos, that would have been interpreted as racist. That doesn’t seem fair to me (or racist, but that’s another post). While in Taiwan, I also adopted a Chinese name to use with locals. This was expected of me and I was fine with it. How could I expect them to remember or pronounce such foreign syllables? But when I came to the U.S., I assumed that it would work here the other way. Often it did, often it didn’t, but what was interesting to me was the posture of the Americans I knew, who did not feel comfortable encouraging foreigners to adopt local names.
So is our future a world of states or nation-states? I’m not sure what the future holds or even what I would wish for. Both paths seem enlightened in their own way, as long as both firmly resist the old philosophy of the “Right to Oppress.” Both present starkly different versions of the future that make me excited that I get to live for the next 50 years (hopefully) to find out what happens.