No More Hatfields and McCoys: The Value of Nations of Ideas

As the debates continue in the UN, the coming war with Iraq has made many differences between Europe and the United States apparent. Europe almost unilaterally opposes the action. With the exception of Britain, almost all countries in both Western and Eastern Europe have displayed either scathing skepticism or downright opposition to military action in Iraq. Here in the US, public opinion still greatly favors such action with the polls continuing to climb. For me, this stark dichotomy has produced great interest, if not a little bewilderment, in the dark lines that have been drawn. How do such distinct divisions arise?

What constitutes a “nation” has been a difficult thing to define. High school government classes give a litany of qualifications; land, people, government, infrastructure etc. However, at a more holistic level, a gray area certainly exists. Precisely what distinguishes say, France from Germany can be a little difficult to completely flush out. However, for all nations some unity is implied. The very idea of a nation connotates some type of unified nature – a people gathering around something. What that something is, however, can vary greatly.

That being said, it is prudent to say that nations tend to gather their unity from two different sources, creating two fairly distinct categories of nations: nations of ideas and nations of cultural identity. Let me attempt to clarify this distinction.

France is paradigmatic of a nation of cultural identity. To be “French,” apart from simple citizenship, is to entertain certain cultural ideas. From wine to cheese, Moliere to Racine, “Frenchness” is defined by a myriad of cultural mores and tendencies. It is defined by identification with history and people. The unity of France, what makes it a nation apart from borders and government, is produced by a cultural identity that is exclusive and only to be obtained by spending extensive amounts of time within the borders.

The foil for nations of cultural identity is nations of ideas. To be a nation of an idea is to hold an idea is the central unifying factor. This means that ethnicity, history, or culture serve distinctly lesser roles. The best example of a nation of ideas is the United States.

From across the Atlantic, Europe has often criticized the United States for lacking in culture. Compared to most nations in Europe, the US is an infantile nation – having only two hundred years of history to hold up to the millennia of other nations. This criticism certainly holds some weight; culture, in common usage, is certainly inexorably tied to history. With history brings music and authors, great victories or bitter defeats. If these are the chronological items that produce a national culture then, compared to almost any nation on Earth, the US is wanting. Furthermore, a quick survey of the panoply of the “culture zones” of the United States (the South, New England, Appalachia, the Great Plains, the Southwest, California etc.) shows that, with such wildly incongruent zones, a national cultural identity is undoubtedly ambiguous and transcendent – if not simply non-existent.

What the US does have, however, are ideas. Somewhere, amongst the disparate nationalities and dissonant attitudes of its people, a unity exists. To say someone is “American” is to say something substantially different than to claim someone is “French.” Granted, a description of someone as “American” may carry certain implications of cultural attitudes, perhaps a penchant for reality game shows or an appreciation of football. However, these are certainly not the sources of American unity. Americans unify around ideas: the ideas with which the US is continually associated. The list is familiar: liberty, self-determination and equality.

Hopefully the distinction between nations of ideas and nations of cultural identity is somewhat clear. Let me acknowledge that a difficulty arises from this distinction due to the fact it seems to imply that ethnicity, history and cultural identity are not ideas. Although a debate about what an idea is may be relevant, it is not crucial to my distinction. Clearly, the United States derives its unity from a different source than most nations on earth. This fact is at the heart of my distinction.

We need more nations of ideas. In seeing the aforementioned difference in attitude towards the war with Iraq a simple bewilderment hit me. Europe cannot seem to advocate a war with an idea and an argument behind it. The only type of war Europe seems to justify is one based on 2000+ years of inter-cultural turmoil of which no one can remember the cause. Hatfields and McCoys wars. This brings me to the value of nations of ideas.

A nation of ideas produces two highly desirable effects: falsifiability and inclusiveness. With regard to the first: Falsifiability is the ability of ideas that are false to be demonstrated as false by reality. The ideas of the Soviet Union, another nation of ideas, have been now demonstrated to be false – if not false in whole then at least false with regard to the specific manner in which they were carried out. The claims the USSR made did not become true – the nation did not enjoy prosperity in a classless system, it did not conquer wealth disparity, poverty and despotism. For any nation that derives its unity from an idea it is always possible for the idea to be rendered false – and thus progress to be made while ideas are refined. As for nations of cultural identity; there is no way to demonstrate “Frenchness” or “Germanness” as false. This is precisely because there is no idea, or group of ideas, to be falsified – only a hodgepodge of history, mores and ethnicity.

Furthermore, nations of ideas are inclusive. Because ideas can be argued for and against, and therefore possibly adopted, a nation of ideas can bring countless individuals who accept the ideas into the fold. Unquestionably, the United States has been the most inclusive nation ever to exist. This claim can be made with full acknowledgement of all groups that the US has excluded, or continues to exclude. The population of the United States is only made up of individuals from other cultures – Irish, Italian, Chinese, English, German, Dutch, Spanish etc. – who have managed to become American by simply accepting and believing in some, or all, of the ideas that the US unifies around. In fact, the continuous citing of all the “injustices” of American history by modern historians only holds any significance from within the framework of a nation of an idea. The implicit claim made by such historians is that the ideas America rallies around are not true, have not been true, and have therefore been falsified. Either way, the value of nation of ideas is being championed.

There is no way for me to be argued into being French. There is no simple action, such as the acceptance of an idea, which can be performed to bring me into the unity that France enjoys. Because the circumstances of history do not put me in this category I am left to perpetually look into a group that I can never join. It is precisely this fact that produces the wars I previously spoke of; wars based on thousands of years of hatred between two groups that the facts of history make irreconcilable. The undesirable consequences of this are clear: you fight whom you do not agree with and cannot, through any reasonable action, include. Nations of cultural identity produce stark lines that are nearly impossible to cross. Therefore, we have the situation Europe now exists in – an entire continent in which any given country seems to hate at least three others.

The Hatfields and McCoys analogy serves this discussion well. For nearly one hundred years these two families fought over a dispute that few could remember. Exacerbating the entire situation were the unconquerable facts of history – who was a Hatfield and who was a McCoy – which no member of either family could cross. The end of the struggle, due to a marriage between members of the families, was produced by an idea; love, peace, and unity. This idea could be accepted by all family members and has yet to be falsified.

My point can be reiterated: we need more nations of ideas. Hopefully, the European Community can produce another such nation, in which the struggles of cultural identity are transcended by ideas. In the interest of human progress, prosperity and happiness such nations are eminently desirable.

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3 Responses to No More Hatfields and McCoys: The Value of Nations of Ideas

  1. BobSagett says:

    Cool, this is like TruthMedia for politics. You need to crank up the wackiness a little though – lots of people probably think you’re serious.

  2. Biggs says:

    I must say that the part where you criticize us Europeans for not advocating the war in Iraq stands out of your otherwise coherrent and insightful post.

    Quite frankly, I fail to see how a war of aggression — or, more clinically, “the use of pre-emptive military force” as the Bush cabinet would call it these days — on a sovereign nation like Iraq can be justified by the ideas of liberty, self-determination and equality. An unprovoked war like this would be a perfect way to spin off generations of Hatfields and McCoys.

  3. Fred says:

    Every nation has got its own “cultural identity” and its own “ideas” so its rather foolish to claim that nations have either one or the other. The US’s “liberty, self-determination and equality” is just a catch-phrase: you’re not free as you have to work longer hours for less benefits than europeans and mant people are barred from voting; you’re not equal either as the difference between the rich and poor is greater than in europe (our poor are richer and healthier than your poor), not to mention racism. Self-determination – don’t know what that means but doubtless you will define it in a way that is in your favour.

    You set up two false groupings, one esteemed, one less esteemed according to you, and you just happen to belong to the more esteemed group.

    Anyone can spout yards and yards of armchair theorising. If you want to convince anyone you’ve got to show some facts and evidence – I don’t recall seeing any.

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