an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

on national and other origins, and good leadership

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So Mr Pudding was going around saying that Ukraine wasn’t a real country for some time before he decided that he needed to abolish its nationhood once and for all, a decision that he clearly made well before the actual invasion of February 24 2022, as the long build-up on the border told us. The fact that he chose to call it a special operation was also a sign that he’d convinced himself that he was simply clarifying a border or territorial issue. 

Well, this issue of real countries and not-so-real countries has exercised me for a while, I suppose ever since I started to read history, which was a long time ago. 

How do nations come to be nations? Well, there clearly isn’t any general formula, but it more often than not involves warfare, rape, dispossession, and suppression of militarily weaker language groups and cultures. It rarely makes for fun reading. I could probably close my eyes, spin a globe of the earth around and if my finger stopped it on any piece of land, there would be a tale of horror to tell, in terms of the human history of that land, in, say, the last thousand or two years. 

I should also say that nations, or states, have been phenomenally successful in terms of the spread of human nature and human culture. My argument against libertarians who inveigh against their bogeyman, the state, and its taxes and regulations and encroachments on our personal liberties, is to point out that we are the most hypersocial mammalian species on the planet. We didn’t get to be 8 billion people, dominating the biosphere, for better or worse, by virtue of our personal liberties. Those personal liberties didn’t provide us with the language we speak, the basic education we’ve been given, the cities and towns and homes we live in, the roads and the cars and bikes and planes we use to get around, and the jobs we’ve managed to secure over the years. All of us living today have been shaped to a considerable degree by the nation-state we live in, and our place in its various hierarchies. 

So you could say that nations have become a necessary evil, what with the crooked timber of humanity and all. But it’s surely an indisputable fact that some nations are better than others. But how do we measure this? And let’s not forget the idea, advanced rather cynically and opportunistically by Mr Pudding, that some nations might be more legitimate than others. Afghanistan, to take an example almost at random, was for centuries a vaguely delineated region of various ethnicities – Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and others. Warlords from without and within have brought disintegration upon unification upon disintegration to its ‘nationhood’, while its mostly subsistence-level inhabitants have tried to avoid or ignore the mayhem. It’s likely that most of them don’t consider themselves Afghani at all, but stick to their own ethnicity. The Pashtuns of southern Afghanistan, for example, don’t pay much attention to the border that separates them from their Pashtun neighbours in northern Pakistan, so I’ve heard. And one has to ask oneself – why should they? The Durand line, separating Pakistan and Afghanistan, was created only in the late 19th century – by the British. So, is Afghanistan a real country? 

And since I find that Afghanistan has a population of almost 40 million, let me compare it to a nation of similar population. Poland is a north-eastern European nation, inhabiting a region long contested between two expansionist states – Prussia/Germany to the west and Russia to the east. One of the largest countries in Europe, it occupies less than half the area of Afghanistan. It had expansionist ambitions itself a few centuries ago, as the senior partner in the Polish-Lithuanian federation, which dominated the Baltic and often posed a threat to Russia, but in the 20th century it suffered terribly in the second world war, and fell under the domination of the Soviet Union in the aftermath. Of course, if you take the history back to the pre-nation period there were various cultures and tribes, generally warring, with the Polans being the largest. By the Middle Ages, this region had become an established and reasonably sophisticated monarchy, though often struggling to maintain its territory against the Prussians, the Mongols and Kievan Rus. Naturally, its borders expanded and contracted with the fortunes of war. The region, though, reached relative heights of prosperity when, as mentioned, it became the dominant partner of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, for a time the largest state in Europe. Its fortunes ebbed and flowed in the 16th and 17th centuries, but at the end of the 18th it was partitioned between the ascendent powers in the region, Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary. Poland was finally reconstituted as a nation after the 1914-18 war, but arguably the worst was yet to come…

So again, one might question – is Poland a real country? As a working-class fellow myself, my sympathies go to the ordinary people who grow up gradually discovering what land they’ve landed up in, and the various vicissitudes that have given it the territory and the borders that it currently has.

This is the central point of this post. People are more important than nations. It’s ridiculous to compare them really. And, without getting too much into the free will issue here, it’s obvious that none of us get to choose our parents, or the place and time of our birth. That old philosophical chestnut of being thrown into this world has always rung true for me, and that’s why I don’t get nationalism, though I understand nations as a social evolutionary development.

I’ve been lucky. I was born in Scotland in the 1950s and was taken, with my siblings, to Australia, on the other side of the world. I’ve never seen warfare. I’ve never lived in a thugocracy, and I don’t know if I’d have been aware of living in a thugocracy, had that been the case – that’s to say, if I’d never experienced an open society, in the Popperian sense. I could’ve been born in the 1950s in Vietnam, In which case I may well have been killed in my village or field during what the locals call the American War, and others call the Indo-Chinese War, in which upwards of 2 million died. Or I could have been born in the Soviet Union, thinking who knows what right now about Putin’s treatment of his own and other countries. And so on. If we could all bear in mind that our circumstances, in large, are not of our own making, we might think in less nationalistic terms and in more humane terms. We might even begin to understand and feel a modicum of sympathy for the hill-top gated-community denizens who have grown up convinced of their natural superiority.

So I think in more personal terms. How well are nations, states, communities, cultures serving their members? Whether we measure this in terms of the human rights universalised after the world wars of the 20th century, or the Aristotelian concept of Eudaimonia as reframed and refined over the centuries, or some other valid criteria, it’s surely obvious that some regions are doing better than others, by all reasonable measures. For the sake of human thriving, we need to sympathetically encourage open societies, as well as to stand up en bloc, against bullying and coercion everywhere. There is, of course, no place – no culture or society – where such behaviour is entirely absent, but it’s worth noting that the world’s most authoritarian states, including all 59 of those classified as such by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index (I prefer the term ‘thugocracy’), are led by men, whereas, of the top ten democracies, as judged by the compilers of that index, more than half are led by women. Now, there’s no doubt a ‘chicken-and-egg’ issue at play here. That’s to say, do inclusive, participatory, diverse and humane democracies encourage female leadership, or vice versa? The effect, I’m sure, is synergistic, and it’s a positive effect that needs to be spruiked around the world by everyone with the power to do so.

 

Written by stewart henderson

October 3, 2022 at 12:41 pm

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