an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Archive for the ‘nations’ Category

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

a bonobo world 36: there is no bonobo nation

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nations, some say

Homo sapiens have been around for between 200 and 300 thousand years, depending on various theories and interpretations. I always like to point out that the ‘first’ H sapiens had parents and grandparents, who wouldn’t have noticed any difference between junior and themselves, so when does a new species actually begin?

Leaving that thorny problem, I’ll turn to another – when did the first nation begin? My uneducated conjecture is that it was an evolving concept, post-dating the evolution of human language, and we have little idea about when that process was completed, at least to the point where we could conceptualise and communicate such ideas. Modern nations, with boundaries, checkpoints, passports and state paraphernalia, are of course ultra-new, with some fresh ones popping up in my lifetime, but I’ve heard Australian Aboriginal language groups described as nations, with the first of these H sapiens arriving here around 65,000 years ago, according to the National Museum of Australia. Of course they wouldn’t have arrived here as nations, however defined, so when did they become such?  Bill Gammage, in The biggest estate on earth: how Aborigines made Australia, makes this point at the outset:

Hundreds of pages try to define Aboriginal social units (tribe, horde, clan, mob, language group, family, kin) without achieving clarity or consensus.

So is this a silly question? Surely not, since the term ‘First Nations’ has gained currency in recent decades. Rather bizarrely, the Wikipedia article on First Nations focuses solely on the early inhabitants of what is now Canada. This is presumably because these people are recognised as such by the Canadian government, at least for statistical reasons. In any case, these early people of North America, Australia and elsewhere mostly didn’t use writing, and their doubtless various self-references might be translated by us, at their bidding, as nations, but it’s clear that using such a term adds a certain gloss borrowed from modern lingo. Gammage does the same thing, perhaps justifiably, in referring to Aboriginal Australia as an estate, a term which I tend to associate with snotty landowners and gated communities. However, it also puts the focus on land, rather than people. 

We’ve come to associate nationhood with progress, civilisation and sophistication. No wonder the Kurds, the Basques and other cultural-linguistic groups are striving for it, and in particular for land on which to fix these qualities. The progression appears to go from group – as with chimps, bonobos and no doubt early hominids – to tribe, to settlement, to a collection of settlements or villages, to a centralised, sort of inward-facing region of shared culture, flourishing up to a civilisation of sorts. So it starts, for us, with our common ancestry with our primate cousins. 

We know that chimps and gorillas separate into groups that control particular territories, but if these groups are too small or avoid interaction with other groups, inbreeding will become a problem. This problem, which confronts all social species, can be solved by male or female dispersal – that’s to say, by breeding or ready-to-breed young adults flitting from their natal group to a neighbouring one. But moving to a new, unfamiliar neighbourhood might be as fraught, or more so, for non-human species as it is for us. According to an article published by the Royal Society in 2017, when there are limited opportunities for dispersal, many species appear to have a behavioural avoidance pattern to prevent inbreeding. For example, closely related elephants avoid mating altogether. In other species, they manage to mate without producing offspring, or produce healthy offspring even where the chances of inbreeding would seem to be high. 

We often make jokes about human inbreeding, especially with island populations (Tasmanians are sometimes targeted), but there are real issues with inward, ultra-nationalist thinking, which can lead to a kind of cultural inbreeding. This can even transcend nations, as with the touting of ‘Asian values’. Considering that millions of Asians have paired up with non-Asians, this might pose a problem for the offspring, if such notions were taken seriously.

Anyway, my own view of nations, for what it’s worth, is that that they’ve become a useful mechanism for divvying up land into states. Land has been an essential feature of human culture – this land is my land, this land is your land, this land is made for you and me. The obsession humans have with the myth of land ownership is something I’ve often found rather comical. I won’t go into the shenanigans around Antarctica, but I’ll relate a couple of illustrative anecdotes.

In my boisterous youth I accompanied a couple of housemates in visiting a nearby tennis court, which I’d previously noticed was surrounded by the usual high, open-wire fencing, but fronted by an unlocked gate. On the far side of the court were the vast sporting fields of St Peter’s College, one of the most exclusive private schools in the city, and beyond that, the imposing buildings of that august institution. I’d persuaded my housemates to take our racquets over for a fun hit out, though there was no net, and we only had two racquets between three. So we’d been at it for about 15 minutes when I spotted a figure marching towards us across the sward. As he closed in, I took note of the tweed jacket, the flapping flag of his woollen scarf, the swept-back, neatly combed blonde hair. I won’t try to mimic his accent or recall his exact words – distance lends a certain enchantment to the view – but there was no forgetting his sense of complete outrage. ‘Excuse me boys, but you must realise that this is PRIVATE PROPERTY!’ Those last two words are the only ones I’m certain of. 

I spent the next few weeks daydreaming of hoisting this gentleman by his own petard, but also reflecting on the quasi-religious power of landed property. It was exactly as if we’d abused, or worse, denied, someone’s god.  

Another incident was much more recent. An Aboriginal woman complained to me on the street that I – meaning we ‘whites’ – were on her land. I responded to her, perhaps in a frustrated tone, that land was land, it belonged to itself. This wasn’t particularly articulate, but she didn’t have any response. I suppose what I meant was that the Earth’s land, ever changing, shifting and subducting, had been around for billions of years, and for most of human existence we thought no more of land ownership than did the animals we hunted. How things have changed. 

Of course, nationalism is not going away any time soon, and I’m prepared to make my peace with it. States have their obvious uses, in binding a smaller proportion of the human population together via laws, economic co-operation and political policies. The Einsteinian dream of a world government is unworkable, and the United Nations still needs a lot of work, though it has been beneficial on balance, especially via its ancillary organisations. The problem of course is ultranationalism, in both its outward expansionist form, and its inward-facing exclusivity and xenophobia. Diversity, or variety, is obviously a good thing, whether in diet, industry, arts or genetics. My own modest experience in teaching students from scores of nations tells me that Homo sapiens, like Pan paniscus, are one people, with similar interests, in laughing, loving, wondering and striving for more. Our strivings and problems are much more global than national – a veritable internet of interests. I hope that this realisation is growing.  


Bill Gammage, The biggest estate on Earth: how Aborigines made Australia, 2012.

Written by stewart henderson

April 22, 2021 at 7:57 pm