15. Ethnic Nationalism in America

Some readers perhaps have noticed that my observations tend to be in line with a certain political outlook, known to the cognoscenti as “ethnic nationalism.”  That is, I’ve presumed that an ideal political community is a nation-state based on a definable ethnic group, and I’ve coupled this outlook both with a Pagan recognition of diversity, which precludes any universal political solution, and a Pagan reverence for the wisdom of the tribal elders, which is vital to any ethnicity.

Which raises an interesting issue.  Ethnic nationalism may be very well – even kind of romantic and noble – for a small country, like Iceland.  But just exactly how is this supposed to apply to the United States?

I won’t deny that my preferred political model seems primarily appropriate to Europe, where the great majority of states do have an ethnic base, each possessing its own distinctive language, culture, and set of historical memories.  European states with serious ethnic divisions – Belgium, Spain, the United Kingdom – tend to have problems maintaining their national unity.  The old Soviet Union has splintered into a myriad of nationalities, as has the former Yugoslavia.  Even such a small state as Czechoslovakia proved unable to harmonize multiple ethnic groups.  And as the number of independent nation-states has grown in Europe, popular control over governance has, in most cases, been enhanced.  This is the kind of political landscape I like.

When I consider the current political scene in my own country, I often find my hopes and fears for the future interfering with my capacity for dispassionate analysis.  So it’s occurred to me that it might be a useful exercise to imagine myself a European, observing from afar the events in the oversized republic across the pond.  How would I evaluate the American political situation if I weren’t emotionally involved in it, yet had the same point of view I’ve summarized above?

In a word, I’d consider the American case to be utterly hopeless.  I’d observe that the population of the United States has come from all corners of the world, representing a multitude of cultural traditions, and having no intrinsic connection with one another.  Indeed, many of these groups have a lengthy history of mutual antagonism and hatred, and will inevitably regard issues from very different points of view.  Many arrived long after the founding of the American political system, and have no ancestral connection with its origins or any real reason to personally identify with its history.  Hardly any of them have an aboriginal relationship to the land.  I certainly wouldn’t wonder to find the American polity currently distracted and disorganized, and I wouldn’t see any basis for overcoming these divisions now or in the future.  Ever.

OK, that’s the opinion of my European alter ego.  I’ll now discard my man-purse and soccer ball and reassume my normal American persona.  Unfortunately – while it’s more pleasant to predict incurable dysfunction for a foreign country than for one’s own – I have to concur with Euro-me, up to a point.  America’s problems, in my opinion, are at least made worse by the fact that there’s no ethnic core to our nationality.  This may not be a politically correct thing to say, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

A shared ethnicity helps to cushion any disagreements that may happen between individuals.  People who speak the same dialect with the same proverbial expressions, who learned the same folk tales from their grandparents and heard the same historical narratives at school, who celebrate the same festivals and practice the same customary social rituals, who eat the same foods and listen to the same music, will find reasons to like and trust one another, even if they belong to different political parties.  People who don’t have these things in common may not hate each other, but their relations will be more formal and guarded, and there will be less to buffer their disputes.  This is simply human nature.  We all feel more comfortable with people who share our values and our preferences, and we’re suspicious of folks we don’t understand.

It’s not exactly a news flash that Americans are seriously divided politically these days.  We’re split along the lines of ideology, social class, gender, religion, race, sexual preference – you name it.  Yet such cleavages exist in all societies.  Ours have become so poisonous because they’re unleavened by the feelings of ethnic kinship that would exist in a rightly constituted nation-state.  Indeed, our ethnic sentiments only divide us more.  American Indians, Southern whites, African Americans, Hispanics:  all these groups, in general, feel far more emotional commitment to their own struggles and traditions, than they do to the abstraction known as the United States – which, after all, includes the groups they regard (maybe correctly) as their age-old enemies.  Virtually all Americans nowadays are focused only on the relative advantage of their particular tribe, and have no interest in any notions of a broader national good.

I’m not sure anything can be done about this.  As a Pagan, I’m loath to tell people they should abandon or submerge their ethnic identities.  We owe our very existence to our ancestors, and we’ve a primal obligation to honor them.  America might be forever fated to be riven by our competing family legacies.

Or, perhaps, our antipathies can be, if not wholly overcome, at least mitigated.  But that’s a discussion for another time.

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