For he might have been a Roosian,
A French, or Turk, or Proosian,
Or perhaps Itali-an!
Or perhaps Itali-an!
But in spite of all temptations
To belong to other nations,
He remains an Englishman!
He remains an Englishman!
— Gilbert and Sullivan, H.M.S. Pinafore
My headnote from W. S. Gilbert's 1878 Pinafore lyrics includes a joke that some 20th-century Americans missed, and some 21st-century Americans might still miss.
About 1599, in his Henry V, Shakespeare shows a British army in France with captains who are Welsh, Irish, Scottish, and English and who talk of those designations as their nations. Things hadn't changed much that way by the Victorian era in the 19th century, nor with the mother of a friend of mine who corrected people who thought she was English by telling them she was Welsh. Nor during the run-up to Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee, when I saw a Union Jack only at a touristy place in the somewhat-United Kingdom and otherwise saw only the flags of the nations, especially, where I was, the English cross of St. George and the Scots cross of St. Andrew.
The United Kingdom has one monarch, one flag of union, and four nations. And that's just one country we Americans refer to loosely as "England."
"Nation" in the old sense was your tribe writ large: your ethnos, your people, and it wasn't something you chose, and it wasn't something you could change. You were born a Russian, Turk, French, or Prussian — and a Prussian damn well wasn't a Bavarian — and that was who you were.
In that sense, Japan is a nation, and France is, sort of: France was pieced together from different independent medieval fiefs, and some Basques of France are getting restless, which gets one to the issue of Spain and the Basques and Catalans. And digging down a bit one would get to Québécois in Canada and, a bit further, such sensitive issues as Armenians in Turkey in the early 20th century and the ethnic issues behind "ethnic cleansing" in the late 20th century.
In this sense of nation as "tribe writ large," the phrase "a nation of immigrants" makes sense only if you do a very fine-grain analysis of the old tribes and note that many of the big ones in historical times really weren't all that "blood and soil" pure-bred but more like confederations and semi-open communities.
The First Peoples in the Western Hemisphere are also called "the Indian nations," and that's a plural. When the White folk arrived, they came from different cultures in Europe, and, indeed, even just what we call "the English" — "Albion's Seed" — came in different groups even more local than the current four UK nations and contributed to what Colin Woodard identifies as the "Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America" (American Nations, 2011).
How we count those (North) American "nations" or see our histories — plural — and rivalries isn't crucial; the crucial point is that the USA has not been, is not now, and for a long time won't be, if ever, "one Nation, under God" (or atheist or pagan).
And unless we exclude a whole lot of people, we're not "a White, Christian" — as in "I used to be Catholic, but now I'm Christian" — nation. (That Christian vs. Catholic line is a quotation from a student of mine: a nice guy I had a talk with on, let's say, religious nomenclature.)
What we are, I think and hope, is what's identified in the old story of Benjamin Franklin's exiting the final session of the Constitutional Convention to be confronted by a woman who asked, in my paraphrase, «Well, Dr. Franklin, what kind of government have you given us […]?", answered with, «A republic, madam, if you can keep it.»
We are, I think and hope, a republic, with a "mixt constitution" combining a rather monarchical President with an aristocratic Senate and a relatively democratic House of Representatives — as the Founders mostly intended, combined with a robust judiciary to check the other branches, and a professional bureaucracy to get the whole ungainly apparatus to work for what has become a large country.
And we have citizens: people loyal to the Constitution (as much as they understand it) and to ideals in what has been called a civic religion, celebrated most especially on the Fourth of July, the anniversary of the signing of our Declaration of Independence, one basis of American ideals.
The Republic, of course, is kind of abstract and intellectual, but, then, you can't touch or smell or literarily feel a nation. Corporations are "fictive persons," but they exist, and money is just paper — or electrons in motion nowadays — backed up by convention and imagination and faith. The Nation also is a matter of symbols, rituals, origin myths, and stories, and in a better world than this one would be a safe and easy way to get emotional commitment to the State.
In the world we actually have, the Nation gets emotional attachment much too easily, leading far too often to almost idolatrous attachment to symbols and a warm and fuzzy feeling of absorption into the tribe.
Screw that. Or screw the extremes of "that": the xenophobic chauvinism summed up in Mel Brooks's joke about the first national anthem: "Let 'em all go to hell, / Except Cave Seventy-six!" Screw unthinking infatuation with our little tribes, with us.
What we need instead is a mature love for the homeland we were born into or have adopted, a firm patriotism for the American Republic as an ideal and a hope for human dignity. The Republic as a great experiment in self-rule, what Abraham Lincoln called "the last best hope of earth" if we can maintain our Union and expand freedom. We can strive for a nation embodied in a Republic worthy of our love and even that "last full measure of devotion" for the ideal celebrated by Lincoln: the poet of the Republic as "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" — which God forbid should ever be replaced by the low appeal of just another arrogant, self-absorbed band of nationalists deluded by the myths of blood, soil, and ethnic purity.
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