The Man Without a Country

First things first.
I feel I should apologize for not updating this blog with articles recently. I have been kept incredibly busy by getting used to my new job, adjusting to my second year of study, and seeing off the rest of my family from England. Now that I’m getting used to all of the aforementioned I will endeavor to publish articles on a more frequent basis. I’ll be sure to write an article about my second year of study thus far (even though this academic term is young) in the coming weeks as it is already quite different from what I was doing last year. For now however I want to talk about something which happened during a seminar two weeks ago and elaborate on what I said there.

Dr TerryThe seminar in question was for “The Life and Death of Multinational Empires in Central and Eastern Europe, 1848 – 1948”, my ‘optional’ module for this first term. The seminar group consists of about fifteen students, all second years like myself, and led by Dr Nicholas Terry. Dr. Terry is recognized figure when it comes to the history of central and eastern Europe and has presented many lectures on both the region and the history of nationalism associated with it (if you’re interested you can google search his name and you’re bound to find a few of these lectures).  During our very first seminar Dr Terry decided, on a whim, to ask around the students what we thought our ‘national identity’ is. One after another my fellow students answered with “English”, “Scottish”, “Welsh”, with the occasional “French” or “Spanish” thrown in for good measure. However, when he got around to me I simply said “I don’t have a national identity”.

That got perplexed and piercing stares from practically everyone in the seminar room, did they think I was being clever for the sake of it?

Dr Terry however gave me a knowing look and said “was your father in the armed services?”
“He was” I replied whilst feeling the unrelenting gazes of everyone fixated on me. “He served with the RAF (Royal Air Force) for quite some time and the family was posted all over the place as a result.”
“Where abouts if I may ask?” He said.
“Well, I was born in Berlin in 1989 just before the wall came down. I don’t remember too  much about the place though. I lived in Scotland at RAF Elgin and in Cyprus at RAF Akrotiri before he left the RAF and tried to root the family here in England.”
“From the sounds of it your family didn’t stay here for long though?” He said thoughtfully, seemingly noticing the sudden Kiwi-twang my voice occasionally gets.
“Yeah, we moved to New Zealand for a while before coming back here for a few pressing reasons.” I grimaced, “I’ve been living a nomadic life ever since really. I’ve seen pretty much all of France, a good chunk of Italy, and have been to other places like Australia and Germany.”
At this point Dr Terry put his hands together and leaned against them “But you still don’t consider yourself either a Briton or a New Zealander? Why is that?”
The rest of the group, apparently enjoying this little tennis rally of a conversation, was keeping rapt attention. A few of them knew that I was a slightly older-than-average student (24) but had never heard me talk about this before. “I think… It’s because I’ve suffered from culture shock so many times that I’ve completely numbed myself to the experience. Either that or I think I’ve been to so many places, met so many people from other cultures that I’ve come to realize that in this day-and-age people are really a lot more similar to others than they realize.”
Dr Terry cast me an odd look before bringing the conversation to a close and getting back on track with the seminar.
That look… What did it mean? Intrigue? Empathy? I’ll have to ask him someday.

National IdentitySo, what did I really mean by what I said? After all, if I had the chance to prepare a proper coherent answer in advance I could have kept talking for at least another five minutes. Alas I couldn’t, so I’ll elaborate here.

It’s not escaped my attention that when I first moved from England to New Zealand when I was barely thirteen I found myself reeling culture shock, and again even more so when I was forced to move back to England when I was seventeen. I had moved around a lot more when I was younger, when my father was still with the RAF, so why did I not notice the effects of traveling until during those impressionable years of adolescence? I think it’s because I was not aware of the differences because everyone, like myself back then, is in the process of finding themselves during their teenage and adolescence years, but barely before. I’ve tried to pin down my experiences of culture shock before but I think I can now delve into what I believe with a more refined argument.

The very concept of nationalism and by an extension national identity has been around on-and-off since communities began forming. However, until the 18th century communities were just that. Until the dawn of the early modern world there was not such a thing as a widespread ‘public sphere’, at least one that was both literate and had threads of commonality to justify a wide scale union such as a nation. Before the 1700’s national symbols such as anthems, myths, flags and narratives were not widespread in European societies and were more-or-less limited to the ruling elites. However, as literacy grew and culture expanded there was little one could do to avoid becoming swept up by the monolithic force that was nationalism. Nationalism gave Europeans the means to vehemently distinguish themselves from each other. This sense of national identity endured all the way to the world of today but now… it’s legitimacy is being rightfully challenged.

When you think about it, when you really think about it. Nationalism is the meat on the bones of the skeleton of government. After all, if people do not feel a sense of commonality and unity why should they adhere to a government which implies that such a thing is real? Nationalism has been used as a means to propel societies forward into the modern world, but now the world needs a different source of fuel. It seems that European governments have come to this conclusion as well, which in turn has led to the development of the European Union. On that note, I think that the European Union is an incredibly noble and modern idea. If it survives it’s growing pains it could pave the way into the future and will become the template for something even greater. In my eyes, nationalism is a concept borne of the 18th century which is completely outdated and unfit for purpose for the world in which we live today. With each passing year I have seen more and more reactionary groups, people terrified of embracing the unknown like I have had to do so many times so far in my life, utilizing national patriotism and turning it into “Hatriotism” for sinister ends.

Back in the 18th century countries and societies had clear distinguishing features which set them apart from each other, such a thing does not exist so much today. Thanks to the dawn of the internet and mass media (such as WordPress!) ‘culture’ is now pooled on an international level. I believe that culture has become so common amongst countries that the only things that continue to act as barriers between people are language, religion, and politics. However, increasing numbers of students are opting to learn languages, turnout for sermons is on the decline, and politics is shifting from a country-running basis to a continent-running basis (European Union). The world is changing and I think we’re all living in the era that will usher in something the world has never known. Sure, the growing pains will hurt those unwilling to let go of a national identity that gives them a sense of security but… the future is coming and people need to adapt.

So there you have it.
I am a guy who has come to the conclusion, using the experiences gained from my travels, that there is actually not a lot separating people in today’s world. The transition away from nationality will hurt people like it hurt me but people will survive like I also did.  So, if I don’t consider myself a part of a nation what DO I consider myself?
Simple, I’m a person: A traveler, a son, a brother, a mentor, and an open-minded thinker.

On a final note… Do you think I should look into Anthropology as a career path?

3 comments

  1. I have been waiting for you to write an article like this. Interesting how it cropped up in your seminar. The world is a book and if you stay in one place you only read the first page, right?

  2. I like the open minded thinker thought at the end most.

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