Thursday, September 30, 2010

Observations on the Present-Day Nation-State

In 1964 Bob Dylan released an album entitled The Times They Are a-Changin’.  I was 9 years old.  I have witnessed many changes since then.  Yet when I consider the geopolitical milieu, I borrow from a BTO album released ten years later: You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.  Even in the turbulent 1960’s when nearly 30 African states gained their independence from colonial rulers, it is interesting to note that almost no borders changed, nor the total number of countries. 

In most cases when one speaks of a state or a country, the concept described is a “nation-state.”  A “state” is defined as a self-governing political entity and we often use the word “country” interchangeably.  A “nation” is a tight-knit group of people that share a common culture.  The former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and today’s Lebanon, and Spain are examples of multi-national states.  Canada and Belgium are examples of two-nations in one state.  The Kurds, Tartars, and the Roma are examples of stateless nations.  Palestine finds itself in a gray area of not being completely stateless, but certainly not a fully recognized state, with a geographically and politically divided nation.  States require a level of cohesiveness, a common identity, for successful functioning.  This is typically achieved through shared values, norms, and expressive symbols of it nation(s) within that state.  See my posts on 11 August, 21 July, 16 July, 7 July, 28 June, and 5 June of 2009 for further discussion of these elements.  In Renan’s lecture at the Sorbonne in 1882, he explained,

 A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things that actually are one come together to build this soul or spiritual principle. One of them lies in the past, the other in the present. One is the common possession of a rich heritage...; the other is a present accord, the desire to live together, and the will to continue to accumulate and build the common heritage.

One insight expressed by Renan was the present accord, the desire to live together, and the will to continue to accumulate and build the common heritage,” is an essential element in today’s modern nation-state.  When that accord is not present, no matter the past shared heritage, the nation-state is in jeopardy of change.  We see these dynamics in the rise of nationalism.  Seneca, George Orwell, and Charles de Gaulle all expressed the same thought when they explained that patriotism is the love of one’s country (nation-state), where as nationalism is the hatred of another country (nation-state).  That nationalism finds many forms.  Possibly the xenophobia of the Soviet Union, the frustrations in some European countries with some norms practiced by Islam, France’s expulsion of the Roma, and the Middle East’s general love-hate relationship with the decadent West, are some examples of fear of potential change of a nation or nation-state status.  In the United States, some might suggest the Tea Party Movement and the plethora of political pundits on both side of the political spectrum who spend most of their time pointing out the flaws of the other side, but not much time building a common identity among themselves.  They sure know what they are running from, but not quite sure what they are running to.  

In this interdependent world where information, products, services, and raw materials flow almost effortlessly across borders, nation-states find themselves in peril.  Back in the 1960’s and early 1970's that peril was thought to be the demise of the nation-state because the concept has run its course.  Imagine there's no countries, It isn't hard to do, Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too, Imagine all the people, Living life in peace, John Lennon penned in 1971.  Today, however, it appears the nation-state is in peril because of this interdependent flow, but for a completely different reason.  Meaning has been lost in the present size and capacity of the nation-state to support a common identity.  Instead of an enlarged common identity, in this era of the “long-tail” and niche markets, we are beginning to see the break-up of nation-states into smaller or sometimes unidentifiable entities.  Scotland and Wales stand on the edge of leaving the United Kingdom.  Greenland moves closer every year to independence from Denmark.  China is farming in Africa and shipping the bounty home.  These farms are almost treated like they are a part of China, not the host countries.  There are only 6 million Russians living in the vast interior of Siberia, with hundreds of millions of Chinese not only on the border, but migrating to that resources rich part of northern Central Asia.  Countries up-river from the Egyptian portion of the Nile are claiming new water rights that could threaten Egypt’s future.  Some suggest a key part of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is really about the flow of water rights as much as religion, culture and heritage. 

We will continue to see inter- dependence grow between countries, but we will also see new pressures put on the present nation-states in the form of common identity fractures.  Those countries that are successful in “running to” shared values, norms, and expressive symbols by realizing they are in a non-zero sum scenario have a better chance of survival.  Those that believe in and practice the historical scenario that: in order to win, someone must lose (a zero sum scenario) may find a common identity in a smaller group, but in so doing will exacerbate the demise of the nation-state they now live in.  It is very possible to see the present number of 195 nation-states break the 200 barrier in the next decade.  Some of those transitions will be peaceful and even be applauded on the world stage (such as the probable creation of Southern Sudan).  Other changes may be accompanied by civil strife, civil war, or regional conflict.  Taken completely out of context I will close with another song, this time from the 1978 movie Grease, sung today by the nation-state: “I got chills, they're multiplying, And Im losin' control…”

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

American Immigration: Policies and Principles

Robert Wright in a Technology-Education-Design (TED) Conference suggested that non-zero sum scenarios have operated through history, despite our human penchant for zero sum games. Zero sum scenarios require a winner and a looser. That is, the outcome is an inverse correlation that equals zero. In non-zero sumness, all parties in the scenario garner the same outcome, that is, they all win, or they all lose. This creates a moral progression, motivated by charitable enlightenment on one hand and self-interest on the other, that drives humanity on cyclical, but over time a progressively upward trajectory. Cycles occur on this trajectory in part because of forgetting that one’s fortune is tied to others. As Robert Frost suggested in his poem, The Black Cottage, “Most of the change we think we see in life is due to truths being in and out of favor”. In the short-term, a scarcity mentality can glean great rewards for the successful taker. Sooner or later, however, the principles of the non-zero sum milieu that much of life’s scenarios apply to will take its toll, reminding us that we are in this life together.

The present scarcity mentality coupled with a zero sum perspective in the illegal immigration debate is disappointing. Many are willing to set principles temporarily aside for immediate issues. Possibly these are some who never learned the principle of the Law of the Harvest. It is also frustrating that the present conservative candidates simply assume that in my demographic they want to prove that they are tougher on illegal immigrants than the next person. I consider myself a conservative, but a compassionate conservative. Big government is not the best solution in most cases, and turning to the government to solve all our woes creates a weaker society. I think we need to live within our means and balance the budget. And so on. I also think it is shortsighted to replace patriotism (love of country) with nationalism (hatred of other countries and their people), and top that with a xenophobia for mostly honest, hardworking and good people. We need immigration reform, absolutely. We don’t need to denigrate what this country stands for with draconian measures that repeal the 14th Amendment to the Constitution (as Rand Paul suggest), that penalize the innocent young children of illegal immigrants (as Steve Poizner suggests), and we don’t need laws that are spring loaded to type 1 errors. I have lived in countries that would rather prosecute some innocents in order to catch all the guilty. The United States has always leaned to accepting type 2 errors—allowing that a few guilty might go free in order to ensure that no innocents are prosecuted unjustly. Arizona’s new illegal immigration statute skews the balance to type 1 errors and contrary to American principles.

We have always been a country of immigrants. For most of our history there was no such thing as an “illegal” immigrant. Most of the Irish, Italians, and other European immigrants simply showed up on our door step. Most Black Americans have roots in enforced immigration… And Native Americans may still view the rest of us as illegal immigrants… We have accepted, proportionate to our national population at the time, more immigrants in 1907 than the total legal and illegal immigrant population that crossed our borders in 2007. So what’s the difference today? Tax dollars are tight. Jobs are tight. In other words, we have a scarcity mentality and a zero sum perspective on the future. We are wrong in both regards. As a former participant and leader in the narco-terrorism efforts we have been waging in Latin America I can say with a clearer understanding than many that justifying these anti-immigration issues solely in terms of border security highlights misunderstanding on one side and a political willingness to pander to that misunderstanding by those who know better, on the other. This country has been blessed by our immigrants. They are a force multiplier in our abilities to meet the challenges of the future—not a detriment to determining lasting long-term solutions.

We fight over the definition of what the Founding Fathers meant with the 2nd Amendment, but care little for debate on the 4th, 5th, 8th, 9th, and 14th Amendments, to name a few. We create faulty dilemmas structuring arguments where we believe we have to choose between good and good so that no matter what we choose, we lose, or between two bad options where we feel justified in bad selections. In both cases we are only attempting to make a choice while escaping responsibility and accountability.
Dr. Victor E. Frankl lived three years in Nazi Germany’s concentration camps. Even under these severely inhumane and restrictive conditions, he had this to say:
The experiences of [concentration] camp life show that man does have a choice of action. . . . Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. . . . Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way… There were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate. . . . The last inner freedom cannot be lost.
Choice is defined as “the mental process of thinking involved with the process of judging the merits of multiple options and selecting one of them for action.” Choice then, involves input, cognition, judgment, and selection. Choice is also the result of selection, as in, “my choice is door number one.” Choice implies the ability to choose between options from all enticing corners. Choice, however, does not stand alone. Choice is a hollow currency without accountability. As Economist and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen suggested, “There is something deeply irresponsible about denying choice when a choice exists, for it is a denial of freedom and an abdication of accountability.” Interestingly, Victor Frankl, expert and exemplar of choice, recommended that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast of the United States (a symbol of freedom and choice) be supplemented with a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast. He explained,
“Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.”
Accountability is sometimes negatively defined as dead weight, a millstone, blame, stress, and affliction. In response to the negative cloud of accountability I suggest it is much easier to retreat to casting blame elsewhere. It is not “choice and creativity of escaping governing principles,” that drives meaning and long-term success. As Covey explained, “values govern people’s behavior [choice], but principles ultimately determine the consequences [and accountability]”. In all fairness to accountability, it optimistically connotes concern, allegiance, duty, stewardship, loyalty, answerability, and obligation. It is the justification of judgment (choice). Choices are made with or without the understanding of governing principles, but accountability over time is a guidance mechanism that aids participants in making better choices. In this season of political debate, let’s turn back to principles, not knee-jerk reactionary laws that will, in the end cause us once again to reconsider principles, but only after painful reminders of their existence.