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Nationalism and Egalitarianism: Not Dead Yet!

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The human condition is one of those grab-bag, black hole kind of ideas that includes anything and everything you might want to say about the goodness and perversity of being human and being human amongst humans and other living things and within a physical environment from which one might extract great wealth or not. See! The so-called human condition covers a lot of ground and just about the time you think you have a dinner speaker's chance of nailing it down, it changes.

It changes because we are all different in our multiplicity and all the same in our singularity. The practitioners of Zen and coiners of Zen koans should be good at this, but they have long since discovered that it doesn't make any difference to what they are after, which is, of course, inner peace. Well inner peace here and inner peace in Uttar Pradesh are two different things. You consider the vast array of creeds here and the vast array of gods and hero there and you wonder how the human mind can assume that sufficient similarity of purpose to make any communication possible.

Today in the Boston Globe, hot on the heels of a magnificent essay about the problem of celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church, James Carroll writes about the problems of the Church as if they were old hat and perhaps overstated; my reading of his essay, not his avowed purpose. He is writing about the demise of egalitarianism and nationalism, although he calls egalitarianism "socialism" to make the point about decline.

I agree with him in a way. Clearly in the west, particularly Europe, the area in which modern nationalism got its start and strong voice and strong philosophical underpinnings, nationalism is much less than it was in the 19th century and the great wars of the 20th. And, just as clearly, with the demise of the Soviet Union, all socialist ideas have come under heavy scrutiny and criticism. In the U.S. particularly, since the U.S. was the leading opponent of the Soviet Union and developed its loins-girding rhetoric to a high art, the besmirching of socialism and communism have become a reflex and have long since departed from meaningful descriptions of what exactly "socialism" intends and intended, or what Lenin and Stalin and the Politburo did to Marx's theories to acquire and then maintain power. It matters a great deal because there are ideas embedded in "socialism" that are also embedded in even conservative ideas of the commonwealth and what a "republic" is.

It has been common practice in the last fifty years to acknowledge that nationalism has replaced much of what religion once provided as a unifying force over society. I tend to disagree with Carroll that nationalism is finished, however. I wrote about a week ago how the horizons of most people are local horizons and that home and hearth are steady concepts relating to family and the sense of one's place in the world. I was angry about that then and sarcastic and gave up on the idea of humankind truly understanding the complexity that 7+ billions of people creates on a small planet with limited resources and an ecology that will strike a balance and homeostatic compromise with what is at hand, whether that be us or not. Then a couple of days ago I read a piece by Manu Joseph of Mumbai, India, which takes off in a substantially different direction.

Joseph's essay mixes up things that Carroll cannot mix: internet address protocols, the pervasiveness of English because of the last (most recent) big fling with nationalism, and modern nationalism. Joseph demonstrates that nationalism and regionalism and even parochialism are far from dead, far from decline, and in fact are alive and growing in places we thought would skip that step.

That step!

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In the west, because of our unique history (not to favor it, but only to note that it has not been replicated ... or understood very well), we have developed theories of history and "everything" that (perhaps modeled on human maturation processes and stages) include epochs in which we learn how to do things that were impossible or not even imagined in earlier stages. That is, we have the background notion that things are, if not improving, they are "developing" and, like James Carroll, we are charged with the duty to find the good and learn, pass it on, and be better tomorrow than we were today. The idea of progress is not exclusively western, you should know. The central tenet of Buddhism within the concept of "transmigration of souls" or "reincarnation" is that there is progress and regress both dependent ... as it is in the west ... on various freewill opportunities.

The galvanizing words within Manu Joseph's brief treatise are these:

"The world does not want to be unified. What is the value of belonging if you belong to all?"
In these two sentences Joseph demolishes Carroll. India has something over a billion people, more than all the (other) English-speaking and European countries combined! When Joseph jots down his syllogism, the stage is set for nationalism and for egalitarianism, whether it be "socialist" or not. If nothing else he has reminded us that the pace of "progress" is different in other places and of a much different gait.

JB

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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese History, (more...)
 

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