Updated: May 16
What is a nation? In contemporary dialogue, the word nation is thrown around to such an extent that it has lost basically all meaning. American foreign policy adventures are often described as nation-building, which is a correct definition of what we see in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, places defined more by their chaos and separate identities than a common sense of community. American intervention in such places is designed to establish a stable American ally in the region to counterbalance hostile governments. Then, why have our attempts at doing this failed so miserably? Afghanistan and Iraq have seen most of the American troops stationed there leave, but the presence of American bases in the region remain, and the slightest threat of a hostile force overthrowing the current regime would bring a return of American forces. In reality, our attempts at nation-building have solidified the fractured natures of these countries. The fault lies in the concept of what a nation is. The word has been used to such an extent that it has lost all meaning. Consider for a moment the words "State" and "government". Very few even within the academic community delineate differences between the two terms, instead using them interchangeably. Consequently, the meaning of both has been changed and put into an overarching broad definition, descriptive of neither. If definitions were used honestly, it’s doubtful that the abuses which accompany contemporary governments would be as prevalent as they are. The same problem plagues the word and the concept of a nation. Abuses related to the terminology of a nation go back so far in American history, few have bothered to question its validity. Possibly the most well-known speech in American History, “The Gettysburg Address”, declares in its first sentence that our “forefathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation.” Here’s the root of the problem, how we think and conceive a nation in our own minds. According to Lincoln, the founders created the nation through the institution of a common government, in the process implying that what constitutes a nation is a common government along with its prerequisites: common borders, currency, and laws, (well, as common as laws can be within a decentralized federalist framework). This concept is simple and based upon the materialist outlook dominant at the time; it views the nation as an object, a static thing which requires certain defined prerequisites to establish itself and upon the establishment of those prerequisites becomes a self-sustaining object and continues to be so until the prerequisites become undone.
As I’ve written in previous articles, one of the greatest faults of American political thought is its dedication to form over substance. We view speech as a good in itself, the existence of the press unencumbered by governmental influence as a must for a free society, regardless of its tabloid-like nature. And in a similar vein, we view our country as being a nation regardless of how divided and fractured it is. Consider how worthless the concept of a nation is when Lincoln describes the United States as a nation simply through the act of establishing a common government. The poverty of materialist thought exists in its dearth of meaning; to the extent it's able, it gives worth to material substances that are nothing more than the processes of mechanical forces at work. It ignores the dynamic, spiritual nature of society, replacing it with reverence of stasis and facts. Much like the words "State" and "nation" referenced above, if the meaning of "nation" were thoroughly understood, public policy would be drastically different.
What is a nation? In contemporary dialogue, the word nation is thrown around to such an extent that it has lost basically all meaning. Compare for a moment bodily movement to verbal gestures; the former is very basic and straightforward, while the latter includes not only words, but tone, volume, pitch, and much more. The means of expression through language dwarf any other communication method, hence, the danger we as a society face when language begins to degrade. Remember back to when you were a child when life was simple, black, and white. Now, imagine having the same mindset as an adult. It’s pretty difficult to imagine, and I’m sure most of us would choose not to accept the option if given the choice. Yet, we live in a society where precisely this phenomenon is occurring. Half of all adults can’t read beyond an 8th grade level. Whereas one time an average layperson could read and comprehend the Federalist Papers, most college graduates would have a difficult time doing the same. As a society, we’ve been reverting to a child-like state of reading comprehension for some time now. Why is this dangerous? Again, let's put ourselves into a child’s shoes. Like all of us, children conceive reality through their experiences. Given their lack of experiences, children's outlook on life is very basic, consisting of particular ways of seeing and engaging with the world. As we age and experiences accumulate, the singular paths of expression begin to branch off, and what at one point appeared to be a one-way road to one destination, now becomes multiple roads to multiple destinations. Life is no longer as simple as we once conceived it to be. However, what happens when experiences don’t accumulate going into adulthood? Individuals choose not to read, have families, or engage in any artistic activity whatsoever, instead choosing to spend an inordinate amount of time on social media, instead of reading literature choose to read comic books or graphic novels and waste the balance of their day watching shows and movies based upon superheroes. What happens is individuals who fail to show an interest beyond anything composed of a 15-second soundbite (hence the popularity of Tik Tok). The public policy outputs which are produced by our various governments are the products of this. Don’t like corruption? Well, it’s easy for politicians to take advantage of a populace who fails to conceive of alternatives to the Republicans and Democrats. We claim to abhor political violence and the fragmented state of our country, and yet when as individuals when we engage in political dialogue our rhetoric more often than not resembles verbal warfare, accusing the other side of destroying the country, of being traitors; what we’re basically doing, at least subconsciously, is establishing a bipolar reality composed of a good and a bad side, a very childlike mentality. Think about it. Given how we think and engage with others as a people, is the growth of violence and social fracturing any surprise? The only surprise is that it has not become more prevalent.
What we see, the reality which we face, all are the products of the words we use and how we think about the world. Through simple observation we can make certain deductions regarding individuals and society, deductions not needed by scientists but so obvious on their face that ignorant laymen can come to the obvious conclusion. Aristotle’s statement that humans are social animals is recognized by all. Human isolation, whether it be in prisons or in society with individuals who spend most of their waking hours in front of a computer or gaming system, produces deleterious effects on the individual’s psyche, hence, the exponential growth we’ve seen as a society in mental illnesses, random mass shootings, and the growth in medications designed to treat mental illnesses. What’s caused such a drastic change over the last few decades? The only variable we’ve seen is social conditions change drastically. The technology now exists, where before it wasn’t available to keep people occupied in a virtual fantasy realm 24/7. A virtual world, while allowing verbal communication to take place between individuals, lacks the breadth and scope of actual face-to-face interactions. What we have instead is short compact communications based solely upon need and not expression. With the Covid-19 pandemic, this form of communication has now begun to spread into the world of work, dominating almost all aspects of our lives. When personal interactions are replaced by a virtual context, communication becomes archetypal; originality disappears to be replaced by formal conversations, whether it be with an actual person or an A.I. interface. Electronic communication is not so much about dialogue but exchanging expected responses; thought, expression and meaning disappear to be replaced by basic need.
With the flow of technology heading in a direction that makes social isolation more feasible, are we headed towards a future dominated by loneliness and its consequent mental illnesses and social pathologies? Not necessarily. A solution to these problems also doesn't have to entail halting technological advancements and returning to a pre-industrial state of existence. They do on the other hand necessitate the advancement of two things: the State is an institution permeating all aspects of society, giving guidance and direction through all groups and individuals, and the development within those individuals of the Nation is a spiritual construct. The ability to overcome social isolation and the binding aspect of technological advancement can’t be done under present conditions. A society guided by self-interest and greed will always tend towards the lowest common denominator and prioritize the well-being of the theoretical individual over the actual community due to the individual being an abstraction absent his/her community, much like the philosophical concept of the particular and the universal. The particular fails to exist without the universal preceding it and giving meaning and definition which the particular then fits into. So, it is with the State, the universal that change has to begin to shape the particulars to fit within itself and to view the collective organization as a Nation to be something more than a common set of defined concrete prerequisites.
Absent broadly based structural social changes, some things can be done now to begin the process of nation-building. Here is the Triad of National Reformation.
With the acknowledgement of the porous state of American Education and the simplistic, short attention spans it produces, reformation needs to begin at the level of the school. Our education system was constructed upon the ideal of producing individuals suited to thrive in an assembly-line based work environment, prioritizing obedience, discipline, and memorization, all qualities which are fine in and of themselves but when prioritized over critical thinking and originality produce a populace very poor at adapting and tolerating alternative points of view. It’s a mentality of always accepting reality as it appears, never looking beyond the obvious, hence, simple dualistic notions of life and politics predominating amongst most individuals and the inability to enact any meaningful political reform.
One of the few positives produced in recent memory regarding education is the enactment of common core, which especially in the field of mathematics has emphasized reasoning through a problem instead of the simple memorization of formulas. Understanding how and why a conclusion is drawn is much more important than simply providing a correct answer. Critical reasoning begun at a young age is bound to produce adults who are less susceptible to 5-second soundbites and images meant to antagonize. However, more action is needed to introduce logic and critical thinking into school curriculums. Too often, ideals of fairness and tolerance are taught to students in a condescending manner from a teacher speaking above their pupils as a hammer coming down upon a nail, instead of encouraging internalization of these same ideals through the student becoming self-aware. In France’s equivalent to an American High School, students are required to give a 4-hour presentation, centered around such topics as “What is Preferable: Truth or Peace?”, thereby forcing the student to think through certain topics critically. Think about this for a moment. How many mass shootings take place in France; how is its crime rate compared to ours? While it’s overly simplistic to associate lower levels of social pathologies with this aspect of the French education system, it’s not out of the realm of reason to assume that an approach which prioritizes critical thought would produce graduates more aware of the damage they cause to others and the moral considerations involved than an education system that prioritizes occupational readiness. And more importantly, through critical thought, individuals would more easily see the commonalities between themselves and their neighbors and the integrality of a united community, i.e. a nation acting through a State structure designed with the welfare of all in mind.
Within the American political scene, there’s probably no more pressing issue at the moment than health care. Despite Obama’s attempted overhaul of the health care system, tens of millions of Americans remain uninsured and premiums have skyrocketed. While many more poor Americans are paying less and receiving better quality coverage through expanded subsidies, those in the middle are seeing a decline in their standard of living and poorer quality coverage. The inability of the marketplace acting alone to provide quality care at an affordable price has been demonstrable for a considerable length of time and for no other reason than practicality, drastic reforms are needed along the lines other countries have used to control costs and provide greater access. However, more so than financial reasons, reformation is needed within the health care system for reasons of national construction.
To go beyond the objectified view of a nation, its citizens must become consciously aware of it. Studies and polls have shown time and again that what matters to people when it comes to their occupations is the meaning they receive from their jobs, even more important than whatever financial compensation they might receive. Most people are willing to work for less if that work provides emotional stability and significance. Something similar could be said for school-aged children. One of the most harmful effects of bullying is to alienate the victim of the bullying from not only other children in the school but from the school itself. That school may have wonderful teachers and produce Nobel Prize winners but to the victim of bullying, all of that is meaningless as the emotional torment he/she endures causes the school to appear as nothing more than a building full of strangers. Now, wheeling back to health care, more and more we’re seeing individuals faced with the decision of whether to receive needed medical care or face the prospect of financial ruin. Katie Hnida, a former CU football player was faced with medical bills of over $155,000 while recovering from an allergic reaction to antibiotics. (1) Others are receiving bills for tens of thousands of dollars for ambulance and helicopter rides to hospitals. (2) Unlike what people on the Right like to think, most of these people are not shiftless drug users who are mooching off the system but unlucky souls who sometimes are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Put yourselves into their shoes; come face to face with seeing years’ worth of hard work going down the drain due to becoming ill. Is it any wonder that so many in today’s America are willing to raise the red flag and adopt an ideology responsible for the misery and death of so many? A soulless system such as ours cannot kill the human spirit, but it can certainly corrupt and pervert it, sending it off into genocidal movements which seem to offer what can’t be received at home, much like educational reforms referenced in the previous section. Universal health care at an affordable cost would change the perspectives of many who currently feel a disconnect with their country and their government. Above and beyond the financial necessities of reform, there is an urgent moral and spiritual need in this area.
The third and final leg of the triad has to do with offshoring and work visas; Offshoring is the practice of a company moving production overseas to take advantage of cheap labor, while work visas are the importing of that same cheap labor to work here in the United States. The economic effects are obvious; the greater the supply of labor, the greater is the downward push on wages. With the absence of unions to counteract the strength of corporations, more experienced workers can be discarded for the recent arrivals who are willing to work for a fraction of the cost. With the reduction of wages and the greater stress put on the public sector through subsidized living costs, i.e. health care and food stamps, the quality of the public sector declines as its obligations rise and its stream of revenue dries up.
The greatest tragedy of the policies which permit corporate America to get away with this is the effect it has on how people connect to their larger communities. When we go to a sporting event and stand for the National Anthem, and see the flag as we sing, the chill that many get is understandable, but it’s also understandable how many could feel an emptiness at the same sight. If you work for a company like Southern California Edison, which forced its employees to train its cheaper replacements from India, how would that make you feel? (3) True, it wasn’t the government directly responsible for that action, but through looking the other way it was implicitly responsible for what Southern California Edison did. The Federal government’s jurisdiction over immigration and interstate commerce gives it more than enough power to prevent abuses of this nature. However, the absence of action produces the effect of the individual looking at their government and Nation as nothing more than empty words and buildings where individuals go to work. The phrases which are meant to unite the history we look to for inspiration appear to be nothing more than empty words. If the State existed, none of this would happen.
Ideally, a complete prohibition on outsourcing would be the way to go. At a very minimum, however, companies should have to receive explicit permission from the Federal government to relocate overseas or import foreign workers, doing so would establish a direct line of responsibility and enable reforms within the government should abuse become apparent. Through changes in the social structure, corporate America and the people that work therein would become conscious that they exist within a national framework with a greater responsibility to the whole.
This triad of reforms is admittedly a very incomplete picture of what needs to be done to begin the process of domestic nation building. But constructive reformation needs to begin small and start to build up in stages. The contemporary American mindset prohibits broad philosophical change at the moment, but through making very workable changes the consciousness needed to make those broad changes can begin.