What Constitutes A Nation?

By John Tanton
Volume 3, Number 4 (Summer 1993)
Issue theme: "What makes a nation?"

Here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave we've not had to think too much about this question. In the past, we have for the most part enjoyed the attributes of a true nation that the essayists in our feature section describe a reasonable degree of cohesiveness based on a common heritage (European American), religion (Judeo-Christian), language (English), and, yes, race. These conditions resulted from the accidents of history, not any parti-cular planning on our part. Unfortunately, this lucky set of circumstances has helped engender the idea of American Exceptionalism - the notion that, no matter how we comport ourselves, the United States of America is somehow favored and will be perma-nently spared many of the problems that plague other societies. Rules apply to others, not to us.

At the time of the Los Angeles riots in 1992, a few observers suggested that the disturbances might be traced - at least in part - to how highly variegated the area's populace had become. The south central part of the city, formerly mostly black, was now heavily Mexican, with a strong Korean component. Maybe the difficulties these groups were having getting along with each other was part of a greater problem? Not so, intoned Vice President Quayle 'Our strength is in our diversity.' Yet in Japan, which the then-Vice President had recently visited, they contend the very opposite 'Our strength is in our homogeneity.'

Certainly the Japanese have lower transaction costs than we do. They do not have to fight over race, religion, creed or national origin, to cite our traditional litany. Nor do they have to debate about the language in which they are going to communicate. Rather, they can spend their time figuring out how to advance their group solidarity, and how to beat the economic pants off the competition. In the United States we devote increasing amounts of time and money just trying to keep the various groups away from each other's collective throats. Without this effort, the system would probably break down completely. A fair-minded person might suspect that 'diversity' is like a good many other human traits depending on the particular circumstances, it may have its strong points and its weaker aspects. Rational analysis should proceed on that premise, trying to find the balance point between too little - and too much.

With this in mind, in this issue we try to look at the question of national unity and the nation state. Essayist Peter Brimelow leads off by defining the differences between nations and states, and tries to rehabilitate the word 'polity' as a clarifying alternative. Brimelow has a particular concern about the language dimension of national unity, having lived in Canada for several years and written about their problems with official bilingualism.

Next we get a view from the battlefront by Austrian Hermann Wagenbichler who writes on Yugoslavia and the differing conceptions of a nation that dominate thinking in Eastern versus Western Europe. He discusses Johann Gottfried Herder's concept of a nation, which holds sway in the eastern sections, and which helps explain many of the difficulties in the Balkans.

Our Australian correspondent Denis McCormack then looks at the overrunning of Tibet by the Han Chinese and gives us the dalai lama's views on the conditions necessary for Tibetan cultural survival. They do not include breaking down boundaries between the cultural descendants of Buddha and Confucius.

In a piece from a surprising source, English corporate takeover artist Sir James Goldsmith argues that 'it is the common culture, identity and traditions which create a nation's heritage and constitute a vital pillar of its stability.' He argues against open immigration, against the deracination of Europe's farmers by GATT-type trade agreements, denigrates the GNP as a measure of economic success and, mirabile dictu, states that economic considerations don't automatically trump all others!

Much of this debate is about definitions, and definitions of abstract words. One such word that sees a lot of service these days is 'multiculturalism.' Is the coinage 'multicultural nation' an oxymoron, as the earlier essayists seem to imply? Professor Friedrich Heckmann helps us out with definitions of seven different ways this smooth sounding word is used.

Finally, in view of the dictum that language is the carrier of culture, we close out this feature on how a nation differs from a state with a Georgie Anne Geyer column on the meaning for our country of the repeal of the Dade County (Florida) Official English ordinance.

While it's relegated to the book review section, we'd like to call your attention to the note on Polyethnicity and National Unity in World History, by Professor William McNeill of the University of Chicago. He asserts that the relative homogeneity of the nation-states of northern and western Europe from 1750-1920 was an aberration from the usual pattern of polyethnicity, to which the world is now returning.

Two other observations on our topic As recently as a year ago, this discussion would have been beyond the bounds of propriety. We had reached the 'end of history,' according to Francis Fukiyama in a book with that title - everyone was going to get along, and embrace liberal social democracy. But world events have caught up with this premature diagnosis. What it takes to get along within and between nations is very much on our collective mind.

Secondly, immigration policy mistakes can be big mistakes - and often virtually permanent ones. For the United States, that means deciding not whether diversity is good, but how much, what kind, where it moves over into division, and if it is wise to add further to our diversity through immigration.

We hope this issue of The Social Contract will give you food for thought on what it takes to make a functional political unit on the national level, and what policies are needed to maintain civility - or regain it, depending on your assessment of our situation.

John H. Tanton

Editor and Publisher

About the author

John Tanton is Editor and Publisher of The Social Contract and founder of FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform. His personal website is www.JohnTanton.org.