Yes, We Are Still A Nation

by Steve Ussery

It is tempting to only talk about real world problems and dismiss topics that are abstractions or theories. After all, does a concept feed a hungry family? Will an ideal alleviate centuries of hate and suffering? Will an intuitive grasp of justice translate into compassion and understanding? No, not directly. The theme for this issue, namely: "Are we a nation?", falls squarely into the category of an abstract question. Most of us have a healthy dislike for abstractions. We would much rather discuss something concrete. That is, something that we can see, hear, feel, or perhaps even taste. We are pragmatists, not idealists. It is much more fun to argue about controversial subjects like social welfare, corporate down-sizing, gun control, environmentalism, abortion, euthanasia, or government policy. Many would argue that the questions such as the one we pose here are merely an exercise in semantics and have no place in the practical body of modern issues. That kind of thinking reveals a unwillingness to look beyond the surface of intractable social problems to the ideological roots on which they are based. That is like learning to read a foreign language without understanding the meaning of the words. How can citizens confront the problems of their nation if they do not first understand the fundamental concept of the nation itself? Before an answer is found to any question, one must first understand the question.

Even if we pass this first obstacle and agree on the importance of the concept of the nation, we face an even larger obstacle. Each of us has a slightly different perspective on exactly what a nation is. This is not a matter of right and wrong. Each person's truth is their own. If we truly attempt to understand what "nation" means to each of us, we can arrive at some kind of broad consensus that we build on. Lacking a personal visit from an all knowing omnipotent deity, we must form opinions about the social realities of the human world based strictly on experience, observation, instinct, and speculation. These are very defective things on which to erect vital social institutions. Nonetheless, it is all that any of us really have. Most of us agree that a nation is more than just a geographical boundary on a map. But how much more? What then is this thing we call a nation; or, more to the point, what is it not?

My own imperfect reasoning tells me that a nation is a kind of implicit agreement among a body of people. Is it not an unconscious understanding to serve and be served by one another? If so, then we are bound to each other within its influence. Whatever this mysterious force is, it allows us to occasionally set aside our own selfish interests and serve the interests of others. In a free society that force is necessarily a weak influence and the ties that bind us to common purpose are very fragile. Perhaps there is more to it then just that. It could be that it is our biological nature to follow some kind of herd instinct and build upon it. Whatever the reasons, a nation is a community of people working cooperatively for the mutual benefit and safety of one another. When that desire to work cooperatively with one another disappears, so too does the nation.

If one was to adopt a pessimistic view of the human world, we might come to the same conclusion as Hobbes and assume that civilized society exists solely to avoid an unending state of war of one against all others. I suspect, though, that it is not that simple. Human beings are much more complex than simple words and ideas can explain. Undoubtedly, fear and desire for personal safety play a role in bonding us into a nation. But it must necessarily be a minor one; otherwise, the lack of fear or a sense of safety once achieved would instantly cause us to stop cooperating with each other. It is more likely that the optimistic vision of human society as advanced by Locke or Rousseau is closer to the truth than the Hobbesian view. It is probable that the primary reason that we give up a portion of our natural liberty and periodically obey others is that we instinctively realize that it is ultimately in our own best interest. We have learned that the combined efforts of many can achieve results far beyond what one person can accomplish on his own. Laws, languages, and social customs exist for no other purpose than to allow us to minimize our differences and work together cooperatively for mutual benefit of all. Since a nation is the package in which the various elements of social cooperation are contained, it is clear that a nation exists for the purpose of uniting our efforts and improving the quality of our lives. If it does not, then it fails in its central task.

Because nations can become very powerful it is easy to fall into the trap of backward thinking. One might falsely assume that we exist to serve the nation and the form of government, social customs, laws, and system of economics of which it is comprised. Exactly the opposite is true. A nation and its essential components exist solely to serve us. But, as in all things, there is a price to pay for this service. We must surrender a portion of our personal liberty to achieve any realistic benefit. Exactly to what degree we are willing to sacrifice our natural freedom to do as we please is not something which can be decided individually but must be decided collectively. Failing in this results in a nation based on anarchy. There are some people who find anarchy acceptable. Fortunately, most do not. At the same time it is obvious that there can never be universal consensus on how much liberty to sacrifice to achieve a functional nation of people. Therein lies the unsolvable dilemma of the two poles of political thinking -- conservatism vs. liberalism. Few, if any, free-thinking people sit at one or the other of these political extremes. Most are stretched almost uniformly in a rainbow spectrum of positions in between. Nor do we always sit at the same place from one day to the next.

The reason for these differences in political objectivity is hidden behind an ultimate truth that few will deny. Each of us is unique and different from all others. Our languages, social customs, and physical appearances mask this fact to some degree, but these superficial factors are like the clothing we wear. They only hide the real person underneath. Even if two people are raised by the same father and mother in the same environment they will frequently see the world around them in an entirely different light. Any stereotypes we attempt to apply to any group of people fly apart with uncountable exceptions. As Montaigne so eloquently put it, "the only thing constant about us is our inconstancy".

As a result of our natural differences, we can never have a perfect union; and, therefore, never a perfect nation. In its finest hour, a government can only be mildly satisfactory because it never conforms to the wishes of all. No collective body of laws and customs meets every individual's needs without exception. No economic system provides for the comfort of everyone under its influence. No form of human language is exactly the same for all who speak it. A nation must be imperfect because we are imperfect; and it is, after all, only a reflection of the common will, hopes, and desires of a people who can never entirely agree on what they want. Still, it would be the height of foolishness to not try for the best we can achieve even under these circumstances. The nation is our collective soul. We must make it as good as we are able with full knowledge that we will always fail to hit the mark of perfection.

A nation is not a cold lifeless static entity, but is a dynamic everchanging living manifestation of our common will. As we change as a people, so our nation changes in proportion. Diversity and dissension are a reality that must not be denied. They exist and must be dealt with in compassion and an attempt to understand. The force of the voice of dissatisfaction is only an attempt to steer the ship of state in a different direction. Do not fear it -- celebrate it even as you disagree.

This does not mean that we should tolerate a viscous minority which attempts to get its way by death, destruction, or malicious force. There is a world of difference between the individual who marches in a picket line and one who places bombs in public buildings. The first is a courageous but possibly misguided person, the other a despicable cowardly villain. Both might be attempting to achieve the same goal but it is their method and not their cause which grants them their status.

Still, it remains that diversity without nominal unity is meaningless. Dissension without dialogue and debate is equally pointless. The tools of change are compromise, tolerance, and patience. Without them there is only endless instability and eventual destruction of the nation. On the other hand, to achieve change there must be a heightened condition of instability and this tests the bonds of society like a ship tests it moorings in a storm. We can only stretch them so far before they break. Understandably, the problems we see in our nation have the effect of unsettling the roots of our unity and thus cause us to fear that we are no longer united as a whole. This is because we are focusing on our differences and ignoring the large body of principles we hold in common. We are looking at our weaknesses and ignoring our strengths. We are no less a nation while we suffer through changes. Change is frightening but necessary. You cannot wish it away no more then the ship can wish away the storm. Our nation is changing because we are changing. Whether that is good or bad, who can say?

Yes, we are still a nation. Perhaps the bonds that tie us to each other are not as strong as they once were. Without a common enemy to unite us in purpose, we are more divided. Considering the alternatives, this is not necessarily a bad thing. We are struggling to find common cause and as long as we struggle we are on the right path. As long as there is dialogue there is hope. As long as there is determination there is a future. The danger lies not in divisiveness but in apathy and cynicism. The question we should be asking ourselves is not: "Are we a nation?"; rather, we should ask: "What kind of nation should we be?". A different one, no doubt, but what kind is up to us to determine. Our nation is whatever we choose as a people to make it. It will cease to exist only when we stop believing in it.

Steve Ussery is a software engineer living in California.