David Thompson


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February 24, 2008



"Until a few decades ago, the basis of national ‘specialness’ would have been ethnicity - shared ancestry, history, sacrifice. In multi-ethnic and multiracial societies, the basis of specialness is citizenship itself."

How did we get so quickly from what is allegedly a reasonable grounds for "discrimination" (in a neutral sense), to something as arbitrary as mere citizenship? I mean, if citizenship is not based on "shared ancestry, history, sacrifice", then what *is* it based on?

The following paragraph is even more confusing:

"The justification for giving priority to the interests of fellow citizens boils down to a pragmatic claim about the value of the nation-state. Without fellow-citizen favouritism, the nation-state ceases to have much meaning. "

I don't see that. No matter how much I value nation-states, that by itself gives me no reason to value *my* nation-state above others.

"And most of the things that liberals desire - democracy, redistribution, welfare states, human rights - only work when one can assume the shared norms and solidarities of national communities."

Well, exactly. Shared norms and solidarities among national communities, I presume. Which, again, gives me no reason to favor one nation-state over many others: if they all share my values equally, then why give special place to the one I happened to be born into by sheer coincidence?

R. Sherman

It seems difficult for nation states which were founded upon the basis of tribal or ethnic affiliation to become multi-ethnic absent a philosophical basis for that shift. Without wrapping myself in the flag too much, and acknowledging the numerous imperfections in execution, etc., the U.S. was founded on an idea, towit, "All men are created equal" with certain God-given rights that cannot be abridged by the state: Life, Freedom, pursuit of happiness.

For the tribal-based states, it is difficult to articulate such a philosophy; for the U.S., we struggle against a desire to abrogate the philosophy in order to return to tribalism.



R. Sherman,

"All men are created equal" is a great philosophy. It's also not an American-only philosophy. If you admire it so much, shouldn't you wrap yourself in the flags of all the countries who share this value? Why single out one of them?

R. Sherman

Tea, my purpose was not to single out the U.S. other than to mention that at the outset, it was the philosophy upon which we were founded, as opposed to others which from their inception were based upon tribal, ethnic or linguistic similarities among individuals residing in a particular geographic area. Indeed, much of that philosophy, freedom from governmental interference had its origins in Britain. Think Magna Carta and all that. It is such a philosophy which stands as both a weapon to destroy tribalism and as a shield to prevent a return to same, with all of its destructive tendencies.




“…if they all share my values equally, then why give special place to the one I happened to be born into by sheer coincidence?”

I suppose the idea is, or was, that newcomers would soon come to identify with what might be called indigenous values, or would be expected to, anyway. Thus, citizenship would denote shared values – say, regarding free speech, gay people, women’s rights, etc - irrespective of a person’s pigmentation or place of origin. This, to me, is how racism is overcome. There would be an understanding of common ground and reciprocation, and colour then becomes less defining. But if multiculturalism is taken as stressing difference and tribal identity politics, and a rejection of assimilation on ideological grounds, then that process of overcoming suspicion and resentment is seriously undercut.


But my point is that I share your values - free speech, gay people, women’s rights - while I don't share your citizenship. On the other hand, I share citizenship with people who don't share these values. So how can citizenship (and thus patriotism) be a value in and of itself?

I don't know... it seems that I'm not making my point clear. The point is not that I don't want to overcome tribal and identity politics, because I do; I just don't think swearing your allegiance to another arbitrary characteristic is the answer. Let's support free speech and women's rights, not American/British/Slovenian "values". First, because the latter are not always *our* values; second, because many other countries share them as well, and there is therefore no reason to identify with only one of these countries.



“So how can citizenship (and thus patriotism) be a value in and of itself?”

Perhaps we’re talking slightly at cross purposes. One of Goodhart’s points, as I understand it, is that citizenship – specifically British citizenship - is in some ways a substitute for what was previously a common ethnicity and history, etc. Without some idea of a territorial boundary and the values shared within it, it becomes harder to win support for certain social policies.

If people feel they live in parallel with entirely alien cultures, they’re less likely to support, say, welfare for people with whom they feel they have little, if anything, in common and with whom they feel no reciprocity. The recent agitation surrounding free speech or Rowan Williams and Sharia for Muslims highlights the tensions that exist. Insofar as an affirmation of national identity helps highlight what people have in common on the same piece of turf, that national identity can be important.

This doesn’t mean those values are *exclusive* to a given country; merely that they are part of that society’s operation and are understood by *all* of its citizens, not just some.


I don't believe this is about such epiphenomena as citizenship, it is more about blood and genes. We are all racists. We would give our lives to save our children. We would give treasure to save a member of our extended family. Beyond that we have no obvious genetic reference than physical appearance, in this case mainly white if you happen to live in Britain.

But there was an evolutionary transition some 50,000 years ago (following the evolutionary bottleneck caused by the Toba VEI8 that nearly wiped us out) with the genesis of language and its derivative - culture. We now align to those who share our values and beliefs, which we can determine from speech. Our sphere of empathy thus increased significantly.

Over the last 50 years, most of us in Britain have suppressed our innate racism, particularly with those who are prepared to become like us - speaking our language, playing our games and doing the decent thing.

Against that is the knowledge that we are only three meals away from anarchy, and with anarchy who knows whether blood or culture will win. History suggests blood. However an alien culture with mainly a different skin colour, that eschews our own to the point of violence, and in some cases even fails to adopt our language is really pushing its luck.


"Given the above, one might wonder how it is much of the left..."

Um, dude? You are the left. Your bio and copy reek of Trotsky. Parroting the anti-Islam narrative does not make you one of us, the right, though it does violate FTC standards if you get material benefit in return without disclosure.

If you have significant and overwhelming proof to the contrary, let's see it. Let's see the posts advocating a rapid and immediate reduction in federal spending and illegal immigrants, for starters, and not just one or two.


Wow. I think I may frame that one.


Already framed.

Look for the package with the wax-crayon writing, you silly Marxist you.



My Marxist leanings must be latent. Still, I quite like the “reek of Trotsky.” As a phrase, I hasten to add.



I was born in the UK and I have a UK passport. As a result, I can vote in UK elections. I cannot vote in Indian or Argentine elections. You seem to think that's some kind of arbitrary injustice. But what would be the point in me voting for a government in Delhi? Its laws do not apply to me, and I don't pay it any taxes.

British elections are a different matter. The British government makes laws which I am supposed to obey, levies taxes which I am supposed to pay, and provides schools and hospitals for me and my family to use. If my fellow UK citizens vote for a government I don't like, I'll still obey its laws and pay it taxes, while campaigning to persuade people to vote differently next time. I can even stand for Parliament and try and get elected if I want.

I can't help feeling there's something nihilistic about your stance. If everyone thought as you they would, presumably, all abstain at election times. But maybe I haven't understood you properly.


Well as an ex-Trotskyist I would say that the reek of Trotsky is roll your own and stale beer. However, times have moved on and cigarettes are out. I imagine, given the Respect coalition that beer is/was becoming a covert pleasure rather than a conspicuous one.


If we accept that families are a "natural" unit of affiliation then we can quickly build a case by extension to encompass the nation.

- My family deserves my loyalty/support whatever more than your family.
- My village deserves my loyalty/support whatever more than your village.
- My nation deserves my loyalty/support whatever more than your nation.

That's not to claim that each level of loyalty is equal. Clearly given the first, the loyalty to village must be lower than that due to the family and that to the nation lower than that due to the village.

So I don't really see the difficulty that Tea has. There's nothing in the above that depends upon race or ethnicity. Just as a family can be extended by adoption, so can a community by immigration. [I would note that family affiliation (beyond the genetic) can be strained or broken by the behaviour of members of the family. Similarly that affiliation can be broken on the other levels.]

I don't see American society as being markedly different. It has certainly articulated a common vision, which has the benefit of allowing any immigrant to become "American". However even if that vision is not articulated, it is still possible to join the community. It is a historical fact that that no nation is ethnically pure.


The killer for Marxism (and thus for any prescriptive ideology or religion), for those who still embrace facts and reason, is Evolution. It worked for John Maynard Smith, who came to realise that these two world views are in direct conflict. (Video from 0:37:21, transcript also available).

"I have become very hostile to the sort of mainstream Marxist attitude toward genetics and evolution and I think it is causing immense confusion to some people whom I greatly admire. For example, Dick Lewontin who is a great biologist I think it's seriously confused on these issues essentially because of this dialectical problem... I've just been reviewing in fact for evolution a collection of essays presented to Dick Lewontin. He richly deserves honor don't get me wrong about that, I greatly admire and like him but this book is permeated with nonsense... essential provoked by Marxism."

For those who are confused by the facile argument that Evolution is "just a theory", I say it is both a fact (it happens) AND a theory (trying to understand how it happens) Wither Lysenko? Wither Communism? Wither New Labour?


I excised a paragraph by mistake.

"I mean, if citizenship is not based on "shared ancestry, history, sacrifice", then what *is* it based on?"

I would suggest that a voluntary community can potentially build up a shared history. Initially the affiliation will be tenuous but over time bonds will form. How much shared history do you need?


From a reader’s comments following the Goodhart piece:

“Does [Goodhart] feel as much pain for the death of an unnamed child in Africa [as] he would for the death of his own son or daughter? If not, then he needs to overcome his xenophobic selfishness.”

The pretension is quite staggering.



I'm not defending nihilism. I'm just questioning the logic behind patriotic sentiments/rationale. Of course I'm going to vote at my elections, protest against religion meddling with the politics of my country, support the legalization of gay marriage, etc. I'm not questioning the *implications* of your citizenship - I'm questioning its *roots*.

Notice how someone who lives in Boston is "as American" as someone from Austin, Texas, as opposed to someone from Montreal, Canada. The latter lives closer to the guy from Boston, their values and life-style have much more in common, they speak the same language - hey, maybe they're even non-so-distant cousins! I'm just pointing out that it's odd for that guy to identify as an American who stands for "American values". This identity is based on a single, arbitrary characteristic he has in common with most other Americans. The really important values he shares with many non-Americans are not a part of this.

I'm not saying a have a better answer to how to organize people of similar political values. I don't actually think it's that bad as it is. I'm just saying that pretending how national identity is built on some solid, meaningful grounds is an illusion.



"Clearly given the first, the loyalty to village must be lower than that due to the family and that to the nation lower than that due to the village."

Clearly? Why clearly? Because it's always been that way? Well, let me tell you something: I'll save the life of my friend who lives across the Atlantic over the life of my alcoholic, abusive uncle any day. I have no loyalty towards the people who are deeply immoral; I have very little loyalty to the people I've never met, even though some of them do happen to live within the borders of this very tiny country. I *do* have loyalty, on the other hand, to people who share my values; people who have shown to be my friends in the past; people I can trust and rely on.


Well I did say "family affiliation (beyond the genetic) can be strained or broken by the behaviour of members of the family". Thus your uncle forfeits the loyalty which you might otherwise owe him. And since you can envisage a hierarchy, where your friend in the US ranks higher than your uncle, I presume your friend ranks higher than an unknown American.

I'm not proposing some kind of absolutist system. I can easily picture scenarios where multiple affiliations occur, perhaps in conflict. I'm merely proposing a simple mechanism to get from the family to the nation. It isn't necessarily sufficient; nations vanish. And I'm not proposing my country, right or wrong.

You state

"I *do* have loyalty, on the other hand, to people who share my values; people who have shown to be my friends in the past; people I can trust and rely on."

Where do you think, statistically speaking, you will find the higher concentrations of people who meet that criteria?


In my family and in my country. So what?
That's also where you will find the highest concentrations of people that I've met personally and have learned to despise.



Nation states are not natural phenomena. They are man-made. But they aren't completely arbitrary. People have to consent to be governed, and where that consent is absent there's a problem. National boundaries get re-drawn until a consensual unit is found. This can sometimes be violent, but not always, thank goodness.

For instance, the English and the Scots have previously felt sufficient community of interest to make common democratic government possible. But that feeling may well be waning, and the two countries may well separate. Ditto Flemish and Walloon Belgium, Anglophone and Francophone Canada etc. The end result of all these fusions and fissions is to arrive at national boundaries in which the governed broadly consent to their governance.

It's possible that one day the USA might break up. It nearly did in the 19th century. The culture of the inland states is very different from the coastal states, and they tend to vote differently at elections. I don't think such a split is imminent. But it's not unthinkable.

On a different note: I don't want to live in a society where everyone agrees with my enlightened politics and shares my taste for BSG. Every day I'm interacting with people who probably disagree with me about - well, almost everything. I think this is a good thing. I don't want to live in an echo chamber. David's point about campus conformism is well taken. Now, if people want to kill me for my opinions that's wrong and I won't stand for it. But I actually want to see more clashes of ideas, not less. I think "sensitivity" and "not giving offense" are being used to shut down debate. Bring it on.

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