An Age of Nationalism & An Age of Ideology

An Age of Nationalism & An Age of Ideology

In The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker presents an idea from Historian Evan Luard which frames the conflicts of the early 20th century against the conflicts which followed. Luard argues that the world transitioned from an Age of Nationalism to an Age of Ideology following the United States engagement in WWI.

Pinker writes, “Luard ends his Age of Nationalism in 1917. That was the year the United States entered the war and rebranded it as a struggle of democracy against autocracy, and in which the Russian Revolution created the first communist state. The world then entered the Age of Ideology, in which democracy and communism fought Nazism in World War II and each other during the Cold War.”

This is a helpful, broad overview of recent human history and the two major wars that still play major roles in our collective memories. However, it isn’t a perfect explanation and framework for understanding our history. While it is possible that humanity moved in a direction of ideology relative to a framework dominated by nationalism, it leaves us with an incomplete picture that is too final in its treatment of nationalism and too strong in its treatment of ideology.

Nazism was centered around the idea of an ethno-nationalist state. It is hard to argue that it was not a continuation of nationalism and was more focused on ideology. Democracy was (and still is) highly tied to specific nations, as was (and is) communism. The ideologies may have been the leading banners, but the nation states were still the leading actors. Ideology is a broad concept, and when you dig below the surface, few people truly have a consistent or well pieced together ideology. Even for large ideologies like democracy or communism – relative to fascism which I would argue acts more as a catchall term for bad governance – people have trouble truly defining what ideologies mean and represent. People tend to have strong identities and weak ideologies.

Nevertheless, we can see that there was a change between the first and second world wars, a change that took place in the later half of the 20th century as Pinker notes based on Luard’s writing. In the case of the 20th century, I would argue it was not a change from nationalism to ideology, but a change in what were the most salient aspects of nationalism. Humans shifted from conceptualizing a nation based on loyalty leadership and familial bloodlines to conceptualizing a nation based on collective efforts of governance.

Characterizing the world in terms of broad ages will necessarily miss nuances like the ones I tried to tease apart here, but they help us see that what applied in the past may need to be adjusted before being reapplied to the present or future. That is the case with viewing history as an Age of Nationalism transitioning to an Age of Ideology.

Challenging Beliefs

Challenging Beliefs

In the book The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker argues that tying our beliefs to empirical data and information makes us less violent. When our beliefs are verifiable or falsifiable by clear, measurable, and independent facts and information we can be more secure and better justified in holding our beliefs. When our beliefs are not tied to empirical data, they are tied to some aspect of our identity, and as Pinker writes, “a broad danger of unverifiable beliefs is the temptation to defend them by violent means.”
 
 
Whether it is religious beliefs, public policy beliefs, or even just beliefs tied to personal tastes, unsupported and unverifiable beliefs become dangerous. Pinker describes why by writing, “people become wedded to their beliefs, because the validity of those beliefs reflects on their competence, commends them as authorities, and rationalizes their mandate to lead. Challenge a person’s beliefs, and you challenge his dignity, standing, and power.”
 
 
When you challenge someone’s beliefs, you are challenging more than just the veracity of those beliefs. You challenge the individual’s identity, intelligence, and a whole set of factors that contribute to the individual’s overall social status. Challenging something core to their identity and their status puts them in a defensive position. If the thing you are challenging is not based on anything tangible, such as unverifiable beliefs that one holds based on faith or pure desire, then there is no way for the individual to back down. Violence is often the result of such challenges.
 
 
Moving to a point where fewer of our beliefs are unverifiable can therefore help make us less violent. If we make efforts to only stick to beliefs that can be demonstrated to be accurate empirically, then we change our identity and how people understand us. We no longer cling to unverifiable beliefs as part of our identity and can update our beliefs as facts and information change. We have an easier to access non-violent avenue to updating beliefs. It is hard to always know what is true and what is not, but basing our beliefs on evidence helps us hold better positions that we can defend without resorting to violence.
Imperialism's Influence as Humanity Shifted Away from Ethnic Exclusionism

Imperialism’s Influence as Humanity Shifted Away from Ethnic Exclusionism

I have written a lot about our tendency to view the world through a lens of in-groups and out-groups. We look for people who are like us and form coalitions and groups with those individuals. We exclude those who are not like us. The inclusion and exclusion factors can be skin color, cultural customs, languages, favorite sports teams, and other trivial factors. In the United States, this in-group and out-group sorting has often resulted in segregated neighborhoods and schools, was present at the founding of the nation with slavery enmeshed in the cultural and economic practices of the time, and can still be seen in the hiring practices of many modern companies and organizations. With at least one area of in-group versus out-group sorting, however, humanity generally seems to be moving in a direction to be less accepting. Sorting by ethnicity is becoming more taboo and less tolerated in politics and workplaces.
 
 
This shift away from ethnic exclusionism truly began with large scale religions that saw all people as children of a deity. When all people could be brought under the same religious tent, there was a reason to break down some of the in-group and out-group barriers between people of different ethnic backgrounds.  People could be proselytized, expanding who was part of the in-group, at least from a religious perspective.
 
 
Imperialism also played a role in shifting humanity away from ethnic exclusionism. Once people could potentially be brought under the same religious tent it was not too far of a jump to believe that people could be brought under the same political tent. Imperialism certainly wasn’t perfect and had innumerable downstream consequences, but can be seen as a stepping stone along a pathway of reduced ethnic exclusionism. Yuval Noah Harari points out the marginally inclusive nature of imperialism in his book Sapiens:
 
 
“Imperial ideology … has tended to be inclusive and all-encompassing. Even though it has often emphasized racial and cultural differences between rulers and ruled, it has still recognized the basic unity of the entire world, the existence of a single set of principles governing all places and times, and the mutual responsibilities of all human beings.”
 
 
Imperialism came with an inherent first class and second class citizenship framing, but it did bring people under the same political banner. Rather than seeing others as barbarians who could only be conquered or eliminated as the dominant group spread, imperialism recognized a value and a shared (if unequal) sense of humanity between people.
 
 
I hope that our world can continue to eliminate ethnic exclusionism. I don’t know if doing so means we simply become more tolerant of differences or if it means that differences disappear as more cultures merge and unify, but I hope that humanity moves in a direction where all humans are seen as connected and part of a grand human experiment. Religions brought people under the same religious tents, imperialism brought people under the same political tent, and I hope we can continue to push toward bringing people under the same tent that values the humanity of everyone. 
In-Groups, Out-Groups, and Responsibility

In-Groups, Out-Groups, & Responsibility

There is evidence to suggest that in the Untied States our culture is becoming more individualistic and less collective. This has interesting impacts for how we see and think about our responsibility toward each other. A more individualistic society may say that the best way for us to be responsible for the good of society is to be the best that we can possibly be. We are responsible for how healthy we eat, responsible for how much we contribute to economic productivity, and responsible for how good of a role model we are for young people. A more collective society may think that we are more responsible for whether other people are able to eat healthily, whether others are able to find productive employment, and whether there are sufficient activities for young people to participate in to be around good role models.
 
 
This contrast is interesting because it highlights a distinction between who we are responsible for. In the most extreme of individualistic cultures we may not be responsible for anyone other than ourselves, not even for our family members. In the most extreme collective cultures, we may be responsible for the wellbeing of the entire universe.
 
 
In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that in reality most human cultures generally end up in some place of feeling responsibility for themselves and for an in-group to which the individual belongs. He writes, “evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, we and they. We are people like you and me, who share our language, religion, and customs. We are all responsible for each other, but not responsible for them.” The argument is that evolution would not support the most individualistic society, because the single individual would not be able to pass on their genes as well as an individual supported by a strong tribe with social responsibilities among the in-group. Simultaneously, a group that was too collective in responsibility would be spread too thin to foster evolutionary advantages in terms of who felt responsible to support others.
 
 
But there is still a lot of flexibility in terms of how this personal versus group responsibility manifests. Humans seem to discern between people like them who they feel responsible for and people dissimilar to themselves who they do not feel responsible for. It is interesting how in the United States we are becoming more individualistic, seeing ourselves first as responsible for our individual self and less responsible for the collective while the world becomes more globalized and dependent on everyone – as our current supply chain issues demonstrates. Somehow, it seems, the challenge for us is to expand the scope of who we are viewed as being responsible for while maintaining a reason to still be responsible for ourselves as individuals. Perhaps this isn’t possible, perhaps it simply layers more responsibility over the individual, but as we continue to globalize and become more globally dependent on each other, we have to find a way to understand that we are responsible for others, even if evolution appears to have made us xenophobic and hasn’t given us a sense of responsibility for people who seem different from us.
Crass Art

Crass Art

Tyler Cowen recently interviewed Dana Gioia for his podcast, Conversations with Tyler. Gioia is a noted poet and writer and was once the Poet Laureate for California. In the podcast, Cowen asked Gioia an interesting question and received a response from Gioia that I can’t stop thinking about:
“Cowen: Is rap music simply the new poetry? It’s very popular. It is poetic in some broader notion of the term.
GIOIA: Rap, hip hop without any question is poetry. It is rhythmically structured words moving through time. … if I go back to 1975 when I was leaving Harvard, I was told by the world experts in poetry that rhyme and meter were dead, narrative was dead in poetry. Poetry would become ever more complex, which meant that it could only appeal to an elite audience … what the intellectuals in the United States did was we took poetry away from common people.
We took rhyme away, we took narrative away, we took the ballad away, and the common people reinvented it.
This passage is fascinating because it looks at rap music, something that is often hated for its misogyny, drug/sex culture, and general shallowness and appreciates it as a true art form. Gioia’s answer takes our distinction between high culture and low culture, what we consider fine art and crass art, and turns it upside down. Gioia says that poetry was deemed too complex for simple people and that it was taken away from them, only to be reinvented in pop culture through rap music.
Since listening to this podcast I have thought a lot about popular culture and high culture. I always feel a temptation to engage with fine art and to look down my nose at what we generally consider crass art, but at the same time I often find a great pull and fondness toward that crass art. I enjoy Marvel movies, I find myself reflected in the characters of the Harry Potter books, and when I workout I like to listen to rap music or even trendy K-Pop with nonsensical and often ironic lyrics.
What Gioia noted about rap music, and what I have felt with regard to popular mega-IPs and trendy music, has been seen with different artforms and media in human history. In the 1920’s, writes Michael Tisserand in his biography of cartoonist George Herriman Krazy, comics were already seen as crass art. However, a quote from Gilbert Seldes’ book The 7 Lively Arts that Tisserand includes in the biography defends comics in much the same way that Gioia defends rap music. To quote Seldes Tisserand writes, “Reading a comic, Seldes noted, is seen as a symptom of crass vulgarity, dullness, and, for all I know, of defeated an inhibited lives.”
In the 1920’s, when Seldes wrote his art review, comics were already seen as crass art. Their value was misunderstood, and the people who read them were seen as failures. Yet, looking back at comics and pop art from the time tells us something important about the era and the people. We enjoy seeing commonalities between ourselves a century later and the art, worries, thoughts, and ambitions represented in popular culture. We can understand a lot by looking at what was derided as crass art.
When we think about popular culture today, we shouldn’t simply scoff at it as crass art. There are forces the drive the popularity of certain forms of music, cinema, art, television, and media. Understanding what those forces are, recognizing what values, challenges, and life views are present in those forms of art can tell us a lot about who we are. Rather than simply dismissing popular culture as crass art, we should strive to be like Seldes and Gioia who work to understand that art and see its value and merit, even if it appears simple, vulgar, and ephemeral. We don’t have to like it and spend all of our time with it, but we should not simply dismiss it and the people who engage with it.
George Herriman and the Complexities of Racial Identity

George Herriman and the Complexities of Racial Identity

Race is a social construct. Genetic studies reveal how misplaced ideas of racial differences truly are. Individuals on the African continent sometimes have more genetic differences than individuals across continents, yet race throughout human history has been used, at a genetic level, to explain the differences between people, and in the worst of  times, to justify discrimination and biases. However, even though race is more of a social construct than a biological fact, humans still identify differences in appearance, customs, behaviors, and psychologies and treat individuals differently based on how they are perceived.
The book Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White demonstrates the power of this discriminatory way of identifying people, and how complex racial identities can be when we insist race is more than a social construct and use it to define people. Michael Tisserand, the book’s author, explains that Herriman existed at an intersection of white and black, and that he was able to pass as white to enter a professional world that excluded blacks. Doing so, however, meant that he had to abandon other identities, including those of his mixed Creole and black family from New Orleans.
In a sentence that demonstrates just how complex racial identification can be, Tisserand writes the following, “when questioned as part of court proceedings if he was colored, George Herriman Sr.’s {Herriman’s grandfather] brother in law, Charles Sauvinet, replied, when I go among strangers I am received as a gentleman. He added I never inquire whether I was received as a white or colored man.” Herriman’s family displayed ambiguous racial characteristics for several generations, and much of their racial identity was dependent more on how other people treated them than on how they chose to identify. Race was not within their own control and varied from place to place and situation to situation.
The implication in Charles Sauvinet’s response is that he was received as a white man, that people identified him and treated him as a white gentleman. His non-answer was effectively a way of saying he was white while simultaneously acknowledging that white did not capture the full complexity of his racial background. His identity, the race assigned to him, and whether he was considered a valuable and worthy gentleman or something less than was not dependent on his own personal qualities, but on how other people perceived his race. These ambiguous edge cases are helpful in exploring the role and power of race in the United States. The racial state of America today is improved over the days of Charles Sauvinet and George Herriman, but discrimination and racial bias still exists, and still fails to address the realities of people’s lived experiences and racial backgrounds, even if race is nothing more than a social construct.
Racial Passing

Racial Passing

The idea of passing is fairly common in the United States. A common American refrain is fake it till you make it, an idea that you can pretend to be something until you become that thing in reality. For white people in the United States this is a common strategy, especially among young or entrepreneurially ambitious individuals. In my own life, I have been guilty of passing to try to fit in with the cool kids in high school, as passing for someone who knows more than they do to try to get a job, and of passing to try to impress elders with deep knowledge when I only have surface deep knowledge. However, this kind of passing is different than racial passing, a type of passing that many people in the United States have turned to in order to get by. I was using passing to try to hide weaknesses and to try to impress others in an effort to improve my social status. I was not passing to try to avoid discrimination and prejudice.
Racial passing includes elements of trying to improve ones social, economic, and political status as I was trying to do, but not in the same fake it till you make it way. I was trying to work my way into social groups and jobs that I was mostly qualified for, but for which I might have some weaknesses. Racial passing is not about hiding weaknesses or being unskilled, it is about hiding ones racial background to prevent others from discriminating against you for no reason other than your skin color. Throughout American history, racial passing has also been a way to avoid violence against oneself and to preserve ones life, very different from any passing experiences I have had.
The book Krazy by Michael Tisserand is a biography of cartoonist George Herriman who spent most of his life in a state of racial passing, hiding his family heritage from everyone he knew. In the book he writes about Herriman’s passing in the following paragraph:
“Racial passing was – and remains – a controversial practice. Only a select number of blacks had the opportunity to pass. Although there are no existing photographs of George and Clara Herriman [George Herriman the cartoonist’s parents], photos of George Joseph Herriman reveal a shade of skin and general physical characteristics that might, to some eyes, render him racially ambiguous. Members of the Herriman family, it appears, were what some Creoles called nations able to present themselves in many different lights.” 
Herriman’s family tree included Creole, black, and white people from New Orleans in the decades before the Civil War. This unique racial background created the ambiguous racial appearance of George Herriman, allowing him to engage in racial passing.
Without being able to pass as white, Herriman would not have been able to get a job at a nation-wide newspaper and would not have had a nation-wide circulation for his comics. His art and skills were fantastic, but never would have been possible if he had not been able to hide his family background and pass as white. He found a lot of success as a cartoon artist and newspaper illustrator, allowing him to buy a home in a good neighborhood in Los Angeles. If he appeared more black or Creole he would not have been able to attain the same level of career success, would not have been able to buy a home and begin building wealth to pass along to his children, and might have been at risk of violence in an unlucky police encounter. This has been the cost of not being able to pass for many people throughout American history. On one hand for those who do pass, they risk alienation from their family and friends who cannot pass, having to hide their association with anyone who was not white out of fear of discovery. On the other hand, passing opened up a world free from discrimination and full of career, wealth, and general life possibilities. Passing has been much more than just trying to impress people to get ahead or be popular, it has been about living a life that would not be possible if one was identified differently based on their skin color.
Affect Heuristics

Affect Heuristics

I studied public policy at the University of Nevada, Reno, and one of the things I had to accept early on in my studies was that humans are not as rational as we like to believe. We tell ourselves that we are making objective and unbiased judgments about the world to reach the conclusions we find. We tell ourselves that we are listening to smart people who truly understand the issues, policies, and technicalities of policies and science, but studies of voting, of policy preference, and of individual knowledge show that this is not the case.

 

We are nearing November and in the United States we will be voting for president and other elected officials. Few of us will spend much time investigating the candidates on the ballot in a thorough and rigorous way. Few of us will seek out in-depth and nuanced information about the policies our political leaders support or about referendum questions on the ballot.  But many of us, perhaps the vast majority of us, will have strong views on policies ranging from tech company monopolies, to tariffs, and to public health measures. We will reach unshakable conclusions and find a few snippets of facts to support our views. But this doesn’t mean that we will truly understand any of the issues in a deep and complex manner.

 

Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow helps us understand what is happening with our voting, and reveals what I didn’t want to believe, but what I was confronted with over and over through academic studies. He writes, “The dominance of conclusions over arguments is most pronounced where emotions are involved. The psychologist Paul Slovic has proposed an affect heuristic in which people let their likes and dislikes determine their beliefs about the world.”

 

Very few of us have a deep understating of economics, international relations, or public health, but we are good at recognizing what is in our immediate self-interest and who represents the identities that are core to who we are. We know that having someone who reflects our identities and praises those identities will help improve the social standing of our group, and ultimately improve our own social status. By recognizing who our leader is and what is in our individual self-interest to support, we can learn which policy beliefs we should adopt. We look to our leaders, learn what they believe and support, and follow their lead. We memorize a few basic facts, and use that as justification for the beliefs we hold, rather than admit that our beliefs simply follow our emotional desire to align with a leader that we believe will boost our social standing.

 

It is this affect heuristic that drives much of our political decision making. It helps explain how we can support some policies which don’t seem to immediately benefit us, by looking at the larger group we want to be a part of and trying to increase the social standing of that group, even at a personal cost. The affect heuristic shows that we want a conclusion to be true, because we would benefit from it, and we use motivated reasoning to adopt beliefs that conveniently support our self-interest. There doesn’t need to be any truth to the beliefs, they just need to satisfy our emotional valance and give us a shortcut to making decisions on complex topics.
Crowds Change Who We Are

Crowds Change Who We Are

When writing about being in crowds, Seneca states, “I never bring back home the same character that I took abroad with me.” He is writing about the ways that crowds change us. They change our behavior, they can stir-up emotions we work to keep at bay, and they can drive us to think in new ways. Crowds change who we are in a way that seems to be beyond our control.

 

“Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.” 

 

I remember first seriously thinking about crowds and our reactions to them during a psychology class in my undergraduate degree. We talked about people who don’t call the police when they see an act of violence, illegal activity, or someone in an emergency medical situation when they are in a crowd. When we are not clearly the person responsible for calling first responders, we seem to think that someone else will. If you do rush in to help, one of the best things you can do is point directly at another person and say, “you, call 9-1-1.”

 

In addition to this form of paralysis, crowds also change who we are by inciting great energy and action within us. Certainly on our own most of us would not throw something at a statue, even if the statue commemorated a deplorable figure from the past. We might see the statue and loath what it represents, but on our own, we are not likely to do anything about it. In a large crowd, however, our anger and energy seems to be released more easily, and whether it is chanting something we wouldn’t say on our own or tearing down a statue, we seem to be capable of things we normally couldn’t bring ourselves to do.

 

There are a lot of directions to go with the reality that we are not ourselves (or maybe more accurately the same version of ourselves) when we are within crowds. What I would like to consider is how this knowledge should shape the way we think about ourselves. Introspection and self-awareness is important, and part of that is an awareness that we are not exactly the people we tell ourselves we are. We can come to understand ourselves as being someone or some type of person in most of the settings in which we find ourselves, but crowds and unique circumstances can reveal that we are also other people. We are not a static entity that is consistent across space and time. We change in response to other people, in response to activities, and in response to success or threat. Strive to be the best version of who you can be, but remember, who you think you are is a myth, and the fact that crowds change who we are reveals that we don’t have the control over ourselves and our stories in the way that we like to believe we do. We can turn this recognition onto others as well, and see them as not a single static entity, but someone who can be influenced by forces beyond their control, and who can change for better or worse depending on the circumstances we (or society or life) put them in.

Problem Solving Locally

“As politics has become nationalized, problem solving has become localized,” write Jeremy Nowak and Bruce Katz in The New Localism. National politics is all about identity. It is all about the question of whether people like me are favored and socially rewarded on a nationwide scale. People like me might be men, intellectuals, Ford truck drivers, snowboarders, retail workers, stockbrokers, veterans, or evangelicals (note: I am not all of these things). We constantly have debates and shift our discussion of what identities are valuable and best reflect the America we desire to be, and at a national level, there is no real answer to these questions. Political decisions and policies become tied up in these identity questions, and it is hard to avoid having an opinion or becoming consumed with the values questions that these identity debates spark.

 

Meanwhile, daily life continues and human societies rely on systems and structures to guide our interactions and facilitate a peaceful flourishing for all individuals (ideally but maybe not what we always see). We rely on government to avoid tragedies of our commons, to ensure the products we use and depend on for our ways of life are safe, and to protect our individual and group rights from being infringed by others.

 

Problems will always exist in the organization and interaction of human beings, and when our national government is subsumed by questions of identity and debates that can never be fully settled, solving the daily challenges of human existence moves downward toward the locality where life is actually lived. Our states, our metropolitan areas, and especially our individual communities are the places where we can make changes and improve our situation.

 

These localities are innovating and connecting with new groups in unique ways. The interactions between private businesses, charitable foundations, and public agencies are being reinvented based on local situations and opportunities to drive forward new solutions to wicked problems. Challenges that cannot be introduced on a national level, where issues of identity fracture alliances and coordinated effort, are evaded at the local level where we all have a stake and a greater voice in addressing the challenges we face. Communities can produce a groundswell of support for innovative approaches to challenges new and old, and can dynamically adapt by creating new connections and structures between the stakeholders and organizations with the power to enact change. This is one way which governance can adapt in the future, and one way that we can overcome division to continue to make the world a more cohesive and better place.