Monday, December 04, 2006

Chaos High and Low


People identify themselves according to subnational groupings—their tribe—for varying reasons, but safety against other tribes would seem to be the most prominent reason. Growing up at the tail end of the Cold War, I was used to seeing tribes suppressed or subsumed by nation-states and national identities.

Today, though, tribes continue to reemerge from beneath their nation-states. I interpret this trend as being due to either extremely low or extremely high individual security.

At the low end of the security spectrum is Iraq, where the idea of national identity has already fallen through the joke stage and is now discussed primarily among the Western journalists and diplomats posted there. Tribes have reemerged because of an immediate need for physical protection against others, which nowadays means other tribes. Economic security is also extremely tenuous thanks to high unemployment.

At the high end of the security spectrum is Spain, a peaceful, increasingly prosperous European Union member where you’d think national identity would be strong. But as “Fighting Words in Spain” points out, sub-national actors like Andalusians, Basques and Catalonians increasingly threaten to declare nationhood:

Like the Basque Country before it, and perhaps Andalusia after it, Catalonia — one of Spain's 17 state-like autonomous regions — is establishing a separate cultural identity. The move is praised in some quarters as a long-overdue liberation from decades of repression, and attacked elsewhere as local nationalism run amok.

Critics warn ominously of a disintegration of the nation. Spain, they moan, is fast becoming a Tower of Babel. Loyalty to Madrid is weakened; diversity has gone too far.

Unlike Iraq, Spain offers few immediate personal threats beyond the occasional mugging in Madrid, and relatively high economic security thanks to long-term economic growth and a sophisticated public-welfare system. But this wealth and security, pushed along by Spain’s membership in the EU, only hasten Spain’s national erosion; Spaniards are free to pursue intellectual hobbies like the idea of being Basque.

In the phenomenally diverse U.S., however, there is a relatively strong national identity because of a dynamic tension between safety and threat.

Physical and economic security are both markedly lower than in Spain, with higher risks of violent and nonviolent crime and a need to hustle in pursuit of bigger paychecks. The situation is many times better than in Iraq, though, keeping calls for tribalism—even among minorities like African Americans and Arab Americans, who have reason enough to band together tribally—relatively muted.

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