“Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
living life in peace…” from “Imagine” by John Lennon
Everyone knows that there are limits on free speech in the US besides yelling “FIRE” in a crowded theater. Leftists in the US should know from their history that exercising too much of it can be dangerous. (Ask MLK, Fred Hampton, Sacco and Vanzetti, Mike Eakin.) We may have chanted “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” in the 60’s, but that had serious consequences. (Cointelpro. None of us will ever have a security clearance.) Today, if you stood on a busy corner with a banner praising Osama Bin Laden and defending Al Qaeda, you’d be attacked by your fellow citizens, then arrested for having provoked assault followed by court ordered psychiatric examinations unless you had the excuse of being Muslim.
Limits on free speech principally revolve around two specific sacrosanct concepts: nationalism and Western sky-god religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism.) It’s now acceptable to be a Leninist, but not a Lennonist, i.e., you can join a vanguard communist party and be ignored, but don’t even think about imagining there is no country.
Being an atheist is grudgingly tolerated, although it effectively isolates one from mainstream Americana, an added benefit. A publicly atheist candidate couldn’t seriously run for office anywhere except in a few intellectual enclaves. Going a step further to openly denounce any or all of these religions would invite serious repercussions including problems with the “justice” system. In much of Europe, it’s illegal to be anti-Semitic, question the official version of the Holocaust or even be “blasphemous.” In much of the Muslim world, it’s a serious crime to convert to Christianity. Christians keep mounting Crusades to the Middle East that result in massive Muslim casualties, having transcended for the time-being their tendency to gas Jews and bomb Asians. Israel institutes an exclusionary anti-Muslim ideology as the state religion. Then these various sectarians want to involve everyone else in their testosterone-fueled internecine struggles. You can’t just step aside and hope the rapture takes them all away. And if you call them all a bunch of preposterous superstitious fanatics, watch your back – and your front.
The recent “cartoon riots” throughout the Muslim world to protest a drawing depicting Mohammed illustrate the point. Even secular Europe was apologetic for having broken some Muslim rule against “idolatry.” Why isn’t one allowed to assert the absolute right to ridicule stupid superstitions and flaunt silly religious prohibitions? Doing so would likely result in arrest for having committed a hate crime. Does this mean I have to stop asking Mormons to see their sacred underwear? Where does it say that one must respect these religions or at least shut up and certainly not say disparaging things about them publicly?
Still, being an atheist is at least an established concept. There is a word for it. Some concepts don’t have words in English. We know misogyny, but what do you call a women who hates men? Probably justified? Though they may disapprove, at least people have heard of atheism. Who’s ever heard of a pan-nationalist or an anti-nationalist or has a good idea what that might mean?
If one shakes off the mantle of nationality, the consequent personal changes are at least equally profound and disorienting as losing faith in a previously held religion, and the hostile reactions from ex-fellow citizens are much more likely. A universally accepted central reference point is removed. All analysis and understanding within a national context becomes an obviously one-sided distortion. Questions of “national interest” become largely irrelevant, if not disreputable to the Earth citizen. You become increasingly aware and disturbed that all information inputs come packaged in this nationalized context. To allow yourself to fall under the sway of the contrarian Lennonism, however, makes you a round peg in a square world.
You aren’t allowed to opt out of the nationalist bag. If you throw away your passport, where is one to get the document that they demand whenever you cross the lines on the ground they’ve drawn to help control us? Nationalist consciousness rules unquestioned despite it being largely an advanced form of primeval tribalism, an arcane macho ideology that cost humanity at least 100 million premature deaths in the 20th century and threatens to break that record in the 21st. If we didn’t have it, there would be a lot less “to kill and die for.” If human society is to ever to end warfare, it is certain that nationality will have to be transcended by allegiance to a concept of law and justice sustained by a powerful pan-national authority.
In the long run, nationalism is a flash in the pan. People didn’t even use passports until less than 100 years ago, and “globalism” (theirs, not ours) is restoring mobility of capital, goods, and even labor (in spite of an occasional populist backlash). The Empire wants provinces, not nations, especially since in the 20th century those pesky social democrats had some success in using nationalist feeling to get commie ideas like UK’s National Health Service or the US’s Social Security adopted. Not to mention labor unions.
So nationalism is a two-edged sword. Much of the political difficulty of the left is that the constituencies for which they have been the champions are in the process of making a transition from “(mild) socialism in one country” to internationalism. This is easier for the ruling classes, since rulers have more in common with each other than different cultures do, especially cultures with very different levels of typical wealth. What is needed is a soft landing for this transition, which is why so much current leftist activity is in the intercultural NGOs that are prototypes of world cultural institutions. And in the art/music/film/poems/stories that actually are world cultural institutions.
Internationalism will not prevail until it becomes clear that neither nationalism nor imperialism can deliver the goods. The tribal wiring that makes us vulnerable to us-vs-them rhetoric, especially in hard times, will no doubt still win many battles. But these are Phyrric victories — Bush is leaving the American Empire much weaker than Clinton handed it over, the WTO is shifting from being the US’s enforcer to a nascent (very flawed) world government, and US anti-gay laws have gone from being unquestioned to being an embarrassment.
My hope is that creeping multiculturalism (and the rationalism it nurtures) will evade all attempts to sweep back the tide. I’ll carry a few buckets where I can. But we should also be looking ahead to the emerging challenges as well, since many of us may live to see the day when being American is about as relevant as being Texan. Europe is already well down that path.