10. National Selves, National Egos
Certain features characterise a nation's individuality. Here are some classic attributes of two neighbouring nations: TGV, garlic, literature, Peugeots, wine, nuclear power, Paris Match, Marseilles and Credit Lyonnais; fish'n'chips, cups of tea, football, islands, Birmingham, pop music, thatched cottages and Land Rovers. From these characterisations of France and Britain, a nation's identity is neatly typified. These attributes just are – together with shops, buses, TV, climate, people, farmers and seaports. They characterise a nation's selfhood, though actually they only allude to it.
Selfhood defines a nation's or a people's functional daily reality. It depends on the extent to which a nation or people feels comfortable with itself. For some nations, such as USA in the 1950s, West Germany in the 1970s-80s or South Korea in the 1980s this sense of selfhood was relatively buoyant. These nations felt in charge of their destinies and on top of things – and most of their ghosts were safely stowed away in the cupboard, covered with a patina of success, hopefully to stay there forever. They didn't, and things change.
For other nations such as Kurds, North Koreans, Tibetans, Guatemalans, Nigerians and Palestinians, national selfhood has in recent times been tenuous, vulnerable and close to shattering or collapse. Their difficult social circumstances have meant that ghosts, fears and worst-case scenarios lurk close to the surface of consciousness, ready to pop out and explode like psychic landmines concealed in the undergrowth of unfolding events.
The problem with selfhood is that, like the proverbial iceberg which shows only part of itself above the ocean surface, there's a lot going on underneath. Most nations suffer from a habit of ignoring what goes on underneath – it's too irksome and uneconomic to spend all one's time worrying about the finer details of national life or the past. A lot rests therefore on a nation's self-image, a well-edited picture of what it is about.
Self-image is constructed out of chosen beliefs. These beliefs are conditioned by past experiences from which they were built up, as a nation assembles its sense of identity – its image of what it is and what it is not. The distance between national self-image and national reality is an indicator of its collective-psychological health.
Self-image affects the way a nation or a people makes decisions – 'in the national interest' – and influences its interactions with other nations in international relations. Some nations kid themselves they are the best in the world, while others feel the world is continually getting at them. Some are on their way up and others on the way down. Newspaper headlines, chosen aspects of history, architecture and landscape, current social frames of mind, states of national feeling, symbolic events, images of future prospects and intentions all affect this self-image.
Frequently national self-image is determined by a ruling establishment which exercises disproportionate influence in its institutions and media. Sometimes that self-image shifts of its own accord, no matter what a ruling order might try to do – in which case tectonic shifts in social values, protest movements or bifurcated social conditions can result.
Ego-identity is embodied in national institutions and acknowledged customs, without which a nation would feel itself naked, vulnerable and lost. Without the Kremlin and St Basil's, strongmen in government and a sense of governmental and military might, Russia feels bereft. Even though the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace is to all intents superfluous and unnecessary, it is so bound into the English ego that large sums are paid to maintain it. They are symbols of what a nation tells itself it is. For better or for worse.
This sense of ego includes 'sacred cows' – peculiar objects of incontestable reverence endowing a sense of security, posterity and distinction. 'Sacred cows' are unassailable, even if obsolete or counterproductive. For the British, the BBC is a sacred cow, while for Germany the Bundesbank held more identificational sway than any German TV station until the Euro came into force. The Dollar or 'Greenback' is so characteristic of American greatness that in a 1990s reissue of $100 bills, the green colour was retained even though it made more sense to change to other colours. The dollar and the 'Fed' (Federal Reserve Bank) represent American confidence, wealth and supremacy, even though the dollar holds no intrinsic value at all. Universities (the Sorbonne, Oxbridge, the Ivy League), and national landmarks (the Eiffel Tower, Washington Monument, Beijing's Imperial Palaces or Cape Town's Table Mountain) act as well-known symbols – although it is what they symbolically represent that gives such symbols their influence and suggestivity.
Armies can be important parts of some nations' identities, sometimes used to project a nation's ego-wishes. Armies are emotionally important to Israel, France, England, China, Switzerland and USA, though they are of lesser importance to Germany, Sweden, Thailand or New Zealand (though all have been warrior nations in the past). Flagship corporations play a part too – Volvo in Sweden, Siemens in Germany, de Beers in South Africa, Sony in Japan or Boeing in USA. They symbolise wanted, successful attributes, making a nation feel proud. If some companies fall from favour or are taken over by foreigners, a nation is somehow slighted.
Some national symbols, though possessing limited functional value, give a sense of historic worth or roots – the Egyptian Pyramids, the Arc de Triomphe, Mount Fuji or the Statue of Liberty – whether or not they symbolise today's actualities. Meanwhile, the pyramids of Xian, far larger and more numerous than those of Egypt, seem to China to be an embarrassment. Growing evidence of pre-Columban traffic over the Atlantic from the Old World to the New is positively taboo in USA – while it gives stronger historical roots to American culture, it also exposes its illegitimate and genocidal treatment of indigenous Americans and appropriation of land as USA as a settler nation found its feet.
To some extent historic symbols cover over a sense of national inadequacy, shallowness or loss. Monarchies, presidencies, football teams, carnivals (such as in Rio), unique places (such as Hollywood, Taj Mahal or Bayreuth), famous towns such as Mecca, Florence, Benares or Kyoto, film stars, famous writers or musicians) or even exports (South African gold or Saudi oil) all qualify as identity-providers for the official culture of the nations concerned. They make a country feel great. They say nothing though about ordinary people or the seedier elements of such countries.
A nation flaunts such visible institutions, and tourists and consumers dutifully buy access to them even though ordinary city streets would give a more real sample of national life. The brothels, slums, backstreets, concrete jungles, prisons, litter, down-and-outs, concealed elites and waste dumps are meanwhile hidden away – they're not supposed to be there. Yet they are there, and sometimes they can prevail strongly on national life when politicians are caught with their trousers down or high-level corruption is uncovered.
However, threats to national symbols (such as international pressures to end Norwegian or Japanese whaling, or Palestinian claims on Israeli-run Jerusalem or public pressure to abandon a nation's nuclear deterrent) bring disproportionately strong negative emotional reactions which can irk geopolitical progress for many years.
A nation's symbols are crutches on which it hangs its pride or neuroses. Though symbols exist as factual, identifiable objects, their power and symbolism derive from irrational associations lying far deeper – associations alluding to heritage, grandeur, freedom or strength.
In the case of Jewish people, both identity and ego are tied into the land of Israel. The notion of a promised land in Palestine has fed their dreams for centuries: this expressed a genuine, understandable human wish and need simply to 'go home'. The prospect of a return to Israel kept Jews alive through centuries of trying times. When in the early 20th century discussions on a Jewish homeland arose, Uganda was rudely suggested as a substitute since Palestine was a politically-complex option, riddled with pitfalls. Chaim Weizmann, a leading Zionist, rejected Uganda. When criticised by Balfour, a prominent English politician, Weizmann said, "Mr Balfour, supposing I were to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it?". Balfour said, "But, Dr Weizmann, we already have London". Weizmann, an able persuader, retorted, "That is true, but we had Jerusalem when London was but a marsh!". True indeed.
Jews eventually returned to Israel and gained full statehood – selfhood as a nation. In their own right, and disregarding the effect this had on others, they deserved it. However, the rigours of history had scarred sections of Jewish society deeply. Gaining national selfhood in 1948, uncompromising and intolerant conservative aspects of the national ego gained influence in Israeli politics. Israel became one of the 20th century's most warlike nations. Israel occupied further territory and literally built a barbed wire fence and concrete wall around itself. The national ego took on an embattled, threatened self-image, and Israelis began acting as aggressors and oppressors in their own right – most unbecoming of their earlier history. This was self-destructive, throwing the health of the nation's individuality and its longterm future into question.
To this day, Jerusalem is revered by people of three faiths and its political sovereignty, disputed by Israelis and Palestinians, remains highly emotive – largely because of events taking place from 1,400 to 4,000 years ago. Highly-charged territoriality on both sides reigns supreme, leading towards either a final conflagration or to a mutual step-down – a choice to trust and to share. Is Jerusalem a city which could be made capital of two nations? This is not a question of individuality – selfhood has space for accommodation and reason – it's a question of national ego.
The past hangs over the present like nuclear fallout. A lasting resolution of the Jerusalem question is not just a rational process (by political negotiation) but an emotional and interfaith challenge, a possibility for two rival nations to give each other exactly what they each want. Until insecure national egos can recognise that, at root, all peoples, cultures and faiths are in essence one and share similar concerns, we are stuck with winners, losers and strife. And current winners can be tomorrow's losers. Not that winning, in the end, is a happier condition than losing.
Ego-identity isn't an accurate description of reality. The British ego wears a pinstripe suit from Bond Street while British selfhood wears everyday clothes from Marks & Spencers. Swiss banks, central to today's Swiss identity, boast stability, reliability and discretion, yet their rules of confidentiality allow the world's rich and shady to conceal and manoeuvre sometimes-dirty funds for exceptionally furtive reasons – here the Swiss image and the Swiss reality are stretched, risking exposure.
The Soviet KGB was effective, global in reach and famous – usually these are qualities to be proud of. Yet it was a shadow-aspect of USSR which harmed it greatly – like the Mafia in Italy, the IRA in Ireland, the Cali cartel in Colombia or the strange collusion of gangsters, arms dealers, drug dealers and the CIA in USA. Yet when any such characteristic, if subterranean, symbols are removed, a nation can suffer a strange identity-loss. Ireland without the IRA? Russia without a secret service? While such shadowy organisations might standardly be judged to be 'a bad thing', they are nevertheless part of national character. This however, illustrates the distinction between national selfhood – its overall daily reality – and its persona – its presented, preferred face.
If we would have a nation abolish a 'bad' part of itself, it would help if we acknowledged that such a part has nevertheless led that nation to the point where it now stands. Unintentionally, Hitler, by his actions, gave post-war Germans a peaceable, non-military identity – which is laudable – though such a result could also have been achieved by other means. However, acknowledging the value of disapproved-of parts of a nation's individuality is healthy if there is to be a genuine healing of national identities. Few British would happily acknowledge that the British empire, on which the sun was claimed never to set, was founded on a basis of piracy, skullduggery, violence, theft and happenstance. Yet this is true, and it forms a key part of British identity.
Criminal outfits such as the Mafia, the Triads and the Chechens play a very significant capital-gathering and trading role in the global economy, funnelling money into it through unaccountable offshore banking and business systems – paradoxically these organised-criminal groups cannot be abolished by a system which has come to need them, even though publicly-announced disapproval regularly occupies the airwaves. This official disapproval becomes a form of cover: the 'war against drugs/terror/crime' gives governments the false appearance of holding the moral high ground.
This exposes an institutionalised conflict between official presentation (ego and persona) and unofficial, unacknowledged reality (subconscious and shadow). Both the cops (the ego) and the robbers (the subconscious) play in the same ballgame, locked into the same co-dependency, and the abolition of one hurts the other. Hollywood and organised crime are inseparable without a fundamental shift of social paradigm, as are government and covert operations, beggar-free streets and crowded prisons, bishops and prostitutes, botanical gardens and sewage farms. If there is to be a clean-up, both sides of the equation must be transformed.
Even such geopolitical demons as Saddam Hussein played a role in the world pantheon of symbols: as a head of state (national ego) he could not legitimately be removed without bringing the position and legitimacy of many other national heads of state into question. Saddam Hussein had cause to be seen as the devil incarnate, though his crimes were worse only by degree than those of other power-holders. As an international demon and monster (a denizen of the world unconscious) he took on entirely different proportions – and Western powers suitably aimed salvos of disapproval at him, having once supported him, while Arabic neighbours embarrassedly shuffled their feet and discreetly muttered appropriate noises, each to cover their own tracks. Saddam Hussein was a horror filmstar of the global news-networks – like Castro, Gadaffi, Nasser or Mao.
National symbols give a sense of texture, ritual and shape to the temperament of a nation. A people can if necessary survive without national symbols, but this requires substantial emotional sacrifice, however meaningless the symbols might be to others. Defeat in battle might hurt a nation's ego, but devastation of the national fabric undermines or destroys its selfhood. The Chinese eradication of Tibetan temples and cultural symbols in the 1960s-80s, the Serbian bombing of archives and museums in Bosnian Sarajevo and Croatian Dubrovnik in 1992-3, the bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York in 1993 and 2003, apparently by Islamic fundamentalists though arguably in 2003 by a stitched-up arrangement even involving USA's own intel services, together with many further cultural atrocities throughout history, exemplify a wish to knock the heart out of nations or cultures.
This has a long history, both deliberate and incidental. The holy places of native peoples in America, Australia and Africa not infrequently sit on large metal reserves coveted by global mining corporations. Insensitivity on the part of mining companies and licensing governments leads to the plausible conclusion that whites are systematically assaulting ethnic holy places. In some cases this is blatantly true, and in other cases such an assault arises from chronic ignorance and unthought-through systemic disrespect.
Deliberate cultural attack does happen – white-man's forces worldwide have worked hard to eliminate, reduce and contain indigenous cultures in order to reinforce the white cultural mission, to get rich quick and to conceal the deep embarrassment arising from colonially occupying others' space and ruining their lives. Most of all, cultural attack arises out of white-man's need to avoid looking at the hollowness, godlessness and meaninglessness residing at the core of Euro-American culture. Today, however, the tables are turning, and the ubiquitous terrorist aims strategically at national symbols to make a point.
Intentional ethnic oppression has not been uncommon. The exiling of ethnic minorities such as Chechens and Uzbeks from the Caucasus to Siberia by Stalin, the banning of the Gaelic language by the English in Ireland and Scotland in the 1700s-1800s, the 1920s-30s separation of Tutsis and Hutus during the German and Belgian rule of Rwanda and Burundi and the ethnocide of Aztec and Mayan peoples by Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500s are but some of many examples where imperialists have dreamt of squelching whole cultures.
It isn't only white imperialists who do it: Incas suppressed many other Andean ethnic groups, the invading Maoris exterminated the indigenous Waitaha people of Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Han Chinese have long swamped neighbouring ethnic minorities. The transatlantic slave trade, which impacted seriously on all black-white relations, was actually jump-started by Africans capturing other Africans in tribal wars and raids and selling them to white traders – who hadn't thought seriously of slave trading until they were provided with cheap and easy slaves by Africans. Once they discovered a good money-spinning trade though, the white-men transported some 10-15 million slaves over the Atlantic, to help run their plantations there.
The breaking of Aztec identity by Cortes in 1520 was a classic example of deliberate culture-destruction. In fifty years, the population of central Mexico sank from 30 to 3 million, largely through the introduction of smallpox by the numerically-few Conquistadors. When Cortes and his men reached Montezuma's Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, the Conquistadors were outnumbered and disillusioned, far from home and ripe for defeat. Nonetheless, they were cordially accepted as visitors by the Aztecs. The Conquistadors, unaware of its potency, played on the usefulness of smallpox when they discovered it working in their favour. When the Aztecs saw their people to keel over and die in droves, they suddenly lost confidence in their gods, protection and society. The Spaniards captured the thitherto-invincible lord Montezuma by trickery, hitting straight at the Aztec cultural ego, and the land quickly fell to Spanish domination. An entire world-view collapsed through events perceived by Aztecs to be 'acts of God'.
In the case of Tibetans, the 1959 flight of the Dalai Lama from Lhasa to India and the destruction of Buddhist monasteries (monks and nuns formed 25% of the population) did not break the back of the culture. Its modest though traditionalist national ego was hit hard yet its essential selfhood survived. Tibetans were at first divided over whether to yield or to fight back. Khampa guerrillas sabotaged the Chinese from Mustang (Nepal) for a number of years, backed by the CIA. When CIA backing melted away, the exiled Dalai Lama's moral sway caused Tibetans to opt for non-violent cultural resistance – a painful and costly choice which paradoxically reinforced the soul of the nation to a point of virtual invincibility. However, Tibet's historic individuality cannot be restored – too much has changed – and a period of difficulty might follow its liberation, if it ever happens. This will involve a reinvention of the Tibetan national selfhood.
National ego-symbols can become weighty and disadvantageous. Vienna and its vast courtly edifices acted as the capital of territories covering much of central Europe. The Habsburg empire fell in 1918. Today's Austria is diminutive by comparison. Its grand imperial heritage made Vienna a cultural and diplomatic centre in the 20th century, yet the costly maintenance of such historic grandeur is now disproportionate to the needs of the nation. Similarly, British pomp and regalia, while helping the tourist trade, hardly matches the current needs of Britain except to bolster a weighty emotional attachment to its past. The rich remains of pharaonic Egypt and classical Alexandria endow Egyptians with a rich cultural heritage, yet they serve as a complication in these days of fundamentalists who have no truck with non-Islamic traditions and artefacts.
National identity is a psychological issue. In Britain during the Cold War, maintenance of a nuclear deterrent was neurotic inasmuch as nuclear exchanges or fallout would have devastated the country, regardless – and the deterrent in itself was insufficient to prevent nuclear attack. However, it gave the official culture and national ego a feeling of artificial security. Military occupation by the Soviets (or, in the 1940s, by the Nazi Germans, or around 1800 by the Napoleonic French) would probably have aroused a strength of British character which could have scared the Soviets (or Germans or French) witless – Brits are so skilled at throwing grit and spanners into the machinery and at being stroppy and obstructive.
Ungovernability is the greatest deterrent against invasion. Such an eventuality would have tested the British people sorely, and it would possibly have killed the British ruling establishment (ego), though foreign occupation might conceivably have strengthened Britain's genuine individuality in the longterm. What a traitorous thing to say! From the viewpoint of the nation's soul, it is nevertheless possibly true.
The Kurds, occupying Kurdistan since Sumerian times 4,000 years ago have been denied national autonomy for centuries. They are now straddled across Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. Until 1991 Kurdish language and music were illegal in Turkey – Kurds were unwanted, oppressed and despised. Bereft of national symbols or territorial integrity, the Kurds have managed to maintain their ethnic identity and solidarity. In the 1920s, Kurdish independence became possible after the downfall of the Ottoman empire, but England and France, governing the 'protectorates' in the area, reneged on tacit promises made to Kurds (and also later to the Palestinians), dividing Kurdistan for their own geopolitical reasons. The British even gas-bombed Kurds in 1922, setting a precedent Saddam Hussein followed in the 1980s. Decades of pressure have so damaged the Kurdish psyche that by the 1990s they were divided amongst themselves – the strident Kurdish ego had lost its way. The chances of Kurdistan establishing autonomy are slim to this day – this is one of the bigger ethnic tragedies of our time. Nevertheless, Kurds, like Tibetans, demonstrate that even in the face of ethnocide, their national heart is capable of surviving against the greatest of odds.
When national ego is destroyed, a nation's true individuality is exposed. Individuality has more creativity and naturalness to it, and it has no inherent fight with the unconscious either. The more free-thinking, moderate, tolerant and just elements in any society embody a nation's individuality – yet such people often either stay out of control or they change when they gain control. Controlling a national ego is a pressured place to be.
National ego can also be destroyed from within, as in the case of revolutions or social breakdown. Customarily, we fight against ego-destruction, actual or threatened, because it connotes a loss of security and a risky confrontation with the Unknown. However, spiritually, such national ego-crises can be enriching and helpful, as long as bloodshed is avoided. They bring the ego back into line with a growing and changing selfhood. They make a nation reconsider what its selfhood is.
Not that egos require destruction to grow: assault or destruction is needed only if the national ego has become so rigidised as to be a problem for the individuality and true nature of a nation. If national egos act openly and flexibly – that is, if there is good governance and a relatively open society – they become valuable as a tool of identity and reality. Otherwise, without ego-transparency and adaptability a fight develops between ego and reality. Reality always eventually wins.