August 27, 2015


It this deeply researched book, David Cannadine takes on the task of undercutting the view that people can be singularly identified by a number of individual factors, including (as he presents them) Religion, Nation, Class, Gender, Race and Civilization. 

He sets out to make the point, and does so effectively, that there have been many instances of collaboration and working together among people who belong to different religions (e.g., Muslim and Christian), or have been in two Nations, or of different “Civilizations.”  In other words, the borders are not inextricably bound.  He very effectively identified the mistaken historical views that have identified one or more of these elements as singularly the most important in identifying collective groups.  He rakes Marx and many historians who followed him over the coals with regard to class and many historians who, in later years, have seen “Civilization” as the all-defining collective entity.

In a way, Cannadine has taken on a “red herring.”  After all, it’s inarguable that people define themselves by more than one category.  One could be a feminist and also devoted to her country.  Certainly there has been a tremendous intersection of Religion and Nation.  In fact, I would emphasize that the commitment to “Nation” itself has become something of a secular Religion.  That has been true in many ways in the United States and Russia or, before it, the U.S.S.R.

Cannadine’s discussion of “Nation” is especially insightful for me in how it makes clear that so many Nations created artificially after World War I were really not Nations at all.  They were devoid any shared sense of national unity or historic or collective identity.  Take Iraq.  It was a Nation in which Arabs and Kurds, Sunni and Shia had been summarily bundled together.  King Faisal, the first ruler of Iraq, was well aware of the problem as Cannadine notes:  “There is still (Faisal wrote) no Iraqi people, but unimaginable masses of human beings devoid of any patriotic idea, and viewed with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatsoever.”

Sadly, this typified many other countries (e.g., Syria, Lebanon) with which we are now dealing since their autocratic rulers (like Saddam Hussein) have been overthrown or are on the ropes (Assad).  There is really no end to the mischief which Western powers have perpetrated, first in creating these artificial entities, and then, under the leadership, particularly of George W. Bush, coming in and peremptorily throwing out the autocratic leaders who had held them together without any decent awareness of what would be unleashed or plans to cope with it.

This same basic problem affected Africa as post-1945 the colonies too often became Nations, lacking any shared sense of history, language or identity beyond that which had been briefly superimposed by the departing colonial power, then taken up by the nationalists themselves.  Not surprisingly, providing order in these circumstances has been extremely difficult.  No countries are evidencing this more than Sudan and Nigeria.

Still, today, I believe “Nation” is that characteristic which most binds people together.  In essence, Nation is an extension of family, which is where identity is deepest.  A Frenchman, Ernest Renan, in the late 19th century did a fine job of defining what a Nation is.  He insisted that it “was, above all, a state of mind and the expression of the collective will:  drawing from the past a shared ‘store of memories,’ especially of ‘the sacrifices that have been made,’ displaying in the present ‘the agreement, the desire to continue a life in common,’ and in looking to the future, accepting and recognizing ‘the sacrifices the nation is prepared to make’ again as it has done before.”

That says it.  This defines what brings our Nation’s citizens to identify with it.  It’s what leads the citizens of Russia to do the same.  And it is what leads the members of a great organization to identify with it.

There aren’t a lot of Nations or organizations that actually have the history or the sense of purpose or worth to be a “Nation” in that respect.


Let me briefly examine two questions:

1.     What are the circumstances that have led people from different Races, Religions or Nations which have been diametrically opposed to cooperate during at least parts of their history? 

I believe it has been when people different in Race, Nationality or Religion come to work together personally against some common purpose; a common purpose not principally connected with that identity.  I’ve always argued that diversity becomes real and operational when people of different races or ethnicities come together to work on an important project and see that, by working together, they are more successful.

As Cannadine writes in describing what characterized Christians and Muslims working together, it was as:  “They encountered and engaged with each other at levels that were more usually individual (and accommodating) than collective (and conflictual), and on many matters that often had little of anything to do with faith.”

This is why I’ve always felt it important to have groups of people come from one country to another and interact with people in that country on something that will be of value to them, e.g., learning how to do business, have a more effective government, etc.

2.     The second question is:  What has been the reason for people who have learned to work together across differences breaking apart and combatting one another again, with a “we/they” frame of mind?

The answer in my experience is when the group feels threatened by the other (collectively) on its principle identity, with the risk of this being tremendously expanded when a leader is present who elevates the threat to an existential level.

A classic example which I experienced was in Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Muslims and Christians had worked, lived and married together there for many years.  But, Milosevic fired up the antagonism between Muslim and Christian and what had been cooperation and collaboration became murder and genocide.

Or take more recently, the relationship between Russia and the United States.  A few years ago, 70-80% of Russians viewed the United States favorably.  Now it’s 20-25%.  Why?  Russians have been led to believe that the United States is, bluntly, out to get Russia, to punish it, to surround it.  There was evidence in the expansion of NATO to support this and other things about which I won’t get into detail here.  And all this was escalated by all-too-paranoid rhetoric by President Putin mirrored by many in the United States.  We didn’t understand each other’s situation.  And yet, even now, there are common things that we’re working on, such as the Iran nuclear treaty.

Finally, I’d simply say that Cannadine’s book does not (nor do I suggest it tries to) deny the reality that a deeply imbedded trait of human nature is to compare ourselves to others in a search for elevating our own sense of self-worth.  And that this has and will continue to result in animosity between groups defined by different Religions, Nations, Nationalities, and Race.

Our task, as I’ve often said, is to see the other person in ourselves and ourselves in them.  To understand that, while our interests and beliefs will never be totally the same, we have far more to gain by working together with respect, knowing that our commonalities (e.g., the desire for security for our family, safety, a decent level of living) are greater than our differences.

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