Lies By Which We Live

I was living in Boston when a marvelous woman of German extraction told me that all Irish were descended from Brian Boru. Liz probably thought me befuddled when she told me this palpable lie. That even non-Irish in Boston believed this showed the power of this belief. The Gaelic speakers weren’t even the original inhabitants of Ireland. In Roman times the Scoti were in Ireland. The first, and for a long time only, city in Ireland was founded by the Norwegians. Such very Irish names as Fitzgerald are Norman-French. I refrain from further exposition.

Of course this is not just a lie. This is a very useful lie. This is ethnogenesis. In such ways are nations born. Groups are adopted into an extended family. Their languages merge. They adopt similar traditions and mores. And they adopt the belief that as kin they have an obligation and privilege to help one another. The adoption also allows a people to trust their neighbors. It is reckless and foolish to trust a stranger. But it is usual and normal to trust kin. Or rather if kin can’t be trusted they expel themselves from the family. And no culture or civilization can be built without mutual trust. We have special words and emotions for untrustworthy kin: Betrayal. Treason. At the foundation of Rome nobody was related, but they joined together in an unbreakable bond. This was the Fasces. Etruscans, Sabines, Samnites, Latins, after a few centuries they believed they were Roman.

Consider that nation, naturalization, native, and naïve all refer to birth. A nation adopts strangers in by naturalization as though they were native born natural citizens. Maybe I am acting ignorantly as though I were just born yesterday – naïve.

Many nations are still kin groups. Ask the Koreans in Japan how many generations it will take to be Japanese. America is different. Or was. We once recognized as kin those who adopted our ways and our civic philosophy. Now we seem to treat anyone standing here as citizens. And citizens are no longer kin.

Nationhood has several requirements: Citizens must speak a common language. There can be no supreme law if the translations are in contention. [ Lawyers believe in translations. Translators know better.] A peaceful society requires people be able to talk out their problems. Citizens have to put each other above strangers. I hear nobody speak of this, but I find the recent phenomenon of elected officials with dual citizenship in foreign governments disturbing. On has to decide where one stands. Doubly so for those who claim to lead us. I doubt we will go to war with Canada or Austria, but a ship’s captain with one foot in a life raft does not inspire. We can not have large groups who put themselves above their fellow citizens. If, say, architects are ten percent of the population and put themselves above their fellow citizens in esteem, then one has a foreign nation in one’s midst. On does not trust those who condescend or demean.

I am thinking about these things because ethnogeneses are changing. They have been for a while, but it is accelerating. For half a millennium Spain has forged a unified Identity. Now Catalonia is trying to break away. Catalan literature is being revived. I was in High School when Tirant Lo Blanc was remembered and revived. To stick their thumb in the eye of Spain they have even outlawed bull-fighting. It does not seem that the Catalans care so much for the bulls as they care so little for Spain.

Ireland mostly broke away from the United Kingdom in the 1920’s. In the coming decades it may become the Separated Kingdoms. [ A favorite joke: Why do the Irish and the Brits hate each other so much? They have to – No one else can tell them apart.]

The former Soviet Union didn’t last long enough to form an identity. But they were certainly trying. Czechoslovakia had an eminently peaceful divorce. Yugoslavia less so.

In Europe these useful lies are failing. In America one is forming. Under the rubric of ‘Native American’ groups are forming an identity. Tribes that a century and a half ago were killing each other and raiding each other for slaves are now professing brotherhood. Absaroka, Cree, Lakota, Huron. People no more related than Faroese and Farsi are declaring identity with each other. It may be just a nice counterpoint to Europe. But it is educational and enlightening. And it may be the new nation.


One comment on “Lies By Which We Live

  1. […] have written elsewhere about the stories we tell ourselves to make a […]

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