I thought I’d start with a comparison between two citizenship oaths, ours and the United States. Starting with us, because we’re here:
I, swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of New Zealand, Her heirs and successors according to law, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of New Zealand and fulfil my duties as a New Zealand citizen. So help me God.
And now the United States:
I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law; that I will perform non-combatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.
Aside from being a lot longer, there is one crucial difference. We swear our allegiance to a person, they swear allegiance to a place, to a nation, to an idea of civic duty and participation. The question of whether that is a significant difference is a question about how we perceive the status of the place where we live.
Under our oath, we are bound to obey the Queen, obey her laws and fulfil any duties required of us. Where we live is secondary to our role as subjects of the Queen. Our oath is a throw-back, a left-over, from a time before the emergence of the modern state.
The oath of the United States, however, was born in a different time. The time of 1776, the American Declaration of Independence. That year was not only the birth of a nation, but of all nations. It was the birth of an idea that the ruler was less important than what he ruled. Finally gone was the Divine Right of Kings that had been at the centre of the previous rebellion against the kings of England over one hundred years before. That rebellion had ended with the replacement of one king, Charles the first, with another, Oliver Cromwell. The American revolution installed, not another king, but a president elected by the people, and working for the people.
Of course, the Americans may have gotten there first, but the French set the benchmark for what it meant to be a state and a nation. The United States has no official language. English may be the language of the majority, but it has no special legal status above Spanish, Portuguese, Italian or Mandarin. The French, on the other hand, have for hundreds of years been thinking about what it means to be French. In 1635 Cardinal Richelieu founded the French Academy, an institution effectively controlling the development of the French Language and Literary Arts. Their desire to retain the essential French character of their language is something they retain up until our present post-modern times. They are proud of their culture and traditions. Beyond living in a place called France, they are French. After their revolution in 1789, there could no longer be any doubt that the French people regarded themselves as aggressively separate from other cultures and united as a nation, as a state, in a way still unknown at that time in the United States, who fought a civil war in the mid 19th century to try and reconcile their disparate ideologies; to decide what it meant to be a citizen of their country.
Unfortunately, life is not as simple as I have just made out. If you travel to the province of Brittany in France and ask the people there who they are, they will say Bretons, not Frenchmen. Go to Quebec in Canada, and they are only Canadian by a thread. Ireland is forever divided between those who are British and those who are Irish. Spain has the Basque Separatists. Within all states there are existing cultural divides between the population. Some, like the United States and South Africa try actively to integrate these disparate elements, some, like Israel were founded on the basis of ethnic purity. Israeli Jews are possibly the best example of the co-incidence of a state and a nation, of a people linked by genetics, by language, by culture. And until 1947 they were not linked by geography. Yet, the creation of their state was the displacement and subsequent conquest of local non-Jewish peoples, a division which haunts them more sorely than most cultural divides. A debate over that legitimacy is out of place here.
Let me now change tack. I have so far discussed countries where the idea of the state, and of the nation coincide. The idea of nationality may be new, but nations are not. In the 478 BCE the mighty Persian Empire decided to annex a small adjacent territory, mostly semi-barren isthmuses and islands. That was, of course, Greece, the cradle of modern western civilisation. Politically the Greeks were divided into city-states, each state controlling their principle city, and a few surrounding towns. There were periodically alliances between various states, such as the Delian and Peloponnesian leagues but while one state might have the Hegemony or leadership of a league, they were by no means sovereign over it. Culturally though, the Greeks perceived themselves as united. They shared a language, a religion, and most importantly a sense of kinship. Wars between states did not alter their perception of sharing a common bond. They represent a nation which was not embodied in a single state, and when the Persians invaded in 478 BCE, their common cultural heritage united them in repelling the invasion.
The Roman empire was, overall, less successful at repelling barbarian invasions; the migration and raiding of Germanic tribes proved unstoppable, but long before that, in fact not long after there was a Roman Empire as such, they had a nationalising civil war. The name suggests the conflict: Roman Empire, not Italian Empire. In 90 BCE the member provinces of Italy fought a civil war to gain citizenship rights in that great state. They fought a war to legally entrench their self perception as citizens of Rome.
While I’m in the ancient world, let me briefly mention Alexander the Great. Arguably one of the best field commanders in history, Alexander conquered one of the largest land empires ever, stretching from Greece to India. He founded dozens of cities, and made it a policy that his Macedonian officers marry local women and have children. His clear and unambiguous goal was cultural integration, to meld his empire into a single nation. His early death brought about the collapse of his empire, as regional military governors and generals rallied their troops and sought to ensure the dominance of their local region over the empire as a whole.
So far I have been talking around the point, as it were. What is a nation, what is nationalism, how is this different to a state, and all manner of like questions. Well, without wanting to plagiarise our lectures too much, I think I can draw on my historical anecdotes to offer a partial answer.
A Nation is a people united by a common perception of unity amongst themselves. A state is a political arrangement of executive powers in a region. The French are a nation because of their common perception of what it means to be French. They also live in a contiguous land region called France. The Greeks were a nation because of their shared language and culture, but were not a state because within that common grouping there were autonomous political entities. The empire of Alexander was a state, but not a nation because the people who inhabited it perceived themselves as separate peoples, merely conquered by the same army.
Since the conception of the nation then, there has been a common idea of belonging first and foremost to that nation. Despite some differences, all parts of a nation are still intimately bound up with the rest. And that was Karl Marx’ objection to the state: that under the auspices of belonging first to the state, people lost a perception of being valued for their differences, and their role. He saw nationalism, that patriotic feeling which inspires supporters at every sporting event, as anathema to the class struggle necessary to empower the workers. This idea of nationalism has also been the rallying point for genocide in pre Second World War Germany, in the Balkans, by the Japanese in Manchuria… I could go on, but you see my point I’m sure. Nationalism in its benign form is merely to embrace your culture as synonymous with your country, patriotism is to be proud of that embrace.
Returning to the oaths that I began with, I hope you can see clearly the difference in attitude between the two oaths. To be a citizen in the United States you must renounce any affiliation with foreign places and rulers, you are first and foremost a citizen of the United States. To be a citizen of New Zealand, you must embrace the person of a foreign ruler. That difference embodies a statement about how the people of the country view themselves. We are a state, they are a nation.