National Identity

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.

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23 Responses to National Identity

  1. 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.

    Hmm, so what do you swear if you don’t have a god?

  2. adrexia says:

    Very good. I like it.

  3. threemonkeys says:

    By your definition of nation, any group of common purpose is a nation. For example the group characterised as Manchester United Fans could be considered a nation. They have a united purpose, some common culture and are prepared to fight for their cause. In recent times such groupings have been characterised as modern tribes rather than nations.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with your definition of nation but I wonder how you see it in relation to the tribal grouping above. Is there also a necessity to have a geographical constraint or something else to add a point of difference. Or maybe the modern tribe concept and nation are the same thing.

    As an aside, the definition of nation seems to allow somebody to be part of multiple nations. I have no problem with that.

    • mashugenah says:

      I was thinking about this last night, and I had a kind of chemistry analogy worked out. 🙂

      There are two (IIRC) types of bonds: Ionic and Covalent bonds, and essentially these have different strengths. For example, Chlorine and Oxygen bond very strongly, Hydrogen not so much. I think. 🙂

      Anyway, looking at the bond I talk about with Nationalism, we’re talking about the kind of community bond we all feel with people we both know and like. So, yes, you can define your “nation” as being say, SF buffs if you want. However, if asked to define yourself, if asked to rate what was more important to you: SF or your country, well that would really show the priority, show your nationalism spirit. If you said SF club was more important, obviously no national spirit. Thing is despite their numerous faults, the US has a very high rating for the importance their country plays in their personal identity: moreso, I suggest, than any one of their specific hobbies.

      I don’t think there is a necessity for a geographical element to the idea of a nation though. Israel was born from a sense of national identity disconnected to geography. The idea of a “catholic nation”, would cross oceans, for example.

      The idea of the “nation state” is really one of co-incident self-identification and political organisation.

      Obviously none of that came across clearly in my speech. 🙂

      Actually, the whole community/nationalism thing is pretty murky. I’ve read a few books on the subject, and if any two agreed on any single point, it was usually only to later attack a deeper theoretical basis for that point of agreement. 🙂

      • threemonkeys says:

        Careful with the chemistry references around me. I tend to lecture without much provocation. :-} I gave one of my poor colleagues a tutorial on polymers this week when he idly wondered about different plastic types.

        However the idea of different strengths of bonds does ring true. Usually I guess the bond to your country or local community or family is strongest but I can think of some groups where devotion to an ideal is more important than any country of origin bond. Religion is the most obvious but some political and dare I say even sporting bonds can be extremely strong. One group who tend to stick in my mind are the Greenpeace supporters who travel around the world on their boats – most of those I have met have lost all identification with are country and are just committed to their environmental cause.

  4. Anonymous says:


    Mash, does the nature of the state really have anything to do with nationalism? Look at all the wallies calling themselves “National Front” and so on; in their case nationalism is just the excuse to be a xenophobe. How is New Zealand any less of a nation because of the historical nature of our government? Does that relate at all to nationalism? As a contrast, Australia has pretty much exactly the same government, oath of citizenship etc but a far higher level of public nationalism (cf patriotism). I’d argue that they don’t have any more cohesive a national identity because of it, and I see a far more recognisable set of values associated with being a Kiwi — both internally and in the way NZ deals with the world.


    • cha0sslave says:

      Re: Hmmm.

      I have included a reply to this as my latest entry, as the space permitted here was insuficient. Feel free to check ot my opinion of the NF and its work.

    • mashugenah says:

      Re: Hmmm.

      “For all to be saved, some must be sacrificed”. That’s a quote from B5, it becomes the motto of the Narns in the middle of season 3. And, to an extent it’s the nationalist motto. It’s patriotic.

      Anyway, to directly answer your point, I think that the key ingredient is “a self identified group”. When a group like the National Front sets up, they pick a vrey specific definition of “nation”. They exclude whomever they like. This is not unlike what actual state governments have decided to do from time to time, only less effective. It has everything to do with xenophobia, but that doesn’t decouple its connection to the state – because that’s where they’re seeking to apply their criteria of beloning.

      I think that Patriotism is intimately bound up with a sense of national identity. I’m not sure what the difference in that respect is between us and Aus.

  5. cha0sslave says:

    WOW, there’s no way I could ever be a University lecturer if you have to listen to a couple of hundred speeches like that. I absolutely fail to see how that sort of excersise contributes to any form of employment other than “boring speaker person”. Precisely why I can’t do Uni.

    I’m not saying it was bad, I have no idea if it was bad or not but man it was boring, really boring. The type of boring usually only availble from mail order catalogues cos its too hardcore for public boredom format. Mainly I guess because I have no use for politics and zero interest in them but also becuase it was just very very blah and I couldn’t follow anything anywhere.

    I’d suggest maybe an actual definition of nationalism somewhere in there too, cos I for one still don’t actually know what it means.

    Sorry to burst a bubble or two in there but this is an honest opinion from a representative of the “pleb” nation.

  6. Hmmm, New Zealand as a state but not a nation. Y’know, anywhere you go in the world you’ll be able to find an expat New Zealander who identifies themselves as being ‘a Kiwi’. There’s also a certain amount of cultural identification as we are New Zealand, a friend/rival of Australia, a member of the Commonwealth and a former member of the British Empire. You can think of the Commonwealth nations as being related to the Greek city-states – a background commonality in culture but different political structures. The holdover in the citizenship oath is not then _just_ an anachronism but a piece of shared cultural identity.
    I think there’s more to it than citizenship oaths.

    • mashugenah says:

      As with all summaries, there are bound to be omisions. But I think that the citizenship oath is a good litmus test, a metonamy if you like. That oath, which you swear as a foreigner, sets the tone and outlines the terms of your membership in whatever country. It is the part, representing the whole of your civic participation. I should also at this point mention there is an alternative oath which doesn’t mention the Queen. Yes, in 10 minutes, you cut what isn’t central to your arugment.

      I defined, or implied, that nationhood was defined by a sense of shared identity, but I’m not entirely sure that we have that in New Zealand. To me it often seems as if we have several competing views on that subject; and while expats may describe themselves as “kiwis”, that’s merely a colloquialism for “I’m from New Zealand”. It just seems, in comparasin especially with many European countries, a very poorly defined self-image, rendering our whole “national identity” as somewhat vague. The divisive dispute over Maori land and compensation for their conquest are continually harped on by certain politicians to great effect. Combined with the upswing in numbers identifying themselves as Maori, I think that is a schism not ameliorated by common attendance at sporting fixtures.

      Accepting that we are a nation, defined by some kind of shared sense of identity, this is a very new thing in New Zealand. Our official status as a province of the UK was abolished in living memory when we dissolved our upper house in 1947! The Treaty of Waitangi was only established as being legally binding in 1975, and it wasn’t until 1987 that it was given pride of place as a founding document of principles. The almost singular point of unified public opinion, the ban on nuclear vessels, was 1984. Essentially, if we are a nation, rather than a state, it is a change still underway, and begun by our parents’ generation.

      Returning for just a moment to the oath though; I don’t think that it’s something to be taken lightly. It’s pretty clear that when you swear it, you are expected and obligated to fulfill its terms – that’s the point of them. So, if we as a country want the first loyalty of our citizens to be a country, we should change our oath to reflect that. Otherwise, they’re just meaningless words, and so why even bother having them? We could just issue a passport to anyone who’s lived here long enough. I much prefer the US system – where your oath is serious and specific, and where in order to get that far you must prove you are aware of the oath’s implications.

      Not that the US doesn’t have problems – it does. Huge ones. But they got one or two things right along the way.

      • Just as an anecdote, a Kiwi friend was living in Australia for some years and had a job in the Civil Service there. A wave of rampant nationalism went through Oz and he was told that he would have to become an Australian citizen to keep his job. He decided to do so and checked with the NZ consulate if he had to give up his NZ citizenship first. They said: “You can tell them anything you like, we don’t care.” I think it’s an interesting facet of New Zealand’s self-identity and citizenship rules that you can be something else _and_ a New Zealander. You’re not required to give up citizenship either moving into or going away from the country. America is, in contrast, very definitely “Us or Them, Pick One.”


      • house_monkey says:

        Our nuclear free legislation wasn’t passed until 1987.

      • mashugenah says:

        True, but wasn’t the debate held in 84? Or was it 85? I guess I should check my dates for these things rather than relying on my memory. Oh well, next time. 🙂

      • house_monkey says:

        The famous Oxford Debate with David Lange was in 1985, yes. I’ve watched it many times, thanks to the Film Archive.

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