Race, ancestry and nationality

Ethnographic map of the world. Click to enlarge.

So-called scientific racism is nonsense.  On the other hand, the idea of identity based on common ancestry is powerful, unifying and non-falsifiable.  It is the most common basis of nationalism.

The question is whether peace is possible in a world of nationalisms based on ancestry.

When nationalism is based on ancestry, a nation’s people are taught that they are like members of an extended family (usually a patriarchal family, headed by a father-figure) and that there is a bright line between members of the national family and all others.

Japan and Korea are two nations in which this idea is strong.  Japanese mythology tells how the Japanese islands were created by the gods and their Emperor is the descendant of the sun goddess; Korean mythology tells how the Korean people were specifically created by the gods.

President Kennedy called the United States a nation of immigrants.  Nobody would ever say that of Japan or the two Koreas.  Nobody would ever call these nations multi-cultural. 

The Han Chinese, probably the world’s most successful ethnic group, also have a strong sense of national unity.  Unlike the Japanese and Koreans, they have a history of being able to absorb foreigners, including conquerors such as the Mongols and Manchus, through intermarriage and cultural assimilation.

The assimilation process is now going on, in a brutal way, with Tibetans and Uighurs.  I think the reason the Vietnamese fear the Chinese more than they ever feared the French or us Americans is because of the real possibility that assimilation by the Chinese could end their existence as a nation.

The ultimate purpose of Xi Jinping’s policies toward China’s minorities is to assimilate them into the Chinese nation.  But India’s Narendra Modi has no plan for assimilating India’s Muslim minority. 

Nobody can be a patriot, he has said, unless their holy places are located in the nation where they live.  HIndus, Buddhists and Sikhs can be patriots in India, but Jews, Christians and Muslims cannot. In Hindu nationalist ideology, Muslims will be a permanent persecuted minority.

Nationalisms based on ancestry can be based on mutual respect, but nationalisms based on religion cannot.  Religious nationalism asks you to worship your nation as you would worship a transcendent deity; it is a way of worshiping yourself.

Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, found the formula by which peoples of different ancestries and loyalties can live together in peace. 

The formula was to allow each subject nationality the right to internal self-government, provided they disarmed, paid taxes and swear allegiance to the central government and refrained from rebellion and war with their neighbors.

You can see the emergence of this idea in the Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament.  Ten of the 12 tribes of Israel were wiped out by the conquering Assyrians.  Then Babylonians sent the Jewish people, or a large part of them into exile “by the waters of Babylon.”

The Persians allowed Jews to return to their historic homeland, where they lived peacefully until the Greek successors to the Persian Empire tried to force them to worship the Greek gods.

Their system was copied by the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Austrian Empire and other multi-national empires with great success.

Language map of the world. Click to enlarge.

The downfall of multi-national empires came with the European invention of blood-and-soil nationalism.  This is the doctrine that people of a common lineage (blood) occupying a common territory (soil) are oppressed unless they can live in an independent nation ruled by their own kind.

This doctrine had some feasibility when applied to nations of western Europe.  You could speak of the English race, the Irish race, the German or Italian race, based on common ancestry.  But it produced enormous suffering in parts of the world where people of different ancestries were all mixed up together.

This included the whole belt stretching from eastern and southeastern Europe through western, southern and southeast Asia, and also the whole of Africa.  The boundaries of many new nations were boundaries set by their former colonial rulers, not the boundaries of nations defined by common ancestry and culture.

Click to enlarge.

The result was what we now call “ethnic cleansing”—a forced migration of peoples starting as often as not with soldiers showing up at your door and telling you to hit the road with what you can carry on your back.

This was the fate of millions of people in Europe following World Wars One and Two, in India and Pakistan in 1947, in the former Yugoslavia after breakup and other places besides.

Even so, there are now nations unified on the basis of ancestry and culture that want to stay that way.  They don’t want immigrants of different ancestry or culture. 

If you are a Hungarian, Korean, Quebecois or someone else who thinks this way, I’m not going to call you a xenophobe.  A multi-cultural world requires multiple cultures, not a homogenized world culture.

But the price you pay for your choice is that you will have to do all your own dirty work.  You can’t afford “guest workers” or whatever you want to call them without citizenship rights.  Sooner or later they will demand them.

This way of thinking is not possible for us Americans.  Our Founders thought of Americans as a branch of the Anglo-Saxon race, but they shared the original Indian inhabitants and Africans who’d been brought here as slaves.

The USA then added Mexicans and Puerto Ricans as well as more Indians by conquest and brought in immigrants from all corners of the world. 

Again, if you want to reduce immigration or stop immigration altogether, I’m not going to call you a xenophobe.  But that doesn’t change the fact that we Americans are of many different origins and need to find a way of living together not based on ancestry.

I was brought up to believe that the American bond of unity was a belief in certain civic ideals of democracy and freedom—partly real, partly aspirational.  I hope this bond endures, although I’m not sure it is powerful enough to overcome the idea of common ancestry, of common blood.

Some African-Americans no longer think of themselves as Americans, but as members of a subjugated nation, like the Irish under British rule or the Poles under Russian rule.  Some Mexican-Americans think the same way.

I don’t have the right or the power to tell anyone what their core loyalties should be, but I hope this doesn’t become majority opinions.  We Americans are too intermingled to split up based on ethnicity and ancestry.  We either find a common source of loyalty or we become Lebanon writ large.

Thomas Paine famously said that the world was his country, all mankind his brothers and to do good was his religion.  Maybe in some utopian future, everyone can be like Thomas Paine (including all womankind as his sisters, of course).

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3 Responses to “Race, ancestry and nationality”

  1. davidgmarkham Says:

    Very interesting essay and analysis. According to Ken Wilber, humanity’s evolutionary path is from egocentric to enthnocentric, to worldcentric, to integral. As you point out ethnocentric attitudes can be based on common ancestry and/or common nationality. In Wilber’s model, humanity will move beyond both of these organizing ideas and recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every person based on our spiritual understanding that all humanity is one. This evolutionary process is already happening as evidenced by institutions such as the United Nations, the EU, and other international partnerships whether it is NATO, USMCA, etc. Religions such as the Catholic Church are already multiethnic and multinational.

    John Lennon with his song Imagine has helped human beings imagine a post ethnocentric world.

    Thank you for your thoughtful essay.


  2. philebersole Says:

    I think loyalty based on common ancestry is hard-wired in human nature. It appeals to the same feeling as loyalty to one’s own family.
    That’s why, for many centuries, most social organization has been based on the pattern of the family—in particular, the patriarchal family.

    Patriarchy was a positive ideal, now fading

    Maybe there can be a new ideal and a new pattern based on the idea that we’re all children of Adam and Eve, but this is a long way from gaining any kind of foothold.


  3. davidgmarkham Says:

    Unitarian Universalism with its covenantal model and seven principles provides a model for this kind of extended family to all human race and beyond. This kind of awareness though is a step in the evolutionary process and not all people are evolved to that level of consciousness yet but it is coming. The Covid-19 pandemic and climate change will accelerated this awareness. It can no longer be ignored or unrecognized or unacknowledged because to do so would be dysfunctional with many negative consequences.


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