Our ethnicity is formed from a number of unchosen, inherited qualities: ancestry, kinship, race, culture, language, history, religion and customs. It is something we are born into (an “accident of birth” in liberal terminology) rather than something we self-create.
We can therefore expect that the liberal attitude to ethnicity will follow the same pattern as the liberal attitude to sex distinctions and to the traditional family. Ethnicity will be described negatively as a restriction using terms like fetter or prison or chain; it will be held to be something the individual needs to be liberated from; to make this liberation possible, ethnicity will be described as a social construct or as an imagined tie rather than a natural one; some will wish to abolish it outright, whilst others will attempt to make it open to self-determination by making it more flexible, diverse and self-selecting. Those defending ethnicity will be criticised in moral terms as being bigoted or prejudiced or xenophobic.
This issue touches also on national identity. The traditional nation was often based on a shared ethnicity. Therefore, liberals have in practice rejected traditional nationalism in favour of a civic nationalism. Civic nationalism is the idea that what binds a nation together is not ethnicity but a citizenship based largely on a shared commitment to liberal political values or institutions.
The most consistent liberals will reject both sex distinctions and ethnic ones. An example is David Fiore who was quoted earlier as insisting that,
Any time a human being chooses to describe themselves as anything but a "human being", liberalism has been thwarted.
... The liberal subject is always merely that - he or she can have no group affiliation, no "sexual orientation", no gender in fact!
For Fiore, both gender identity and group affiliation are impermissible under the terms of liberalism.
Kang Youwei, the Chinese intellectual who tried to import Western ideas into China in the 1890s, also followed through with the liberal idea consistently. Kang held that autonomy ought to be thought of as a scientific principle of society:
he claimed, for example, that basic principles such as “human beings have the right of autonomy” and that all societies should be organized on the basis of "human equality" were all "geometric axioms".
This led him to prefer a society in which sex distinctions were abolished:
men and women will be equal and everyone will be independent and free. They will be dressed in similar attire and hold similar jobs, and there will be no difference between male and female.
Here we have the familiar liberal claim that individuals need to be liberated from a predetermined quality like their sex. Kang applied the same logic to ethnicity; in his ideal society,
there will be no individual or group differences, there will be no separate nations...all will be equal and free
...he argued for the eventual abolition of state boundaries and the unification of all nations on earth...racial differences would gradually disappear when "all races will merge into one”
Across the spectrum
It’s notable that liberal ideas on ethnicity are held by those on both the left and right of the political spectrum. The right-wing libertarian Ayn Rand believed that,
What matters is what you accept by choice, not what you are connected with through the accident of your ancestry.
Ancestry, being predetermined (an accident of birth), is held not to matter.
The left-wing English musician, Billy Bragg, agrees that ethnicity should be made not to matter:
The multicultural society would be one in which ethnicity, like class, no longer matters.
The right-wing former PM of Australia, John Howard, disliked multicultural programmes because they,
simply ensnare individuals in ethnic communities.
The assumption is that ethnicity is a negative restriction on the individual, hence the term “ensnare”.
John Howard’s one-time opponent, Mark Latham, a former leader of the Labor Party, also warned against preserving traditional ethnic identities as they might lead us to be "pigeon-holed into past habits and identities" ("pigeon-holed" being another negative, restrictive term applied to ethnicity). He advocated instead a self-selecting concept of identity, one involving individuals “picking and choosing from a range of cultural influences.”
Paul Kingsnorth is critical of his fellow leftists for following the liberal view on ethnicity:
For longer than a century, sections of the idealistic left have dreamt of a world made up...of "global citizens" casting off the chains of geography and nationality
Kingsnorth recognises here the basic liberal attitude held by sections of the left: traditional nationality is held to be limiting, a "chain," to be thrown off in favour of globalism.
If we go back to the right, we find the views of Augusto Zimmermann. He chooses to criticise multiculturalism for seeing human beings as “organically integrated into their ethnic groups” rather than as “free individual citizens”. He is worried that an individual might be “regarded as emotionally and psychologically connected with his or her ethnic group” which could reinforce the idea that a person’s character is “predetermined”.
We are not, in Zimmermann's view, allowed to be connected to, or integrated in, our ethnic group as that might predetermine who we are thought to be.
A left-wing Australian academic, Mary Kalantzis, wants to make identity more self-determining:
Instead of a nation as it might be represented through some 'distinctively Australian' essence, the essence of a postnationalist common purpose is creative and productive life of boundary crossing, multiple identities, difficult dialogues, and the continuous hybrid reconstruction of ourselves. This is the new reality of Australian identity, multicultural and multilingual.
In case you missed it amidst the academic language, Mary Kalantzis believes that the very purpose of Australian society is to self-determine our identities. That requires fluidity (boundary crossing), multiplicity (multiple identities) and self-selection (the continuous hybrid reconstruction of ourselves).
An American academic, Stephen Kautz, is a supporter of classical liberalism. He describes the classical liberal attitude toward communal identity as follows:
We have been taught by our classical liberal ancestors to think of ourselves as free individuals above all, rather than as children or parishioners or citizens, or as members of a racial or ethnic group - or, indeed, as members of any other communities...
...the idea of community is always somewhat suspect for thoughtful liberals
... there are no natural bonds between human beings, and so there is no natural community. Indeed, the family is not simply natural, according to some of the founders of liberalism.
Here we have the denial that ties of ethnicity, or family for that matter, are natural, as well as the belief that people are liberated to become free individuals by rejecting an ethnic or national identity.
Sukrit Sabhlok is also a classical liberal. He once explained the classical liberal view on nationalism to me in these words:
Mark Richardson wonders where liberalism stands on the nation state. The short answer, I think, is that classical liberals recognise the concept of “country” as an artificial construct that is not inherently something of value to be preserved...To take the line that there is something inherently special about being Australian is to place undue emphasis on a word.
Again we have the idea that a national community is a mere construct rather than a natural entity with real meaning.
Strobe Talbott, who served in President Bill Clinton’s administration, had a similar idea:
Here is one optimist's reason for believing unity will prevail... within the next hundred years...nationhood as we know it will be obsolete; all states will recognize a single global authority... A phrase briefly fashionable in the mid-20th century - "citizen of the world" - will have assumed real meaning by the end of the 21st... All countries are basically social arrangements, accommodations to changing circumstances...
For Talbott, countries are just “social arrangements” (i.e. constructs) and therefore can be made obsolete in favour of a world government.
Economist and writer Philippe Legrain prefers to reimagine the idea of community:
Misplaced nostalgia for the erosion of the coerced local communities of old – the flipside of which is liberation from the tyranny of geography, social immobility and the straitjacket of imposed national uniformity – should not blind us to the richness and vibrancy of the new chosen communities, be they groups of friends from different backgrounds, multinational workplaces, environmental campaigns that span the globe, or online networks of people with a common interest. Solidarity is alive and well when British volunteer doctors treat AIDS sufferers in Africa, when friends take over many of the roles that family members once performed (or failed to perform), and when the membership of pressure groups never ceases to rise...
It is Legrain’s view that we have been liberated from traditional “coerced” communities in favour of new “chosen” communities. What can these self-selecting new communities be? Not family as that is “coerced” and not nation or ethny (which are thought of in negative, restrictive terms – note the use of the word “straitjacket”). But they can be groups of friends, activist groups and multinational workplaces. Those are permissible forms of solidarity in a liberal society, particularly if they are diverse and boundary-crossing.
There is an internet writer in Australia who goes by the name Osmond. He is a social democrat (a left-liberal) and contributes to a Fabian website. In a post titled “What defines who we are?” he tells us that he is tempted to adopt a stance,
of individual identity, that I’m just “me,” I’m not locked into the confines of my heritage or culture.
When I wrote a post about this, Osmond left this comment:
people are individuals who are not trapped within some rigid prism of culture or ethnicity. We may be influenced by it but in the end we define who we are.
I have a sense of communal identity. That is my political beliefs, a universal social democratic viewpoint...
This, clearly, is the liberal attitude to ethnicity. We have ethnic identity being described in negative, limiting terms (“locked,” “confines,” “trapped,” “rigid prism”) as well as an insistence that identity must be self-defined. For Osmond, the best form of self-defining identity is a political one: he identifies with a form of liberalism itself (social democracy).
Finally, it’s interesting to look at the lyrics of a proposed new English anthem called England Forevermore. The anthem attempts to inspire feelings of patriotic solidarity, but it doesn’t entirely escape the influence of liberal ideas:
I am England, England is inside of me.
I am England, England is what I want her to be,
I am England, I am English, I am England to my core,
And wherever you may find me, you'll find England.
The anthem does, it is true, build up the idea of a communal identity (I am England to my core). But at the same time it insists that this identity is subjective and self-defining (England is inside of me, England is what I want her to be). The anthem follows the option of reimagining ethnic or national identity to fit in better with liberal first principles.
What I have tried to show is that the liberal view of ethnicity is to be found across the political spectrum. It is held by those on the left and right, by social democrats, libertarians and classical liberals.
To underline this point, I’d like to look at the attitudes of Andrew Bolt, a prominent Australian journalist. For many years he has been at the most right-wing end of the political mainstream in Australia. And yet he clearly shares the basic liberal view when it comes to ethnicity and national identity.
Take, for instance, the column Bolt wrote about a tribe of Australian Aborigines who wanted an important historic artefact returned to them. Bolt thought the Aborigines were guilty of forgetting,
The humanist idea that we are all individuals, free to make our own identities as equal members of the human race. In this New Racism, we're driven back into tribes.
Similarly, Bolt doesn’t want the National Gallery to recognise ethnic distinctions by having a separate category for Aboriginal art. He believes that art is supposed to “transcend differences of race and country” and that it is therefore wrong for the National Gallery to “drive us back into our racial prisons”.
Bolt has chosen to apply a negative, limiting term to ethnicity (“prisons”). He has also followed the usual liberal pattern by insisting that our identity should be self-determined (“free to make our own identities”).
Bolt has also given this more general account of his attitude to ethnic and national identity:
To be frank, I consider myself first of all an individual, and wish we could all deal with each other like that. No ethnicity. No nationality. No race. Certainly no divide that's a mere accident of birth.
...That's why I believe we can choose and even renounce our ethnic identity, because I have done that myself.
He considers ethnicity, nationality and race to be a mere accident of birth (predetermined); he prefers a model of society in which a communal identity is either chosen or renounced altogether in favour of identifying with ourselves alone as individuals.
He is serious about reducing identity to an atomised, personal one. He is the son of Dutch immigrants and so he once thought of himself as having a Dutch identity. But he tells us that,
Later I realised how affected that was, and how I was borrowing a group identity rather than asserting my own. Andrew Bolt's.
And he has written of one mixed race Aboriginal activist that,
She could call herself English, Afghan, Aboriginal, Australian or just a take-me-as-I-am human being called Tara June Winch. Race irrelevant.
Bolt’s is a radical position rather than a conservative one. It is excessively individualistic: we are expected to ditch the larger and meaningful traditions we belong to in order to identify with ourselves alone.
It was once common for national identity to be based on ethnicity. Members of a nation were thought to share some combination of a common ancestry, culture, language, race, religion, customs and history.
John Jay, a founding father of the United States, held to this traditional understanding of national identity. He thought it providential that the US was “one connected, fertile, widespreading country.” He added:
With equal pleasure I have often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people - a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs...This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous and alien sovereignties.
Over time, though, Jay’s traditional nationalism came to be thought illegitimate. Liberals began to take a negative view of ethnicity as something that ought not to matter; therefore, there had to be some other basis for national identity.
And so Western societies shifted gradually toward a policy of civic nationalism. Membership of the nation was to be defined by citizenship, and unity was to be based on a shared commitment to liberal political values and institutions.
One prominent defender of the civic nationalist ideal is Michael Ignatieff. He is a Canadian academic and a former leader of the Liberal Party in that country. He distinguishes a civic from an ethnic nationalism this way:
Ethnic nationalism claims...that an individual's deepest attachments are inherited, not chosen...
According to the civic nationalist creed, what holds a society together is not common roots but law. By subscribing to a set of democratic procedures and values, individuals can reconcile their right to shape their own lives with their need to belong to a community.
This is the liberal logic at work. Ethnic nationalism is predetermined (“inherited, not chosen”) and is therefore rejected in favour of a civic nationalism which is thought to be self-determined (“right to shape their own lives”).
But is civic nationalism really a viable replacement for traditional nationalism? There are reasons to think not. Civic nationalism suffers from being indistinct, inconsistent, unstable and shallow.
A loss of distinct identity
People generally like to feel that there is something unique about their national identity. But if identity is based on liberal values and institutions then it won't differ much from country to country. The civic national identity will be much the same in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and other Western societies.
That not only makes national identity less special, it also means that it makes less sense to keep to existing national boundaries. If two nations have the same civic national identity, then why not merge together if there are economic or political advantages in doing so? And why should citizenship stop at national boundaries? If I support liberal political values, and being, say, American is defined by such values, then why shouldn’t I consider myself American even if I live elsewhere?
There are liberals who have already drawn these conclusions. Thomas Barnett is a “distinguished scholar” at the University of Tennessee. This is what he had to say about the war on terror:
We stand for a world connected through trust, transparency and trade, while the jihadists want to hijack Islam and disconnect it from all the corruption they imagine is being foisted upon it by globalization...
In that war of ideas, I’d still like to see Lady Liberty standing outside the wire instead of hiding behind it, and here’s why: I don’t have a homeland. My people left that place a long time ago.
I don’t have a homeland because I don’t live in a place - I live an ideal. I live in the only country in the world that’s not named for a location or a tribe but a concept. Officially, we’re known as the United States.
And where are those united states? Wherever there are states united. You join and you’re in, and theoretically everyone’s got an open invitation.
This country began as a collection of 13 misfit colonies, united only by their desire not to be ruled by a distant king.
We’re now 50 members and counting, with our most recent additions (Alaska, Hawaii) not even co-located with the rest, instead constituting our most far-flung nodes in a network that‘s destined to grow dramatically again.
Impossible, you say? Try this one on for size: By 2050, one out of every three American voters is slated to be Hispanic. Trust me, with that electorate, it won’t just be Puerto Rico and post-Castro Cuba joining the club. We’ll need either a bigger flag or smaller stars.
Thomas Barnett believes that America is defined by a liberal ideal. Therefore, being American is not about living in a particular place amongst a particular people. Any other country that wants to sign on to the ideal and become a “united state” can do so, no matter where that country is located.
Barnett has parted company with the vision of America held by the founding father John Jay. Jay, if you remember, stressed how providential it was that America was one connected country:
Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people - a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs...
Barnett is not alone in drawing out the logic of civic nationalism. Paul Ryan, a Republican congressman, believes that America is exceptional in being universal:
America's "exceptionalism" is just this - while most nations at most times have claimed their own history or culture to be exclusive, America's foundations are not our own - they belong equally to every person everywhere.
That’s not a helpful way of defining your own nation as distinct. First, it’s not true that America is exceptional in holding to a civic nationalism – that is common amongst Western nations. Second, if the foundations of your nation aren’t your own but belong equally to every person everywhere, then why shouldn’t people choose to cross your borders to seek what belongs equally to them?
Rudolph Guiliani, a former mayor of New York City, once explained his civic understanding of American identity as follows:
Abraham Lincoln used to say that the test of one’s Americanism was not one’s family tree; the test of one’s Americanism was how much one believed in America. Because we’re like a religion really. A secular religion. We believe in ideas and ideals. We’re not one race, we’re many; we’re not one ethnic group, we’re everyone; we’re not one language, we’re all of these people. So what ties us together? We’re tied together by our belief in political democracy, in religious freedom, in capitalism, a free economy where people make their own choices about the spending of their money. We’re tied together because we respect human life, and because we respect the rule of law.
Those are the ideas that make us Americans.
Americans are “everyone” according to Guiliani, or at least everyone who believes in a set of secular ideals. The American political commentator Lawrence Auster wrote in reply to Giuliani:
...having told us the things that don’t make us Americans, he tells us the things that do make us Americans: belief in democracy, freedom, capitalism, and rule of law. But other countries believe in those things too. So how is America different from those other countries? If a person in, say, India believes in democracy, freedom, capitalism, and rule of law, how is he any less an American than you or I or George Washington? And how are we any more American than that Indian? Giuliani has removed everything particular and concrete about America and defined America as a universal belief system, not a country.
Giuliani did not shy away from accepting the logic of his own position. He made this declaration to the United Nations:
Each of your nations - I am certain - has contributed citizens to the United States and to New York. I believe I can take every one of you someplace in New York City, where you can find someone from your country, someone from your village or town, that speaks your language and practices your religion. In each of your lands there are many who are Americans in spirit, by virtue of their commitment to our shared principles.
So how exactly is it distinct to be American? According to Guiliani there are many who are “Americans in spirit” in every country of the world. America is no longer defined as a particular people and place, as a country, in the traditional sense. In Guiliani’s hands American identity becomes a globalist secular religion.
The logic of civic nationalism has been drawn out clearly by Professor Peter Spiro. He too recognises that defining American identity in terms of political ideals or values leaves few limits as to who can be considered American:
But here's something that really is new: the underinclusion of members-in-fact outside the territory of the United States.
One of the commenters on my first post pressed the proposition that America is an idea. That's completely consistent with strong civic notions of American citizenship and identity.
At one time, that idea was distinct. No longer. The American idea of constitutional democracy has gone global. That's America's triumph, but it may also be its downfall.
As I ask in the book, if that person in Bangalore wants to take an oath to support the Constitution of the United States, on what grounds can we deny him membership?...And what of the child born in Juarez, whose interests and identity will be connected to El Paso, Austin and Washington...but who has the bad luck to have been born a mile on the wrong side of the line?...
So: whatever it means to be American, it's everywhere. But that makes it all the harder to draw the membership line in a meaningful way.
If you define a national identity by an idea, then anyone anywhere can potentially belong to that nation. It starts to be thought arbitrary to limit membership of a nation to people who happen to live within a line drawn on a map. You get complaints, like that of Professor Spiro, about the “underinclusion of members-in-fact” living outside the territory of that country. The nexus between land and people is broken.
And that leads to an unstable form of national existence. If anyone who is willing to commit to a political idea is "in spirit" a member of my nation, then why won't it be thought right for them to migrate, in whatever numbers, to take up citizenship? How, in principle, is a transforming mass immigration to be argued against?
And if national identity is the same across nations, then why not merge nations into larger regional entities? Why not create superstates which give you more political and economic clout on the world stage?
The creation of a regional superstate is already underway. The European Union continues to grow and to claim greater amounts of sovereignty over member states.
Are there any limits to the growth of the EU? Not if you follow through with the logic of civic nationalism. All that matters, according to that logic, is that a particular country is committed to a set of liberal political institutions and values. If they meet the test, they're in.
Stephen Kinzer is a former bureau chief of the New York Times. He believes that there are many countries which could reach a satisfactory level "of political and economic democracy" to qualify for EU membership:
Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and possibly Russia could also become candidates. In the distant future, so might Israel, a Palestinian state, or even Morocco.
Why not Morocco or a Palestinian state? They might not be part of Europe or populated by Europeans, and they might be very dissimilar to the European nations in their history, religion and languages. But if they meet certain political criteria then, under the rules of civic nationalism, they could potentially join. The English could find themselves subject to the same regional superstate as the Moroccans.
That outcome would sit well with David Miliband, a leading Labour politician in the UK. In 2007, as the then foreign secretary, he called for the EU to expand outside of Europe. He argued for new EU trade associations,
that could gradually bring the countries of the Mahgreb (North Africa), the Middle East and Eastern Europe in line with the single market, not as an alternative to membership, but potentially as a step towards it.
In what way, then, are national boundaries meaningful when the logic of civic nationalism is applied?
As you might expect, the European politicians are not alone in looking to create a regional superstate. In 2003 an Australian Senate committee recommended the formation of a Pacific Economic and Political Community (PEPC). The report of this committee proposed the establishment of:
a Pacific community which will eventually have one currency, one labour market, common strong budgetary and fiscal discipline, democratic and ethical governance, shared defence and security arrangements, common laws and resolve in fighting crime, and health, welfare, education and environmental goals.
It was intended that Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and 14 smaller Pacific nations would sign up to this Pacific version of the EU.
In 2005, the Australian Labor Party put forward a policy paper which again supported the creation of a Pacific Community. This policy paper advocated the establishment of a Pacific Parliament, a Pacific Court, a Pacific Common Market, a common currency and military integration.
Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, approved of the plan, writing that,
Closer Pacific regionalism - even eventual confederation - may be an idea whose time has come.
Kevin Rudd, later to be Prime Minister but then shadow minister for foreign affairs, boasted that the Labor Party was "leading the government on the creation of a Pacific Community."
So there have been significant political forces in Australia which have pushed for the integration of 14 very different countries into a single Pacific Community. And if this community were ever to get off the ground, there is no reason why its borders wouldn't shift again.
Is a civic nationalism fully consistent with liberalism?
Traditional nationalism failed the liberal test because it was based on ethnicity and ethnicity is something that is predetermined rather than self-determined.
But inevitably there will be liberals who will go further and ask if civic nationalism also places limits on self-determination. Does it too set up barriers to where we choose to live and what opportunities we might have as autonomous individuals?
In other words, is a civic nationalism really consistent with liberal aims?
Some liberals believe, and not without reason, that civic nationalism fails the test of consistency. After all, in a civic nationalism you still need citizenship to be a member of a nation. And that then means that you can't simply choose to be a member of whichever nation you think it is in your interests to join.
Furthermore, because a civic nation distributes benefits only to those who have citizenship, it discriminates against those who aren't citizens. So some individuals benefit, and others miss out, on the basis of a citizenship status that most people get simply through an accident of birth.
For these reasons, there are liberals who not only reject a traditional ethnic nationalism, but a civic nationalism as well. They prefer the idea of a global system of open borders, in which there would be no restrictions on where we might choose to settle.
Those who support open borders are not just fringe radicals. A former prime minister of Australia, Paul Keating, once lashed out at civic nationalism, complaining that its “exclusiveness” relies on,
constructing arbitrary and parochial distinctions between the civic and the human community ... if you ask what is the common policy of the Le Pens, the Terreblanches, Hansons and Howards of this world, in a word, it is “citizenship”. Who is in and who is out.
According to Keating, a civic identity is both arbitrary and parochial. There can be no distinct civic communities, only a single human one.
The Swedish Greens, the third largest party in that country, have this policy:
We do not believe in artificial borders. We have a vision of unrestricted immigration and emigration, where people have the right to live and work wherever they please ... We want Sweden to become an international role model by producing a plan to implement unrestricted immigration.
The American academic Jeffrey Friedman believes that a genuinely liberal society would be borderless:
A truly liberal society would encompass all human beings. It would extend any welfare benefits to all humankind, not just to those born within arbitrary borders; and far from prohibiting the importing of "foreign" workers or goods they have produced, or the exporting of jobs to them across national boundaries, it would encourage the free flow of labor...
He is arguing that there should be no distinctions based on any kind of nationality, whether traditional or civic. If there are benefits handed out in the United Kingdom, then I should be able to claim them even if I live in Brazil.
That sounds radical (and it is) but it is consistent with the way liberals generally see things. If what matters is that I get to self-determine, then I won't like the idea that I might be limited in some way or disadvantaged by circumstances that I don't choose, such as where I happen to be born.
Friedman is aware of a flaw in the liberal argument. If nationality is something we are merely born into, and therefore is an "arbitrary" quality that ought not to matter, then the same thing has to be said for family. Why, for instance, should a man direct his earnings to his own children and not to others? Doesn't that mean that some children will receive an advantage that others don't on the "arbitrary" basis of a relationship that they are born into?
Friedman justifies discriminating in favour of our family, but not our conationals, on this basis:
We would be miserable if we could not treat our friends, spouses, and siblings with special consideration; but is this necessarily true of our conationals?
That doesn't seem to me to be a very principled or persuasive response to the liberal dilemma.
In 2004 the American economist Steven Landsburg declared that he wouldn't vote for the Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Why? Kerry's running mate, John Edwards, was a supporter of protectionism: he believed that tariffs should be used to protect local jobs from overseas competition.
This angered Landsburg, who argued that by putting his fellow citizens first Edwards was no different to those, like David Duke, who put their coethnics first:
While Duke would discriminate on the arbitrary basis of skin colour, Edwards would discriminate on the arbitrary basis of birthplace. Either way, bigotry is bigotry, and appeals to base instincts should always be repudiated.
An Australian writer, John Humphreys, commented that,
I largely agree with Landsburg in that I see little moral difference between discrimination based on colour of skin or colour of passport.
So liberals have a problem when it comes to nationalism. If it is thought wrong to allow a predetermined, unchosen quality like ethnicity to matter, then it can also be thought wrong to allow a largely predetermined, unchosen quality like citizenship to matter. Both can be thought of as arbitrary and therefore illegitimate forms of discrimination.
Which then leads at least some liberals to renounce any kind of national existence, even a civic national one, in favour of a one world, open borders policy. They arrive at a similar outlook to that of Australian political commentator David Bath who wrote on Australia Day:
On our national day we must realize that...the nation must cease to exist
We have dropped the torch of early ideals, the only advance being the yet imperfect acceptance of the immateriality of accidents of birth of our fellows: the color of skin, any faith of forbears, the borders within which they first drew breath.
Until [we act morally] by subsuming our nationhood into the single world polity...then we are lesser folk than our forbears...
Just as our nation was formed as a collective, it must dissolve into a greater collective, with fairness to all, not within the borders that must and will disappear, but bounded only by the atmosphere we all breathe.
Dave Bath's liberalism leads him to the view that the only morally permissible nation is the planet.
A shallow identity
A final problem with a civic identity is that it is shallow compared to a traditional one. All that connects me to my conationals in a civic nationalism is a common set of political institutions and values. There is not the same depth of connection that comes with belonging to a larger tradition, one in which there is a sense of being a distinct people, sharing a history, kinship, religion and culture through time.
Michael Ignatieff, who I quoted earlier as a strong supporter of civic nationalism, admits that traditional nationalism's "psychology of belonging" has "greater depth than civic nationalism's".
Similarly, two academics from the University of Melbourne, Brian Gallagan and Winsome Roberts, have worried that civic nationalism is too insubstantial. They have described an Australian identity defined solely in terms of shared political institutions and values as "hollow, lacking in cultural richness and human content." They are critical of "an empty and flaccid citizenship based on abstract principles that lack the inspirational power to represent what it means to be Australian."
In contrast, Professor West has written of a traditional ethnic nationalism that,
...the sense of identity is so strong that it is an inseparable part of the personalities of most of the individuals in the group. People are born and raised to conceive of themselves as being a part of the nation, and rarely lose that self-conception in the course of their lives. There is a feeling of pride and a deep sense of loyalty associated with it.
When explaining why many Anglo-Australians want to retain links to the UK, the writer David Malouf explained that it has to do with a traditional kind of identity:
it has to do with family .. identity in that sense ...It is a link of language, too, and of culture in the sense of shared associations and understanding, of shared objects of affection, and a history of which we are a branch - a growth quite separate and itself, but drawing its strength from an ancient root ...
The fact is that the part of ourselves in which we live most deeply, most fully, goes further back than one or two generations and takes in more than we ourselves have known
According to Professor Anthony Smith a traditional national identity,
... is felt by many people to satisfy their needs for cultural fulfilment, rootedness, security and fraternity ... Nations are linked by the chains of memory, myth and symbol to that widespread and enduring type of community, the ethnie, and this is what gives them their unique character and their profound hold over the feelings and imaginations of so many people.
So why then accept the loss of such deep forms of identity? An English journalist, Janet Daley, believes that in giving up the "hereditary baggage" of "homogenous local cultures" people get to experience "the great secret of individual self-determination". Even if this creates "social unease" and makes a society "perpetually unstable" it is what is required for a "free society".
That's the liberal position in a nutshell. It's a belief that the overriding good is individual freedom, understood to mean that the individual is liberated from whatever cannot be self-determined, such as the "hereditary baggage" of a traditional national identity.
And this is where opponents of liberalism have to take a stand. There is no reason why we have to understand freedom this way, nor why freedom can't be upheld amongst other goods that are important to people. After all, if being Korean or Nigerian or Danish is part of who we are, then if we are going to be free we have to be free as Koreans or Nigerians or Danes. Otherwise we will experience freedom as a loss, as a diminishing of self rather than as a liberation.
The author D.H. Lawrence understood that it was not liberating to lose your communal identity. He believed that,
Men are free when they are in a living homeland, not when they are straying and breaking away...Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community...
I'll let the English writer Paul Kingsnorth have the final word. He considers himself a progressive but doesn't see a loss of traditional identity as an advance:
It has long been a touchstone of "progress" that place, and attachment to it, is an anachronism...Barriers are broken down by the mass media, technology and trade laws. Rootless, we gain freedom, placeless, we belong everywhere. Yet placelessness and rootlessness create not contentment but despair...
The rising tide of this global progress, we are told, will lift all boats. The trouble is that some of our boats are anchored; anchored by place, tradition, identity, a sense of belonging...
...the citizens of nowhere ultimately inhabit an empty world ... Disconnected from reality, they can make decisions that destroy real places, to which people are connected, at the stroke of a pen.
The rest of us can join the citizens of nowhere in their empire of the placeless, or we can build new relationships with our own landscapes and our own communities. We can build on our pasts or dismiss them...
Next: Chapter 6: Morality