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An Imagined Community?

In Steven Spielberg’s movie Munich, there is a scene where Avner, the Mossad agent and Ali, a Palestinian terrorist, discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in surprisingly candid and personal terms. Avner asks [and I paraphrase]: “Are the olive trees and the parched land really worth anything, after generations of wandering? You Palestinians can go anywhere. . .” Ali replies: “We can wait 100 years if we need to, but we will always come back. . .”

Palestine is the cultural opposite of Expat Nation – a place to call home for an ethnically and politically homogeneous nation. Even with all the mythmaking about the ties to land, this vision of nationalism rings hollow to me. In fact, I think it rings hollow for most people, diasporas and nationals alike.

The sense of belonging somewhere called home is based on much more than olive trees or the rich smell of earth. America is testimony to the rapid sense of belonging that emerges after less than a generation. The ebbs and flows of population today are driven by opportunity more than philosophy or ethnic affinity. Even within nations or the EU, people move for jobs and a comfortable lifestyle with newfound colleagues, friends and neighbors.

The ties that form at each stage of life are much more powerful than the ties of nation or tradition. Clearly family ties are in a class all alone, for most of us. When we look to do business or rely on someone who needs to be totally trustworthy, we start with family. The next round of community can form in a second grade class, a baseball team, a college dorm, or with new parents at a birthing class. These ties are personal; we form them for many reasons and some of them last a lifetime.

The next round is the one that concerns loyalties and ties to people we don’t know – Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. As Anderson describes, these ties are based on a shared experience of culture, usually transmitted by books and newspapers in the last few centuries, and now movies, music, and the internet. Spielberg’s Munich has replaced the local gazette.

It is in this realm that our national loyalties are shaped and bounded. Anderson is very convincing about the role of the popular press in building the national consciousness. Historically, this phenomenon is quite new. Only since widespread literacy has the press been able to influence the majority of people. Nationalism, independent of ethno-centrism and tribalism at various levels, is only several hundred years old. And in that short time we have had how many wars to codify the division of land and hegemony among nation states?

Regardless, the battles for “Imagined Community” loyalty are the defining conflicts of our era. Whether it be Islamic Jihad vs. Western pluralism, Red vs. Blue states in the US, urban capitalist vs. rural farmer in China, these factions or affinities are the basis for identity and community. What is new is the extent to which these loyalties are selected by choice instead of birth. For an increasingly large group, we choose our affiliations. For Expat Nation, we have chosen to subordinate nationalist identity and community to something else; today that “something” is not well defined.

For most, it seems, our only common bond is “we can never go home again.” This alienation from homeland varies, but everyone sees his or her homeland differently after a long period overseas. Since my expatriation has roughly coincided with the post 9/11 era, I have witnessed a steady decline in the status of the US in the world, and a steady rise in many other countries’ reputation and power. Certainly the US’ self-imposed isolation and decline through two wars and the “War on Terrorism” have contributed to my alienation. But it has not been matched by a newfound loyalty to anywhere else. If anything, proximity to China has made me more jaded to all the machinations of government.

I think that expats from many nations, and many Chinese who have lived overseas, share my alienation. But this is only one dimension of our affinity. The effect of globalization on this stratum of the population has been to forge a community with much more in common than shared sources of news and information. And, if shared perceptions of the world are enough to forge nationalism, then we certainly have enough to begin the discussion about more collaboration.

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