March 28, 2013

The concept of national character may be making a comeback, at least in Europe. One recurring theme in commentary on the troubles of the euro this past five years has been the difficulty of yoking the continent’s north and south in a single banking and fiscal system. This, it has been argued, made no more sense than the idea of Silvio Berlusconi being a conceivable Prime Minister of Denmark. A northern fiscal union might have had a chance, people say, with the currency of course named the neuro.

Veteran British commentator Max Hastings was working this theme just the other day, writing about the Cyprus crisis:

It always appeared absurd for the Germans, who “€” like the British “€” obey rules, pay taxes and tell the truth in financial documents, to form a financial union with the southern Europeans, who do none of those things, and are never likely to.

It may just be that big nations or unions are not a very good idea, except for purposes of self-assertion. Professor Bauer, in his fine book about the Chinese soul, passes the following remark:

Because of the unification of the empire [in 221 BC] and its division into provinces, the sense of intimacy due to the smallness of a single state gave place overnight to the feeling that one was living in a gigantic dominion governed by a distant capital.

The subsequent history of the Chinese Empire leaves one wondering whether developments might have been happier if East Asia, like post-Roman Europe, had remained a collection of competing small feudal states.

Prof. Bauer’s words might return an echo from the Britons of today, contemplating next January’s influx of Romanian and Bulgarian Gypsies, or from the Cypriots of today gathered forlorn outside their shuttered banks, perhaps even from the Americans of today….

But hold on there. I just used the phrase “the Chinese soul.” Do nations have souls, as different from one another as the individual human sort? Some distinguished people have thought so: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for example:

Nations are the wealth of mankind, its collective personalities; the very least of them wears its own special colors and bears within itself a special facet of divine intention.

Solzhenitsyn was not as wise as the leaders of the West today, who would have told him with weary patience that persons everywhere are perfectly fungible, while national borders are absurd relics of parochial nativism and misguided economic protection.

How fortunate we are to have such wise leaders!



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