April 20, 2009

The thin & thick, the there & the here

Over at Secular Right I pointed to a Time piece on the Japanese attempt to repatriate Nikkei, Brazilians of Japanese ethnicity, due to higher unemployment. In reaction to one of these Nikkei claiming discrimination I responded:

Yes. It is discrimination. In fact the very idea of the nation-state is predicated on the concept of discrimination between non-citizens and citizens. The world is not flat, and there are grades of human affinity.

In the comments longtime Taki’s Magazine reader and commenter “Ploni Almoni” says:

The idea of the nation-state – in the original meaning of the concept, which is instantiated about as purely as can be by Japan – is predicated on the primary concept of the nation, and only secondarily on the concept of a citizenry. The nation is prior to the state and to the citizenry. The nation-state exists for the sake of the nation. One can approve or disapprove of that philosophy, but that is what 19th-century-style nationalism says that nation-states such as Japan are all about.

In a technical sense Ploni Almoni has a point, but I mean “nation” in a more general sense, and perhaps should have simply said “polity.” Humans organize themselves into groups with structure and hierarchy.  We formalize this in some cases into political orders.  And a distinction between those who are members of said order and those who are not has always been the norm. On the other hand, I would leave the nature of that distinction within the specific political order to that self-governing entity. In other words my vision of what a political order must be in an international sense is rather spare, or “thin.”  In contrast I believe it is totally acceptable for nations to have “thick” local self-conceptions. The Japanese for example speak one language, are overwhelmingly Buddhist-Shinto of religious outlook, were raised in the nation of Japan and are of Japanese ethnicity. This rather precise self-definition means that Korean Japanese, born in Japan, speaking Japanese, remain outside of the national perception as full participants in the political order. This detailed specificity obviously is not true of all nations.  Brazil for example is a racial compound of Africans, Europeans, Middle Easterners and East Asians, and all of these combinations thereof.  Though in stark contrast with the Japanese case I believe that the Brazilian system is totally legitimate, because my own conception of what a nation-state should be is “thin” and pluralist. 

In contrast many liberals seem to flatten the distinction between the national and international scale, and demand that the former become thinner and the latter thicker. Nations must not be racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. to be legitimate members in good standing.  But within nations specific loyalties or attachments are rendered illegitimate, and national orders are turned into legal entities which exist only for administrative convenience. The muddying of the international and national scale leads to an obvious conclusion: the latter is simply presumed to eventually give way to the former at the End of History.

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