Twelve Hong Kong democrats have pleaded guilty to participating or inciting others to participate in the banned Tiananmen Massacre vigil last year. Albert Ho, vice-chairperson of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, gave his own submission in court.
People in the public gallery clapped after Ho finished his submission. HKFP shares his words in full.
I am the 2nd Defendant in this case, which is in respect of the candle light vigil held in Victoria Park (“the Park”) on June 4, 2020. As the Deputy Chairperson of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement of China (“the Hong Kong Alliance”) responsible for holding the Assembly, I have pleaded guilty to the charge against me. I think I am obliged to provide a comprehensive narrative of the history of the June 4 candle light vigils during the past 30 years to provide the factual background for your Honour to make the necessary decision.
The relevant history originated in May and June 1989 during the outbreak of the democracy movement in Beijing. At that time, a massive social movement was initiated by the students, who were joined by thousands of citizens, and conducted in a peaceful and rational manner: including various assemblies and marches. The objective of the movement was to protest against corruption and demand for democracy.
The movement was eventually put to an end by the Chinese Government which sent troops into Beijing City on the mid-night of June 4, resulting in the bloody suppression of the people who were then protesting peacefully on the streets in Beijing.
Why did Hong Kong, then a British Colony situated thousands of miles away at the periphery of the Country, get so much involved in the 1989 Democracy Movement? The answer is simple and straightforward: Hong Kong People who were about to reunite with our Mother Country did cherish the aspiration that she would move forward to become a free and democratic Nation. They were also deeply moved by the sincere and altruistic spirit of the Beijing students, so that was why they rose spontaneously to support the Democratic Movement. For the period from May 21 to June 4, many Hong Kong citizens had taken part in at least three massive processions, each participated by over one million people. At the same time, there were hundreds of Hong Kong students and citizens, joined by reporters, personally attending the Tiananmen Square in Beijing to support the Beijing students. The Hong Kong Alliance was spontaneously formed by various local social organizations for the purpose of preparing and organizing the processions and assemblies in Hong Kong. In that period, public events and actions took place nearly every day, the organisers and the participants maintained very good communication and co-operation with the police and there was no worry that there might be any breach of the laws regulating public order and security, leading to prosecution.
Why did the Hong Kong Alliance still continue to commemorate June 4 and demand the vindication of the 1989 Democracy Movement persistently after the suppression of the Movement in 1989? In short, it is due to the moral commitment and conscientious duty willing to be taken up by the Hong Kong People. There are three important pertinent facts:
(I) In 1989, the Hong Kong persons who took to the street to support the Beijing Students’ Movement were motivated by a simple and genuine patriotic spirit and affection for their Chinese compatriots. We felt we were spiritually and emotionally connected with our patriotic brothers and sisters. When the Hong Kong participants personally witnessed, through watching the media broadcasts, the bloody suppression on June 4, they were all sadly outraged. They won’t forget this piece of history, which is why they felt morally obliged to pass on to the younger generations through collective memories, to ensure that our People will not suffer from amnesia about history. On the eve of June 4 during the bloody suppression, many Hong Kong citizens and students were staying together with the crowds of civilians staging peaceful protests on the Beijing streets. They were shocked to see the sudden shooting by the troops at the peaceful and unarmed civilians. Many civilians were shot and collapsed. However instead of dispersing due to fear, the Beijing people stayed together to form a human shield wall to protect the Hongkongers. According to the testimonies made by the Hong Kong students and reporters present at the vicinity, the Beijing citizens cried and urged with tears, begging the Hong Kong People to return to Hong Kong safely and to tell the truth of what had happened that night to the whole world, namely that our government slaughtered her own people. Those people returned to Hong Kong with tears, bearing their conscientious commitment to bring the truth back to Hong Kong in order to relay it to the whole world. How could our People renege on their promise and forget their commitment?
During the last 30 years, we, the Hong Kong People, have delivered on our moral commitment by protecting the historic truth of June 4 and preventing its being distorted, whitewashed or forgotten.
In the Mainland, open discussion of June 4 has always been forbidden in the public arena. Therefore, the historical question of “right” or “wrong” about the 1989 Democracy Movement has been left in the shadow of silence, as if the whole nation is suffering from amnesia about June 4. On the other hand, in this small city of Hong Kong, we speak as the conscience for the whole nation, protect the truth of history and the dignity of the People.
During the past 30 years, the Hong Kong Alliance has thus conscientiously undertaken the role of protecting the truth of June 4, together with Hong Kong residents. For this, we set up the June 4 Museum, organised seminars and different forms of commemorative activities, amongst which the most prominent was the June 4 candle light vigil held annually with the widest support of many participants. According to the public record, for 30 years from 1990 – 2019, the candle light vigil was invariably held on June 4 every year in the Victoria Park even when there was heavy rain or storms. The number of participants every year varied from several tens of thousands to about two hundred thousand. Every time, the vigil was conducted peacefully and orderly, never causing any threat to public safety or disruption of public order.
It has been said that in the recorded history of mankind, there has never been so many people who have persisted for such a long period (i.e. 30 years) in gathering for a public assembly on the same evening (i.e. June 4) every year at the same venue for the purpose of speaking truth to power.
In the year 2020, the government for the first time since 1989 objected to the holding of the June 4 vigil at the Victoria Park for the reason of seeking to prevent the spread of the new Covid- I 9 infection. After failing in the appeal against the police decision, the Executive Committee decided not to organise the candle light vigil in the way it did in the past, simply because we were unable to install the sound system and the big screen together with the stage platform and also could not organise a team of volunteer workers of 300-500 persons, which rendered us unable to exercise effective crowd control for a large-scale mass gathering. The Executive Committee therefore decided to conduct a simple commemorative activity on our own that evening at the Victoria Park in the most symbolic way and connect with the Hong Kong People online in real time. At that time, we anticipated that even though we decided not to hold the massive commemorative event in the Park as usual, there would probably be some people attending the Park to commemorate June 4 on their own. That was exactly what happened on that evening.
There was no effective sound system on that evening, therefore the Executive Committee was unable to directly communicate or interact with most of the persons scattered around the football pitches. Although our Chairperson Lee Cheuk Yan did shout slogans and sang, he did it mainly for the purpose of connecting instantaneously with the People outside the Park or even outside Hong Kong via the internet. Strictly speaking, any interaction between the Executive Committee members of the Hong Kong Alliance with participants inside the Park took place spontaneously without any prior planning.
In conclusion, it is admitted the commemorative activities, or gathering that took place on June 4 was against the Public Order Ordinance due to the failure to obtain a notice of no objection by the Police. (This scheme is presently subject to a constitutional challenge in the Court of Appeal but I do not intend to mount during this hearing). However, we were driven by our consciences and moral commitment to make our best endeavours to maintain this historic tradition of commemorating June 4, remembering the lesson of history and speaking truth to power.
Your Honour, apart from engaging in my legal practice as a lawyer during the last 40 years, I have also devoted myself to a political career (as a legislator) and to the social movement. It is my firm commitment to promote democracy and uphold human rights and the Rule of Law in Hong Kong, as well as in my Mother Country. I had experienced the decolonisation process during the transition period of Hong Kong’s return to her Mother Country. Before and after the June 4 suppression, I as a democracy fighter together with many others, decided not to emigrate and even declined to apply for a British passport under the British Nationality Scheme offered by the retreating colonial power.
Your Honour, on June 4 in the year 2020, we including some Defendants having pleaded guilty to the charge, had only sought to exercise our fundamental freedom to commemorate June 4, as motivated by our conscience and moral courage. We did admit that we had failed to comply with certain legal requirements by failing to obtain a notice of no objection from the Police. In the historical and social background and context as stated above, we engaged in an act of civil disobedience and are willing and prepared to accept the legal consequences arising therefrom. In times to come, even if the Hong Kong Alliance were to be disbanded and the June 4 candle light vigil at Victoria Park banned, the commemorative spirit still survives with the candle light illuminated in the hearts of the Hong Kong People on June 4 every year.
We shall remain positive and hopeful, waiting for change in the times to come, because we believe we are on the right side of history and the development of human history will not stop.
Your Honour, we respect your legal responsibility as the judge to sentence me and others. I am not asking for leniency for the purpose of mitigation, but I do hope and expect that the length of the sentence should be just and fair and proportionate, in the light of the historical background stated above and in light of the fact that the June 4 event was peaceful and orderly. Further, in view the similar nature of the sentences I am presently serving in prison, I would also respectfully ask your Honour to consider applying the totality principle.
I hope everyone will forgive me taking this week to break from our normal diet of history-and-pop-culture (though we are discussing a key historical concept here – it is me after all), but it is the July 4th weekend and I have been meaning to treat this topic for a while now. I must further beg the indulgence, of course, of all of you international readers for I am about to – in the proper tradition of my country- go on at some length about my country. I have at times noted that I chafe at the use of the word ‘nation’ or worse yet ‘nation-state’ to describe my country, the United States of America. And that distinction has come up more than once in the comments, with requests for more to elaborate.
So let’s talk about it. What is a nation and why isn’t the United States one?
But first, before we dive in, as always if you like what you are reading here, please share it. If you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings. Finally, if you really like it, you can support my writing on Patreon.
First, we ought to note at the outset that it is not a new thing to describe the United States as a nation, at least in very general terms. No less authority than George Washington did so in his addresses to Congress and his farewell address, though in reading, Washington’s use of the term is doesn’t quite map on to its modern meaning; he tends to use nation when he wants to stress the constructed unity of the country (as, in the farewell address, the various parts of the country being “directed by an indissoluble community of interest as one nation” despite the fact that he had spent an entire paragraph noting regional differences significant enough that by the technical definition of nation, they ought to disqualify the young republic). Of course the United States has all sorts of ‘national’ things – museums, parks, cemeteries, debt, etc. And this sort of usage – where ‘nation’ is really metonymy for a citizen body and the state that serves them – is well enough so far as it goes, so long as we understand the degree of imprecision.
The problem is when that metonymy (which is using one word in place of another related word, like saying one owns ‘wheels’ instead of an automobile) is mistaken for true, narrow, literal or technical meaning, as if someone thought that putting ‘boots on the ground’ meant that we need only drop some footwear out of a helicopter to solve a problem. One sees this all of the time, where arguments begin from the proposition that there is an identifiable American ‘nation’ (often with an identifiable ‘people’ that excludes quite a number of American citizens) or that the United States is a nation in a narrow sense rather than some other thing, like an ideology. And the error here is simple: by the narrow, technical definition, the United States is not, and has never been, a nation and is unlikely to become one in the near future.
Here it is necessary to clarify that ‘nation’ doesn’t just mean ‘country’ or ‘state.’ After all, there are quite a lot of different kinds of states and countries and only some of them are nations (or nation-states, which is when the nation and the state are coextensive). A ‘country’ is a territory and its associated polity; some countries are not states at all (Wales, for instance, is a country within the multi-national state of the United Kingdom) and while most of the world is divided up into states now, it was not always so. Mongolia was a country long before it was a state, for instance. There are, after all, quite a lot of historical polities which were not states.
And states come in different forms too. Quite a lot of post-colonial states, once one gets into it, are actually composite multi-national states functionally masquerading as nation-states (this, I suspect is one reason they tend to be so fragile; the notional form of the state doesn’t match its actual foundation). There are still several very clearly imperial states on earth as well; one may argue the United States is an empire in the technical sense (though large parts of that argument hinge on either substantially redefining ’empire’ or focusing the argument on Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa) but there are also traditional, unambiguous old-fashioned empires still. Several European states still hold vestiges of their old empires, Russia still controls 22 ‘constituent republics’ reflecting areas of non-Russian settlement with functionally no autonomy, making it quite clearly an empire under the traditional definition. And of course the People’s Republic of China also meets that traditional definition, it’s three largest ‘autonomous regions’ (Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia) being fairly obvious imperial possessions which are both ethnically different from the PRC itself (which openly presents itself as the Han Chinese national state) and also quite brutally subjugated by that state. Collectively those regions make up more than a third of the land area of the state; China may thus be a nation, but the People’s Republic of China is not a nation-state, it is an empire.
(Since I have opened this can of worms and we are here talking about the United States, I would argue that the better term for the United States’ global network of bases, economic arrangements and alliances is hegemony rather than empire, as a purely descriptive matter. Empire, as a technical term, is a system of direct territorial control (not for nothing does the term come from Latin imperium, meaning ‘command’). The American system, which aims to achieve the same sort of influence without direct territorial control, is something new and properly ought to be recognized as such. Of course new doesn’t necessarily mean good, but that’s an argument for another time.)
The rather unusual modern configuration of states, I think, fools a lot of people into imagining that the nation and its political expression, the nation-state, are the normal way that humans organize themselves. Or alternately that the nation-state is the ideal state. The nation-state, we should clarify, is sometimes framed as what you get when a nation acquires statehood, but quite a number of current nation-states are dictatorships run by individuals for their own benefit and the benefit of their cronies and historically speaking many (potentially most) nation-states emerged as a product of power-consolidation by the state rather than as an expression of the will of the people so the more limited ‘a nation-state is when the boundaries of the nation and the state mostly coincide’ will have to do. And since most of the world’s states right now are nation-states, or at least try to present themselves as such, many people are quick to assume that the nation-state is normalor even the correct form of state; other forms of state are often presented as archaic holdovers from an earlier age.
So What Makes a Nation?
Well, ‘Nation’ is one of those words with a long history and many definitions, some of which are like the metonymy we discussed – rhetorical fudges on the core definition. The root of the word is the Latin natio; it had the narrow meaning of one’s birth. Thus, for instance, Claudia Severa inviting her friend to come ‘ad diem sollemnem natalem meum,’ or “to my birthday party” – natalem here being a form of natalis, the adjective form of natio (that letter, by the way, is fascinating, not only for the look into every day life, but it is also the oldest confirmed example – where we can know and not just guess – of a woman’s own handwriting in Latin and perhaps in any language). But even during antiquity a natio could also mean a common birth, and thus come to mean a breed or species of something and thus a tribe, race or people. From there, the word entered French as nacion, meaning birth or place of origin and from there into English. The definition has changed little, as the fact that classical Latin remained a core part of the education of elites in both the Francophone and Anglophone worlds meant that the meaning of an obvious Latin loanword like ‘nation’ could never drift very far from its original roots. After all until quite recently, elite users of the word were likely to be continually exposed to it in its original, Latin context where it meant ‘birth’ and from there a group of people united by a common birth or origin.
(Latin’s other word for a common descent group, gens, has similar connections, being linked in its origin to gigno, ‘to give birth;’ thus for instance, Venus Genetrix, ‘Venus the birth-mother.’ The usages actually blend further; much like nationes (the plural of natio) could mean, in essence, ‘all of the peoples,’ gentes (the plural of gens) could do the same. Thus, for instance, the Roman ius gentium (often translated as the ‘law of nations’ or ‘law of peoples’) was the law in Rome at applied to all individuals equally, regardless of citizenship or origin, distinct from ius civilis, civil law, with applied to citizens only.)
Consequently, the idea of the ‘nation’ has always been fixed around the notion of a common birth or more correctly the myth of common birth. There are other elements in defining a nation of course: the group typically needs to be large, inhabit a shared, recognizable territory, and share common elements of culture (especially language) and a common history. But it is no accident that the common birth, the natio of nation, is central. A nation, precisely because it is supposed to share a common culture and history, is an entity that is imagined to extend both into the past and into the future, recreating itself, generation to generation; it is through the common birth that the common culture and history are supposedly shared. After all, a common history assumes some commonality stretching back to a prior generation.
Now we ought to be clear here that we are stressing the word ‘myth‘ in ‘myth of common origin’ quite strongly. As demonstrated by the work of folks like Benedict Anderson (Imagined Communities (1983)) and Azar Gat (War in Human Civilization (2006)) the nation in this sense is not a social or political form that exists in the wild, but is instead a thing that humans can invent and is usually the product of state-building rather than an organic cultural expression (for instance, the uniformity of French is a product of the government in Paris’ efforts to make it so, not an organic feature of the ‘French people’). Nations and nationalism and especially nation-states are relatively recent things; we are discussing people who until quite recently did not see themselves as having a common origin or destiny and who now claim their ancestors to have been of common stock typically in contradiction to the views of those very ancestors. Often national myths will paper over this with a myth that the nation was once, in the distant past, a single tribe or polity which expanded, splintered and must now be reunited (you will recall that notion showing up in the Fremen Mirage), but of course polities in the deep past were generally smaller and more fragmented; such myths rarely pan out. None of which is to say that the nation-state is an invalid form of polity, merely that we should not imagine it is the only valid kind of polity or that it is somehow more grounded and organic (or less artificial) than other polities. Like most polities, the nation-state is fundamentally built on a fiction.
As an aside, the traditional view of historians has generally been that nationalism (the ideology) and the nation itself are essentially modern phenomena, emerging in the 18th century. That position has been challenged, with arguments suggesting that various pre-modern polities ought to be understood as nations and even that certain pre-modern rulers harnessed something we might call nationalism in their messaging (e.g. A. Gat, Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism (2012)). My impression is that most historians remain profoundly hesitant to retroject the modern concept of a nation, nationalism and the nation-state back before the late-18th century. I share that hesitance, particularly on the question of if that national feeling extended below the elite in these potential pre-modern nations (which I think is essential for the definition; it isn’t enough for the French nobility to feel French, the French peasantry must as well), but I am not an expert on these particular societies and so reserve judgment. More broadly it seems to me that differences in mass-literacy and communications must make pre-modern nations meaningfully different from modern ones. At the same time, it is hard not to notice the formation of mega-ethnic groups even in the ancient world and the tendency of our sources to think about them in fairly ‘national’ terms; Egypt is often offered as the oldest example and there isn’t nothing to that idea.
So we have our definition of a nation: a people, historically connected geographically coherent territory, with a shared language, culture and myth of common birth-origin. The United States obviously fails this definition. It isn’t even remotely close.
To find a common ancestor or ancestral group – a national natio – that connects even a fairly modest majority of Americans, one would have to go back to proto-Indo-European-speakers living in tribes on the Pontic-Caspian Steppe around 5,000 BC or so – a place notably neither within the United States nor hearkened back to as a historical homeland by many Americans. Americans would also share that notional origin, if we go by language, with roughly 3.2 billion people, or about half of all humans on the earth (not all of whom, or – depending on one’s definitions – even most of whom, are white, I should note). Such a classification, “the United States is an Indo-European-speaking country” is true but only a bit more precise than “the United States is a country populated by humans” – the descriptive potential here is very limited. National identities are, after all, not merely about inclusion but also about exclusion; they do not typically overlap. While, as noted above, national myths of common origin generally are myths, in the case of the United States, even the myth-making collapses. Attempting to find a common birth origin for even a slim majority of Americans is a hopeless case (and as far as I can tell, only occurs to people who think ‘European’ is an ethnicity, apparently blissfully unaware that ‘Europe’ is a fairly big place with quite a number of different groups of people).
Common history is likewise a dud here, but that may require a bit more explaining. After all, there are certainly a set of historical events related to the American polity itself – the founding, the American Civil War, the World Wars, the Civil Rights Movement and so on – which form a key pillar of American civics. But these stories are connected to formation of the key institutions of the state; they are not stories of personal origins. While stories of the American founding tends to focus on the role of English settlers, only around 20% of Americans claim British ancestry and about half of those hearken back to Irish immigrants who arrived well after the founding. Needless to say, the ‘common history’ may not seem quite so common for those whose ancestors arrived on slave ships, or many decades after the founding, or the 13.7% of Americans who are foreign born, or, of course, those whose ancestors arrived over the Bering Ice Bridge perhaps twenty thousand years ago. For my own part, my ancestors filtered over the Atlantic during the 1800s and early 1900s; to the best of my knowledge, none of my ancestors fought in the revolution.
(There has been some frustration with that 20% rough figure above. So let’s break it down. The 2015 American Community Survey uses self-reporting; we might quibble with self-reporting if we were trying to actually chart the genetic history of Americans, but we’re not – this is about identity and so self-reporting is actually ideal. The relevant potentially ‘British’ ancestry reports are: Irish (10.6%), English (7.8%), American (7.2%), Scottish (1.7%) and Scotch-Irish (1%). While the survey notes that the English Americans were a meaningful undercount, note that the primary cause of this is those individuals reporting as ‘American’ so by simply including self-reported ‘Americans’ we have recaptured most of that potential undercount. And, because our question is identity, folks who might have English ancestry but identify as, say, Polish-American are safe to remove from the sample. We can also safely remove almost all people reporting Irish descent; the overwhelming majority of Irish Americans arrived in the 1800s. That leaves us adding English + American + Scottish + Scotch-Irish to get people whose reported identity might cause them to hearken back to ancestors who were present and free at the founding and we get 17.7% (7.8+7.2+1.7+1), having recaptured most of the English-ancestry undercount by including everyone identifying as ‘American’ (which in turn also includes a lot of people who don’t think their families go back to the founding). Or – with a generous upward rounding – about 20%. So yes, I did, in fact, account for the undercount of self-reported English-Americans. I’d add that the fact that this group can’t be meaningfully larger than around 20% is also pretty clear from just working backwards from all of the other reported ancestries.)
By raw numbers, none of these origins has much of a claim to be the ‘main’ shared history. This is a striking difference between the United States and many (though not all) other countries which I think isn’t much appreciated; there is no core American ethnicity in the sense of raw numbers. This is often obscured because ethnic distinctions which would be broken out in other countries are collapsed into large categories (like ‘White’ or ‘Hispanic and Latino’) in census documents and discussions. But 76.4% of Germans are ethnic Germans; none of the constituent countries of the UK is below 75% its core ethnic identity. In that context, with the great majority of people having most (or in some cases all) of their ancestors having lived within the bounds of the modern state for generations (in the case of Germany, typically generations before the formation of that state) there really is a ‘shared history’ stretching back quite some distance.
By contrast, as noted, Anglo-Americans make up perhaps as much as 18% of Americans (if we add together ancestry responses of English, Scottish, Scotch-Irish and simply ‘American’), which probably captures the lion’s share of individuals tracing their families back to free persons present at the founding (and a number of people whose families do not go that far). That’s not meaningfully larger than the slice of the country which reports German ancestry (14.7%) most of whose ancestors arrived between 1850 and 1930. It’s also not meaningfully smaller than the slice reporting Italian, Irish and Polish ancestry (collectively around 19%), groups arriving mostly between 1840 and 1910 but who often faced pronounced anti-Catholic bigotry in the predominately protestant United States. And those slices aren’t very different in size from the 12.4% of Americans who report Black African ancestry, most (though not all) of whose ancestors arrived on slave ships between 1619 and 1860. And that isn’t very much larger than the roughly 11% of Americans who report Mexican ancestry. And of course none of these groups is very much larger or smaller than the roughly 14% of Americans who were born somewhere else, immigrated and naturalized.
I could keep going, but the key thing here is that no group is really large enough to demand that their story be the central core narrative. “My ancestors were with the founders” has to coexist with “my ancestors were held in bondage by the founders” has to coexist with “my ancestors got here in the 1800s” with “my ancestors were here before the United States was and were forced in by violence” has to coexist with “my ancestors got here in the 1900s” has to coexist with “hey, I just got here!” For many people, they will have several of those stories in their personal ancestry. There is no single dominant American story, but a collection of American stories, none of which can claim primacy because none of them represent even a significant plurality of the population’s own personal origins, much less a majority. Instead, the core historical narrative that ends up in schools is a civic narrative, focused on the evolution of institutions and key moments shaping the modern idea of American citizenship rather than a national narrative following a specific ethnic group (which is why, despite the United States’ relatively recent origin, that civic narrative is generally not stretched very much further into the past than the colonial era; the history is a history of America, not Americans).
And territory is also a bust. Of course the United States now occupies a defined territory, but as noted, very few Americans have a longstanding attachment to this land stretching into the mists of time. In historical terms, most Americans got here only fairly recently. Moreover, the tale of American expansion is one in which the ‘soil’ of America was repeatedly notional; the United States was where Americans went (and of course we must note that the places they went were not empty, but seized violently from the inhabitants). The United States can travel and indeed has doneso. Moreover, ancient claims to the land – either arguments for autochthony or greenfield settlement – for the majority of Americans, are simply impossible; we all know darn well that we weren’t the first people here and that the United States does not have the most ancient claim to this land. Most nations claim to occupy a sacred, ancestral homeland; the United States is fairly open (if quite conflicted) about the fact that it occupies someone else’s sacred, ancestral homeland.
(As a necessary aside, of course there is one group of Americans who can quite correctly claim to have nations of their own: Native Americans. Individual Native American nations check all of the boxes: a historic tie to a territory stretching into the deep past, a myth of common origin, common language, culture and so on. To speak of Native American nations is thus not empty rhetoric, but simply correct usage of the term. Consequently almost everything I say about America and the nation needs a caveat that it doesn’t necessarily apply the c. 1.5% of Americans for are Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders; a truly national identity is still an option for those folks if they want it.)
If I may go a step further, it is not merely that America happens not to be a nation, but moreover that to be an American is to reject claims of the nation on one’s self in favor of association on different terms. This is something that makes the United States different from many (though perhaps not all) other non-nation-state polities. Many states which are not nation-states are not because they have some ethnic or national group that lives both on their own traditional land and holding to their own identity, but within the borders of a larger state, either as a subject people (like the Uighurs) or as a constituent people in a multi-national state (like the Scots). They are, in essence, multi-national states, with several nations existing either in a state of equality with each other or a state of domination and subjugation. But to be an American means that someone, somewhere in your heritage (likely many someones) broke the chain of connection between you and whatever mythical notional nation you may have otherwise been part of (mind you, not all Americans’ ancestors were given a choice in that rupture). Of course many Americans may still feel a connection to ‘the old country’ (wherever that may be), but the vision of ‘shared destiny’ that in theory unites a nation is shattered by adopting a different land, a different state and in most cases a different language and culture. Often at considerable personal cost. To be a United States citizen is fundamentally to have abandoned the nation as an organizing principle.
The United States is not just not a nation, it is a country that, by its very nature, activelyrejects the nation as a form, at least for itself (again, obligatory caveat that I am not saying nation-states are bad – some of my best friends are nation-states! – merely that the United States rejects being one itself).
What is the United States?
The United States is thus quite an oddity (though again, not necessarily unique, just odd). It is not a nation-state, nor is it a multi-national state, but rather a de-nationalized state. It is the un-nation. This is not to say America lacks a culture (as is sometimes oddly asserted); indeed, it has quite a few with wonderful regional variations which unfortunately include South Carolinian mustard-based BBQ but fortunately also include all of the other forms of BBQ. And of course the mass-marketing of culture and particularly of education has created a shared ‘national’ literary, entertainment and consumer culture, though in many cases these are part of an emerging globalized consumer culture.
Instead, with no national core, it is the legally defined identity, citizenship, which forms the core of the United States. In this, the US has something in common with the Romans whose core identity, as we’ve been seeing (and will continue to see) was heavily dependent on citizenship as the key identity-marker over other ethnic, religious and cultural signifiers.
One may fairly ask why all of this haggling about definitions matters. But this brings us back to the mistake at the beginning: mistaking the metonym of calling the United States a ‘nation’ for the reality of it. Attempting to make policy on the assumption that the United States is a nation begins with a category error; the carpenter does not know that he is sitting in front of loom; attempting to whittle the weft will not produce results. Take for instance the idea of ‘national unity,’ a phrase which gets used and in the broad sense is useful but of course in the narrow sense relies on the same metonym as every use of ‘nation’ to refer to the United States. Consequently, attempting to foster unity through the nation (as a concept) is a hopeless effort because the unity was never ‘national’ in a real sense to begin with. After all, what shared history, shared myth of origin will you draw upon that all Americans will find valid and applicable to them? I will leave it to you to spot the politico-historical projects which have foundered on these grounds, but they are many. Because of course what you could actually have is civic unity, a different thing with different causes which connects to the one shared identity, citizenship rather than a shared past.
But an appeal to the nation for unity is always going to leave quite a lot of American citizens – perhaps even most of them – cold. Try calling Americans to war to fight for the ‘bones of their ancestors’ and you see the problem immediately: whose bones? Which ancestors? Buried where? Different Americans will give very difference answers to those questions! But call Americans to war because “your fellow citizens were attacked” and the response is real and emotive. I’ve always suspected this is the same reason for the particular centrality of the United States’ founding documents; we do not all have the founding itself in common, but we do have the Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in common because those documents are understood to apply to citizens, regardless of where they fit in one’s ancestry and to guide the country as it exists now (this is presumably why the Articles of Confederation, no less historic, do not inspire the same patriotic feelings).
Worse yet is the idea that what the United States really needs is a national project, the sort of ‘nation building’ which transformed the fragmented states of Europe into a series of nation-states, to forge a national Blut und Boden (‘blood and soil’) identity out of United States citizens. It cannot be done; one may as well attempt to throw a pot from a bag of granite rocks, the raw material is wrong. Efforts to try to build this kind of national identity run aground on the same problem: whatever distant common history or myth of common origin one selects as the foundation for this kind of national project inevitably won’t be shared or understood in the same way by others, either because their ancestors weren’t here for that moment or found themselves on the unpleasant business end of it. This is not to say that Americans are immune to bad ideological projects, or that all national projects are necessarily bad (though some very much are), merely that the effort to form a nation generally fails because the basic ingredients are wrong. The necessary binding agent has been actively removed, though that hasn’t stopped regular efforts to replace it with crude populism and xenophobia. In a way, one may feel pity for the born-American who emotively longs for the comfort of the nation because it is something they cannot have, but then there ought to be a country for the people who would rather not be in a nation and here it is.
None of which is to say, as I have seen said, that the lack of a national consciousness weakens the United States, or represents some sort of flaw or failing. There are many ways to build a people; nationalism is only one of them and not necessarily the best. As we’ve been discussing, by the first century relatively few Romans could connect to a Roman ethnic or national identity (Livy overflows with alternate Italic identities rooted in different origins and ‘common’ (to them and not the Romans) histories; on that see P. Erdkamp, “Polybius and Livy on the Allies in the Roman Army” in The Impact of the Roman Army (200 BC – AD 476) eds. L. de Blois and E. Lo Cascio (2007). What is clear is that by Livy’s day there was a fairly vibrant literature stressing the heroics of allied contingents in the Roman army, distinguished by their then non-Roman identity, and although such narratives may have had at best a thin relationship with actual events, they speak to the alternative identities newly enfranchised Italians might have held to. That disconnect would only grow greater in the centuries to follow as Roman citizenship spread out of Italy and embraced people who truly had no connection to Rome as a place or the Romans as an ethnic group, but rather connected to the Roman polity as a citizen. Common origin wasn’t the glue that held the Romans together, common citizenship was, collective belonging to a polity which did not require shared ancestry or history.
(As an aside, I suspect this is the reason for another thing Rome and the United States share in common: multiple-choice foundation myths. For a Roman, Aeneas, Romulus, Ti. Tatius, Numa Pompilius, Servius Tullius, and L. Junius Brutus were all options for different sorts of ‘founder figures’ accomplishing different sorts of foundations. A Roman who didn’t much like the (patrician) story of Lucretia could emphasize the (plebian) story of Verginia to much the same effect. C. Mucius Scaevola (a youth, presumably unpropertied given that he is given a land-grant, Liv. 2.13) and P. Horatius Cocles (a patrician) and Cloelia (a patrician woman) provide in rapid series a set of alternative heroes; pick the one you like! Likewise, Americans have shifted emphasis from one framer, hero or founder figure to another; the multiplicity of framers makes it fairly easy, for instance, for Adams and Hamilton’s to come to more prominence lately as compared to say, Jefferson and Madison. Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. share the National Mall with George Washington; pick your monument and the moment of foundation that fills you most with that pride of citizenship. Again, not one common history, but a collection of histories connected to citizenship and the country.)
Successful efforts to actually unify Americans are thus likely to focus not on national identity (which we do not share) but on citizen identity, which we do and which lends itself to many other shared things: an attachment to the country’s laws and stated principles, the documents which set out those principles, the institutions we maintain together and on the community of interest that shared ownership of a polity create.Those unifying projects, in turn, can only succeed to the extent that citizenship really is held in common; it falters when the citizenship of some Americans is (or feels) only second-rate. But citizenship over nationality has its advantages; the nation is an exclusive identity, but citizenship co-exists more easily with other identities – a necessary advantage in a country as preposterously diverse as the United States. And the emphasis on the citizen body over the nation is clearly a factor in the United States’ exceptional ability to embrace large numbers of immigrants successfully.
And so my country isn’t a nation, but a collection of citizens drawn from all of the nations, setting aside those national identities; a family of choice, rather than a family of blood, united by common ideals rather than common soil. We haven’t always lived up fully to that high ideal. Sometimes the siren call of the nation haws pulled us down away from it. But the ideal and the republic built around it remains. And that is what I will be celebrating come July 4th.
In a way, one may feel pity for the born-American who emotively longs for the comfort of the nation because it is something they cannot have, but then there ought to be a country for the people who would rather not be in a nation and here it is.
Fig. 1 Standard (left) and prizewinning creative kanji for “to sit.”
The character (in both its standard and creative forms) is made up of three elements:
Of these, it is the last that is subtly manipulated here. That element, also an independent kanji in its own right, means “person.” By moving the two “people” apart, the contest winner expressed the idea of “sitting apart,” or social distancing.
Other particularly ingenious entries that also reflect the zeitgeist of 2020 include a reimagining of meetings, an ode to home delivery in surviving the pandemic, and an acknowledgement of pandemic screen time.
Fig. 2 Meetings go online with the addition of a Z for Zoom.
The bottom half of the character for “to meet” (kai) has been replaced with a Z. Instead of a meeting, then, a Zoom.
Fig. 3 Homing in on delivery.
The standard character 配 (hai), “to deliver,” is given a radical meaning house/home (宀) over the top.
From the elementary and middle school division came this clever deformation of the character 画 (ga). By itself it means “image,” “brushstroke,” or “to draw,” for example, but here the reference is clearly to its usage in 映画 (eiga), as in “movie.” The meaning of this creative kanji is “laptop computer.”
Fig. 4 Foldable kanji.
Not all of the best entries had to do with covid-19. A high schooler submitted this kanji for “deforestation” and, by extension, environmental destruction:
Fig. 5 Cutting down trees.
The character 森 (mori), which is a collection of trees 木 (ki) has been modified with the addition of strokes (cuts) through each tree.
There were also examples of characters that reminiscent of sniglets, often humorous coinages for words that don’t exist but should. Perhaps the best of these was a kanji for dried fish, which simply combined fish (魚) and dry (干). One of the judges remarked that he was just taken off guard by this strange kanji blind spot―it really feels like this kanji should already exist.
Fig. 6 魚 (fish) + 干 (dried) = dried fish.
The theme of this year’s contest was “kanji that still be around in a century.” Perhaps they should have gone for two centuries, since one of the winning kanji was for the number 200.
The character for 100 is 百 (hyaku). To this the entrant added an additional stroke on top. With this, the top two horizontal strokes are also the numeral 2 (二 ni).
So an agent for a new over-the-top variety act finally gets a meeting with the biggest producer in the world. I mean, maybe 'the world' is selling it short. Word on the street is this guy's even got God's ear, if you can believe it.
Years ago I learned a sequence to follow when giving things to people.
First, you must give a person what they expect. Then you can give them what they want. Finally, you can give them what they need.
Sadly, I almost always stumble on expect, but the few times I’ve followed this script have been magical experiences. The sequence works!
So, back in 2016 I watched the third Trump/Hillary debate and noticed something.
Hillary fluently spoke a dialect of English I dubbed “Standard American Politician” (SAP).
Trump did not.
What is SAP?
Listen to the sound of, “That’s an important issue, Ralph. We have laid out a comprehensive plan to move America forward on that issue.”
Notice it’s not just any old plan, it’s a comprehensive plan. SAP has a unique set of buzzwords with idiosyncratic meanings.
Notice the politician has told you this “issue” is, um, not a priority, but they are ready to trot something out in case the issue ever bubbles up during a campaign. You understand that meaning because you understand SAP.
SAP allows a politician to state things in a way that makes it difficult for others to miss-spin meaning.
And SAP also makes it easy to, ah, add nuance when the politician’s position “evolves”.
Is that the end of it?
No, the sequence of expect/want/need comes in play here.
Most people expect politicians to speak Standard American English. The higher the office, the more fluent the politician. If a politician does not speak SAP, then expect-people will miss a beat when they first hear the politician, but will get the message that this politician is running an outsider campaign. So. … Nothing of note.
Many people want their politicians to speak SAP. This makes sense. SAP has evolved to match its use. Meaning is more easily gleaned from SAP words. Etc. If a politician does not speak SAP, want-people will miss a beat, but will adjust as they might adjust to someone who speaks non-native English.
And, finally, some people need their politicians to speak SAP.
With that observation, in an instant, I understood a common, gut-level reaction to Trump.