Friday, 26 March 2010

What's your Nationality?

“Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!

- Walter Scott

“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”

- Samuel Johnson

As someone who has lived outside his native land for over a quarter of a century now, the question of my national identity often exercises me. My study of history has led me to be generally suspicious of “nationalism” and I find much value in the view that nationalism (or at least a particular expression of it) was one of the major roots of the frequent cataclysms of mass murder and sufferings which convulsed the globe throughout the 20th. Century. From a rational point of view it seems in many ways ludicrous to feel a particular attachment to a geographical/political/cultural entity – a country – just because one happened to be born there. And, in many cases, this quickly goes farther, to a belief that we, and the way we do things, are better than others and the way they do things.

There is much of this which can be easily explained, although understanding some of the reasons why things are the way they are often doesn’t do much about changing things which are very deep in us.

We are still, basically, primates. Ok, we’ve come a long way and are (arguably) much cleverer than our monkey cousins; we have tilled the earth and subdued it and taken dominion over everything and all that stuff. Primates are social animals, that’s the way they survive. They live together in a group, find their identity there, cooperate to make a living and protect each other. They find their status there, bickering and competing with each other for position, looking after their children and weaker members (at least to some extent), obeying and adulating some (thereby bestowing prestige), ostracising others. They tend to react aggressively to other groups of the same species – partly because they are competing for similar resources, more viscerally felt, simply because they are not-us. This is the way evolution made us; the fittest who survived.

On the way, however, something else happened – the complex story of our development led to us developing reflective (self-)consciousness, rationality. We developed the ability to examine ourselves and our behaviour, to reflect on it and change it in the light of other aspects that this development gave rise to (or helped us discover, depending on your viewpoint); religion, morality, philosophy, sociology, political science, etc. Our way of living grew complex, the groups grew larger, differentiated, developed sub-groups, combined or were subjugated; tribes formed, principalities, kingdoms, republics, nations.

Monkey business writ large, if you like – but there’s still a lot of monkey in us and it’s how we feel comfortable. Still, there is a lot of it that’s completely irrational, stuff that we should be able to go beyond.

Stuff we have gone beyond, in many respects. We have the United Nations and the International Court of Justice, even if these organisations have vast room for improvement. In Europe we have the European Union, something the peaceful development of which has changed our lives dramatically in the past fifty years, mostly (in my opinion at least) for the better. We have many edifying visions of our common humanity and our common responsibility for each other and our planet. Our global village is growing together in many practical ways, not least through the literally world-wide web, which enables us to form all sorts of new communities, unfettered by geographical, national, racial or cultural differences.

I’ve lived in Germany for 24 years now. I speak the language fluently, as well as anyone who has basically learned it as an adult probably can. I feel genuinely comfortable here; I have my job, my daughters and grandson here (although this, like everything, can and may perhaps change at some time in the future), I have friends and colleagues and acquaintances. I know how things work, all the little things you need to know to survive and thrive – like where you go to buy particular things, how to do your tax returns, what number to call when you need a doctor or a pizza, what’s in and out in all sorts of groups, how groups relate to each other, etc., etc. I’m at home here. Around ten years ago I got a letter from the local authorities telling me I was entitled to citizenship. There was just one small snag.

I’d have to give up my Irish passport. I couldn’t do it. It’s no big thing. As an EU citizen, I have the same rights as Germans here, with the small exception that I can’t vote in national or Länder elections and can’t be elected to the Bundestag. But something in me balked. Pushed to it, I just wasn’t prepared to officially give up my Irish nationality. From a practical point of view, this is completely illogical. The way my life looks at the moment, the chances that I’ll stay here for the rest of my life are fairly high. Apart from anything else, Ireland has changed enormously since I left and I haven’t a clue about how all sorts of practical things work there nowadays.

I don’t believe that being Irish is better than being German or vice versa, that’s got nothing to do with it. My Irish identity would remain, no matter what passport I had. I could still cheer when the Irish soccer team occasionally win and curse when they more frequently lose. I could still retain my continuing interest in what’s going on in Irish politics and culture. Officially becoming a German, officially acknowledging that I’m at home here wouldn’t have to change anything about the feeling I have when I visit Ireland that that’s going home too.

Only it would, somehow. It’s not rational, not logical. Something about roots, about an important part of me being where I come from. Just me. So, in two years time, I’ll be sending my passport off to the Irish Embassy in Berlin to have it renewed for another ten years.

Monkey business.

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