National Identity and Globalization

Can a person be at once a U.S. citizen and a citizen of the world? I think so; but many disagree. U.S. foreign policy is sharply at odds with attitudes in other parts of the world, especially among Islamic populations. Facing harsh criticism from other nations, we become defensive, tending to disassociate ourselves from foreigners. They are ingrates, cheaters, and - yes - terrorists. A majority of Americans think we should withdraw from the United Nations. We think we are an island of virtue.

Part of this attitude has to do with economic problems related to globalization. Some say that economics drives relations among nations. Maybe it does, but there is also a human side to globalization. The current order, based on “free trade”, aims at maximizing economic efficiency. Its hidden agenda is to allow multinational firms to utilize low-cost labor in some countries to produce goods and services for sale in other countries where wages and price levels are higher. That is a formula for generating quick profits.

The human side of free trade shows up in the dislocation of workers. In the consuming nations, high-priced union jobs - and increasingly technical and professional jobs as well - are eliminated as the work is done by people in other nations who will accept much lower pay. Conversely, in a low-wage country such as Mexico, free trade in grain disrupts the rural economy. Price competition from corn imported from Canada and the United States drives dirt-poor Mexican farmers off the land. They seek a better future in urban centers and, in some cases, migration to the United States. In theoretical terms, this international mobility of labor may or may not increase aggregate monetary wealth but it certainly comes at a cost in terms of human comfort, dignity, and sense of personal identity.

The Importance of Identity

Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the 2001 Nobel prize in economics, has written several books about the human impact of globalization. He believes there is a problem in that “economic globalization has outpaced political globalization. Governments used to ensure that capitalism was tempered and that development helped people across society. Now, we are more interdependent and need collective action on a variety of things, yet we have yet to create the political structures that allow that to be done in a democratic way.” Increasingly, he believes, the economic and political order must accommodate the dignity of the individual including a sense of national self-esteem. In insisting that only the economic aspect be considered, the free-trade agenda ignores that need. As the following quotation indicates, Stiglitz thinks that it violates that sense of a healthy personal identity which allows human societies to flourish.

“Q: Is individuality inevitably lost in all this (the process of globalization)?

A. There is increasing recognition by economists that people have to have a sense of identity in order to cooperate and prosper. For example, it makes sense for countries to subsidize their own movie industry. If Morocco subsidizes its film industry, it is probably not going to undermine Hollywood. Yet there is lots of pressure on Morocco to abandon those types of subsidies.” 1

It was the French who first made an issue of Hollywood’s threat to the French national culture. Objecting to “American cultural imperialism”, they recognized the unique place of cultural products in maintaining their own society. Cost efficiencies and marketplace preferences must defer to the claims of a strong national identity. And so it is as well that the cultural artifacts of the west have profoundly antagonized Muslim peoples. It is not Christianity so much as secular influences from western films and television shows that convinces such peoples that westerners are irreverent and corrupt. All the materialism and loose living, nudity and consumption of alcohol, which would tend to titillate western audiences and drive up ratings or ticket sales, convinces Muslims that they are dealing with an immoral society. America is the “great Satan” which must be put down.

Religion as a Tool to Resist Imperial Culture

Man does not live by bread alone. Economic dogma alone should not drive the processes of globalization. Government policy should respect the dignity of the individual. It should respect the dignity of nations and of nationalities. It should respect the various religions that define national identity. Right now, the United States is at war with what President Bush calls “Islamo-fascism”. Others would say his government is at war with the religion of Islam and with peoples who embrace that religion. I would argue that the conflict centers upon competing identities. These are the different identities of nations and peoples expressed in terms of religion.

We must be clear about this. Even though a world religion such as Christianity or Islam has an ideological component, its political significance is that it shapes the culture of particular peoples. A creed is something which anyone can embrace, depending upon his or her state of mind. On the contrary, a religion - even a creedal religion - is the core of a culture belonging to a certain people. In Judaism, the religion is obviously linked to a people. But in Christianity and Islam as well, people embrace the religion not so much because they were individually persuaded by the merit of its ideas but because it is the religion of their parents, and of their parents’ parents, going back many generations. Irish or Italian immigrants to the United States were overwhelmingly Catholic; and their children tended to remain with that church. Immigrants from northern Europe tended to be Protestant. Those from India tended to be Hindu; those from middleastern countries, Muslims. That is because religion was a defining characteristic of their culture which shaped their personal identity.

In the case of Islamic society, the conflict started, I believe, when the societies of the middle east and south Asia confronted western culture. The west was rich and powerful. Its entertainment-centered culture was immensely appealing. And so, Islamic people were forced to accept the western way of dealing with the world, as if the Islamic religion were outmoded. This was an affront to their dignity as people. The political order, deferring to western power and wealth, was saying in effect that their ancestral culture was inferior. It was saying that their religion was no longer important. And because religion was the core of their personal identity, it was saying that they themselves were not important. They were nobodies in the contemporary order. No wonder Islamic peoples rebelled. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exacerbated the conflict, an underlying cause was that western culture and might exerted an imperialistic influence over these people which was an affront to their dignity.

This is not the first time that such a thing has happened. The Jews themselves - seen by Moslems as perpetrators of violence against the Islamic identity - were once caught in the same situation as a people with a culture that seemed outmoded in terms of the reigning cultural paradigms. Think back to the beginning of the 2nd century B.C. when Judaea was part of the Greek Seleucid empire. Greek culture, centering upon the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, and others, was an obviously superior type of culture in relation to the religious cultures of provincial peoples such as the Jews. The political leaders of the area were all educated in this advanced culture. Their large cities were organized according to the Greek plan.

All this might have gone unchallenged, despite nationalistic resentment of the subjected people, had not the Seleucid emperor Antiochus Epiphanes IV, an ardent hellenizer, decided in 167 B.C. to erect a statue of Zeus Ouranios in place of the altar in the Temple at Jerusalem. That infamous act provoked a revolt against Seleucid rule led by the five sons of the Jewish priest Mattathias. Their Maccabean rebellion succeeded in establishing a Jewish theocratic state in Palestine.

The period of more than a century when the Maccabean princes ruled Palestine as the Hasmonean dynasty is important in religious history. Not only did it set Judaism upon a firmer political footing, but it also produced a religious culture that set the stage for Jesus’ arrival as a Messiah foretold by the prophets. There was then a prophetic literature expressing intense conflict between Jewish religious nationalism and the international culture of the Greeks and Romans. They, the Jews, saw themselves as uncompromising champions of righteousness who compared themselves to light appearing in the darkness.

And since Judaic religion looked forward to a Messiah who would permanently avenge the Jews’ subjugation to foreign peoples, it opened the door for Jesus to identify himself with that character. Jesus as the slain but risen Messiah established the Christian religion which allowed all peoples to participate in the Judaic type of religion. It eventually conquered the Roman empire itself. And then, six centuries later, came the prophet Mohammed. Again sensing the religious and cultural inferiority of Arab peoples, this prophet brought monotheistic religion first to the Arabs and then to many other nations in north Africa, the middle east, and south Asia. Christianity and Islam used the key of religion, created by the Maccabees and others, to elevate once-subjected people to a position of power and influence in this world. This key continues to serve Islamic peoples today in their struggle against western hegemony.

And so globalization has not proceeded harmoniously as western leaders would have hoped. The ideas of freedom and democracy, backed by U.S. military power and wealth, cannot simply roll over peoples of the middle east forcing them to “see the light”. An opposing force arises to assert the claims of identity. Religious sectarian violence has interfered with western-style “nation building” in Iraq. While religion is the cloak in which this resistance appears, really it is resistance to a foreign occupying force. Islamic peoples feel themselves to have been violated by the west. The culture imposed upon them by America, even if it removed the tyrant Saddam Hussein, is one which does not do justice to their own sense of religious and ethnic identity. That is what is missing in the Pentagon plans.

Identities based on Hating or Despising Someone Else

The New York Times columnist David Brooks has come to realize that the process of globalization is more complicated than what enlightened reason might deliver. There is such a thing as group pride or wanting a dignified place in the world. Brooks writes: “I used to see the world as a landscape of rolling hills ... Globalization seemed to be driving events ... It seemed to be creating, with fits and starts, globalized individuals, who had one foot in a particular culture and another foot in a shared flow of movies, music, products and ideas ... People everywhere seemed to want the same things: to live in normal societies, to be free, to give their children better lives ... Now it seems that was an oversimplified view of human nature. It’s true people everywhere want to satisfy their desires, but they also require moral systems that will restrain and give shape to their desires. It’s true people everywhere love their children, but they also require respect and recognition and they will sacrifice their own lives, and even their children’s lives, in wars for status. It’s true that people everywhere hate oppression, but they also require identity, and human beings build identities by collectively hating groups that represent what they are not.” 2

Brooks’ last statement is quite interesting. He is saying not only that people seek dignity through strong identities but that identities are built on hatred towards people unlike ourselves. We must hate foreigners to be true Americans. Jews must hate Christians and Moslems to remain Jewish. Moslems must hate the West. I would observe that this model of identity is based on a scheme inherited from Judaic religion. We start with the image of Moses confronting Pharaoh. If Moses does not “hate” Pharaoh, he is at least a virtuous and heroic leader, blessed by God, placed in opposition to an evil Egyptian oppressor. American blacks have identified with the Jews led by Moses to the “promised land” of deliverance from white oppression. Those who are materially poor believe themselves possessed by a spiritual richness that will turn the tables on those who currently have the advantage. You are either up or down - the “hammer” or the “anvil”, as Goethe puts it - rather than in a relationship of equality and peace with others in the world.

A purpose of this web site is to try to find another model of identity - one in which a person can be proud of what he or she has done without hating someone else. In American history, I have found various “American” identities which depend on despising other people. There are also a few which are purely positive; but they have often come under attack. I would propose that we abandon those models of identity that depend on opposition to another person or group and instead cultivate the positive sense of ourselves built upon our own creative strivings and accomplishments. The first step is to try to define ourselves as accurately as possible and then build a life, including personal relationships, upon the foundation which we ourselves have determined. I would prefer to build a foundation on which we can all be at peace with one another, not desiring someone else’s misfortune so we can succeed.

The American Identity and its British Violation p
rior to World War II

I am an American. My national identity has always been an important component of who I am since my ancestors came to this country many generations ago. What is an American, though? The definition of an American presents a special problem because the American people are racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse. One people’s culture cancels out another’s. That means that, in some sense, Americans are a divided people, even a confused people, in terms of the cultural continuity going back several generations. So we tend to live in the present, accepting whatever happens to be in vogue. We identify with particular entertainers, types of music, sports interests, or favorite consumer products. Our self-images are molded by what we see on television. Officially, of course, we are all Americans; and that, of course, means that we generally associate ourselves with policies and actions undertaken by the U.S. government which, in theory, is elected by ourselves. But if we do not happen to agree with those policies, then our sense of national identity comes in conflict with our larger moral sense. Ultimately, we become weak and confused.

I have recently learned via the Internet that the British government ran a secret news operation in the United States in the years immediately preceding World War II. The British desperately needed American support to withstand the impending Nazi invasion of their country. To get that support, they needed to cultivate pro-British and anti-German attitudes among the American public. Consequently, the British intelligence services ran an operation known as “British Security Coordination” (BSC) which has been described as “one of the largest covert operations in British spying history”, directed not against a potential enemy nation but against the United States. This was a program of news manipulation to persuade the American public, at the time strongly isolationist, that the U.S. government should join the British in fighting Nazi Germany.

With the “discrete compliance” of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, a Canadian agent of the British intelligence services set up an office in Rockefeller Center in New York City which became a center of what this agent, William Stephenson, called “political warfare” in the United States. A review of a book in Guardian Unlimited notes that “pro-British and anti-German stories were planted in American newspapers and broadcast on American radio stations, and simultaneously a campaign of harassment and denigration was set in motion against those organisations perceived to be pro-Nazi or virulently isolationist”, such as the America First Committee. 3

BSC successfully enlisted the help of prominent columnists such as Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson to spread the message it desired. It created a fake news agency, called Overseas News Agency, to “feed stories to the media as they required from foreign datelines to disguise their provenance.” A radio station, with call letters WRUL, was established to broadcast stories supplied by this agency. And once a story had been validated by airing upon this station as a “U.S. source” other U.S. media would pick up the story on the assumption it was based on fact.

In late 1941, an estimated 3,000 persons worked out of this secret office in Rockefeller Center, spreading pro-British propaganda. Dirty tricks were also part of its agenda. According to the article in Guardian Unlimited, “BSC invented a game called ‘Vik’ described as ‘a fascinating new pastime for lovers of democracy’. Printed booklets described up to 500 ways of harassing and annoying Nazi sympathizers. Players of Vik were encouraged to ring up their targets at all hours of the night and hang up. Dead rats could be put in water tanks, air could be let out of the subject’s car tires, anonymous deliveries could be made to his house and so on. In the summer of 1941, BSC sent a sham Hungarian astrologer to the U.S. called Louis de Wohl. At a press conference De Wohl said he had been studying Hitler’s astrological chart and could see nothing but disaster ahead for the German dictator. De Wohl became a minor celebrity.”

Perhaps the most notable “trick” played by the BSC was to publicize a map, most likely created by the BSC itself, which had supposedly been stolen from a German diplomatic courier in Argentina. This map “purported to show a South America divided into five new states - Gaus, each with their own Gauleiter - one of which, Neuspanien, included Panama and ‘America’s lifeline’ the Panama Canal ... The inference was obvious: watch out, America, Hitler will be at your southern border soon. The map was taken as entirely credible and Roosevelt even cited it in a powerful pro-war, anti-Nazi speech on October 27, 1941: ‘This map makes clear the Nazi design,’ Roosevelt declaimed, ‘not only against South America but against the United States as well.”

After the war, three veterans of BSC produced a lengthy document describing the history of this secretive organization. Ten typewritten copies were produced for private circulation. The secrecy surrounding this spy operation was partially broken when the biography of BSC’s leader, William Stephenson, was published in 1976, titled A Man Called Intrepid. Then, two years later, the entire manuscript was published. “To say it fell stillborn from the press would be an understatement,” the Guardian Unlimited article declared. Why? The article speculates:

“I think it’s fair to say that historians of the British Secret Services know about BSC and its operations, yet in the wider world it still remains virtually unheard of. The reason is the story of BSC and its operations before Pearl Harbor is deeply embarrassing and remains so to this day. The document is explicit and condescending about American gullibility: ‘The simple truth is the United States is inhabited by people of many conflicting races, interests and creeds. These people, though fully conscious of their wealth and power in the aggregate, are still unsure of themselves individually, (and are) still basically on the defensive.’ BSC set out to manipulate ‘these people’ and was very successful at so doing.”

This is an interesting commentary upon American identity. Evidently British intelligence considered the American people to be “gullible” and “unsure of themselves” as a people because they were demographically and religiously divided. By implication, someone with an undivided purpose could secretly or with the complicity of top U.S. government officials blatantly interfere with U.S. public opinion and with our nation’s political process. Winston Churchill’s motives were understandable and forgivable: he needed to have U.S. support to ensure his nation’s survival. But the fact that revered U.S. officials would allow this secret operation to be carried out on American soil raises serious questions. Even more, it is surprising that publication of a book documenting a hidden operation intended to manipulate Americans could attract such little attention. Presumably, the book was unable to attract reviews. Few columnists or commentators seemed to be interested in the subject.

The Guardian Unlimited reviewer speculates that exposure of the British spy ring in America might embarrass the American people, seen as gullible and prone to external manipulation. Additionally, I would speculate that the British spy operation receives so little attention because, while it violated American sovereignty, the fight against Nazi Germany is seen today as entirely justified. The same historians, writers, and journalists who today continue to defame Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford as Nazi sympathizers would certainly not criticize what the British did to induce the Americans to enter the war against Nazi Germany. They would not want to give their political enemies any ammunition to suggest that this effort was anything less than noble. Thus, historical revisionism and the fight against prewar isolationists continue unabated as they likely will for generations to come.

Not Just a Stupid Giant

Furthermore, I would suggest that covert news operations, pioneered by British intelligence, may well be in place today. This model of what Stephenson called “political warfare” is alive and well in America. I suspect that there are journalists in the so-called “mainstream media” who have hidden political agendas; and there is an almost violent reaction against anyone who would use the term “conspiracy” to describe the coordination between unseen actors within these media to present a surprisingly uniform message on certain subjects. Additionally, I would suggest that the secretive methods employed by the so-called “neo-cons” to persuade President Bush and the administration to attack Iraq and soon, perhaps, Iran bear a striking resemblance to what the British did with F.D.R.’s consent prior to U.S. involvement in World War II. The same cooperation between news agencies and political insiders allows certain points of view to run rough shod over free speech and free thought, whose processes would normally produce diverse opinions, in what is left of our democracy.

What troubles me the most is what this says of American identity. America is a stupid giant waiting to be manipulated by smart insiders lurking in its own institutions of power. We have the wealth and military machine to dominate the world. What puppeteer wants to use us for his purposes? Any secretive, well-organized group with that desire can do so freely because Americans have no clear identity. They have no national self-consciousness. They have no ability or will to defend themselves or their nation. Alternatively put, America is “a land of opportunity” allowing anyone to come here and take without giving. It’s a place simply to get rich. But the nationality itself has no soul. Take what it has, dump your waste, and then move on to some place else you call home.

That is what is most troubling about the American identity. Being an American is all I have. I want to make something of myself and my community, both now and for generations to come.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

1 Interview with Joseph Stiglitz, author of a book, Making Globalization Work, and winner of the 2001 Nobel prize in economics. From an interview in U.S. News & World Report, September 18, 2006, p. 28

2 David Brooks, New York Times columnist, Sept. 8, 2006 Star Tribune p. A19

3 Review of William Boyd’s novel, Restless, in the Guardian Unlimited, Saturday, August 19, 2006.


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