Saturday, June 21, 2014

The National Trap

Values? Who has values these days? Or do we just have values, but we don't notice them because we just see them as part of everyday life?

WTF are "British" values? Should I feel un-British because I question the very idea of "British values", let alone the merit of "teaching" them? Or should I feel un-British for trying to distance myself from some of the shit that British leaders seem happy to foster? Maybe "Britishness" is akin to "normalness", and remains defined by whatever the majority of people would like to be, rather than what is.

Truth is, I have no idea what a nation is any more. Boundaries seem fairly arbitrary - and practically, dividing things up along geographical lines is less and less useful. Connections get stronger between global entities - from transnational corporations down to individual interactions. And on the flip side, splits within national boundaries get more uneven all the time - between the 0.1% and the 99.9%, between the top 50% and the bottom, between the baby boomers and the young, between the North and the South(-East). "National" doesn't cut it any more.

"National" is, I would say, now defined at the level of a straw man - a romantic ideal intended to summon up feelings of bulky togetherness. It is akin to a referral to the great "general public", "the masses", or even "immigrants". It is a stereotype being turned into a myth. It is certainly not to be trusted.

This Chinese media article, for instance, goes to great lengths to near-mock the arrogance of the British nation:

Britain's national strength cannot be placed in the same rank as China now, a truth difficult to accept for some Britons who want to stress their nobility. If they refuse to recognize this fact and find fault with China on purpose, even at the cost of bilateral relations, they will not find any mental comfort. Chinese society is more and more relaxed in dealing with Sino-UK ties, while the British could not be pettier. 
I was actually going to blog this as a "yeah, they're right" thing. But I realised it was impossible to blog it as a British blogger without some element of paradox. (And as a Sino-Saxon myself, also some element of personal dichotomy.)

(Perhaps this personal dichotomy is at the core of the confusion though. Britishness is nothing constant because Briton itself has changed so much in the last hundred years - or more. The proof is in my blood. It is like trying to describe the Beatles' musical style - when in fact, they merely absorbed everything they could. Is there, in fact, anything called Beatles-like music?)

I'm about to give a talk on Bitcoin, and one of the key points will be around the emergence of global platforms, and global trade systems - welcome to the world of the net. Sure there are similar lines - if not even more entrenched - on the Internet. But culture jumps the gaps quickly when it wants to. Finding a new set of values is as quick as creating a new account. Language is its own device.


The debate on values needs taking apart. The debate on nations needs to start. Before we fall into a trap, and it's too late to get out.

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