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Monday, January 4, 2010

Go Us!

I'm reading a story at the moment. It's pretty good, but I'm having trouble deciding who to root for.

It starts off OK. About 150,000 years ago Homo sapiens evolves in Africa and starts exploring the world. It's easy to support them - they're humans, battling for survival in a world of wild animals (and Neanderthals, in some cases). Woo, go us!

But then it gets confusing. The humans split up into nations, and they start conquering each other. Which side to cheer on? Take the Sumerians, who built the world's first cities over 7000 years ago, in what's now Iraq. They were conquered by the Akkadians, who also lived in what is now Iraq. Who was "us" and who was "them" in that conflict? Neither.

I'm English, so you might expect that it would get easier when the British Isles come into play. But it doesn't. When the Romans start invading Britain in 55BC, I initially rooted for the native Britons, defending their lands against the Roman oppressors. I'm a Briton, right? 2000 years ago, there were Britons living where I'm sitting right now! Go us!

However, I then found out that in the end the Romans won, and took over. The Britons ended up confined to the fringes of the islands, hundreds of miles away. So I'm a Roman, not a Briton, and I should have supported the armies of Rome as they brought the benefits of civilization to the primitive Briton barbarians. But then, a few hundred years later, the Anglo-Saxons successfully invade, and then again with the Normans - leaving me really confused.

Once we get to the Middle Ages, English people are finally on the scene, but things don't get much easier. For example, at first, I was 100% behind the English colonists who settled North America. The French were trying to take over the continent too, but we beat them - go us! (As for the natives, they split off from us about 50,000 BC, the losers.)

But hang on - a few pages later those colonists are declaring, and achieving, independence. They're them, suddenly. Hmm. But doesn't that mean I shouldn't have rooted for the colonists in the first place, since they ended up fighting a war against us? When did they stop being "English" and become "Americans"? Us, them?

Overall, the story is OK, but it needs editing. It's unnecessarily complicated, and it's hard to identify with any of the characters.


What I'm saying here (inspired by this book I'm reading, although there are better world histories out there) is that "identity" is not real. I could identify myself with the Normans, or the Romans, or the Britons, or indeed the Native Americans. None of these would be right or wrong. I'm me, and all the other people were themselves, individuals. "Us" and "them" are all in my head.

If you look anyone up on Wikipedia the first three things you get are their name, their dates, and their nationality. Only then do you learn what they did. "Charles Robert Darwin (12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882) was an English naturalist..." But it's only in past few hundred years that nationality has been thought of an important part of identity. In Europe 500 years ago, the King of England had little, if anything, in common with an English peasant. They barely even spoke the same language. He had a lot in common with the King of France or the Queen of Poland, though - in fact, they were probably related.

It's a historical accident that I think of myself as "English", and it's a historical accident that we think of ourselves in terms of nations at all.

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