I was lucky to go to the school I spent most of my childhood in. That experience taught me a lot about people and systems, what is important and just how much is unnecessary rubbish. This was not necessarily by their plan but rather by the existence of variety and circumstances which allowed me, the student, a wide exposure and enough lack of interference to come to my own conclusions. Set in the rocky hills of Muscat city, our then dust-ball playing field was very much at the centre of things and we’d all end up assembling there on occasions and days of note. The Indian Independence Day was one of those days.
Children would travel from far and wide, like a regular school day, and line up on the play ground. A flag would be ready to be hoisted near the stands. There would be some speeches, some songs by the Hindi choir, which I was a part of for several years, and then we’d all be given a laddu (an entire category of Indian sweets it’s worth looking up if you’re unfamiliar) and then we’d go home.
Not everyone would come for the hour of ceremony, but a surprisingly large number did. I’m sure some small number came out of a sense of duty, or national pride, or national pride forced upon them by their parents, but I always thought a large number came for the food, the laddu, or some savoury snack we’d be given after the assembly.
Patriotic songs and slogans
A few days ago, on the 15th of August, I was looking down at the second half of a flag hoisting ceremony in a large building compound. It was held next to the mandatory “club house” that is a part of most of these new developments. By the time I was up and about and observing the proceedings from a 9th storey window, the flag was already up. The loudspeakered slogans which woke me were followed by more nationalistic fervour, and the few attendees gathered in a circle and saluted the flag while some one butchered the national anthem.
I make it sound worse than it was, which was probably above average for these sort of things, but my school had set me up with high standards. We were not the most regulation and proper bunch, but we certainly put in a lot of effort into the presentation. That plus the songs, some of which our choir would practice for weeks and would be new every year.
Below my window a few days ago, the national anthem was replaced by a mix-tape of standard patriotic ditties, several of which were terribly sung by fast-food singers cashing in on the Independence Day marketing push. When the circle of saluters around the flag dispersed, they regrouped around the club house, where plastic chairs had been laid out, and with small paper plates in hand, they proceeded to chat and eat whatever indulgent goodies had been arranged for the day. It seemed very likely to me that like my fellow munchkins, decades ago, in a small rocky valley in Muscat, many of them had come for the food too.
This may sound like a put down of the people who are taking more effort than the rest of us lazy louts to keep these traditions going, but I assure you it is not. I think coming for the food is the most noble and honest thing, and I believe it’s the rest of our motivations at such events that deserve our scrutiny.
What are nations for?
All great institutions and collectives begin from a real need and with a positive purpose. Over time, the habits become rituals, the blind follow the blind, and the original purpose is severely eroded, if not completely lost in the mists of time and compliance. Nations are no different.
While it’s true that much of the history of nation states is a struggle for power and property, the idea of collecting under a common banner would surely have started on some long forgotten fertile plain as a purely practical way to use our strength in numbers. By building a bigger tribe, with a more organised cooperation between its members, with more authoritative leadership, we’d be able to do so much more, bring comfort to so many more with the same effort. For starters and most importantly, we’d all be able to eat. With nations too, we all came for the food.
We have basic needs as nature’s creatures, and also some needs as intelligent social beings. Beyond food and shelter, we need community, human connection, a sense of purpose, to name a few of the complex constructs we have come to expect of our lives. It is to meet all these needs that nations were born, and it is towards this purpose that nations as collectives, and we as their constituents, should be directing our efforts.
What do we actually put our efforts into when it comes to celebrating nations? Songs, ceremonies and chest-thumping.
Making a clean breast of chest-thumping
The side of nations we cannot ignore is the militaristic one. While the seed of their birth was noble, it soon turned into a competitive sport which had very little do do with the ideals of bettering human lives. Nationalism became not a celebration of human life, but rather a celebration of brainwashing enough of us into compliance that we may be unquestioning about more things and willing to overlook more pointless habits and actions in the name of patriotism.
We’ve always been tribal creatures and tribes have always clashed, but nationalism legitimised a fervour for our made-up banners to a point where we think of them as the most “real” things that exist. We actually believe that my made-up box is better than yours, to the point of insanity.
From the food, shelter and community phase of nations, we’ve moved to the chest-thumping phase. We don’t think of ourselves as human beings any more, more as Indians, Americans or Japanese. We’re proud of our country, because it’s the best one, of course, and since all out war is actually not a sustainable pastime, we are proud of our national sports teams, until they lose their fake battles with the team of another country. Then we denigrate them.
Lost in all this pomp and noise, few of us ask the most basic question. Are we as countries, nations and human beings, better providing for the needs of a fulfilling human life?
The questionable state of the nation
Are nations consistently providing for their citizen’s needs, as they should be doing above all else? The short answer is no. The quality of nations and their treatment of their citizens ranges from ghastly to “you should be thankful you were born here rather than that other ghastly place”, along with more chest-thumping about being the “greatest country on Earth”. Well, you know what? It doesn’t take much when your competition is so terrible.
As individuals, we largely fail at upholding the ideals of our nations. We go around bragging about our own little boxes using stories of people from long ago, who are now symbolic for having done something we don’t quite understand. Meanwhile, we carry on littering streets, driving like infants on drugs, misusing resources, and generally being quite cold and uncaring towards anything but our own completely baseless wants. And I’m not talking about one country here, I’m talking about all of them. All of us.
Some of us have managed to built a culture of organisation and responsibility into the social fabrics of our collectives, but that’s a small drop in the pond. A drop that is often tenuous and completely dependent on how big a stick the country in question has invented to keep us in check.
As collectives, how do we fare in what we provide our citizens? We can debate who’s better and best forever, while not far from you, even in your bestest country in the whole world, someone is homeless, someone is in terrible health and has no ability to do anything about it, someone is alone with no human connection or sense of community or belonging, someone is being physically or mentally abused in broad daylight, someone is purposeless, someone is sitting in the dark with no opportunity to use their skills to contribute, someone is alone. Yet other someones are hungry.
Please do come for the food
Want to celebrate your nation? Forget the singing and the bravado and the posturing. Come for the food. Get together with the fellow inhabitants of your box and share a snack, a meal, a morsel of something special that all of you, and also none of you, made happen on your own. Sit around, talk, eat, exchange stories of your life and days with complete strangers, comment on the weather, feel a part of something bigger.
And when all is said and done and eaten, clear away the garbage, pick up all the detritus of your celebration, straighten up what you’ve upset and walk away with old friends, new friends and a respect for what you have and what you have to do to make it better. Want to be proud? Be proud that you can do all that without anyone bashing your skull in because they need to compete to eat today.
That is what nations were born to make possible. That is what we must each protect, encourage and contribute to.
Out of the box
Nations have served an important purpose in our history and will continue to do so. The competition they engendered pushed many crucial developments in science, technology and a whole slew of fields which have had a very real and positive impact on the quality of human lives. It is true that we live in measurably the safest, most peaceful and best times in known human history, but that doesn’t mean we must stop striving for much better.
Competition is great as a motivator, but it often turns into a distraction from the core tenants of why we came together under a common banner in the first place. That cannot be allowed to continue unchecked.
Your nation is great, my nation is great, and we are both severely flawed and not to be celebrated with blind faith and the frenzy of patriotism. Humanity is a better banner to follow.
It is still true that there is strength in numbers, and some day in the distant future, or soon, I hope, we will realise once again the value of banding together for our common cause, a life of comfort and challenge and purpose. On that day, I hope we will shed all our boxes, and you and I can sit somewhere together and have an uneventful chat while we nibble on a morsel of something special. I look forward to the food and your company.