what defines a nation?

I’ve never been one for history. Her-story perhaps, but history in school always left me questioning & usually unable to link it to the here & now. I struggled to keep all the facts straight, but even more I struggled to grasp the bigger picture, especially when I suspected that so much had been left out of the history books. In grappling with the relevance of committing all these facts & stories-of-the-victors to memory, I wondered how replaying these war stories was going to improve the world in the present & future. Is it true that remembering how atrocious we have been to one another, usually because we’re resource-hungry (if not downright ruthless), will aid us in evolving out of such idiocy?

It is said that without awareness of history we’re doomed to repeat it. Yet I have also come to know in my own self-storying that the stories I choose to tell affect me not only now & into the future, but also re-shape my past. Not to mention my relationships with, well, everything.

So my question is–

How Consciously are we defining ourselves as separate nations?

which creates quick follow up questions of–

And, is this helping us address the more core issues we face as a species on a finite, albeit powerful, planet? Could we better serve the planet, & humanity’s place on it, by focusing on our commonalities?

All the money, time, intelligence, & energy over countless centuries spent in domination or intimidation, yet people are still starving. I don’t get it.

Call me naive.

I’ll admit, you can also call me ignorant.

Ignorant for not knowing the truth of nations as they are now. As a recent example, I realized I had an image of Sweden that was blond-haired & blue-eyed. Does that make me a nation-ist?

Until I met a Swedish man whose father was from Cameroon, and until I landed in Sverige & saw clearly just how mixed folks are here, I had this unconscious sterotype in my head of blond hair so blond it’s actually white with eyes the color of bright, but icy, blue skies. These days the given population of virtually any nation is now actually made up of many, many nationalities, & therefore, a multitude of personal his/her-stories from various homelands that aren’t the nation they now call home. If it’s not “race” that defines a nation, then what is it?

What does it even mean to be American, Kiwi, Swedish, Bajan, or Indian? Is there some ethos that holds together a nation’s image? Is there a collectively-agreed-upon abiding principal, like a mission statement, for the entire nation? Like, “we’re rugged do-it-ourselfers” or “freedom for all” or “we like precision & timeliness” or “we’re neutral”?

“The word “kuna” means “marten” in Croatian since it is based on the use of marten pelts as units of value in medieval trading.”–Wikipedia

It can’t be just because the passport says so, right? I mean a national identity must be deeper than a flag, a song, a slogan, some symbols.

“The name was originally used in reference to pesos oro (gold weights) or pesos plata (silver weights). The literal English translation of the Spanish word peso is weight.”–Wikipedia
NZ dollar took over from NZ pound in 1967

What about the money of a people? Does that say something about them? I’ve always been intrigued with money, with the images a country chooses to put on its paper & metal money, because, once again, it’s a choice of representation.

For example South Africa has lots of animals on their money, whereas other countries put landmark sites or buildings on their money’s backside. Front sides are almost always the portraits of significant people.

About age 8, long before I started travelling inter-nation-ally at age 19, I started collecting money from adults who had been abroad. In the decades since then, encryption techniques have improved, & so have the designs & colors of money. They’re even sporting windows now like the NZD!

Like the Nordic currencies (such as the Danish krone, Swedish krona and Norwegian krone) that participated in the historical Scandinavian Monetary Union, the name króna (meaning crown) comes from the Latin word corona (“crown”).–Wikipedia


Money exchange is one way a nation defines itself pretty regularly, though the use of cash is actually on the wane in many places. The images-that-define-your-nation are stamped into your mind as regularly as you use money. Or see it in the world around you.

Passports & flags are other symbols that support a national identity, but they’re not generally seen as consistently in the day-to-day goings-on of a nation’s people. No, the passport is only seen at that crucial moment when the people on one side of the line-in-the-sand bound-area between nations say whether you can pass through the armed & investigative gates. Which doesn’t necessarily mean the people on the other side will agree. It all seems kind of arbitrary to me. But, again, I readily admit to struggling to grasp history properly. Or politics. Which may give me a bit of an outsider’s advantage?

Whatever the reason may be, I’ve all-ways felt strangely alien to this world, as dearly as I love it. When I saw Kevin Spacey in K-Pax, that made sense to me.

This larger conversation with the world, to better understand things that I didn’t manage to grasp in history class, started for me a few years back, with this blog. And with the remarkable blessing & privilege I’ve had to travel, so I could better know this earthwidetribe. On one of my swoops round the girth of the earth, while in the city I’ve lived the longest in my life–Wellington, New Zealand–I became a citizen of Aotearoa, making me a dual citizen. That link is my musing on what it actually means to be a citizen of the world.

I realize that I’m also, in myself as I travel, adding to the general confusion around what defines a nation. If I’ve chosen to say I’m from New Zealand, but I don’t sound like an Australian when I speak (I’m guessing few outside of the Antipodes could discern a Kiwi from an Ozzie accent), people get confused. And maybe what they do hear is my North American accent, so then they’re not sure where I’m really from. And, truth be told, I’m not sure either, which is why I avoid the short, surface form of the question that seeks to categorize me for quick safety. I’d say Planet Earth as a safe bet, but then ideas like those from K-Pax & past-life regressionists cause me to wonder if I’m not just visiting this planet for a while.

Which is, of course, the ultimate truth. And how long “a while” is, is anyone’s guess.

Yet we’re all here on this earth now & that’s the thing I find intriguing. As our world-wide-web perspective strengthens, do national bound-areas/boundaries truly make sense when it comes to everyone having shelter, food & clean water, including the non-human animals? Water in particular doesn’t cooperate well with man-made national, or even local, boundaries. A river starts where it starts & runs where it runs. It’s complicated. For sure.

I get the sense sometimes that we think what is now, is what’s all-ways been. For example, the boundaries that have been agreed upon, or not, with the surrounding nations–where one ends & the other begins. Many lands have been “settled” for ages & have been easily determined by the boundary where land meets ocean. That doesn’t address the genocide of the indigenous peoples that existed on the land before colonization, but it does at least contain a country in a boundary of sea, like Australia, Iceland, India. Those countries that share land borders with other countries are likely to have to negotiate shared resources. In fact we all do, since we’re all earthlings, ultimately. This is probably already clear to you, so bear with me (or delightedly bugger off!)

To re-frame, if it’s not “race” that defines a nation, & if the nation’s money, passport, & flag cannot possibly represent the wider, & subtler, spectrum of a country’s citizens, then is there something that wraps it all up? Could it be shared language? This last question is one I know I will need to explore in more detail in another posting…

There are still some places that can generally be defined as nations by their religion, but in this day & age religion is not the more common skin that holds a nations body in.

Sverige’s golden Nordic Cross flag

And what IS a flag anyway? Some colored fabric that is held up high, with specific symbols that somehow represent that entire nation of people? Or does it?

New Zealand recently had a chance to reinvent itself as a nation by democratically (?) determining a flag. After millions of taxpayer dollars were spent on whittling it down to just a few, including the current flag, somehow they chose the current flag? They had a chance to reinvent themselves. And they chose to stay the same. Each person who engaged in the conversation at the time, & perhaps especially those who actually voted on it, had an opportunity to re-see the self, to collectively re-evaluate the brand, the nationality, that is their global passport. “I’m a Kiwi & here’s why.” Yet 20-some million dollars later the category “Against Change” won out.

This blog provides some commentary on this process & the implications of diminishing the value of how we see ourselves nationally through our collectively-agreed-upon symbols.

“Changing the flag is about us developing a greater sense of nationhood, which has progressive ramifications across other political issues. The Union Jack in our flag symbolises a neo-colonial mentality which is still present, even if the imperial power we now tip our hat to is usually the United States. A greater sense of independence would mean we’d be less trusting of America over the TPPA or New Zealand’s participation in America’s wars.  Be careful about using the “it isn’t a priority” argument.  It’s regularly used by politicians to avoid dealing with controversial issues: like marijuana law reform, assisted dying legislation and improving the abortion laws.”

Is it necessary or healthy for us to have national identities? What’s the advantage of being patriotic? It fascinates me that we have so many different systems for the same thing–currencies, languages, flags & other symbols. I like the variety & yet I still find myself questioning the value of maintaining & strengthening our differences. I am finishing a course, through the fabulous edx, called “The Psychology of Political Activism–Women Changing the World”. Gloria Steinem was part of our teachings. I’ll leave you with her words:

“Dear friends from around this globe, which wasn’t supposed to have boundaries and the boundaries are going away. We’re getting back to the old way of migratory paths. I’m glad to have this electronic migratory path. And I would say what I’ve learned is that we have to behave as if everything we do matters because every once in awhile, it does. And if we stop thinking we have to have exactly the right way or instruction from above, then we can inform all our actions with what we hope to achieve. And also, if you’re in a situation in which you might have more power than the people around you, be sure to listen as much as you talk. And if you have less power, be sure to talk as much as you listen, which can be just as difficult if you’re accustomed to hiding. Just balancing listening and talking is the first step to a much bigger democracy.” –Gloria Steinem, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College 







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