How stupid is it to look at countries as singular entities?

In the latest edition of Harper’s Magazine there was an interesting, albeit small section which listed genuine examples of questions asked of applicants to Oxford and Cambridge Universities.  While I found many (if not most) of the questions deliciously stimulating as an intellectual exercise, there was one question which I was quite surprised by in terms of the simple-minded assumptions which undergirded it.

The question was:

If you had to send three things to a group of isolated tribespeople that would immediately convey to them what it means to be “French,” what would you choose?

Of course there are many ways people can approach this question.  Seeing as how the French have gotten a bad rap as of late, conservatives may suggest sending some wine or a white flag of surrender.  A slightly more sophisticated approach may have been to send a copy of the collected works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau or a manual documenting the history of French schooling practices.

The problem is that although the second approach may earn you more brownie points if you’re applying to Oxford or Cambridge any time soon, it, just like the first, is profoundly flawed.

The problem isn’t the answer but the question itself.  The underlying premise of the question is that there is anything that you can send which will be symbolic of a given country in its entirety.  In short, this question takes the popular assumption that countries are a unified whole, similar to an individual human being writ large, which therefore can be described and characterized.

Never in the history of humanity has such a country existed.

Over 2000 years ago Plato wrote his Republic documenting how perverse it was for states to continue on whereby the elite government pursues its own interests at the expense of the rest of the city.  His reason?  Well, he argued that just as a person who does something which is pleasant for the mind, yet harms the rest of the body would be considered insane; a state which pursues actions which help one part of the state at the expense of another part should also be considered equally insane.  Plato’s dream was, to put it bluntly, to see the rise of just one trule sane country…  And we’re still waiting.

So, show me a state where the government’s focus is on helping all of its citizens, not just the capitalists and not just the rich, and I’ll show you a country that is a unified whole and which can, therefore, have things which characterize its essence like the question above asks us to consider.  But what’s more, show me such a country, and I’ll show you a socialist paradise.


7 Responses to “How stupid is it to look at countries as singular entities?”

  1. 1 Dr.Dawg 6 January, 2007 at 9:58 am

    This article may be at least tangentially on point:

    The more I, as a student of anthropology, study the word “culture,” the more elusive the concept becomes. Bravo. Interesting piece.

  2. 2 paulitics 6 January, 2007 at 10:55 am

    Thanks for the comment Dr. Dawg. Your post is quite insightful.

    Just for my readers’ benefit, I’m going to post here the comment that I posted on your blog in response. Maybe it’ll spark some sort of interesting discussion on my end as well.

    Thanks again.

    Paulitics wrote:

    Interesting post. On this subject, what I find interesting specifically is the interplay between authority and ‘community’.

    While I agree with your contention here that these minority ‘communities’ aren’t really communities in the purest sense of the term, it’s interesting to examine whether they’re more or less of a ‘community’ than, for instance, Canada. I would argue that authority, and especially institutionalized authority like the Government of Canada, plays a bigger role in a community than we would commonly think. I think that institutionalized authority is anathama to true ‘community’ since authority by definition serves its own purpose at the expense of the populace and as such, insofar as these minority communities have no such authority, they are more pure forms of ‘community’ than Canada is.

  3. 3 Dr.Dawg 6 January, 2007 at 12:30 pm

    [Posted to Paul’s site. Follow-ups here, please.]

    [I]nstitutionalized authority is anathama to true ‘community’ since authority by definition serves its own purpose at the expense of the populace.

    I don’t agree, for a whole lot of reasons.

    “Authority” by itself is an extremely vague concept. Authority with accountability doesn’t serve its own purpose, whatever that “purpose” might be deemed to be. It serves the purpose of those to whom the authority is accountable. So we aren’t necessarily talking about autocracies, here, but that’s the implication. I’m a bit bewildered by the notion of “authority” in the context of community, but maybe I’m missing something.

    Communities, certainly, have their loci of authority. But they aren’t an inclusive whole structured by that authority, and, more importantly, some so-called “communities” aren’t in the strict sense communities at all. I guess that was my point when talking about communities that aren’t, initially at least, communities, but simply people who have been homogenized and communitized by others.

    To be sure, it’s hard to think of any country as a “community,” although nations can be seen that way. But Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” are imagined from within, not without. It’s difficult to conceive, on examination, of a “gay community” or a “Muslim community” in Anderson’s sense of the word.

    Let me give an illustration of what I’m trying to get at. The other day, someone from Turkey asked me about our supposed custom of eating lobster on New Year’s Eve. Until then, I, a Canadian, had never heard of such a thing. But we routinely think of Others as doing this or that on a holiday or at a wedding, or at the table. It was good to get it back.

    Thus, a homogenization akin to stereotyping arises. We simplify their lives and reify their culture, while reserving complexity and difference for our own, the characteristics of which we don’t even dare to define, because, quite frankly, we can’t. Once again, I don’t think “authority” enters into it.

  4. 4 Dr.Dawg 6 January, 2007 at 12:41 pm

    Sorry, that link doesn’t work. Try this one.

  5. 5 paulitics 6 January, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    Dr. Dawg – you’re right, fair enough. Authority really is a vague term and I really didn’t define what I meant by “authority” sufficiently.

    I suppose that the best (albeit incomplete) formulation of the type of authority I was refering to was Euripides when he said, “Authority is never without hate.”

    So, in my definition, ‘authority’ is pure authority – that is, authority which exists without the ongoing need to justify itself or its existence. I’ll give two examples which I think clarify this admittedly vague concept.

    The first example I’m taking from journal entries from the first missionaries to enter into the rustic interior of Canada in attempt to ‘civilize’ the aboriginals. In their journals, upon observing the various villages’ social interactions, these missionaries wrote (with great horror) that the Chief’s authority extended no further than his ability to coherently put an argument forward which the tribes-people would either accept or reject. Were he to, for instance, order them into battle for a cause that the tribes-people thought was ridiculous, they would laugh at the Chief and pay no further attention to his directives.

    This first example, under my definition, would not be considered ‘authority’ at all because each and every tribes-person following a “directive” from the chief does so not because the chief has told them to, but because the chief has convinced them (and not through duress) that it is in their best interest to do so.

    The second example, to contrast, would be the PMO in Canada. No directive from the PMO has to be justified by the populace (although some often are). The PMO can state that we are at war and the time for debate is over. Sure the populace can protest and complain and write letters, but without overthrowing the institutional authority which sustains the PMO, the directive stands.

    In this second example, institutionalized authority, this would be what I was referring to in my statement.

    As for your comment that:

    “Authority with accountability doesn’t serve its own purpose, whatever that ‘purpose’ might be deemed to be. It serves the purpose of those to whom the authority is accountable.”

    I think our disagreement stems solely from the fact that we’re using differing definitions of “authority”. Under my definition, to the extent that ‘authority’ is made truly and purely accountable, it is no longer ‘authority’ at all, whereas your definition doesn’t consider the two repugnant to each other. I don’t think that either definition is necessarily wrong, however I would argue that never, since the foundation of the post-Westphalian state, have we seen an accountability reaching the level of purity outlined in my first example, exist alongside the ‘authority’ governing a state.

  6. 6 Dr.Dawg 6 January, 2007 at 6:17 pm

    You know, it occurs to me that we’re down a side-road here. You seemed to criticize the question about the French–but it occurs to me that we’ve been bumbling our way to a good response to it!

  7. 7 paulitics 6 January, 2007 at 6:35 pm

    Yeah. It’s kinda ironic isn’t it.

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