Nationalism vs. Localism

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I am an American. Nothing has made me more aware of this fact than living and studying abroad in Germany for an extended period of time. I am growing increasingly aware of how much my nationality matters and, conversely, how little it matters in the big picture.

In my studies, we are currently focusing on the concept of nationalism– a buzz word if ever there was one in our current media. I get asked about Trump on a daily basis (in the grocery store, in line for the bathroom, in my own home), and the topic of nationalism is never far behind. Germans are hyper aware of the dangerous sides of nationalism because of, well, history. You’d be hard pressed to find a German flag waving from a front porch, or to hear the national anthem sung in a public place. So naturally, I have begun to ask myself the questions: is nationalism always bad? Can it be good? And how does this newly emerging term localism factor into the discussion?

I read a New York Times article from columnist David Brooks that shed some light on the subject. He says:

Though we’ve moved around a lot, my family has a clear home base. If you start at East 15th Street in Lower Manhattan and walk two miles south, you will have walked by where my great-grandfather had his butcher shop, where my maternal grandfather practiced law, where my father lived during high school, where I went to elementary school and where my youngest son now attends college. That’s five generations within two miles. I feel a magical attachment to that neighborhood. The blocks and street names enchant in my mind. And yet I have to say my strongest attachment is to the nation, to the United States. You could take New York out of my identity and I’d be sort of the same. If you took America out of my identity I’d be unrecognizable to myself. What does this national attachment feel like? It feels a bit like any other kind of love — a romantic love, or a love between friends. It is not one thing that you love but the confluence of a hundred things. Yes, it is the beauty of the Rockies, but it is not just the land. It is the Declaration of Independence, but not just the creed. It’s winning World War II and Silicon Valley, but it is not just the accomplishments. It is the craziness, the diversity, our particular brand of madness.

Like Brookes, I feel a fierce attachment to and pride in my American identity. And yet, I also notice how I often distance myself from America in conversations about certain topics while abroad– “No, I don’t agree with America, I’m not like that!”

Writer Taiye Selasi proposes another approach. She speaks to “multi-local” people, who feel at home in many places. “How can I come from a country?” she asks. “How can a human being come from a concept?…my experience is where I am from. Instead of where are you from, what if we asked, where are you a local?”

This concept makes sense to me on some levels as well. I feel a deep attachment to certain places in America: the California coast with her rugged cliffs and Red Wood trees, the corn fields of Iowa where we spent holidays driving tractor and combine, the hot planes of Texas where I ate BBQ and attempted to understand the rules of football. I have no deep attachment to all fifty of the United States. I’ve haven’t spent much time on the East Coast or in the North West or the South West. I have, however, had experiences all over Germany– in Heidelberg, Frankfurt, Hildesheim, Weinheim, Münster. And yet, to say I am a local of Germany above an American still feels odd and lacking in a major way. I can study here in Germany, but my American passport and the fact that German is not my mother tongue prevent me from gaining meaningful employment after graduation. Can I really be a local of a place that prevents me from participating in that crucial part of life we call career? Sure, I have dear friends here, but the fact that I did not grow up in the German school system excludes me from understanding so much of their common experience on an intrinsic level.

I’m not sure I could ever do away with the concept of nationality completely and replace it with localism or vice versa.

Perhaps the trick to strike a meaningful balance between the two. To validate overlapping experiences that create a richer identity than any single one could on its own. To rob someone of their American identity is to rob them of shared history, culture, and collective community. But to confine someone to the label of their country– to ignore their localized experiences completely– is equally dangerous. Nationalism has been one of the great sources of joy and stability in my life, and is what allows me to move comfortably though this wide world in many ways. But too much, or a tainted strain, can prove dangerous.

I am an American. I am a local of Germany. I am many, many things. We all are.

So I ask you: Where are you a national, and where are you a local? And what do your answers to those questions reveal about you?

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6 thoughts on “Nationalism vs. Localism

  1. One thing about the Germans that I’ve surprised that you haven’t noticed – or are just not really mentioning – is their fierce “localism” or “provincialism.” They seem fiercely loyal to the home regions in Germany, often along the lines of their previous countries, e.g., Prussia and Bavaria, and often extremely bigoted against those of / from other regions, e.g., many Hamburgers’ ( 😆 ) views of Bavarians.

  2. There are factors of loyality and gratitude for me in this question. Like my membership in my family, I did not choose to be an American. I reap the many benefits of that membership, but i also do not align with many of her actions. And sometimes I’m embarrassed by those actions…terribly embarrassed.
    But I love my country regardless. I tear up EVERY time i sing the national anthem, thinking about the sacrifices that have been made to make life for me and my family, and others in the nation and the world at large better.
    I love your writing, Micah! Thank you for sharing and making me think.

  3. Micah, I am struck by the overall “love” of Americans toward the larger country. We are truly “federalists”. Jonolan above pointed out the deep localism of Germans. I agree. Of course, Americans have this same location attachment ( Midwest, South, East, West) but on a different scale. Micah, this is a deeply insightful blog. And I, too, love David Brooks!

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