Nationalism and selfishness


in Books and literature, Politics, Psychology

Yaks grunted and snorted around the tent, munching closer and closer. I shook the tarp to provoke a retreating thunder of hoofs. Against the distant drone of traffic I could hear the delicate pinging of flies trapped between the tent’s inner and outer walls. I lay in my sleeping bag, aching all over, and fervently hoped humans never made it to Mars. We didn’t deserve a new world; we’d just wreck it all over again. As a kid I’d genuinely believed that the discovery of alien life, whether sentient beings or microbes, would change lives, incite a revolution near-holy in its repercussions. At the very least people would be kinder to each other, whether Turkish or Armenian, Indian or Pakistani, Tibetan or Uyghur or Han Chinese. We’d collectively awaken to the fact that we’re all lost in this mystery together.

Now I wasn’t convinced. Discovering extraterrestrial life wouldn’t change a thing, just as learning to fly didn’t lift us higher as people, just as Voyager’s pale blue dot photograph failed to dissolve nationalism the way it should have if we’d truly seen it. “Look again at that dot,” Carl Sagan pleaded. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives … on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” Meanwhile we’ve discovered microbes eating sulphur in boiling vents at the bottom of the ocean, Earth-size exoplanets orbiting distant suns, proof everywhere of the rarity, ingenuity, and resplendence of life in the universe—and such facts haven’t budged our priorities an inch. What is the point of science and exploration if people persist in living and dying as they always have, namely selfishly, obliviously?

Maybe infinity begins at the point we can’t see past, can’t love past. How small we are when this point is ourselves. The problem with borders, I was beginning to realize, isn’t that they are monstrous, offensive, and unnatural constructions. The problem with borders is the same as the problem of evil that Hannah Arendt identified: their banality. We subconsciously accept them as part of the landscape—at least those of us privileged by them, granted meaningful passports—because they articulate our deepest, least exalted desires, for prestige and permanence, order and security, always at the cost of someone or something else. Borders reinforce the idea of the alien, the Other, stories separate and distinct from ourselves. But would such fictions continue to stand if most of us didn’t agree with them, or at least quietly benefit from the inequalities they bolster? The barbed wire begins here, inside us, cutting through our very core.

Harris, Kate. Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road. Alfred A. Knopf Canada. 2018. p. 244–5 (italics in original)

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

alena prazak June 19, 2020 at 8:08 pm

That was such an interesting book and I loved her descriptions of lesser known countries and their people. Quite original.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: