Viewed from space, political borders are totally arbitrary. Why draw borders around a nation state, as opposed to a city state? Is someone who moves from Leeds to London to find a job not an economic migrant?
On Earth, of course, there are reasons, explanations. The historical passage from the city state to the nation state, for all its entrenchment in the domineering ideals of conquering elites, also depends on the construction of a common identity, the overcoming of the narcissism of small differences. One can envisage a community independent of an exploitative elite, history notwithstanding.
European history is a bloody mess. Yet European culture is an intricate web of exchange.
Is the identity of the nation not shallow compared to the identity of the continent? Is the insistence on drawing political borders at the national, rather than the supranational level, not a decision based on a contingent sense of identity? And how do we know that this sense isn’t flimsy and artificial, forcing separations where one could find unity in diversity? How do we know when it isn’t basically racism?
Some say that language is fundamental.
Yet there are languages without nation states, nation states without single languages. And languages can be learned.
Learning foreign languages, more than anything else I’ve done, shows the contingency of my mother tongue. When faced with idiomatic difficulties of German or Russian or Italian, I realize how far I am from really existing in any of these languages like I exist in English. I see that they have a world just as rich and strange as English, and that English, to a non-native, appears just so to them.
Yet I still read and understand and translate. And in doing so, I don’t feel separate and isolated within English, as if English should be cut off and given a realm of its own. No. I feel that both English and German are absurd – that the absurdity of being born within a particular language, cast within a particular set of conventions, is the same absurdity as being born. A contingency of existence. And to build anything on such a contingency would be absurd.
When, as an undergraduate, I spent a summer in Montpellier to improve my French, I went to a language school that gave out binders emblazoned with a Camus quotation: “Ma patrie, c’est la langue française.” I doubt the binder did justice to the conundrum of Camus’s Franco-Algerian identity, but what he meant by this was quite profound: that the nation state isn’t defined by language; rather, language precedes it totally, on an existential level. Belonging to a nation state is an absurdity.
In the light of what has just happened, all I can say is this:
My country is the English language. An isolationist UK is not a country to which I can belong.