Nationalism and Individualism

Human experience is primarily regional. We are members of a family within a community located regionally first and foremost, and only secondarily are we members of a nation. The rise of nationalism as we know it today is a fairly recent social development, and truly came of age only during the last two hundred years, coincident with the rise of popular literature. It was the popularity of books and the emergence of influential authors which created the “national narratives” necessary to fuel nationalism. The very forces of mass communication which promoted nationalism in the age of books are breaking down nationalism in the age of cable TV and the Internet. We are quickly returning to our regional affiliations.

Nationalism is largely fictional. Modern states represent the outcomes of the historical conquests of eroded empires, the divisions of war, collapsed monarchy’s, and imposed borders created by colonial powers. These entities are often unstable and have historically been held together only by use of force. We can see this most easily in the Middle East, where countries were created after World War One by the European states (see map for pre-war borders). Often assigned borders based on the convenience of cartographers wishing to use natural features as dividing lines, such nations included diverse religious, cultural and tribal elements whose land predates such borders by hundreds or even thousands of years.

Syria and Iraq are perfect examples, and both are experiencing a return to regionalism and competitive violence between regional groups. Whatever fictional national narrative cobbled together in the pre-electronic age existed, and upon which governments – puppet and otherwise – relied, the Internet has effectively exploded. The successful recruitment by ISIS of disaffected westerners eager to rush to its defense demonstrates how thoroughly the 200-year period of nationalism is decaying. The breakup of the Soviet Union is an earlier example, and despite Putin’s effort to reestablish a strong nationalist narrative, regional disturbances in places like Chechnya are inevitable.

Here in America, a regional effect can be seen in social attitudes towards abortion and voting rights. Our Civil War never really ended, and despite our American narrative, individual states continue to press for greater autonomy from our national government.

The rise of individualism parallels that of nationalism, and for many of the same reasons associated with literacy. The popularity of printed books stimulated the whole idea of celebrity authorship; the previous manuscript culture of hand-written books circulated among mostly religious institutions was devoid of “authorship.” Such manuscripts were copies made by scribes of various unattributed writings.

The emergence of the “voice of authorship” gave rise to the ability of the individual to be heard and to have influence, and that influence was substantial. Dickens, Marx and Poe were such influential voices, and to theirs were added many more. With the coming of Television and the Internet, however, unlimited avenues of influence have arisen. People no longer hew to the ideas of only a few, despite the efforts of the powerful. As Marshall McLuhan predicted, everyone has become both author and audience. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like have erased the artificially imposed corporate borders of social influence.

When taken to its extreme – everyone clambering to be heard all at once – individualism becomes the voice of the mob, individuals subsumed within the avalanche of social media cascading down upon human society. Thus, just as regionalism overwhelms nationalism, so too will the tides and affinities of social media overwhelm individualism.

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