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All men are not brothers

When the United States declared independence they stated that they found it self-evident that “all men are created equal”. Likewise during the European Union anthem it is sung that “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” [All men will become brothers]. I think most of us find these to be fine ideals. Few indeed would be willing to state that we disagree. Yet there’s a certain contradiction between the ideal and how we actually act in ordinary life. But the contradiction is not only within us, it’s within those who declare the ideal.

What was involved in the United States declaring independence? What is it to become a country? It is, of course, many things, but it is most clearly this. It is to state that the people within these borders are special. When the United States was created they said that the citizens of that country would be treated differently from the people of other countries.  The Government of the United States has a special duty to its own citizens that it doesn’t have to the citizens of any other country. This isn’t to say that the United States Government will necessarily be nasty to foreigners, but until and unless these foreigners become United States citizens they will not have the same rights as those citizens. The declaration of independence therefore is also and precisely thereby a declaration of discrimination. For one thing it turned people living in the UK from being fellow citizens into foreigners.

The European Union may likewise have the ideal of making all men brothers, but this ideal only goes so far as to include those who are within the union. The rights that I have because the UK is a member of the EU do not extend to Russians. They no doubt are not brothers. I do not wish to be overly critical of the EU in using Schiller’s fine words for their anthem, nor indeed do I think the declaration of independence is a less fine document because its ideals involve a certain amount of self-contradiction. We may have the ideal, but few indeed of us want to see it fulfilled.

If everyone is created equal, if all men are brothers, why should we not be one world without borders? Wouldn’t that be a much better arrangement? No, and for a very simple reason. We are human beings. We have ideals, but mixed in with these is human nature.

To be human is to prefer. The most basic unit of preference is a man and his wife. I prefer this man above all others. His interests and what happens to him are more important to me than what happens to a stranger in Glasgow. The next unit is our family. Most of us care more for our siblings, our parents and our children than anyone else. If I read about a tragedy in Edinburgh, it may move me. I may feel great pity. I may even wish to help. But it is not the same as if there is a tragedy in the family. The loss of a parent or anyone else who is close is felt more strongly by a member of the family than by anyone else apart from perhaps a very close friend. I have duties to close relations that I don’t have to anyone else. All this means that I discriminate between family and non-family. It doesn’t mean that I am nasty to anyone else. I have a duty to act morally to everyone. But that duty is not the same as the one I have to my family.

In ancient times families came together to form tribes or clans. Thousands of years ago nearly all Europeans and many other people besides spoke more or less the same language. But gradually as we formed groups in various different territories our languages tended to diverge. It was above all language that created the map of Europe as we know it today. Tribes that spoke a similar language coalesced into countries. This too is part of human nature. Sometimes the boundaries between linguistic groups were rather vague, sometimes the process of creating European countries was the result of wars and population movements. But what it is to be a country is the end result of a process by which people who have similar beliefs, who look like each other and who speak a similar language come together in order to create a distinction between citizens and non-citizens. The process of creating countries therefore also involves discrimination. I have a duty towards the citizens of my own country that I do not have towards people from other countries. Moreover, the process of creating countries is the process of creating borders. These above all regulate who can come into my country.

Why have borders at all rather than let all men who are created equal, all men who are my brothers live wherever they please. The reason is that then we would not have countries at all. Well perhaps it would be better if we didn’t have countries. Perhaps it would. But then we would have to change human nature.

I have always taken the view that Utopian attempts to change human nature should be resisted. They will fail and will cause great suffering. This was the major fault with communism/socialism. It depends on eradicating the selfishness of human nature and that can only be done with re-education and the Gulag.

We are in essence as we were 40,000 years ago.  In evolutionary terms this time-span is trivial. You cannot legislate against human nature and if you try to impose a regime that is contrary to human nature you will cause more problems than you solve. We may admire the ideals of Schiller and the Americans who declared their country to be independent, but we must not try to impose these ideals too strictly. We are as we were. We are deeply tribal and there is no changing this. Why should I feel patriotism? Why suppose that my country is better than anyone else’s? This is all quite irrational and egotistical, but it is also part of my nature.

Why do I care more about a disaster in Birmingham, UK than Birmingham, Alabama? My country is an extension of my family. It is full of people who I think of as distantly related to me. These people’s ancestors fought wars together with my ancestors. This is why we commemorate these things together. These people are my kin. My country is the place where people like me live.

The attempts to bring Europeans together into a sort of United States of Europe will always fail until and unless Europeans see each other as kin. At the moment they do not do so. Germans will give money without limit to other Germans, but will not donate to Greeks. This is not a moral failure of Germans. It is a moral failure of those who have tried to impose a single currency on different peoples who do not think they have a duty towards each other. The Euro and indeed the ideal of ever closer union are as contrary to human nature as the ideal that all men should be brothers. Would that this were not so, but there is no changing human nature anytime soon. If the European Union adopted a policy of everyone speaking the same language it might have a long term chance, but trying to get everyone to speak the same language would also be contrary to human nature. The Soviet Union, after all, even with a common language split up because tribal difference was stronger than the Russian language. People tend to retain their tribal loyalties even when ideology tells them not to.

Take the example of Poland. Polish people, who for centuries lived divided and under foreign rule, now live in a country where nearly everyone is Polish. They speak the same language, have similar religious beliefs and customs. They are from the same tribe that at some point in the distant past gradually split from the other Slavs and before that the other Indo-Europeans. Poles are happy to be a part of the EU, but they would rather their country remained more or less as it is. It is human nature for people to want to live with their kin. Why else do we live with our families?

The European Union will also split up if Poles feel they are going to be invaded again. They have been invaded enough. In the end the same goes for all countries. Otherwise you simply don’t have a country.

I don’t support Scottish independence because I see the UK as a family. The different tribes of ancient times merged long ago, so that we now have a similar culture and language. This shared history has created a shared people. I don’t want to discriminate against someone from other parts of the UK because I recognise that we have fought together against a common enemy on numerous occasions and we have loved each other so that we are all mixed up together. I don’t want to create a border which says that I have a special duty only to Scots. I feel that same duty to everyone in the UK. But I agree with the Scottish nationalist in the following respect. I agree that there ought to be countries. We are irreconcilably divided by the fact that my country is the UK while his is only Scotland. But we both believe in there being countries. But there are implications to this. It means that we don’t in the end think that all men are created equal, nor do we think that all men are brothers. I draw the line with the UK’s boundaries. The Scottish nationalist draws it between Berwick and Gretna. But we each believe in boundaries. The boundary is a limit. It’s purpose is to keep someone out and to discriminate between someone who is a citizen and someone who is not.

Why are borders going up again all over Europe? Why prevent people coming here if we are all equal, if we are all brothers. The reason is simple. We are as we were when we formed ancient tribes. The ideal of everyone in the world living together as equals falls at the fact that we want to live with our kin. We are willing to accept people moving here. Our tribe can take in some new members from elsewhere. We also recognise our shared humanity, which means we are willing to help. But there is a limit. Family comes first. In the end I hold this truth to be self evident. Germans want to live with Germans. Poles want to live with Poles. Brits want to live with Brits. It is not wrong for them to wish to do so. On the contrary it is human nature.

If enough people from elsewhere come to a place, eventually you cease to have the country you had. If you doubt this, have a look at East Prussia. There are places from history like Königsberg and Tilsit that have different names now. Napoleonic battles like Friedland and Eylau are no longer in Prussia, but in  Russia. After World War II there was rather a lot of immigration into East Prussia and now when you wander around you can hardly guess that this place was once German and had been so for hundreds of years. Sometimes on an old building you can just make out a shop front in decaying Gothic letters. But mostly these have all been erased as if they never were there.

This all happened because the Germans were unable to defend their borders and because all men are not Brüder.

This article was originally published by the author on 6 February 2016. http://effiedeans.blogspot.com/2016/02/all-men-are-not-brothers.html

About Effie Deans

Profile photo of Effie Deans
Effie Deans is a pro UK blogger who works at the University of Aberdeen. She spent many years living in Russia and the Soviet Union, but came home to Scotland so as to enjoy living in a multi-party democracy! When not occupied with Scottish politics she writes fiction and thinks about theology, philosophy and Russian literature.

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