What Happens to National Identity if You Love More Than One Country?

National identity
Should national identity still be an important ideal?. (Photo: Snapshot from video)

Sometimes, when I'm watching an international sporting event, I don't know who to cheer for. That's partly because I'm a dual citizen of the United States and Australia. And like many people from nations rich with immigrants, I also feel drawn to the countries my grandparents and great-grandparents emigrated from. From the mid- to late 1800s and early 1900s, my relatives left Scotland, England, Lebanon, Armenia and Germany to go to South Australia, Sydney and New York City. So, when it comes to sports, I sometimes cheer for Armenia because they're small, usually the underdog, and because that's where my last name comes from. Often I cheer for Germany, because they're so good at some of my favorite winter sports. When it comes to soccer matches, you'll find me lifting an ale for the British team because my grandfather was British and I'm technically a subject of Queen Elizabeth via my Australian citizenship. (Don't ask me what I do when it's England vs. Germany!) My heart is best summed up by my Facebook description: "Citizen of the World."

My dislike of only cheering for Team Any Single Place belies my discomfort with the idea of identifying with one nation. How can I?

I'm Australian — I was born there, my mother was an Aussie, and I spent enough time there growing up that I'm a strong swimmer and champion cusser with a healthy love and respect for the ocean. Of course, I'm American, too — I'm the fourth generation of my father's side of my family to grow up in New York, and I attended school from Montessori through graduate school in the Empire State. I've visited 49 of the 50 states and lived in six of them. I've worked in the U.S. for over 20 years and I own a home in the U.S. But when asked which country I feel closest to, I have trouble answering.

I'm not alone in this conundrum. There are many, many people who may only have one passport, but feel their heart resides in more than one country. I've found that many people feel awkward about admitting this, because national identity can be tricky — and we're "supposed" to pick one country to love the most.

Another way to look identity

In generations past, assimilation was the American (and Australian) ideal for incoming immigrants. Connections to one's past country were expected to be forgotten, as if shrugging off one's memories, influences and perspectives was something that could be willfully left behind. But now we know that's just not the way it works. National identity is being questioned by more and more people — including me. I understand that there are practical reasons (taxes, employment, health care) for designating people as part of one nation or another, but those logistics might be managed in other ways. My father, through whom I have my American citizenship, has retired in Australia after working there for almost 30 years; the Australian government gives him a pension minus what he receives as Social Security from what he paid in working for 20 years in the U.S. The U.S. and Aussie governments communicate with each other — it's all computerized now anyway — and so these kinds of logistics can be managed in a simple fashion.

But national identity isn't just about logistics. It's also a way to mobilize people to fight for their country in wars, or bring them together to get big projects accomplished. Putting a human on the moon was most certainly a proud American moment, for example. So it seems that eliminating the idea of national identity could compromise our country's ability to succeed on large projects. But what if we think about it in another way? What if we didn't need to go to war because we didn't have such strong national identity to begin with? It wouldn't be "us against them" requiring us to bomb their capital city, it would be more about solving the local problem that brought people there to conflict or terrorism to begin with (and leaving others in the area who often suffer casualties of war out of it.)

It's worth asking the question: In an increasingly connected and modern world, should national identity still be an important ideal? In the New York Times video above, the narrator points out that national identity is a newer thing — in the past, who we were as people was much more oriented around our local clan, religion or family. The idea that national identity is basically just a story used to bring disparate people together makes it a powerful force, but as the video points out, it also sets us up for racism, dictatorships and genocide. So, is this "myth" something we want to perpetuate?

In the past, people crossed borders, killed or enslaved local people, and claimed the new territory as their own, without much interest or respect for the previous civilization. New nations were formed on the basis of the one group simply having more firepower than another, and wanting to try out some new ideas. National identity was formed by the those who created these new countries. These days, borders are more settled and arguably, national identity is a more clear-cut thing. At the same time, there's more cross-border movement than ever — and a modern world doesn't support strict borders as exchanges of ideas, talent, and resources are key to all human's prosperity for all humans. Isn't that what most of us want? For all people to be lifted out of poverty, able to engage in meaningful work and living healthy lives? I haven't seen evidence yet that promoting one's own country over another helps bring us together and help those who need it most. In fact, from where I'm sitting, it looks like it does the opposite.

About 98 percent of the people in the U.S. come from other countries (the indigenous population in the U.S. is just 1.7 percent). Australia is 97 percent immigrants, and 95 percent of Canadians originally came from places outside Canada. Meanwhile, Europe has experienced the largest, fastest influx of refugees it has seen in the modern era. Countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region are experiencing huge population movements, too. As climate change threatens the habitability of many places, and the world population heads towards 10 billion, migrations are going to become even more common.

It's natural for human beings to move around the world — so why aren't our organizing structures set up to recognize that, instead of pushing us apart?