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Biden and Putin:
Two Old Cold Warriors
and the decrepit Nation-State
One of the most important things to remember about the way that Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin are handling the present world crisis is that both were raised in politics during the Cold War. Putin joined the KGB -- Russia’s version of the CIA -- in 1975, the same year America pulled its last troops out of Vietnam. That had been a humiliating 20-year blunder for America, and Russia was feeling itself. That is, until the Soviet-Afghan War four years later, which effectively drained Russia of its military vitality for ten years. Putin was in Berlin in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, another gut-punch for the faltering Soviet system. He also watched as Germany soon became one of the leading members of NATO -- despite America’s promise that it would not seek NATO membership from Eastern European countries. Mikhail Gorbachev allowed for the destruction of the Wall based on this promise, and Putin saw the Russians get burned for it. Biden first got into the Senate in 1973, two years before the Vietnam pullout, and one of his first jobs was reducing Cold War nuclear proliferation.
Although both Putin and Biden believe they are defending their countries from each others’ threats, the fact is that both are living in countries in which fewer people see their nation-state as their most defining marker of identity, making ground wars even less rational than they were in the last century. Americans aren’t as patriotic as they used to be, and it decreases with each generation. Just 32% of Millennials believe the U.S. is the greatest country in the world. But that number is 48% among the Gen Xers, 50% among Boomers, and 64% among the generations before. Although most Millennials agree with the statement “I am very patriotic” (70%), even larger percentages of Gen Xers (86%), Boomers (91%) and Silents (90%) say the same. These are two main reasons for this: the first is that all previous generations had a war in recent memory to rally around and against another national power. The Boomers had WW II and Gen Xers had Vietnam. None of us really remember those wars, but those were the wars that informed our conversations about what war was. The televising of the Vietnam War was so nationally traumatic that GenXers forever changed the way Americans saw war through our film, television, and art. But Millennials just had the Gulf War and then the War on Terror, which was not against another nation-state, but against the concept of domestic terrorism. But even though Gen Xers grew up on Vietnam, we knew the Russians were the real enemy.
The second reason Americans are less patriotic is because Netflix and the Internet have absolutely destroyed a shared sense of national cultural boundaries. First, Netflix erased the notion of white normalcy by featuring an international array of Hollywoods, from Bolly to Nolly. Kids these days Netflix and Chilled their way across the globe. The Internet made it easy for young people to see the commonality in all humans. So the idea of bombing some humans for the idea of “America” or “Russia” is becoming less palatable with every passing generation.
And there are many problems with the nation-state model: namely, the “nation” part. The “state” part has to do with laws, government institutions, flags, etc. But the origin of the word nation is “nativitus,” meaning “birth.” This is because the term “nation” was used by the Romans to describe the various tribes they encountered while expanding, people who had been living and intermarrying in one “homeland” for generations. As a result, many of the people of these “nations” shared many genetic characteristics like skin color, eye color, and nose shape. So for most of human history, one genetic stock of people would claim a “nation” as their “homeland.” This is why many nation-states originally had a problem with immigrants -- people do not like it when people who do not look like members of our “nation” move here. And America has had a tendency to “racialize” immigrants—we assign certain behaviors or characters to whole “races” of people until they can learn to talk and eat like us. This idea of the nation, however, is completely against the modern concept of the nation-state. Today, the modern nation-state has become committed to ethnic diversity, which goes against the “nativitus” part. Biden believes he is defending “Americans” and Putin believes he is defending “Russians,” but both of those countries are extremely ethnically diverse by this point. While America and Russia were Superpowers, hundred of thousands of immigrants migrated across their national boundaries, married, had families, and diversified them.
Biden and Putin are both defending multicultural nation-states -- empires, really -- guided by the idea that their citizens “share” something. But the industrialization of the world and the proletarianization of the working class over the 20th Century has eroded the very need for an ethnicity-based nation-state -- which deconstructs the idea of the distinct nation-state itself. Either every nation-state is distinct in some way or they are all substantially diverse and the same. Which means the only difference between Russia and America is our languages.
If Russians share anything it might be a national spirit or character or a political philosophy -- but all those things are just poetry, and the concept assumes that all Russians think the same, which they do not. A language? Sure, all Russians speak Russian, but everyone in the former USSR speaks Russian, too -- and they are not all “Russian.” In that sense, Ukraine is actually more of a “nation” than Russia because it was originally founded to be the homeland of the original ethnic group who went on to found Russia, the Eastern Slavs. Russia used to be ethnically homogenous but, like America, today the only thing all Russians share is the story that they are "Russian." There is no other quality that applies to the citizens of today’s modern nation-states. And both Russian and American Millennials have long since gone online and found communities from which they derive far more emotional connection than their Russian or American identities.
Putin believes he is the leader of people who identify as “Russian,” but, like Biden, he is just an old executive bureaucrat in charge of an enormous military industry with the firepower to incinerate all life on earth. He should abandon the idea that he is defending “Russia” from anything. All national boundaries are made up. The only place any of us have ever been born is the Planet Earth.
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I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from UCLA, a Master of Arts in History from Cal State University--Los Angeles, and a Doctor of Philosophy in African Diaspora History from Indiana University. I spent nine years as a public school teacher first in East New York, Brooklyn, and then in South and East Los Angeles.
My dissertation topic was on slave resistance, as well as the construction of race. Although I am considered a resistance scholar, I am primarily interested in creating community dedicated to effecting global change through the promotion of justice and freedom for all living things. So I consider myself a "freedom scholar."
I am originally from Queens, New York, but I currently reside in Jacksonville, Florida, where I am the Assistant Professor of History at Edward Waters College, Florida's first HBCU.
Profile Pic: Kate Hallock
All other photos by: Ronnda Cargile Jamison
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