As July witnessed the celebrations of national days in many countries, including Canada (1st), the United States (4th), and France (14th), I have been reflecting on my own journey as a citizen of the world.
I left Canada in my mid-twenties, and my job as an international troubleshooting consultant has taken me to live and work for extended periods of time in eight other countries; and there are no signs that this trend will come to an end. I am now almost fifty and approaching the point where I have lived half my life away from the country where I was born and raised, and I don’t feel a strong Canadian identity after all this time abroad.
“I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.”
In many countries I have lived in, I quickly made friends with the locals and went out to experience their cuisine and explore their countries. After one recent project in Pakistan, my colleagues were amazed that I would go to the local market with them and enthusiastically partake of the delicious street food. “Most Westerners refuse to leave their five-star hotel,” they quipped.
In 2017, BBC published an article on the status of the global citizen that resonated deeply with me, as this is a concept with which I self-identify: “A tribe of mobile “global villagers” who are likely to identify as citizens of the world. This is the image of individualistic high flyers who benefit from globalisation and want a borderless world. They live in their “global-citizen bubble” and value autonomy and mobility over local and national attachments, community and belonging. . . . Those who embrace cosmopolitan values or see themselves as “global citizens” come from a broad range of social backgrounds and from all over the world, constituting not one, but many tribes.”
The claim that ethnic uniformity leads to cultural excellence is as wrong as an idea can be. There’s a reason we refer to unsophisticated things as provincial, parochial, and insular and to sophisticated ones as urbane and cosmopolitan. No one is brilliant enough to dream up anything of value all by himself. Individuals and cultures of genius are aggregators, appropriators, greatest-hit collectors. Vibrant cultures sit in vast catchment areas in which people and innovations flow from far and wide. This explains why Eurasia, rather than Australia, Africa, or the Americas, was the first continent to give birth to expansive civilizations. It explains why the fountains of culture have always been trading cities on major crossroads and waterways. And it explains why human beings have always been peripatetic, moving to wherever they can make the best lives. Roots are for trees; people have feet.
~ Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now
As I reflected on my personal evolution, I wondered why the country of our birth, or that of our ancestors, should be a (the?) defining characteristic of our personalities. I get that culture influences us, but being an American or an Iraqi are artificial political constructs, not ethnic identities; even more so in Iraq following its WW1 constitution, drawn up by European bureaucrats maximizing their access to oil.
“I can never understand ethnic or national pride, because, to me, pride should be reserved for something you achieve or attain on your own, not something that happens by accident of birth. Being Irish isn’t a skill, it’s a f#cking genetic accident.”
~ George Carlin, It’s Bad for Ya! (2008)
In the current times, when strongmen in many countries are stoking nationalist sentiment, its seems more important than ever for humanity to set aside these ideas and come together.
“Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”
~ Albert Einstein
While I initially associated with Canadians when I first moved to Asia, as a networking tool and to adapt in a new society, I find that I do so less and less. Usually my involvement is through the local Canadian Chamber of Commerce, where I was active in many marine and sustainable development activities over the years.
While I am not in Hong Kong for the latest round of protests, which have persisted for the past eight weeks, I was there for the 2005 World Trade Organization meeting and it’s associated protests over globalization, and the 2014 protests over the right to elect the Chief Executive. The current round of protests are about more than the extradition bill; they are an expression of the population’s deep frustration at systemic issues, such as being priced out of the rigged property market and having no voice in the political affairs of their city, where authoritarian mainland China increasingly intrudes on Hong Kong’s special autonomy.
As a writer, I have also been invited to speak at a number of humanist events around Asia, where I met delegates from several countries with varying degrees of political and social freedom. One gentlemen I met at a conference was living near where I had one of my recent contracts, in a country with a less-than-stellar human rights track record. While I was working in his country, we met up for dinner one evening, and he brought a fellow humanist advocate to meet me. During our dinner conversation, held in extremely hushed tones lest we be dragged off to prison or into the streets and beaten to death for blasphemy, we discussed the persecution of secularists and the very real dangers posed to those who advocated for freedom from religion. Many in the West take freedom for granted, and see a curtailment of their right to display nativity scenes on public property as a threat to their freedom of speech; these people have no idea what they are talking about. When a simple thing like having a conversation can get you imprisoned or killed, that’s when the definition of freedom really hits home and what it means to be truly oppressed.
Not everyone has freedom of movement or access to international employment, which restricts their economic opportunities as well as their ability to migrate for reasons of social or political liberty not available in their home country. Another 2017 BBC article addressed this issue, stating: “Yet economic logic points in the opposite direction. In theory, whenever you allow factors of production to follow demand, output rises. In practice, all migration creates winners and losers, but research indicates there are many more winners. . . . Some economists calculate global economic output would double if anyone could get on their bikes to work anywhere.”
Perhaps, one day in the near future, everyone will have unrestricted global freedom to live and work where they choose, and we can all come together as global citizens instead of using outdated notions of nationality to divide us.