Getting the State Out of Our Heads

Exclusive to STR

January 8, 2007

About 200 years ago, the leading criminal organizations of Europe invented an audacious new scam. They had already bamboozled the majority of their victims into believing that their criminal activities were somehow essential to the stable functioning of society. Now they took that one step further. They began promoting the idea that not only did their victims need them, but that each of these crime rings was, in some mystical fashion, the very embodiment of the society on which it preyed. Two very distinct concepts were merged into one: the nation (a body of people sharing a common culture) and the state (an organization that has a monopoly on the legitimized use of force within a given territory). Thus was the nation-state born. And thus was the natural affection for one's own culture and people transformed into a perverse loyalty of the victim towards his abuser.

So thoroughly did these crime lords and their counterparts in other lands succeed that today the distinction between society and government, between nation and state, has all but disappeared. Twenty-two years ago I first heard the slogan "we are the government," delivered in rebuttal to my criticisms of the government, and I was astonished that an intelligent and educated person could believe such obvious nonsense. Today I encounter people like this blogger (read the discussion starting at "kevin s. van horn said...") who seem willfully incapable of comprehending the distinction between nation and state.

This confusion works greatly to the benefit of the State, immensely strengthening its perceived legitimacy, and shoring up support for, or at least tolerance of, its actions. The conflation of nation and State promotes what sociologists Herbert Kelman and Lee Hamilton call role orientation toward the State. Role orientation is one of three ways of relating to the State, it is the one most associated with the middle class, and it is the one Kelman and Hamilton identify as the most reliably obedient. For the role-oriented, their relationship to some person or group is an important part of their own identity; it nurtures a sense of belonging on which they place high value. When a person exhibits a role orientation towards his people and culture, this can give rise to either patriotism or chauvinism; but when nation and state are blurred together, both emotions transform into statism. The person develops an emotional attachment to the State, and his role as citizen becomes an important part of his identity. He supports and defends the government, especially with regards to foreign policy, out of a sense of loyalty. He sees criticism of the State as criticism of his people and culture, and may even take personal offense.

The Brainwashing of America

Now I'll direct my comments specifically to American libertarians and our particular struggle for freedom. One of the most important messages we American libertarians can convey to our fellow countrymen -- and one we have done a pretty poor job of articulating -- is that the United States is not America .

The mindset that equates these two is firmly established in our country. Ask the man on the street about the American space program, and he will think of NASA, but not of private enterprises such as Scaled Composites, Blue Origin, or Bigelow Aerospace. Ask about the American education system, and he will think of the government schools, but not of home schooling or private schools. Criticize the U.S. too strongly, and he'll respond with the non sequitur, " America -- love it or leave it." Oppose U.S. military action and foreign policy, and he'll denounce you as anti-American.

The American anti-war movement constantly shoots itself in the foot by confusing the United States with America . They write of what America is doing in Iraq , or what we are doing in Iraq , instead of what the United States is doing. Such language only plays into the hands of warmongers, who can then accuse war dissidents of "blaming America first."

Worst of all, even many libertarians can't seem to distinguish the United States from America .

Let's look at some phrases and statements written by various prominent, "hard-core" libertarians (who shall remain anonymous):

' America 's real war aims

' American foreign policy

' America 's policy towards terrorism

' America 's Constitution

' America is ... a constitutional Republic

America itself has no war aims, policy, nor Constitution of any sort. It is not a monarchy, democracy, nor republic. It is not a single organization at all; it is arguably not even a single nation. In each of the above quotes the writer helps to further statist mental domination of the American people by erasing the distinction between America and the United States .

' the anti-American insurgency [in Iraq ]

' this nation had no right to invade Iraq

' America was fighting an illegal, undeclared war in Southeast Asia

The Iraqi insurgents want the United States out of their country; that makes them anti-U.S., but not anti-American. It was the United States that fought the war in Vietnam and invaded Iraq , not America ; no American other than officials of the U.S. had any say in either matter. Nations don't fight wars -- organizations (mostly states) do.

' our 40-odd chief executives

' our sitting President

' our federal budget

It makes no sense to call the president of the United States our president, when neither the writer nor most of his readers are officials or employees of that organization. Who outside of Microsoft would refer to Steve Ballmer as "our president"? Likewise, the federal budget is not our budget -- mine, yours, or that of the American people as a whole. It is not a plan for how we are proposing to spend our money -- it is a plan for how the United States proposes to spend its pilfered funds.

' we've been murdering people's children and distorting the survivors' lives in the Middle East for almost a century

' the Germans and Japanese whose cities we flattened and burned to rubble in '44 and '45

Libertarians are supposed to be individualists, but these two statements erase not only the distinction between the United States and America , but between State and individual. They also relieve the guilty from personal responsibility for their crimes, by spreading the guilt across the whole American populace.

It gets worse. The writer who mentioned flattening German and Japanese cities was approving of these crimes. That writer fails to distinguish the German and Japanese governments of the early 1940's from the unfortunates who lived under their rule, and so would punish the criminal by killing the criminal's other victims.

Mental Liberation

All of this is more than mere pedantry about proper word usage. As Orwell and various linguists have pointed out, vocabulary shapes thought. Statist language promotes a statist mindset. We cannot hope to make significant progress in combating the State's power as long as it still has a foothold in our heads. We must uproot the tendrils of State influence from our own minds, and to do this we must also uproot its hidden propaganda from our own speech.

This issue of nation vs. state is of critical importance to the freedom struggle. I've mentioned before that I'm organizing a workshop on nonelectoral, nonviolent strategies for creating a free America. Nonviolent struggle works by alienating from the State its sources of power and pillars of support, and an important source of State power is its perceived legitimacy. If we can clearly separate America from the United States in the minds of Americans, we will deal a great blow to the legitimacy of the U.S. and hence to its power over us.

We must get the State out of our own heads, and then out of our fellow countrymen's heads. This is the simple message we need to communicate: The United States is not America . It is simply one organization among many within the American nation. Above all, the U.S. is not us -- it is them.

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Kevin Van Horn's picture
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Kevin S. Van Horn, Ph.D., is a computer scientist living in Orem, Utah.  At age 11 he became a proto-libertarian when he first began studying and thinking seriously about issues of government.  He has been a market anarchist for about two decades now.