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Andrew O'Sullivan

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Does a nation need a Face?

Is it a healthy or desirable to single out one individual to become the face of a nation in the form of a president, prime minister, or any leader for that matter? There was a time when to think of America was to think of George Bush. Anger towards Bush was synonymous with anger towards America. He became the personification of the USA. Surely no individual, regardless of how good or bad a leader they may be should have their identity writ so large upon a nation so as to become almost indistinguishable. Over a billion people and yet somehow this one face becomes the face of the nation. Wouldn’t a progressive Government sensitive to the great diversity on the planet strive to present as more of a collective (with members reflecting a nations diversity) less egocentric, personality driven leadership front to the rest of the world, not to mention their own citizens. And labels, such as ‘Supreme Commander’’ ‘Leader of the Free World’ and ‘Worlds most powerful Man’ further catapults these mere mortals further into the heady realms of the gods. And the fact that they generally seem to be white, Male, middle aged affluent Westerners who strut the world stage like it’s their birth right (at least that’s how it can appear) surly can’t bode well for the vast majority of humanity living in poorer developing countries. Not the sort of good PR likely to engender goodwill and a spirit of co-operation. Surely government at its highest level should reflect the community from which it springs and accommodate for a level of diversity. And present more of a collective; bring the president down a notch or two; Part of a team, not some lone maverick. The tendency for western government to present a slickly packaged powerhouse of elite and privilege in a swirling vortex around some god anointed supreme commander is naturally going to be perceived as arrogant, condescending and bullish no matter what lip service they pay to the contrary. Am I being naive? Missing a bigger pnt


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    Mar 25 2011: Do we need nations ?
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      Mar 27 2011: Thats really a better question !!!
    • Mar 27 2011: That's a good question and I'm not sure I know the answer. However, it's another argument, and whatever verdict may or may not be reached, my question still stands. The reality is, like it or not, we've got nations. We've had them for a very long time, and I imagine will continue doing so for the foreseeable future. And that's despite a multitude of alternative cultures and subcultures people identify with, and often in a much more meaningful way. We still remain bound to others by virtue of geographic proximity, and for better or worse, collective identification be it on a national or local scale seems an innate part of our need for community. Do we need nations? Maybe not, but if we did away with them I suspect something else equally big and impersonal would take their place, and to an extent, that process may already have begun. Either way, with or without nations, and by any other name, the tendency to represent enormous magnitudes of people by singling out just one individual seems also an innate part of human nature, and as such, will not go away just because we decide nations are no longer necessary and do away with them. So I stand by my question, that given things as they are, or as they might become, would it not be in our best interests to consider carefully this impulse for group identification, and if not do away with it (which I'm not sure is desirable nor possible) look at ways in which leadership can escape from the cult of celebrity and promote a process of inclusion instead of always seeking out the next face; the saviour who's going to lead us to victory.
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        Mar 28 2011: Andrew, just because something always existed, doesn't mean it makes sense.You say we are bound by geographic proximity, but look for example at the US, which is probably the best example for a nation made of immigrants. People from all over the world came (and still come) together in the US to form a nation. This is no naturally grown construct.Now back to your original question. Let's assume that Bush wouldn't have been the public face of the US. The world's hate was focused on Bush, becasue of the decisions he made, Now let's assume there wouldn't have been any public face. The decisions still would have been the same. Where would the world have focused it's anger ? In absence of a face, wouldn't the anger have been directed at the US as a nation ?
        • Apr 3 2011: Thanks for your response. First point, I agree, and I don't think I was arguing in favour or support of nations, just stating them as a matter of fact; good or bad, no matter what you think, they just are and as such have to be dealt with. The second point, also a very good one. Let's assume there was no public face. The decisions would have been the same? Maybe, though I'm not sure, have to think more about that one. By not having a public face, you're actually transforming something fundamental that may very well have an impact on the sort of decisions made, and also how those decisions might be perceived by the outside world. In the absence of a face, wouldn't the anger have been directed at the US as a nation? A good point, and yes, I suspect that would be the case. Maybe, by taking away the face, and with it the idea of it being a 'personal vendetta', you can throw the focus (or at least give it a good shot) onto reason; why a nation feels duty bound to go to war with another? Not that reason alone is a safeguard against armed conflict. But at least by making it less Bush's and Blair's war, and more a war of concerned (united?) nations, with less emphasis on the leaders themselves and more on perceived imperatives for getting involved… -and this is starting to sound naïve I suspect- but replace a face with ideas; It's more than just several elected individuals, it's billions of likeminded people (which runs into problems already I know) who are acting on the following reasons - a b c d. My thinking is, it's harder to rally hatred around a presentation of ideas, reasons, than it is a face. Reasons invite answers, a dialogue, thought… a face is handy just to peg all you frustrations and hatreds onto (and of course it swings both ways). Maybe I'm getting out of my depth here. I appreciate feedback, even if it's to point out the holes in my reasoning.

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