We human beings have a tendency to guard what we think belongs to us, whether it be some material possession, a spouse, or even an entire country. Rarely do we consider that the country (or the spouse, for that matter) may not be truly ours. The country is ours, we believe, because we were born here, or we grew up here, or we have made it ours through some legal maneuvers. An inhabitant of this land might stand on the north bank of the Rio Grande, point across and say, “That over there belongs to Mexico, but everything on this side belongs to us, the United States.” That’s what a lot of us think: that us and the U.S. are the same thing.
Nationality isn’t merely a U.S. concept, of course: everywhere there’s a country with a flag and a national anthem you’ll find a people who fervently believe the banner and the song are about them, belong to them. When the Mexican national team defeated the reigning champion and heavily favorited German national team in the first match of Group F in the 2018 World Cup, two Sundays ago, a video spread through social media showing jubilant Mexico fans setting fire to the German black-red-and-gold. Happily, most comments came from Mexicans condemning such nasty outbursts of nationalism, and in Tijuana, two kids, brother and sister, climbed the Monument to Cuauhtémoc waving the German tricolor as a token of intercontinental brotherhood.
Ever since nationalism reared its haughty head — in modern times, around 1800, and somewhere in or near France — countries and their borders have come to dominate how most human beings view themselves in relation to others. Besides sex and maybe religion, no other distinction, not even race, is used to describe the people of the world more regularly than nationality. On any given day you might pick up a newspaper and read about how Argentinian workers are striking, how a Jamaican man just shattered the world record in the one-hundred-meter dash, or how German scientists are peering into the nature of dark matter. Every reader immediately knows what such labels imply, even if they don’t understand: the scientists and their research belong to Germany, the Jamaican man and his new record belong to Jamaica, and the workers and their labor belong to Argentina.
Nationalism is so ingrained in us from an early age that even when we try to behave as enlightened individuals, as I do, we can’t help but think in nationalistic ways. Take, for instance, yesterday’s World Cup match between Mexico and Sweden. Initially, and unthinkingly, I voiced my support for Mexico — the land of my partner’s birth, a country I’ve visited a couple times, and the second largest country in Latin America. As what’s called a “Latino,” socially and politically, and as a U.S. Latino at that, Mexico holds a place of some reverence in my mind. Every Latino living in the United States must feel the same way, since every slur aimed against the people of Mexico and their stateside descendants is usually meant as a blanket statement against everyone from “south of the border.” So, naturally you could say, I tend to root for Mexico in global competitions — even when the opponent is the U.S. national team, for historical and political reasons — and I hoped the Mexicans would trounce the Swedes in yesterday’s match (which they most certainly did not).
But then I checked myself, and not as a Latino or a U.S. citizen, but merely a human being, I asked myself: why should I want the Mexican national team to beat the Swedish one? What makes a Mexican man more worthy of support than a Swede?
An easy answer points to the history of European imperialism, which plundered the wealth and blocked the ambitions of the rest of the world for hundreds of years. I can’t remember reading about any specific abuse inflicted on the Mexican people by the Swedes exclusively, but what makes Sweden culpable nonetheless in the eyes of many Latinos, especially the liberals, seems to be that Sweden is in Europe, which is guilty in general. (I’m not pretending race has no part to play in this either, but I don’t think that really requires much explanation.)
Still, we do have to get away from our obsession with countries and their borders, both rather new concepts which have been imposed on the world in modern times by the people who control said countries and borders.
Who controls our country and our borders, anyway? Figuring that out is simple enough: Just find a completely uninhabited and unworked patch of land, somewhere in Montana or Nevada maybe, and start building yourself a house, a school, a shop, and, if you feel you need one, a church. Build yourself a little community, doing whatever you want with the land that’s in your country, and then wait.
Sooner or later a government official will come along to notify you that the land, which seemed to you empty and unused, really does belong to someone, namely the government or some private citizen. If it belongs to the government, you might wonder why they don’t just give the land over to you, a U.S. citizen — and a taxpaying citizen too, you should add. But that it cannot do, the government will argue, because it is either preserving the land for the benefit of all society or, the actual reason, the government is saving the land for whomever can afford to pay for it.
That’s how the global system works: you own what you pay for, and sometimes not even that.
We citizens of the United States may believe this country to be ours — we want to believe it, anyway — but it isn’t really. The country, in the most immediate sense, belongs to the government, whether local, state or federal, and the government itself belongs to the people who pay for the government, or buy it (which is what Will Rogers meant when he said ours was “the best government money can buy.”) When you look at all the money flooded into campaign coffers during every election season by donors with bigger war chests than those of many countries, you realize (hopefully) that such massive campaign contributions — some numbering in the tens of millions — aren’t simply investments in our nation’s future; they are rental fees, one of the many costs of doing business. We know it to be true of countries like Mexico, Honduras and Russia, so what leads so many of us to believe it isn’t true of the United States and its government — what besides nationalistic pride?
If I step back and see through my human eyes — not my Latino or U.S. ones — then nothing compels me to root for the Mexican national team over the Swedish national team, and in fact, as a human being, I’m much more simpatico to the Swedish side, or that of any of the Nordic countries, than I am the Mexican one. Sweden, as anyone who’s heard a Bernie Sanders speech will know, has long adopted some socialistic reforms and has become the envy of much of the world in terms which matter more to normal, everyday people than to governments — things like education, health care, crime, equal treatment, and sheer happiness. Mexico, on the other hand, is a dozen years into a blood-soaked drug war; a journalist, activist or political candidate is shot every week; poverty remains crippling for a large and growing minority of Mexicans; and Mexico boasts one of the most corrupt governments in the world.
But even all that is besides the point. The World Cup shouldn’t be about one country’s team, or one country’s government’s team, versus all others. It shouldn’t even be about Mexican players versus Swedish players and so on, because the labels “Mexican” or “Swedish” refer to things (or people) belonging to the Mexican or Swedish government, and have little or nothing to do with the people themselves. People are the same everywhere, regardless of borders, flags or anthems. That’s what the World Cup should be about — the people — specifically those who dedicate their young lives to playing a sport they love, hoping all along that they might someday become great at it.
Let it be so, and may the best team, not the best country, win.