On National Identity: Beyond the Shadows


There is a scene in Daniel Defoe's famous novel Robinson Crusoe where the main character rescues a Spanish shipwrecked sailor from a cannibal tribe. When the Spaniard sees Robinson Crusoe, he is surprised by his appearance and, in order to identify himself, the first thing he says is just one word: 'Christianus'. Probably no one has been lost in an island or surrounded by a native tribe that is trying to cook you, but surely we all have met people from other countries that speak a different language. All of us have faced the adventure of trying to communicate with someone so as to share our own identity, even if it is in the same language. There are two interesting details in that single word that the Spaniard pronounced. First, its language. He doesn't address Crusoe in English, or in Portuguese, not even in Spanish. He speaks in Latin. Surprisingly, he uses the language that even in the 18th century was considered the paradigm of universality. And second, he doesn't say 'Hispanus' ('Spanish'), but in fact, he identifies himself by his beliefs, by his faith: Christian. Daniel Defoe must have considered plausible that his Spanish character spoke in Latin and defined himself as a Christian. Thus, we could say the author is trying to depict a character according to several ideas, images or models that - in his mind, and probably in many others - fit with his origin: Spain. 

In this case, it is about language and about faith that determined his national identity, but this characterization is indeed limited. Defoe must have discarded many other ideas that he certainly had about the Spanish people in those times. In his construction of a fiction he thinks language and faith would be the two most important traits. Defoe had to make choices and decided that these were valid symbols of the Spanish culture. However, in reality, is the connection between Spain, Latin and Christianity clear? Is there a linkage between nationality and these two characteristics?

It is worth noting the complexity of this topic and we should understand that there is not a right answer, because, as every question related to society, it is subject to human beings, and humans are full of nuances and different points of view. The multi-perspectivism of the topic is shown in Viet Thanh Nguyen's "I love America. That's why I have to say the truth about it", where he develops the thesis that your love towards someone or something should not be blind, that you should be able to recognize defects and accept them as true, but at the same time, as part of what you love. Nguyen claims that "if we love our countries, we owe it to them, not just to flatter them, but to tell the truth about them in all their beauty and their brutality" (3). They happen to be both brutal and beautiful at the same time because "their histories... are complicated" (3). Through this idea and a critical view on US' history, Nguyen encourages the reader to examine himself and the way he loves his country, whether it is blind or if he actually recognizes its complicated nature and accepts its defects as part of the real picture. Nguyen sees this blind love as superficial, as a love that is only shown through words but not through actions. He criticizes the passive love, and defends the love "expressed in sacrifice", the type of love his parents had for him, for "they worked themselves to exhaustion" (4). Through this claim Nguyen is trying to make the reader aware of his immature love towards his highly idealized country. The author manages to question the meaning of citizenship and belonging to a country, as something that entails effort and responsibilities. It is through his own experience of immigration and suffering that he understands the true nature of love.

After this, Nguyen raises the topic of the belonging to a country as a reinforcement of the idea of love. He brings his son as an example and explains how his American citizenship is natural, while the author "had to become naturalized" (3). This is an understanding of nationality in the basis of origin or place of birth. But can naturalization be determined just by a single decision? Is it possible to undergo an 'artificial' process of becoming 'natural'? He also says how Vietnamese language moves him, even though he cannot even understand it. This is an opportunity for him to say that "as long as [he] feel[s] Vietnamese... [he is] still Vietnamese" (4). In this claim he discards the characteristic of language as determinant of someone's belonging to the nation. Nonetheless, is it just a question of acquiring the characteristics that are accepted as essentially natural or rather about feeling identified with them? Nguyen claims that "there should be many ways of being Vietnamese," and thus separates the feeling of love and the identification with the country (4). But isn't the belonging part of what it means to love a nation?

Being the first person in moving to a new country is not easy. You face problems such as cultural differences and ideological collisions, not to mention the whole concern of being accepted and dealing with discrimination. First-generation immigrants need to surrender their culture and give up traditions and perspectives in order to acquire the ones from the new country, and Nguyen's family was not an exception to this reality. The Vietnamese writer had to choose his own self, that is why he gives so much importance to the different ways of being part of a nation and the significance of the decision and the feeling of identification, which is totally legitimate.

Nguyen, however, is speaking from a point of privilege. He has already escaped from the dangers of single perspectives that belonging to a single country implies. Thanks to the surrender of his origin and to the demanding experience of adapting to another countries' culture, he had to study all the details of the nations and define his new identity. Unlike the slaves in Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" - developed in the Book VII of The Republic - who are chained in the cave and condemned to the everlasting darkness of ignorance and deceiving satisfaction with appearances and mere shadows, Nguyen's knowledge is more developed. He speaks from a point of privilege because he has seen the whole mysteries of the cave and knows what is outside. He sees the whole picture, and therefore he can judge and criticize nationalism from a more knowledgeable and objective perspective, unlike most of the people, who fall in a blind love and think all that is real are the shadows reflected in the wall and the echoes that reverberate in the cavern. Nguyen is not one of those slaves, but is he blind to something else? For, even though you are standing outside the cavern, there is always something on your back, there will always be nuances and perspectives that you don't take into account. Moreover, as Plato says, if someone would be released from the cavern and taken out to see the sun, he would "have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take refuge in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him" (251). This is probably what happens to Nguyen. He has looked directly to the truth that the shadows in the cavern can barely grasp and now he is blinded by the light. He doesn't turn back to the shadows, but many other truths and points of view are still obscure to his dilatated sight.

The prisoners in the cavern, like us, "see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another" (250), but they don't have a clue about themselves, they lack a defined identity. It is important in the understanding of our own identity to consider our belonging, our origin, our nation. But this belonging goes beyond the mere decision or the self-conviction. In fact, the prisoners have been in the cavern "from their childhood" (250) and don't know where they are from. Now, imagine that one of them starts shouting that he is from Athens - obviously, he wouldn't know what Athens is, not even what means to be born, but let's consider the case -, would anyone believe him? Could he really convince himself of that? Of course not. It is not that he doesn't feel his belonging. The problem is that he doesn't have any objective reasons behind his origin. The belonging to a country requires external tokens, and as Nguyen slightly insinuates, there are some arguments stronger than others when it comes to defend your origin, and all of them are lacked by Plato's prisoners.

First, the most important token is family, your blood origin. Family's importance for defining oneself goes beyond the formal institution it creates within society, or even the inheritance of the same ethnicity. In fact, family is still nowadays the cradle of the children's language, culture, traditions, and, more importantly, human relationships - the way someone approaches other people, and, ultimately, sees the world around him. Second, language is another extremely important feature, for it is the mean through which communication takes place, the channel through which the messages regarding all those approaches and points of view towards people and the world are transmitted. Moreover, if we explore the study of Linguistics, the language of a civilization or society always describes to some extent the people that conform these. Thus, language plays a very important role in the definition of our identities. Third, culture - together with language - defines our roots and creates a common ground that unites us with the rest of the community and distinguishes us from other nations and peoples. Nonetheless, in the case of the US' concept of nation, which seems not to fit in Nguyen's mind, we find a deep problem with these two last characteristics, because they don't unite and distinguish that much. Both the language spoken, and the culture held in the US are not unique, but due to America's history and British colonization, they are acquired - or, if you prefer, imposed. It is true, though, that the American English has its own minutia and that, even though its culture is a mixture of many other that immigrated and colonized it, it still has some traditions of its own. But these are not that exceptional, and therefore seem to fail in defining the nation. If language and culture are not that unique, and hence, valid, what other features can someone, like a US' citizen, turn to in order to feel identified with the nation?

Here is where the artificial elements come into play: the national anthem and the flag. They are artificial in the sense that they have been established voluntarily rather than spontaneously raised. They also represent, however, the tradition of the nation - its history - and work as a symbol of its principles, as Nguyen suggests. But this is also a problem. They "divide as much as unify" (5), and this is inevitable, for it is impossible to satisfy everyone, even though both the national anthem and the flag are supposed to be democratic, to be an expression of the people´s will. We must be aware that everything that tries to unify divides. The problem with these symbols is that they are not universal, because they are unactualized whenever new political ideas emerge, and are attacked as the representation of the past ideals. In the end, the national symbols immobilize the reality of the country and become ideologized. It is just a matter of time for the symbols of America to become unnatural and forced, and for the American culture to be entirely defined. Then, the American people will stop praising a mere flag, and will start feeling a passionate love towards their traditions. Patience and active search for one's identity are the solutions, just like the attitude that a prisoner should have towards all the discoveries he makes after escaping from Plato's cavern, so that he may not blinded by the light.

It is not easy to discover, define or conquer our identity. Our identity is to some extent defined by our nation and we must feel that identification, but always an identification well based on a foundation of objective reasons, that, depending on each individual, will be subjectively more or less important. Daniel Defoe made use of culture and language in order to define the character's origin, but it could have been anything else, including the flag. It is important to mention that those stereotypes weren't all about the Spanish character, but rather just a preamble. We cannot fall in the mistake of judging people according to our own mental schemes. Stereotypes - in this case in the basis of nationality - can never be an answer, because as Alexandre Dumas said: "All generalizations are dangerous, even this one". They should be a useful first impression of someone that stimulates the relationships. Relationships that will help to get to know each other and will burn those stereotypes in favor of actual understanding.


  • Nguyen, Viet Thanh. "I Love America. That's Why I Have to Tell the Truth About It" Time.Com, Dec. 2018, p. N.PAG
  • Plato. The Republic: the Influential Classic. (Introduction by Tom Butler-Bowdon) John Wiley & Sons, 2012