ME: Some in the environmental movement are pointing out that nationalism makes it very difficult to solve the world’s environmental problems. And they feel that nationalism in some magical way will lose its hold on people. I can’t see that happening without a sustained inquiry into the process of thought that has produced nationalism – in fact, the reverse seems more likely, especially if conditions get worse along lines that are predicted.
DB: What we must do first is understand the source, otherwise what one says about ending nationalism may be just a vain hope. People in the Middle Ages hoped that the plague would go away, but they didn’t realize that it was carried by fleas, which in turn were carried by rats, which were carried by ships from one country to another. They didn’t think about the fleas and the rats and the ships. Later people saw the rats coming out of the ships, and they knew they were carrying fleas and realized the connection between fleas and plague and on the ropes holding the ships they built plates so that rats couldn’t come ashore. That was a big step in stopping the plague, because they’d learned how it was carried. So if nationalism is the plague, we have to understand the origin of that plague.
To meet this challenge, we have to begin by examining the general nature of thought. To begin with, we can say that thought is knowledge that is being applied to a particular case or that is being created by thinking about things. You begin to think, “What shall I do? What’s this all about?” What you think then goes into the memory; it becomes a kind of program. In thinking something, it becomes thought – the language says so. The word thinking means something active is going on; the word thought means it has gone on. You usually think that thought has gone and therefore has no effect. But thought has actually gone into the program, into the memory. It’s not really just the memory of what has happened, but also of what to do, of what to believe, of how things should be divided up or united, of who you are, of what you belong to, and all that. Now, when this memory works, it doesn’t come back as thinking; it works almost immediately, without thinking, through the way you respond, through its effect on how you see things, and so on.
Young children never know that one nation is different from another until they’re told. But when they’re told by people whom they believe – their parents or whoever it is – they think, “Well, now we know.” And when they know, they don’t have to think anymore. It is thought that now works and, for example, makes them feel uneasy with a foreign person. Thought affects the body, creating the stance of being cautious. And the adrenaline flows, because there is a certain amount of fear and mistrust, not quite the sense of ease you have with someone you know. Thought works in this way for all sorts of things. If you want to drive a car, you have to be told all sorts of things; you have to learn how. But when you drive, you act without thinking. If you had to think before applying what you’ve learned, it would be too late. The same kind of thought that enables you to drive a car operates when you become hostile to someone of another group, whether it be a different race, nation, or religion.
Suppose you have two religions. Thought defines religion – the thought about the nature of God and various questions like that. Such thought is very important because it is about God, who is supposed to be supreme. The thought about what is of supreme value must have the highest force. So if you disagree about that, the emotional impact can be very great, and you will then have no way to settle it. Two different beliefs about God will thus produce intense fragmentation – similarly with thoughts about the nature of society, which is also very important, or with ideologies such as communism and capitalism, or with different beliefs about your family or about your money. Whatever it is that is very important to you, fragmentation in your thought about it is going to be very powerful in its effects.
ME: Yes, and politicians are particularly adroit at manipulating this tendency to fragmentary thinking in the form of nationalism. In fact, their careers depend on it.
DB: Well, they think about it all the time, and it’s now in their thought. People accept it as a matter of course that they can’t trust people in another country. And when they think about it, they see that equally one can’t trust the people in their own country. Fundamentally the people in one’s own country are no more trustworthy than they are anywhere else – every politician knows that.