Nations are an inconvenient political fiction. Layers of shared language, history and ethnicity so rarely actually overlap that every national boundary drawn on a map is a lie, a murderous exclusion of unwanted others (imagine an impossible Europe, physically large enough to contain the dreams of every irredentist), an attempt to engage our emotions and seal the economic and social dominance of one clique over another. Everything appealing to the national spirit is an aberration; the more so the more natural it is made to seem. Genocide is the inevitable excrescence of nationalism, and it isn’t a huge leap to imagine John Humphrys’ only-common-sense voice on the radio telling us to kill our neighbours.
Luckily, people don’t really exist in static national spaces dutifully learning their national values like tolerance and fair play: they flow between countries with their bodies, minds and hearts; they live and dream across borders. Borders exist to regulate this flow, but pace national leaders who greet each other with cardboard handshakes in the name of one territory acknowledging another, the real business of humanity is more intimate: touching, kissing, holding and sharing crowded spaces in which a multiplicity of identities, languages, histories and cultures mingle. These spaces have nothing to do with national spaces: people exist elsewhere.
Only when a pathogen like swine flu lights up the passage of human beings through all these spaces like a barium enema, we see that this is where humanity exists: in the flows and not the nations. A friend asked whether, given the reluctance of Americans to travel the world, somewhere in the American midwest might not be the safest place to be. Of course, when she got there, she’d probably be the infection vector. But the truth is that America doesn’t exist: it’s a network of transport hubs surrounded by backwaters. There really is no there there.