One of the more notable ways that maps lie is in the way that they view states as unitary structures. We look on a map and see the United States as one color and neglect to see the massive diversity that is present within its states as well as its territorial possessions like Puerto Rico. The same is true if we look at Morocco and see Western Sahara attached or Moldova with the Transdnistrian Republican not shown or Georgia with South Ossetia and Abkhazia shown within its borders. Given that maps rarely show the ambiguities of borders outside of obvious cases like the empty district between Yemen and Oman and Saudi Arabia or the border between Egypt and Sudan or the overlapping claims that Western Sahara, Algeria, and Morocco have, it is obvious that most maps struggle even more mightily to represent the strength of local attachments that make countries far less united than they might otherwise seem to us.
The strength of local attachments is not something that ought to be unfamiliar to us. We deal with it frequently in our own lives. I will speak from my own experience in the following passage, but I am sure that your own experience could provide plenty of similar examples. When I was growing up in rural Florida my rapid accent and bookish nature led me to be thought of as a Yankee, but when I moved to Southern California, I found myself being teased with “Dueling Banjos” references by those whose brain-dead liberal opinions I disagreed with. People in Oregon (and other places) blame Californians for all kinds of problems like bad driving and rising rents and property taxes, while people in Molalla, a small town in rural Clackamas county, are decidedly not friendly to outsiders who visit them. Likewise, when I have visited Texas I have tended to find those Texans I had not personally met elsewhere rather unfriendly, an experience which has in turn made me think far worse of Texans that I might otherwise.
Nor is the matter of the strength of local attachments something that has not been noted or commented on by many. I recently finished a book on the Spanish Empire (review forthcoming) that commented on the lack of cohesion within this realm over the course of its history (more on that below), all of which gave the lie to claims that the Spanish Empire was a coherent and unified realm when its military, trade, and diplomatic matters depended on a massive involvement of “foreigners” ranging from those who were outside of Castille to those who were outside of the Iberian peninsula (including a lot of Belgians, Dutch, Italians, and even Burgundian translators) to those who were outside of Europe, even, like Chinese merchants in Manilla or blacks defending Spanish colonial possessions in Cuba and Peru from invading Brits. In Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, one of the more interesting moments is Darcy’s attempt before his abortive first proposal to determine whether Lizzy Bennet has too strong of local attachments to Herefordshire to think of someone from Derbyshire as an appropriate husband. And lest we laugh at this provincialism, we might think of the same sort of cultural divide that would separate a Nebraskan from a Northern Californian or a Floridian from a Michigander.
Among the obvious consequences of the strength of local attachments is the way that it hinders too much centralization. To the extent that different local attachments have rivalries with others, overall unity is somewhat hindered. As a Pittsburgh Steelers fan (thanks in large part to my loyalty to the place of my birth, a small post-industrial town outside of Pittsburgh), I can find myself the subject of hostility from Seattle Seahawks fans who blame our team for bad officiating that cost them a chance in their first Super Bowl appearance. My various places of residence have led people to judge me based on their own misconceptions of those areas when I have traveled to different areas. The fact that people from North and South and East and West and Middle America do not see eye to eye hinders the overall unity of the United States, especially when people look at blue and red states and counties as a way of showing the strength of political identities in different locales that appear to be hardening in the face of increasing violence on the part of the extremist left.
Nor is this a problem that hinders the United States alone. There are plenty of examples where local attachments hinder the unity of larger nations. Hong Kong’s separate political culture is certainly causing headaches for Beijing imperialists who want to control that area and profit from its wealth. Spain is being wracked by separatism in Catalonia, and numerous referenda on independence for various areas have been held or are being held. Indeed, in just a couple of days or so we should know whether the people of Bougainville wish to be independent from Papua New Guinea and whether their wishes will be respected by that troubled nation. The mining wealth of that area and the fact that the people of Bougainville culturally belong far more with the Solomon Islands than with the Papuans in terms of language and ethnicity has made these local attachments the source of violent conflict, as has been the case in many areas around the world. Sometimes this violence has been directed by those with local attachments at larger areas that claim their loyalty and at least as often (if not more) it has been directed by those larger areas at those whose local attachments may be in conflict with the larger entities which they are a part of.
This is not something that is true only of ethnic politics, but is something faced by businesses (where local attachments can include departmental silos and semi-autonomous regional offices), churches (where local congregational identity can sometimes be stronger than larger denominational identity) and any other number of institutions. On the one hand, local attachments make it easier to get things done within that locale thanks to the improved trust and cohesion based on those close bonds. However, sometimes close bonds with one’s neighbors can mean a weakening of bonds with others, and can lead to a lessened ability to get things done for those larger entities or institutions. Likewise, too close of bonds between those who fancy themselves to be rulers and authorities can make the development of bonds between levels and classes more difficult. What we should takeaway from this is an understanding of just how difficult it is to keep institutions and polities unified given all of the ways that people can be pit against each other by those who wish to destroy cohesion and unity and trust and mutual good feelings. Let us not underestimate the task of those who wish to encourage the mutually beneficial binding of people together in unity and harmony.