Everyone in America (well, the news media and the politicians – does anyone else count?) seems to be looking at the whole schlemiel in Ukraine from what they assume is an American perspective. What would George Washington think? He would think, I think, that their perspective is as far from what an American’s perspective should be as a Tomahawk Missile is from a tomahawk.
Although George Washington did not use the precise phrase “foreign entanglements,??? he did say he thought we should avoid them. He thought that, as an extremely weak nation, this was in our best interest. Now that we are no longer an extremely weak nation, but the most powerful nation on earth, would his perspective shift?
This is the obvious question, but it is the wrong question, as George Washington was George Washington, to a large extent, because of the environment that shaped him. He was the one fighting for freedom, after all, not the one claiming to decide who should have the right to vote for it. I think a much more relevant question, therefore, is this: if George Washington had been born in Crimea, what would he think?
Having lived in Russia recently, I feel the way Russians (and therefore, Russian-Crimeans) feel about some things, even if that feeling is locked in a small, air-tight compartment off to the side of my head, just below the bit that can recite Jabberwocky by heart. An obscure part, but one that is still accessible to me, that I can contemplate and analyze, even if it would not compel me, personally, to fight for Crimea or to hunt jabberwockies.
Which is to say, I understand nationalism for the first time. There is nothing less American, after all, nor less traditionally patriotic, than nationalism. The Americans that helped found our country, including George Washington, loved liberty and independence, and the country they were forming to help protect it. This was a completely rational feeling. Most of those involved in forming our nation were full-blooded Englishmen, after all, so by no definition were they nationalistic, anymore than a Frenchman today feels love for the EU.
On the other hand:
I met a vegetarian yoga instructor on a plane, recently, on his way from Moscow to Thailand. This proud Muscovite and proud Russian was especially proud to tell me that he also was a Nazi, whose friends, he told me, killed a black person every day (or week, I forget the details). The Russian government has encouraged these sorts of feelings for the past decade, to consolidate their power. By the time hyper-nationalism wends its way into the prana of Thailand-bound vegetarian yoga instructors, it has affected far more than its easy, obvious targets.
Having been around that sort of thinking enough, I can understand, for the first time in my life, how many Russians feel about Crimea, and how at least some Russian-Crimeans feel about “Mother Russia.??? Because, of course, the opposite side of the xenophobic coin is the love for “our people!” Russians feel a bond with other Russians as strong as any mother feels for her baby (except for my mother, who loved me because I was cuter than other babies).
So, what would George Washington think? The answer is simple. George Washington did not love the United States, which did not yet exist when he took command of the army, (nor did it exist, in any terribly concrete form, when he became its first president.)
George Washington was willing to die, however, for the ideal of liberty, as an abstract yet universal concept. As the Revolution was about seceding, it is a fair bet that George Washington, were he born in Crimea a few decades ago, would at this moment want to secede from both Ukraine and Russia. He wouldn’t want the Kiev government bossing him around anymore than the government in Moscow.
Austin Washington is the descendant of two of George Washington’s brothers, and is the author of The Education of George Washington.