Nationalism Costs Lives
“For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.”
Spoken by Michelle Obama, in 2008, during the campaign trail as her husband, Barack Obama, was on track to be the eventual Democratic nominee and the first black president in history. It was a moment of surprising candor from someone who was pretty green to politics back then, a moment she was roundly criticized for my talking heads on TV and blue check marks on Twitter.
I’ve always been proud of my country. She hates America. How dare she….
This feeling is common and understandable, but as we’ve seen this decade it also has proven to be monumentally unwieldy. Does pride in one’s country or patriotism require loyalty? Does it require blind acceptance? Does patriotism allow for criticism and nuance? Does it require everyone else who wasn’t born in your country to be lesser? It’s getting harder and harder to answer these questions, not just in the United States, but abroad as well.
It’s no coincidence that many if not all of the major conflicts in the last one hundred years have been preceded by intense bouts of nationalism in the aggressor’s country.
The answers though lie in part with how we define nationalism and patriotism, both words used synonymously, but in reality have their differences. Nationalism is defined as a dogmatic affinity towards a cultural group, defined broadly as any unifying concept or attribute. This ranges from religion to race to political party to heritage to really anything a group of people can come together on. Patriotism is more or less a pride in and devotion to the country in which you were born.
Over the last hundred years those two terms have become blurry with nationalistic political parties popping up all over the world. The overlap occurs when the state becomes the incontrovertible truth that has traditionally driven nationalistic ideologies. Brazil, China, Poland, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Iran, all of these countries and more are experiencing revitalizations centered around nationalism. Replace “America First” with the name of any other country, and you get the platforms and politicians that now run them. It worries me.
Because just like in capitalism and war, where you can’t have the rich without the poor or winners without losers, nationalism can only exist in a framework of exclusion. It’s the haves and the have-nots, the people who are in and the poor saps who are out. Nationalism is predicated on exclusion. If we begin the statement that the natural progression of humanity is the complete elimination of war or armed conflict. If that’s the baseline, then the next logical step is to examine the causes of conflict between large groups or countries.
It’s no coincidence that many if not all of the major conflicts in the last one hundred years have been preceded by intense bouts of nationalism in the aggressor’s country. Think Germany before World War II, America before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and most recently Iran in the wake of the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani.
Lars Erik Cederman, a professor of International Conflict Research in Zurich, wrote this past year in Foreign Affairs saying. “Since the French Revolution, nationalism — the idea that state borders should coincide with national communities — has constituted the core source of political legitimacy around the world. As nationalism spread from western Europe in the early nineteenth century, it became increasingly ethnic in nature. In places where the state and the nation did not match up, such as Germany, Italy, and most of eastern Europe, the nation tended to be defined in terms of ethnicity, which led to violent processes of unification or secession.”
This process of unification or succession can manifest itself in a variety of ways and with varying intensities, more often than not though involving some sort of call to violence internally or externally against some other determined “enemy”.
Erin Waters, a scholar at the Aspen Institute, writes, “A church in Charleston. A concert in Las Vegas. A synagogue in Pittsburgh. While much about these attacks differed, they had one common characteristic: they were terrorist acts perpetrated against Americans by white nationalists driven to extremism.”
It often goes beyond the ideology or attribute or specificheritage. There is religion and then there’s religious nationalism. There’s black liberation and then there’s black nationalists. There’s patriots, and there’s America First. There’s economic anxiety and then there’s racism.
This pride is man-made.
In 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center listed one thousand and twenty hate groups as operating within the border of the United States alone, compared to almost six hundred in 2000. Many of these groups have their roots in some form of nationalistic ideology, and it’s always the same. The cycle goes intense tragedy -> nationalistic pride -> targeting an enemy. It always begins with a grievance and then a call to action, a call about how good you are and how bad they are for doing this to you. It’s about what you represent versus what they represent. It’s your whole worldview locked in concert with the aggressors. This causes intense pride to bubble up, subsuming the role of North Star, and with it comes purpose, community, and a sense of peace.
The wild thing though is as much as people might claim otherwise, this visceral, in-their-bones, pride that people feel is not real. It’s all fake. It’s not anything derived from nature or science or biology. It’s not based in genetics or human nature or derived from our consciousness. It’s man-made, imposed arbitrarily by society that in the long term will amount to nothing less than the utter destruction of humanity.
Patriotism is only wrapped in the flag and fake respect for the military, because that’s the message that’s been force fed to us for decades.
If we are to survive, we must stop blowing each other up, which will become harder in the wake of climate change. It will require nothing less than a fundamental realignment in what it means to take pride in one’s country, essentially a reclamation of what it means to be a patriot.
As of now, patriotism firmly stands on one side of the argument, and it’s been that way for a hundred years, ever since the World Wars, when America came in and saved the day twice. A brand of unquestioning loyalty, immutable respect for our military, and a surety of our holy purpose has taken hold over us and every other country. Patriotism is only wrapped in the flag and fake respect for the military, because that’s the message that’s been force fed to us for decades.
And too often this brand of patriotism is at the expense of the other. We beat them. We defeated them. We’re smarter than them. We’re keeping them out. It’s similar to a bully. We beat them, so look how great I am. The pride of nations more often than not values toughness over mercy, strength over critique, and power over community. What no one realizes is that this framework is inherently unsustainable. In a group of tribes, only one can come out on top. We must flip the script.