Inherent Tensions on Nationalism

Nationalism, a hydra of a term which in this case I am using in the sense whereby it refers to the idea that “a people” of unified ethnic, cultural and/or religious heritage have a “right” to their own nation state which expresses their identity as a people, is a force which has been at the root of a great deal of suffering since it burst upon the world scene — arguably via the French Revolution followed by Napoleon’s empire. As such, it has a fairly well deserved negative reputation these days. And yet, like many intellectual vices, it is often denounced even by those who hold it dear.

Case in point: Can one seriously claim to be against nationalism if one believes that the Palestinians have a natural and human right to their own nation state in which they are the dominant ethnic and cultural force?

For a couple decades, the “Palestinian” territories were parts of Jordan and Egypt respectively. For the last 50 years, they have been controlled by Israel. If one is truly against nationalism, is either of these situations a problem? Or the the problem only when whatever governing authority controls the West Bank and Gaza Strip fails to provide equal political rights and privileges to the residents of those areas who are Muslim or Christian Arab in background?

4 Responses to Inherent Tensions on Nationalism

  1. Eric Brown says:


    The operative definition of “nationalism” in this piece is not necessarily the concept that the political left might object to.

    When nationalism involves very strong self-identification with one’s nation, it might include that one’s nation is of primary importance. To be clear, I am primarily interested in human affairs as they relate to America because they affect me, the people I love, and the country I live in. However, without the right moral parameters, patriotism can morph into a nationalism that involves a negative view of other races or cultures based on broad generalizations that are not necessarily rational. I would bet there is an extreme positive correlation between self-identified patriots who believe in “supporting Israel” and who hold the prevalent Republican view on immgiration.

    So, I think there is a question regarding definition of “nationalism.”

    Either way, I don’t think the “left” or “right” are terribly consistent on these issues.

  2. Fair point. We are, often, two factions divided by a common language.

    That said, I would argue that the definition of nationalism that I just outlined underlies most of the manifestations of nationalism which the political left decries (as well as some it applauds.)

    After all, the instinct to desire a “pure” Jewish state of Israel is really no different from the desire to have a “pure” Arab state of Palestine — except that the two desire are mutually exclusive, since both groups claim the same land.

    Since one of the things that most Americans admire about the US is that it is a “melting pot” of immigrant groups, I think it’s far too easy for us to forget that in nearly every other part of the world (and certainly in Europe and the Middle East) nationalism is very much connected with the desire (often militant) of cultural/ethnic groups to have a state to themselves.

  3. Donald R. McClarey says:

    We are patriots. They are nationalists. It brings to mind the old George Carlin quote: “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

  4. R.C. says:

    One important distinction to consider is the odd monkey-wrench which the United States happens to throw into the usual considerations on nationalism.

    Usually in the history of the world “nationalism” is an expression of some form of racialism. The Germans of the 1930’s weren’t unusual in this regard: They rallied around their German-ness defined by family lines, culture, history, and genotype, and even invented some silly unscientific views of their origins to support it. (Aryan! Ha! The closest things to Aryans the Nazis dealt with were the gypsies, or “Roma,” who they slaughtered with only slightly less gusto than they did Jews! Now if they’d invaded [i]Persia[/i] they could have dealt with some Aryans.) This was all part of German identity, it was who they were.

    The United States, though, takes a very different approach to identity, to self-definition. German-ness may be all about family, but American-ness is centrally about a particular approach to human liberty and its implications about what constitutes good government. Americans have traditionally gone out of their way to emphasize that the “great American melting pot” was held together, not on racial lines, but by that common agreement on a point of [i]ideology[/i]; something with which anyone could potentially embrace, no matter their birthplace.

    Put crudely: When a war occurs between other nation-states and in other centuries, peoples would get worked into a state of frenzy asserting that [i]we[/i] were better than [i]those guys[/i]: A necessary bit of cheerleading, perhaps, but when the only differences between us and them are our genetic heritage and those bits of culture which come as accidents of birthplace rather than from willful adoption of a creed or cult, then…? What? Surely we can’t claim [i]moral[/i] superiority on such a basis. It is hard for most nations to exhibit nationalism without going for some kind of racial superiority angle because that, at heart, is what defines the nation.

    But whenever the United States was involved in a war, nationalism took a different tone: From the revolution onward, an ideology was involved. Thus does American cheerleading differ from the conventional nationalism: It is about freedom and human rights and opposition to tyrants and such.

    The odd thing is that this means the American expression of nationalism — the kinds of things being said and championed — has a better than usual chance of actually being true, of being worth championing.

    Setting aside the issues of justification and the violated ceasefire terms and all that, it is plainly true that Republics with Constitutionally Limited Government by Democratically Elected Representatives with Encouraged Entrepreneurialism, Enforceable Contracts, and Educated Populaces are just plain [i]better[/i] than anything the Taliban, or Al Qaeda, or the sleazeball Saddam & Sons regime, or Russian kleptocrats, or the Soviets before them, could ever offer.

    Don’t misunderstand what I’m claiming, here. I’m not attempting to argue for justification for attacking the Taliban. I’m not saying that the nation with the best ideas about government should go ’round invading all the ones with lesser notions.

    I am putting all that to the side, and focusing on the question: Does American “nationalism,” when expressed, differ in any qualitative way from “nationalism” as usually defined?

    I think it does. I think a person who rallies to the flag in the U.S. isn’t rallying to a race or to a racial culture or to a racial history, as he would be in other countries. He is rallying to a set of abstract moral imperatives embodied in an approach to governance and society-formation.

    And, all things considered, the moral imperatives and the approach to governance and society-formation which are cheered on when an American puts up his flag are [i]good[/i] ones. Quite good, actually.

    That this difference between American nationalism and Xian nationalism is overlooked accounts, I think, for the disconnect about “patriotism” between right and left.

    The fellow on the left sees a bunch of red-staters mounting flags and gets surly and suspicious: Don’t they know how badly white people treated the American Indians? Don’t they know about exploitation by American corporations in Latin America?

    Meanwhile the fellow on the right sees the fellow on the left getting surly and suspicious and feels that limited government, enumerated powers, democratic republicanism, and the Bill of Rights are being dismissed or shown contempt — by someone who enjoys their benefits, no less!

    Now if the fellow on the right thought “America” meant his relatives and their cultural habits and history, he’d agree the guy on the left had a point. But since his idea of America is all tied up with the Revolution and the Constitution, he thinks the guy on the left is merely off-topic, and a bit of an ingrate.

    The guy on the left takes note of the frown of the guy on the right, and shouts, “Don’t question my patriotism!” The guy on the right responds, “Didn’t say a thing, bud…but if the principles I hold dear offend you so much, y’know, there are other places you could live where they hold different ones….”

    And neither side realizes that the other is talking about something entirely different.

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