I Am Not A Nationalist (And Here Are A Few Reasons Why)

Matt and Reihan have made some important points, but I want to press Reihan when he says:

…I think Will Wilkinson is right to suggest that patriotism and nationalism are very closely related if not the same. It so happens that patriotism has mostly positive connotations and that nationalism has mostly negative connotations.

So is patriotism really nationalism in more appealing clothing? Is the attachment to and love of country just nationalism in its passive state, or are they actually opposing sentiments? Why does patriotism have mostly positive connotations? Is it that it has not previously had to face a thoroughgoing critique, and has enjoyed an inappropriate respectability? Might it be the case instead that patriotism mostly has positive connotations because patriotism moves people to do generally admirable and morally justifiable things? Isn’t nationalism’s bad reputation the result of self-described nationalists committing the worst kinds of crimes, oppression and mass murder?

It has always been interesting to me that Western Civ classes frequently teach young, empty minds that the poem Dulce et decorum est is an indictment of patriotism. Strictly speaking, this is true, since it quite openly mocks the sentiment contained in the Latin phrase. Of course, the terms patriotism and nationalism have been interchanged with one another for almost two hundred years, and it has only been in the 20th century that there has been a consistent effort to distinguish between them as terms referring to two very different things. Apparently, there continues to be a need for stressing the distinction. In any case, the mass slaughter of WWI that created the conditions for the poet’s despair of fighting for his country was the result of mass-based nationalism taking hold of every people in Europe. It was not just the literal result of an overreaction to an act of Serbian irredentist assassination, but was made possible by the atmosphere of nationalist hysteria that post-1789 liberal nationalism, mass literacy, widely circulated newspapers, and the move towards more or less universal education all enabled.

The hysteria was above all a desire for greatness and power, or the fear that another nation was going to threaten the power that one’s own nation already had. It is the collective, popular and total nature of this mass nationalism that made 20th century warfare so much more destructive and long-lasting in spite of the massive destruction it was causing. If you are raised up with the abstract notion of the nation, and made to believe that people hundreds or thousands of miles away to whom you have no personal or direct connection are, in fact, your (political) brothers, you are going to be much more inclined to want to support them when you think they have been wronged or insulted. It is loyalty to an abstraction, which is essentially the opposite of local patriotism, that creates the mass hysteria and the conditions for mass mobilisation for warfare.

The Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars spread the virus of nationalism throughout Europe and infected almost everyone, except for the remnants of the old regime that saw nationalism married to liberalism as the great threat to continental peace and order. In this case, the old regime’s last defenders were right and the liberals were wrong. Particularly in central Europe liberalism was closely tied to the development of pan-German nationalism, because German liberals came to identify their national cause with the cause of liberal reform and viewed their ethnic rivals, basically correctly, as adherents of the status quo. Of course, non-Germans in the Habsburg empire rallied to the conservative establishment and usually remained the arch-conservatives of the empire, which the German liberals used as evidence of their pro-Russian and allegedly pan-Slavic sentiments. Increasingly, nationalists could become the enemies of patriots, because they began to identify with foreign champions of their own nationality’s ambitions. A perfect expression of this were the Nazis in Austria who backed the Anschluss and the occupation of their country by Germany. They betrayed Austria because they were German nationalists. This is not to harangue the Germans, since they are hardly unique in these things, but to make the point that nationalism and patriotism are not simply different things but often radically opposed to one another.

What we have all been neglecting to mention with respect to the war in Iraq is the degree to which the post-9/11 reaction was necessarily nationalistic, in that the vast majority of Americans had no real immediate connection to the places being attacked, but they had been raised to see the entire nation-state straddling an entire continent and its institutions as their own. In some sense, these things are theirs, ours, and as I have said before nation-states can create much larger countries on the ruins of local and regional identities that then appear to citizens who have never known anything else to be all part of the same country. Nonetheless, the nation-state accomplishes this by diverting natural attachments of patriotism and using them as the building blocks for a larger, more abstract nationalism. The evils that may result from the abstract nationalism that is constructed in this process are to be pinned squarely on the nationalism that created the consolidated nation-state.

Now there are occasions where non-nationalist patriots and nationalists will agree on a course of action, such as how to respond to a foreign attack. This is why the same people who supported and support the war in Afghanistan can be equally outraged by the war in Iraq: one of them actually has something to do with self-defense and retaliating for an attack, and the other has nothing whatever to do with either one. I agree with this blogger that Kateb’s criticism of America Firsters for supporting the war effort against Japan is utterly bizarre. Without ignoring the problems with administration policy leading up to the attack, which I certainly don’t, support for retaliatory warfare is something that definitely does come from patriotism. Coming under attack makes all the difference—this is one reason why popular support for the war in Europe was always lower and much more tepid than support for the war in the Pacific, because there was never the same visceral drive for retaliation and, yes, revenge, against the Germans and Italians. Kateb’s puzzlement with the America Firsters seems to come from a confusion about why they opposed FDR’s actions. They were against FDR because they believed his policies would lead America into war and that this would be very bad for the United States. As it happens, they were right, but that isn’t the point I wanted to make. What I do want to say is that it was the same concern for the welfare of America that motivated both their earlier opposition and their later support. If Kateb doesn’t see how a large-scale military attack changes the situation, then that’s another problem with his overall analysis.

Let us return to Orwell’s distinction between the two things:

By “patriotism” I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one…has no wish to force upon other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unity in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

I think this is quite right, but it does also obscure a central part of nationalism and I regret that I haven’t brought this element into the discussion before. The central part is, of course, nationality, which in this case really means ethnicity. The nationalist assumption of ethnic homogeneity within independent nation-states is one reason why words and concepts for nationality and citizenship are blurred together, and in modern European states today there are regulations that permit foreign-born fellow nationals to claim citizenship in the “home” country where they have never been.

Let me stipulate here that you can be both a nationalist and a patriot under certain circumstances, but I grant this on the assumption that these are warring tendencies within any one person, and your loyalty to the country where you are born and live may not always win out over the country with which you identify as a nationalist (unless you opt to become a nationalist of the country in which you live). Devotion to the patria is ultimately a devotion to the place where you have lived and which you consider your home. Nationalism, like nationality, is a phenomenon that crosses established borders and geographical limits depending on the demography of a region. Except for civic nationalism, which has its own problems, it is difficult for different nationalities to embrace nationalism, because most modern nationalisms are usually premised on ethnicity and/or language. They face no such barriers with patriotism (it is therefore particularly strange that some of the people who are most likely to be hostile to ethnolinguistic nationalism are so intent on tarring patriotism with every nationalist error). Now, to the degree that ethnicity is a matter of self-definition you can redefine yourself and identify yourself with the prevailing ethnicity (Vlachs in Macedonia in the late 19th and early 20th century considered themselves Greeks and took the Greek side against Slavic-speakers in fights over Macedonia), but whether or not this is accepted depends on the flexibility of the local nationalism.

One of the essential differences between patriotism and nationalism is found in the attitude towards territory. Nationalists are inclined towards irredentism and expansionism. In their view, territories inhabited by fellow nationals ought to be claimed, indeed “redeemed,” by the nation-state, and in the interests of an expanding population, “national greatness” or both nationalists will pursue policies of expansion at the expense of indigenous and neighbouring peoples. (Ideological nationalists who see the nation-state as a vehicle for spreading “values” are potentially the most dangerous, because they are interested in “redeeming” every territory that is not currently under the approved type of regime; the fusion of American nationalism and democratism functions as a kind of ideological irredentism that theoretically views every country ruled by a non-democratic regime as irredenta.) There is something fundamentally aggressive and potentially imperialistic about nationalism. Patriots, meanwhile, are typically content to keep what territory they have and leave other peoples alone in their own countries. Every imperial misadventure that Kateb and others rightly criticise represents the antithesis of this patriotism. Wars of conquest have nothing to do with patriotism, and indeed they must always be dressed up (as the wars against Mexico and Spain were dressed up) as retaliation for slights and injuries because advocacy for naked aggression will usually offend decent people. Indeed, a case could be made that if conscription were in place to support a war of conquest a patriot might be obliged to refuse to serve (and not simply on grounds of civil libertarian opposition to conscription as such).

One of the reasons why so many extremely learned and wise rightists from central Europe, including Kuehnelt-Leddihn and Lukacs, view nationalism so negatively is that it was inextricably linked to the mania of self-determination that ruined central Europe and which continues to ruin the Balkans. Further, it is both populist and identitarian, which both K-L and Lukacs view very poorly. For K-L, the identitarianism of nationalism is evidence of its leftist origins and its ultimately illiberal nature. As an Austrian liberal, he never quite got around the problem that the ruling Austrian liberals in the late 19th century were among the biggest nationalists of their time, but this was his view. In a democracy, some measure of nationalism is almost unavoidable, and it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid in both extremely homogenous and extremely heterogenous populations.

How can it be in both? When the national self can be readily defined in ethnic or linguistic terms because all or virtually all of the inhabitants of a state belong to the same groups, it is much easier for nationalism to emerge. Indeed, it is in these states where nationalism is usually the least outwardly aggressive, but may consequently be more hostile to difference within its own population. The more “self-evident” national identity appears, the less forgiving of deviations from some official definition of national identity the local nationalists tend to be. With an extremely diverse population, multiple competing nationalisms can emerge within a single state, either threatening to create some Latin America-style hierarchical system of peoples in which one group tends to dominate others or threatening to fragment the state along national lines. As it happens, mass immigration has the potential to lead to one of these outcomes, but that is a question for another day.