Nationalism

An Enduring Problem

June 18, 2008

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An Enduring Problem

As promised, I will try to explain the relevance of nationalism as part of the present American predicament.  A good starting place is Dr. Fleming’s fine article that serves as an introduction to the subject.  There are many valuable things that could be cited here, but if we want to think about how nationalism continues to be a significant force and a serious problem in modern American life this passage seems most important:

This technique of propagandistic stereotyping, on the part of the American government at least, goes back to the American War Between the States, when a progressive government and its newspapers depicted Southerners as cruel and inhuman slave-drivers who deserved no sympathy. Such propaganda can be used to justify any actions undertaken by the superior government, whether it is the elimination of the Jews, the bombing of undefended cities, or Sherman’s march to the sea. It is the hallmark of the nationalist to justify every crime committed by his own people and to impute no honorable motives or actions to rival nations [bold mine-DL].

My friends here will complain that is just another instance of imputing evil to nationalism and declaring victory in the debate, but Dr. Fleming’s observation penetrates deeply into the peculiar nature of nationalism and indeed into the nature of all forms of what Kuehnelt-Leddihn derisively called nostrism.  Propagandistic stereotyping in itself is hardly unique to modernity, and the denial of all virtue in the enemy is certainly not limited to nationalists, but nationalism combines the impulse to glorify one’s own people collectively and almost always to impugn other nations in the process.  If the patriot boasts of the smallness of his country, the nationalist boasts of the greatness of his people and the pettiness and worthlessness of his people’s enemies and rivals.  It seems to me fairly obvious that this aspect of nationalism makes its relevance enduring and the danger it poses to moral reasoning and a sane, humane order significant and very real.  The ready justification this provides for indifference to foreign civilians killed in our wars and the way that it aids in the degeneration of moral standards in the conduct of war should be clear to everyone here.  That such an attitude makes it easier for the government to launch and wage wars seems clear, especially when it can do so with a minimum loss of American life.  Thus the bombardment of Yugoslavia enjoyed broad popular support, despite the moral insanity of a war based in lies against an historically Christian people who had been our allies in two wars and had never wronged us in any way.  That war was justified in the name of abstract “human rights” and the “international community,” but it would not have been politically possible were Americans not reconciled to the demonization of other peoples through a steady diet of propaganda, the glorification of our own national nobility and the identification of the people with the state that nationalism has facilitated.  Whether or not the managerial elite actually believes in any form of nationalism (I think they do, but I accept that it is debatable), they could not pursue the policies that they do if they could not reliably whip up nationalist enthusiasm for foreign conflicts.  Some of us may be through with nationalism, but nationalism is not through with us.

Dr. Fleming says later:

We can, however, draw a valid distinction between patriotism as an ethical and political virtue, originating in natural attachments but formed and directed by the state, and nationalism as a statist ideology that opposes and excludes other loyalties, whether those loyalties are to an international religion and civilization or to the province or region of one’s birth.

It is this matter of exclusion of other loyalties that is most important.  To some degree, different loyalties will always conflict, but nationalism insists not only on the priority on loyalty to the nation, but assumes that competing loyalties are a threat to the nation.  Hence the Kulturkampf waged by German nationalists both in Germany and Austria against the Catholic Church and the supporters of political Catholicism as Reichsfeinde, and a related hostility here in the United States to Catholicism; catholicity, in its transcendence (but not elimination) of national divisions, is the enemy of the nationalist habit of setting one people against another.  It can hardly escape notice of my colleagues here the absurd hatred of all things European that preceded the invasion of Iraq, which was cultivated by the administration and the leadership of the ruling party whether or not one wants to dub the individual politicians at the top nationalists or not.  They exploited nationalist fervor and demagogued against our cousins in Europe in order to consolidate support for the war.  Even some Catholic supporters of the war felt obliged to attack their own hierarchs for pointing out the obvious injustice of the invasion—this is what nationalists do. As Prof. Lukacs said over twenty years ago, “[T]hey put their nationalism above their religion, their nationalism was their religion….There were many Catholics among the conservatives; but their publications would criticize popes and bishops when the allocutions of the latter did not coincide with the desiderata of their ideological nationalism.”  We are just a few years removed from the most obvious expressions of this very phenomenon, yet my colleagues are asking how nationalism is relevant to the present moment?

On a related note, I have found striking that in the entire patriotism/nationalism discussion that has been going on over the last few months from Cato Unbound to The American Scene to Eunomia to this magazine to Chronicles is that no one, including myself, has said anything about how the thought of M.E. Bradford might illuminate this question.  That is a subject for another day, but I think it will address many of the objections to the critique of nationalism.

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