May 03, 2008

In a very good column on Pope Benedict’s visit and the clashing theologies of the Pope and the President, Scott Richert made an important series of points related to the earlier patriotism/nationalism debate we were having here:

“On occasion, here and elsewhere, I have described President Bush as a nationalist, and I”€™m almost always taken to task immediately by those who argue that nationalism simply means the defense of the nation-state. President Bush cannot be a nationalist, they argue, because he has no qualms about the destruction of the American, the shipping of U.S. jobs overseas, the tearing down of what remains of our borders, the demographic transformation of the United States.

While it’s true that many people who are concerned about these issues identify themselves as nationalists, historically nationalism has signified something else: an abstract commitment to a nation that isn”€™t necessarily concerned with the well-being of a particular people in a particular place (traditionally denoted as patriotism). For a century, American nationalists such as President Bush have been committed to an idea of America that has little or nothing to do with the actual lives of actual Americans (much less the land on which they live), and everything to do with America as a “€œproposition”€ or “€œcredal nation,”€ which can accept all people as part of itself, while spreading what is “€œessential”€ to the nation (the proposition or creed) to populations abroad.”



This is very much in line with what I was arguing earlier, but I want to discuss what this means in practice.  The nationalist, properly defined, is preoccupied with either a mission or with “greatness” or both.  A people cannot mind its own business if it still needs to fulfill its mission or secure its claim to “greatness,” so this usually means embroiling the whole people in certain grand projects that impose enormous costs, either in tax or in lives or in both, and significantly change social and political life to accomplish the mission.  Should someone note that the actual citizenry is not helped by any of this, but is demonstrably harmed, he will be greeted with derision for “not understanding” the importance of the cause, or perhaps will be condemned as self-indulgent and unwilling to sacrifice on behalf of the mission (to which, often as not, he never consented and wants no part of).  The instrument that nationalists use for such grand projects is first and foremost the state, though they will be interested in co-opting as many other institutions as possible by making clear that “contributing” to the project is the only option for loyal and good members of the nation, and it is usually through the coercive apparatus of the state that they want to work the transformation of the nation through internal reorganization, concentration of power in the national government and the ideal catalyst for both, which is to say the waging of war.  In many countries, when nationalism first emerges it is not initially a popular or a mass phenomenon.  Normal people down through the ages have identified with their local village or town, or perhaps a region, but something on the scale of a modern nation-state is so far removed that it is almost meaningless at first, at least until nationalists set about conditioning the broad mass of the people to make the unnatural and strange move of identifying with the nation-state as the institutional embodiment of their country.  In this way, local patriotic attachments start to be transmuted into the rudiments of nationalist feeling.  The unnatural commitment to an abstraction is made to seem a proper extension of natural affinities, while at the same time the triumph of nationalist policies erodes the social and economic basis for resistance to the center.  From the perspective of such an abstract proposition nationalist, the creation of a multi-ethnic empire that facilitates and encourages the dislocations of globalization does more to undermine local and regional centers of resistance to the nation-state than it does to weaken the power of the national government.  


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