02 December, 2009


I would like very much to emphasize one of the tags below: this is a

Largely uninformed rant.
With that out of the way, I want to think aloud about this post by Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy.

After reading Somin's post, I have to say that I agree with all of it except two things.

(1) The assertion,
[N]ationalism is second only to communism as the greatest evil of modern politics.
In my opinion, tribalism is the greatest evil of modern politics, greater even than nationalism. I think it explains a lot of the problems we have: hyperpartisanship (if that's a word), interest groups that hate each other so much that they work even against their own interests, so as to destroy the other, etc. Of course, that's only an opinion.

(2) The definition of nationalism,
loyalty to one’s own nation-state based on ties of language, culture, or ethnicity.
This requires a much longer explanation.

I have never thought much about what nationalism is, except that in general I have thought that nationalist movements in lands where nations did not have states of their own were generally Good Things (Poland, East Timor, Greece, Armenia, etc.) even if tainted with bad aspects (are there any human phenomena untainted by bad aspects?), whereas nationalist movements in nation-states tend to be bad things. So I'll think aloud about it for a moment, and invite people to tell me what a moron I'm being. Or, if you prefer, what an insightful genius I'm being. But that never happens. :-)

Contrast Somin's definition of nationalism with the definition of patriotism,
loyalty to one’s government and/or its ideals regardless of ethnic or racial identity.
This is helpful because my definition of nationalism would remove one word from the one given:
loyalty to one’s own nation-state based on ties of language, culture, or ethnicity.
That is to say, one can be nationalist without being very loyal at all to one's nation-state. Indeed, I think Somin's distinction in the definitions is a distinction without a difference; for me any nation-state is more or less identifiable with the government. This may be wrong, but it explains why, to me, one can be quite disloyal to the nation-state precisely because one is loyal to one's nation. Nationalism can favor the nation-state, for example, when none exists; on the other hand it can oppose the nation-state, for example, when it feels that the "state" part of the nation has turned against the nation or been co-opted by another nation. I have in mind things like Operation Valkyrie in Germany. As one leader of the latter put it,
It is almost certain that we will fail. But how will future history judge the German people, if not even a handful of men had the courage to put an end to that criminal?
To me, this is a far closer expression of nationalism than those who worked to maintain Hitler in the name of the nation-state, or to subjugate other nations in service of one's own.

Somin was replying to a weblog entry of Jonah Goldberg at National Review's Corner. To be honest, I didn't entirely understande Goldberg's argument that Thanksgiving is a nationalist holiday as opposed to a patriotic holiday—I kind of get it, but I kind of don't—but it does look to me as if Goldberg is working from the definition I give here of nationalism, rather than Somin's. He writes,
The Fourth of July, President’s Day, and even Veterans’ and Memorial Day are celebrations of the nation-state created by the American founding. In short, our other holidays are about patriotism, not nationalism. …[O]ne reason for [this country's] greatness, too often forgotten, is that it is ours. [emphasis added]
Goldberg explicitly identifies patriotism with the nation-state, and implies that nationalism refers to the people and culture who make up that nation-state, regardless of whether they actually had a state.

To follow through, I don't think a nation can be healthy without a healthy nationalism, as opposed to the unhealthy nationalisms described by Somin. By contrast, there is a very unhealthy anti-nationalism that poisons a nation's institutions, so that its history, culture, and genuine achievements of a nation are forgotten, ignored, or discounted so much that the institutions inculcate disdain of the nation and its traditions rather than love for it. And I think both of these can, and probably must, exist at the same time, but that healthy nationalism must be nurtured in order to stave off unhealthy nationalism.

This though comes from my observations and interactions of the inhabitants of several nations: Italy, Russia, and the United States:
  1. Fascism so poisoned the Italian notion of nationalism that (in my experience) Italians usually display flags only when the national soccer team wins a game. In Italy, the flag is a national symbol more than a patriotic symbol: the combination of green-white-red has existed in some form as an Italian flag since the Risorgimento, and the tricolor was the de facto symbol of the Italian nation since shortly after Napoleon. Admittedly, Italians never had a very strong sense of an Italian nation, with reason (Cavour's famous remark comes to mind), but I think this would only strengthen my argument.

    Italians do value many aspects of their culture (religion, cuisine, fashion), so by my reckoning Italians maintain a half-hearted nationalism. But even "Italian" cuisine varies greatly by region, and my experience with Italians is that they value their nation too lightly, especially when thinking of how they can solve their problems. Italians tend to have a can't-do attitude, that their problems will always plague them and their nation will not be great.
  2. Russians, on the other hand, take the assertions of anti-Russian bigots far too seriously, even while rejecting them far too thoroughly. Serious achievements in the sciences and the exploration of space are so thoroughly forgotten that Russian films portray older Russians asking younger ones, Do you know the name Gagarin? Of course not, why would you? That is a serious lack of nationalism that leads to the unhealthy militarism and bigotry that people wrongly confuse with nationalism.

    Thus Russia allows me to try and distinguish what Somin has, I think, confused: nationalism and militarism are not the same thing. Nationalism in general relates to a nation, which can be independent of a state. The Polish nation, for example, existed even when the Polish state had been dismembered in the Partitions of Poland. The militaristic bigotry that manifests itself in many ways, such as the nostalgia for Stalin, is not nationalism if for no other reasons than (a) Stalin was not Russian, and (b) a major animus of the Soviet Union (indeed, of Communist ideology) was to subsume and eliminate nationalistic divisions. I would characterize this as nostalgia for the old patriotism, not as nationalism.
  3. In the United States, it is far too common to hear and read remarks along the lines of,
    There is no greater cause of evil in the world than the United States.
    Never mind the blatant untruth of the statement, the attitude expressed by these words completely and utterly discounts, even disdains, the genuine good accomplished by the United States in the world—not so much in military matters (that's an argument I simply do not wish to take up) but in science, culture, the promotion of freedom merely by example, and so forth.
I'm having a hard time expressing my thoughts in those examples, but I hope I'm getting the idea across. Anyway, at this point I'd be very interested in readers' opinions: are my definitions correct, or are Somin's closer to the matter?

Update: Goldberg replies to Somin here. He touches on some of my points, even mentioning tribalism, but seems to contradict my understanding of his notion of nationalism. This is why definitions are, in any discussion, essential.

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