Seeing ethnic nationalism as the only form of bad nationalism is a mistake.
There’s text and then there’s context. Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru’s cover essay on nationalism in the current issue is controversial more because of the context than because of the text itself. Self-avowed nationalists are in the saddle across the West — including in the West Wing. Many passionate opponents on the left believe even the slightest rhetorical or intellectual concession to nationalism amounts to surrender to Trumpism – and not just Trumpism, but their often hysterical caricature of Trumpism. And because National Review was a major source of opposition to Trump, it’s also allegedly proof of our collective hypocrisy. I think most of that is silly, but I do have my objections to the piece.
Walter Berns in his wonderful book Making Patriots, argued that no one is born a patriot. They are made. I would add that everyone is born a nationalist, to one extent or another. That’s because nationalism isn’t so much a doctrine — though many have tried to turn it into one — but an emotional or psychological state. In short, it is a passion, and one very closely related to populism. So even before the rise of the Westphalian system (which kinda-sorta created nation-states), there were nationalists in the sense that there have always been tribalists. Tribalism is natural. Patriotism takes work.
But this is at the same time both entirely right and fundamentally misleading. It leaves out what the flag represents. It glides over the fact that the national anthem sanctifies the “land of the free.” Our shrines are to patriots who upheld very specific American ideals. Our statues of soldiers commemorate heroes who died for something very different from what other warriors have fought and died for for millennia. Every one of them — immigrants included — took an oath to defend not just some soil but our Constitution and by extension the ideals of the Founding. Walk around any European hamlet or capital and you will find statues of men who fell in battle to protect their tribe from another tribe. That doesn’t necessarily diminish the nobility of their deaths or the glory of their valor, but it is quite simply a very different thing they were fighting for. Now, of course, no doubt American soldiers sacrifice for home and hearth and their band of brothers without giving much thought — at least in the heat of battle — to the lofty notions inscribed on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial, the ultimate patriotic (rather than nationalist) shrine. But one of the ways we make patriots in this country is by putting these sacrifices in that context.
But I firmly believe that when we call the sacrifices of American patriots no different from the sacrifices of Spartans — ancient or modern — we are giving short shrift to the glory, majesty, and uniqueness of American patriotism and the American experiment. I’m reminded of Martin Diamond’s point that the concepts of “Americanism,” “Americanization,” and “un-American” have no parallel in any other country or language.
It is true that nationalism is part of the equation, but it is the less important part. And by mistaking the tail for the dog, we lose sight of what is important. Think of it this way. All, or at least most, marriages require some level of physical attraction, particularly at the outset — that is only natural. But any marriage purely based on physical attraction will struggle to last. No happily married couple I have ever met has confessed that the secret of their long marriage was mutual lust. Marriages endure for a host of complicated reasons, but among the most important is surely a commitment to an ideal, be it religious or otherwise. Nationalism is a bit like lust — a natural human passion that, absent proper channeling, is at best morally neutral and more often a source of unhealthy temptation.
In other words, as I often say when discussing nationalism, it is healthy in small doses, but we must remember that all poisons are determined by the dose. Because nationalism is ultimately the fire of tribalism, having too much of it tends to melt away important distinctions, from the rule of law to the right to dissent to the sovereignty of the individual. This is why every example of unfettered nationalism run amok ends up looking very much like socialism run amok (and vice versa). The passionate populist desire for unity above all recognizes no abstract barriers to the general will.
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