Sunday, November 4, 2012


Nationalism is always a noble-seeming mask for xenophobia. 

Show me someone who loves "Us", and I'll show you someone who hates "Them".

For more definitions, see all postings labeled "definitions" here.


vhliv said...

This is a complicated subject and I have spent my adult trying to understand nationalism, so while I agree with your sentiment, I would like to point out that not all nationalism is the same. In addition to the xenophobic nationalism you have in mind there is the more the merrier conception of nationalism that has been at the core of nationalism from the beginning. Read Guiseppe Mazzini who is one of the first real promoters of nationalism as a general ideology. He envisioned a family of European nations that would be expressions of each nation states' will, Further the reality is nations are political communities that make modern democratic states possible. The fact that however disappointed one side or the other will be on november 7, the speaking in terms of an American nation in the following days will be essential glue. That does not preclude people defining the American nation differently, and some would exclude large portions of our population, but the references to nation will provide the basis for the country to come together again on some level.

Jim Leff said...

As I've sighed a number of times here, "Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism? "

Human groupings always react via overly-exaggerated pendulum swings resulting in unselfaware symmetries. Cuban exiles hate Castro, a fascist who claims to be left-wing, so they transform into extreme right-wingers. Jews are persecuted by nationalistic Germans, so they turn brutally nationalistic (well, some of them do). Escalation is in our nature, and that's the problem.

Human beings are slow. We need to endlessly relearn lessons. Nothing really penetrates. The lesson currently being most conspicuously rammed into our heads, ala Groundhog Day, is that nationalism is tribalism, and the flip side of tribal pride is the dehumanization of outsiders. It's absolutely unavoidable. It's inherent. That's how it goes in the end game.

That said, you're right. There are milder forms that seem innocuous. It may be optimal for people to love everyone, but it's a potent step up from barbarism for people to love anyone outside their immediate family. "Love thy neighbor" is, indeed, a good start. But you know what they say about "good intentions"!

It's not sufficient. Neighbor loving results in the concept of neighborhoods. I.e. borders. And a human being with a border mentality is a savage capable of anything. Maybe not now, but, eventually, when stakes rise, that's the end game. You can hasten the progression via military training (i.e. drilling the notion of "enemy"), propaganda, etc.. But even on its own, that's the inevitable outcome. Because such escalation is our nature.

The first step is to at least finally recognize that nationalism (due to the peculiarities of human behavior, rather than any intrinsic problem with the concept in and of itself) always comes to this. It's the ultimate catalyst for our savage nature. That was what the 20th century was trying to teach us via such abominably tough love, yet, at this point, many good people still deem "nationalism" a perfectly good thing. Yeesh, do we need more schooling on this?

Me? I'm a proud member of the nation of non-assholes. Though I recognize that I, too, act like an asshole sometimes. So when I glimpse a seeming "foreigner", I assume I've caught one of my paisanos in a bad moment.

vhliv said...

I am not going to defend people doing violence to each other for any reason and if one thinks of nationalism as first and foremost national chauvinism then of course I'm with you.

My point is different and I think our differences reflect a conflict between how specialists understand nationalism and how laypeople do. When I say that I don't mean to suggest that the specialists' are somehow more right than the laypeople when I say that, I mean they have different definitions that overlap in their meaning but are focused on different issues. For lay people nationalism tends to embody chauvinism based on ethnicity or what passport one carries. For those who study nationalism, it is a much broader modern phenomenon that is intimately connected to our modern social and political order.

To be sure, chauvinism is one symptom of nationalism, but chauvinism predated nationalism, and when and if we move to a new stage of human development it will likely sadly still be with us. Meanwhile in our world we need something that conveys our connection to the vast numbers of people with whom we share a political fate but never meet, and the concept of the nation provides that in ways that other social categories like religious belief or social class do not. This is inescapable at least in our current social context, and I think it is valuable insight for people to who are used to thinking about nationalism as it is widely understood by lay people. For if we treat nationalism as something foreign and other to our logical selves we fail to recognize the extent to which we are beholden to it because we live in a modern world. Once we recognize that it becomes easier to think about how we may promote national identities that are inclusive internally and help affirm the brotherhood of humankind on the other.

Jim Leff said...

That's very nicely stated, but really theoretical. And I'm pretty uneducated on the theory of such things (you, obviously, are quite schooled on it).

But on a practical level, I think it's inevitable that whenever a border is drawn, regardless of parameters or of lofty intentions,  human beings will, over time, inexorably tribalize behind that border and dehumanize ahead of it. That's just how it works. It's hard wired.

You use the phrase "new stage of human development". I don't see that coming. So far as I can see, human development has undergone two evolutions, one huge, the other less so. The first was when human beings first started cooperating - to hunt, trade, etc, which was made possible by the willful suppression of id. We stopped raping the attractive or stealing from the weak quite as freely. Huge. The second was the development of civilization, but in terms of core human behavior, that was mostly just an intensification of the earlier breakthrough.

I don't see another leap on the horizon. I spend time with highly experienced yogis, and I see even in them, beyond the studiedly benign veneer, all the same poisonous, selfish drives seen in anyone else. In some ways, those guys are even worse. 

I don't think humanity's destined to clean up and grow more peaceful and reasonable (watch for an article in the next week or so on that, as observed from the inside). Theory's fine, and useful social science insights can come from it. But the core impulses aren't going to get better. 

I'd love to think otherwise, though.

Jim Leff said...

Just noting, six years later, that I've changed my mind on this. I think Stephen Pinker is right, and I've accounted for why it's so danged hard to see it. See the tag/label "Violence" in the left margin for my subsequent writings on this.

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