The inadequacy of nationalism
On flag-waving, shifting borders, and the duty to put nationalism in perspective
Few words have gotten an unexpected revival in American popular discourse quite like the word "nationalism". It's been debated, heralded, excoriated, and even made into the centerpiece of a series of (paradoxically) international conferences featuring United States Senators as keynote speakers.
■ But ambiguous words and sloppy definitions lead to faulty understandings of the world, and it's hard to get a good consensus around a word as charged as "nationalism". First of all, nationalism needs to be distinguished from a basic sense of patriotism.
■ Basic patriotism is simply the call for the individual to do his or her duty to the country to which they belong. That's good and healthy, as long as it centers on the duty rather than the symbols. Duty is a matter of a person's relationship to others, and every good philosophy of the world, starting with the Golden Rule, puts emphasis on just such a thing. Patriotism fits best in a moderate zone -- not too much, and not too little. As Maimonides put it, "[M]oderation is one of the good actions, and the state of the soul that produces moderation is a moral virtue."
■ The problem with nationalism is that we hardly know how to define what a nation is. Its root emerges from the Latin "natio", or "birth" -- which suggests a relationship based more on blood than on choice. That alone makes it tricky to look at the United States, especially, in a "national" way. America really is an idea, and being an American is an aspirational choice made by millions.
■ Plenty of people pound the table to say that nations are defined by things like languages, borders, and cultures -- but we all too often forget that there are a great number of nations who are without a state. An American whose ancestors came here in the 1800s may identify as "German" in ethnic origin, but does that mean that they are Bavarian, Prussian, Saxon, or perhaps even Pomeranian? Each of those formed a distinct nation unto itself (as did many others), even though none of them forms a distinct nation-state today.
■ In fact, a published catalog of "stateless nations" includes more than 300 entries -- all describing cultural groups with reasonable claims to nationhood, but which don't have what we recognize as a national government. Dozens of groups are members of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, reflecting just this condition.
■ What Americans (and others) have to realize is that everyone is a member of multiple "nations". We have intersecting, overlapping, and sometimes conflicting identities. And not just at the purely artificial level of sports fandom -- though it's telling that people have no problem identifying as voluntary members of groups like "Packers Nation" and realizing that it's not inherently in conflict with lots of other identities. Fans of a professional sports team really do tend to adopt a particular culture, a unique in-group language, and lots of other senses of identity that make them look like a "nation", even if membership is not a matter of birth. And nobody should ever be willing to bear arms on behalf of one.
■ Recognizing not only the ambiguity of "nationhood", but also the inevitability of membership in many defined "nations" -- of sports, religion, birthplace, ethnic origin, legal citizenship, and countless other layers of identity -- ought to give every reasonable person some humility about what those things mean, and some reticence about clinging too tightly to nationalism as a source of personal identity.
■ Tension among the sources of one's identity isn't necessarily bad, particularly given how likely any one of us is to encounter it once we realize how layered life inevitably must be. And well-examined tension in life can be a source of much good, especially if it helps us to realize that we're really bound -- by duty -- to so many other people who may in countless ways be unlike ourselves.