Are Patriotism and Nationalism ideas past their sell-by dates?
Patriotism, nationalism and prejudice
“In die stem van my volk hoor ek die stem van my God. (In the voice of my people I hear the voice of my God)” President Paul Kruger
Patriotism is the rather passive and conservative side of the coin of which nationalism is the more radical and aggressive side. It is a coin whose value has been debased beyond usefulness. Indeed, attempts in the last 100 years or so to prop the currency up have been destructive and violent, leaving misery and death in their wake.
My maternal grandmother, Grandma Morris, a doughty lady never afraid nor reluctant to speak her mind, had two deep-seated prejudices: she could not stand the Scots or the Dutch. So who does her daughter, my mother, marry? Yes, of course, a Dutch-speaking man of half Dutch and half Scottish descent! Grandma's reaction to this has, unfortunately, not been recorded.
Love, like the humanity which lives on it, knows no boundaries of nation, class or creed. Grandmother Morris herself knew this in her personal life: she was the daughter of landed gentry from the Cotswolds, England, who married “trade” against her family's wishes. Grandfather Morris was a pharmacist and therefore not of the same class as the woman he married. Because of this Grandma Morris was disinherited, cut off from her family of birth, and she and her husband had to leave England for South Africa to make a new life away from the class prejudices of her family. She clearly, though, brought a few prejudices of her own with her to her new country!
The imaginary reality
From the second half of the 19th Century some of the European powers began a process of slicing the continent of Africa up into colonies, a process cemented by the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884/5.
These colonies paid scant heed to the natural political formations of the African people, and so cut kingdoms and other states into pieces relatively arbitrarily to suit the colonial powers. So ties of kinship and statehood were deliberately broken.
The myth of bringing civilisation to “darkest Africa” was promoted, under which guise the resources of Africa were plundered to enrich the colonial powers. The indigenous people of Africa became landless tenants, in effect serfs, on their own land.
Then came the great age of the struggle for liberation in Africa. After World War II the people in the colonies began to chafe under colonial rule and wanted their independence back. The problem now was that it was difficult to unravel the Gordian knot created by the colonial powers out of their many colonies. Many formerly independent African states were broken up into colonies of different European powers, and so, for convenience more than anything else, the struggle for liberation took place within the borders of the colonies, rather than within borders of the previously independent Africa states. Nationalism was used to give form to the liberation struggle. What had previously been different polities were artificially, often very forcefully, welded into “nations”.
The result of this chaotic approach can be seen in some of the conflicts still going on in Africa – the Great Lakes region, Darfur, Nigeria, all are conflict zones arising from attempts to impose a “national” character onto differing peoples.
As one writer (Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism , 1983) has written, “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.” Or as Benedict Anderson has put it, a nation is “an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”
Another definition of nationalism is put forward by Stephen Clark (in 'Nations and empires.' European Journal of Philosophy 4 1996), that nations are groups of people “who share stories about the world.”
Whether or not the stories are “true” is immaterial. In spite of being an imagined community, the nation, is, as W.I. Thomas would have said, very “real in its consequences.” (The Thomas theorem: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”)
Looking back at the 20th Century
"And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day night." - Exodus 13:21.
Fire and smoke hang over the 20th Century, which must surely be the most bloody in human history. The fire is the atomic flash of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the smoke rises from the piles of burning corpses and belches from the chimneys of Auschwitz and Belsen, and from the barrells of millions of guns.
The century opened on the sere veld of South Africa with the first examples of that iconic form of organisation for the 20th Century, the concentration camp. It closed with the smoking corpses of Rwanda and Afghanistan, Sudan and even the Twin Towers.
One common feature of all the many genocides that have happened is that "groups" are involved, an "in-group" and an "out-group". This is where the relationship to nationalism comes in.
In his book Nationalism and the State , (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985) John Breuilly defines nationalsim as "a political doctrine built upon three basic assertions:
- There exists a nation with an explicit and peculiar character.
- The interests and values of this nation take priority over all other interests and values.
- The nation must be as independent as possible. This usually requires at least the attainment of political sovereignity." (p.3).
Principalities and powers
"For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." - Eph 6:12
The existence of an "explicit and peculiar character" in a nation is where the big problem comes in, as this "explicit and peculiar character" is often seen as in opposition to the "explicit and peculiar character" of the "other" who is thereby defined as "inferior" and of less account.
Although he was writing in 1543, long before we can really begin to talk of "nations", Martin Luther gives a graphic example of this kind of idea in his book On the Jews and Their Lies, in which he describes the Jews as a "base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth."
Closer to our own time we notice that in Rwanda in the late 1990s almost a million were killed by people who called their victims "cockroaches".
Nationalism flourishes on exceptionalism, on the idea that "my" nation is qualitatively different from, and therefore better than, "your" nation. From this comes the absurd notion of a "national character" which, because of its "superior" nature, needs to be preserved and protected, kept "pure", often with extreme violence.
Nationalism reached a kind of apotheosis in Hitler's mad 1000-year Reich with its crematoria and Zyklon-B gas. The attempted "purification" of the so-called "Aryan race" was nationalism gone totally mad.
The reality is that there is no "pure" nation, no "pure" race. We are all products of a process of admixture going back millenia, to the distant days of the emergence of homo sapiens on the African savannas.
The great adventure of the emergence of human beings can be traced in the DNA of all present humans. We are all one, despite the artificial boundaries of the nation states.
We only have to look at the permeability of borders everywhere to see that humanity knows no borders.
Logos of the Eight Millennium Development Goals
Nationalism and development
"A reformulation of the national interest to include global interests is necessary because our world scarcely resembles that of 17th century Europe, when the global population was less than a billion, the overwhelming human activity was agricultural, and few people ever traveled more than ten miles from their birthplace." - Vincent Ferraro, Ruth C. Lawson Professor of International Politics at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts,
We are in the midst of a Malthusian nightmare. Population growth is far outstripping the ability of the world to sustain it. The prospect in the relatively near future is war after war over resources - in particular water, but also oil, land, food.
One of the most effective ways to control the population time bomb is by sustainable development, most especially in the areas of education and health.
“The lesson of the last 30 years is that where women are educated and have opportunities to work outside the home, fertility declines quite rapidly—no matter what the religious or ethnic background.” These are the words of demographer Richard Cincotta in a 2005 interview.
The United Nations Millennium Project's Millennium Development Goals provide an excellent way of guiding and directing development. In the UN Millennium Declaration, signed by the Heads of State of all member nations, those Heads of State declared "we have a collective responsibility to uphold the principles of human dignity, equality and equity at the global level. As leaders we have a duty therefore to all the world’s people, especially the most vulnerable and, in particular, the children of the world, to whom the future belongs."
The world's nations face a stark choice - either collaborate effectively to reduce poverty and improve education across the globe, or retreat into national bunkers, building ever higher walls of arms to protect their narrow national interests, walls which will fall as surely and violently as the Twin Towers fell on that nightmare day in 2001.
Prof Ferraro said in the paper quoted above, "Territorial integrity and political autonomy will always be important to states, but the threats now facing states do not respect or even acknowledge those parameters."
Nation states are going to have to re-define their interests and their concept of sovereignty to take the new realities of a globalised world into account. The prospect of a world population of more than 7 billion people this year, possibly rising to 9 billion by about 2050, makes this an urgent demand.
Narrow definitions of national interest and sovereignty are now luxuries which the world cannot afford.
Albert Einstein once said (back in 1949), "Large parts of the world are faced with starvation, while others are living in abundance. The nations were promised liberation and justice, but we have witnessed and are witnessing, even now, the sad spectacle of liberating armies firing into populations who want their independence and social equality, and supporting in those countries by force of arms, such parties and personalities as appear to be most suited to serve vested interests. Territorial questions and arguments of power, obsolete though they are, still prevail over the essential demands of common welfare and justice."
"Imagine" by John Lennon
Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one
The sand of the desert is sodden red, --
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; --
The Gatling's jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"
from "Vitai Lampada" (1892) by Sir Henry Newbolt.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
from " The Soldier" (1914), by Rupert Brooke.
These two quotes epitomise the romanticism of patriotism, perhaps the best of it. It is an appeal to a sort of "hearth and home" sentimentality designed to bring tears to the eyes and a warm feeling to the heart, quite different form the gritty reality of which other poets of World War I wrote:
Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
What are we doing here?
The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow...
We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey,
But nothing happens.
from "Exposure" by Wilfred Owen
The positive side of patriotism is the development of the idea of service, of being part of something greater than the individual. It promotes a sense of belonging, a sense of the beauty of the land and culture from which the individual has sprung.
Patriotism in its best sense is a desire to serve the greater good. In the world of the 21st Century it is important that this service be not exclusively to the country of one's birth or domicile, but to the world as a whole. Yes we need to love our country, but to love it in the context of the world.
We need to think globally, we need to act locally with the interests of all the people of the world in mind. Otherwise disaster will result: the need for paper causes the destruction of the rain forests; pollution in the United States causes acid rain in Canada and elsewhere; the nuclear fall-out from Chernobyl endangers the dairy industry in Western Europe. The examples can be multiplied.
If patriotism is defined as love of my country, then in the 21st Century I need to recognise that my country is no longer defined by its borders on a map. My country is the world.
"Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind." - Albert Einstein
"The contemporary contradiction between an abundance of technical means for material satisfaction and the incapacity to use them for peace and the welfare of the people is soluble; it is not a necessary contradiction but one due to man's lack of courage and widom." - Erich Fromm in Man for Himself (Routledge, 1947)
In relation to nationalism my answer to the question posed in the title is an unqualified "Yes". The world can no longer afford nationalism. It is a threat to all we hold dear - peace and freedom in particular. While national interest and sovereignty are narrowly defined poverty, ignorance and disease will continue to threaten the peace and well-being of all.
Whether or not the political will exists to change the minds of people in time to avoid disaster is the question. There are powerful interests involved in maintaining the status quo. The "principalities and powers" still hold sway.
Einstein stated it well: “So long as the individual state, despite its official condemnation of war, has to consider the possibility of engaging in war, it must influence and educate its citizens—and its youth in particular—in such a way that they can easily be converted into efficient soldiers in the event of war. Therefore it is compelled not only to cultivate a technical-military training and mentality but also to implant a spirit of national vanity in its people to secure their inner readiness for the outbreak of war.”
The fact that nationalism in the past brought great benefits should not blind us to the dangers it poses today in a vastly transformed world.
Is it not time that we heeded the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:11: "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I
reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind
me," (NIV) and put the measles of humanity behind us?
Patriotism, on the other hand, can have beneficial outcomes - we can learn from it the rewards of service, the love of people and the cherishing of the environment. Indeed, if focused on the wider world and all its people, patriotism can be a great force for good. Focused on a narrowly-defined nation, though, it can be a hindrance to peace and stability.
So I say, "I am a patriot. My country is the world."
Why Patriots are a Bit Nuts in the Head - a poem by Roger McGough
Patriots are a bit nuts in the head
because they wear
red, white and blue-
(red for blood,
white for glory
and blue ...
for a boy)
and are in effervescent danger
of losing their lives
lives are good for you
when you are alive
you can eat and drink a lot
and go out with girls
(sometimes if you are lucky
you can even go to bed with them)
but you can't do this
if you have your belly shot away
and your seeds
spread over some corner of a foreign field
in later years
the growing of oats by some peasant yobbo
When you are posthumous it it cold and dark
and that is why patriots are a bit nuts in the head.
- The Mersey Sound (Penguin Modern Poets 10) 1967
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2011