Nationalism

“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
(I have written extensively on the problems of nationalism elsewhere. See here for the logic for individualism.)

The root of opposition to immigration, along with the root of war and other statist evils, is nationalism. Nationalism is the irrational belief that one’s country is superior to all others. It places the nation above the individuals that make it up, meaning that if for any reason the nation is in trouble, the individual must lay everything on the line for it. And it must go.

I agree with Professor Stephen Walt that nationalism is the most powerful force in the world today.

“[M]odern states also have a powerful incentive to promote national unity — in other words, to foster nationalism — because having a loyal and united population that is willing to sacrifice (and in extreme cases, to fight and die) for the state increases its power and thus its ability to deal with external threats. In the competitive world of international politics, in short, nations have incentives to obtain their own state and states have incentives to foster a common national identity in their populations.”

And today’s strongest states, including the US and China, are ones where nationalism is mainstream and highly valued.

Do you feel pride in your country? Does your heart swell when you see a flag or hear a national anthem? I have trouble understanding why someone would feel anything. A country is not a person; it is just an idea. If you like the idea, live there. But why is it we feel deep affiliation with people from the same country rather than some other of the millions of characteristics that make us who we are? Why don’t we build the community of other people who like reggae? Why don’t we form armies to defend people of the same shoe size? Because we have chosen a different arbitrary distinction from others to kill for. To me, it’s all the same nonsense. And if your heart still thumps an extra beat because of a flag, well, as George Carlin said, symbols are for the symbol minded.

Reactions to the Olympics are a great example of why nationalism is ridiculous. Wow, my country won a gold medal. No. Someone from within the same line on a political map as you won a medal, through his or her own hard work. There may be nothing that is more obviously an individual effort than winning a gold medal at the Olympics (notwithstanding the coach, or the team, whoever is involved). The people from the same country have absolutely nothing to feel proud of. They didn’t do anything. Tribalists find validation in the actions of others from their chosen group, and weak people take credit for other people’s accomplishments. Besides, if I consider myself a citizen of the world (and by the way I do, it is not just something cool to say), shouldn’t I feel proud if ANYONE wins a medal? Whichever country wins the Olympics, it is my country!

We are too proud already. Pride in your own efforts leads to narcissism as much as collective pride leads to collective narcissism. But individual narcissism is not fueled by history text books that gloss over facts and make people believe fairy tales about how wonderful their country has always been. Like collectivism, individual narcissism can lead to war, but only when it comes from a psychopath in power and nationalists follow him blindly. I simply do not see anything to feel proud of aside from one’s own results. But maybe those results are only worth being proud of if they benefit others. So how about we consider everyone in the world when acting, rather than just our country?

Is it ever nationalism that motivates people to improve their community? I doubt it. Some nationalists have that sense of responsibility and some don’t. But if people are aware of the rest of the world, they are just as likely to go somewhere else to help people. Nationalism cannot be moral because it is exclusive, and morality depends on universal values. Obviously, there is nothing more moral about helping people in your own country than helping people elsewhere, since all people are of equal worth, equally deserving of the application of morality such as the non-aggression principle.

But to a nationalist, some people are simply superior. The people in our exclusive club are the best, and the people allied with our country are pretty good (though not to be trusted), and the people we are told are our enemies are evil. It is so easy to manipulate nationalists. Take Americans’ reactions to 9/11. It was immediately assumed that “our country is under attack”. Leaving aside the fact that there was only one attack and it ended, what connection did people in Maryland and Florida and Nebraska have with the people who were killed? None whatsoever. They might well have hated each other if they had known each other personally. And if they had died in car crashes, they would have been completely ignored. But instead, the people went into a frenzy of fear, anger and despair for people they never would have met. Likewise, what did American Muslims (and other minorities) have to do with 9/11? Still nothing. Yet the Center for American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C., counted some 1,700 attacks on Muslims in the five months following September 11. Nationalism is used to spread hate, which is good for politicians but bad for minorities and taxpayers. Americans approved of the invasion of two countries that had nothing to do with the attack because they were told that the country and “national values” were at stake.

Those values are largely illusory, however, because they are things like freedom and justice, which people of all cultures want. And belief in the superiority, or just the distinctiveness, of our own tribe blinds us to the many, many things that make us all human and all equally deserving of compassion and respect and almost the same everywhere. And taking pride in an exclusive part of humanity ignores that fact.

The Adventures in Space programme and the Olympics are further products of nationalism. Hosting the Olympics is a big source of national pride, so some people are willing to put up with any number of billions of dollars (a number that is continually revised upward) taken to pay for it. Space travel used to be a source of pride, during the Cold War, when the Soviets launched a couple of rockets out of Earth’s atmosphere and the US spent tens of billions of dollars to feel good about itself again.

Nationalism is also about discriminating against minorities. Politicians benefit from providing the people with an enemy, because an enemy is a reason to give money and power to them. They will protect you from the Jews, Huguenots, Gypsies, or whatever group you have been told you hate recently. They might see others as “dangerous to our way of life”, competing for “national resources” or otherwise a threat to our precious possessions. To people who can be taught to hate others for what they are, power is a zero-sum game among ethnic groups. And all the civil wars we have seen have been caused by this kind of thinking, from Yugoslavia to Rwanda. Everyone different from us is a potential enemy.

As such, minorities, largely or entirely locked out of power, might take to terrorism to achieve freedom from an oppressive majority (separatism) but get tarred as evil terrorists who cannot be reasoned with. The truth is that they keep coming back because they have been denied their freedom. Nationalism requires the integrity of the nation state, which means that anyone wanting to separate must be eliminated. As a result, we get terrorism in Turkey, Sri Lanka, Israel and Spain, heavy repression in Tibet, a highly militarised standoff in the Taiwan Strait, and a strong state wherever terrorism can be used as an excuse to expand it. Nationalism on both sides created the separatist terrorists. As Ilya Somin notes, “playing with nationalism is like playing with fire. It’s not inevitable that you will get burned, but the risk is high…[and] a small nationalistic flame can often turn into a conflagration that burns down the whole neighborhood.”

Governments also like nationalism because they want to be able to sign a deal at the top and assume that it is legitimate for the entire group each party represents. Nationalists believe we need representatives because we are a coherent community. A “free trade agreement”, for example, will contain various handouts to the loudest of special interest groups and it will be imposed over an entire national economy because some people at the top claimed to speak in the name of everyone underneath them. Nationalists might accept the agreement because, though the agreement benefits some individuals at the expense of others, it is all for the elusive “greater good”.

At the extreme, when politicians and generals manufacture threats to the equally-elusive “national security”, nationalists buy in easily. They are thus more likely to sacrifice their money, freedom and lives for the nation. However, if the elites could not count on collectivist sheep, they would not have risked starting a fight in the first place. Journalists will often fall in line in times of “national crisis” (as if a real crisis could permeate or be confined to one country), as Dan Rather did after 9/11, equating “patriotism”, or unthinking loyalty to one’s country, with doing whatever the president told Americans to do. “I am willing to give the government, the president and the military the benefit of any doubt here in the beginning”, Rather said. In other words, he would give up the career of journalism, which means asking the tough questions and speaking truth to power, for that of cheerleading. Nationalism shuts up the minority that disagrees with the president’s war plans, calling them traitors and accusing them of siding with the enemy. Nationalism is thus a means for government control of the willing and coercion of the unwilling.

In the same vein, research finds that it only takes a few hours for us to be conditioned to fear and hate people only superficially different from ourselves. We do not need to know anything about someone else to discriminate against him or her; just being told he or she is different is enough. Being on a winning team (which to people who do not participate in teams or have achievements of their own could be a nation or race) is a source of self esteem, as is denigrating those on other teams. We can be given any number of reasons to believe we are better, and our criteria for what is good about a country tend to be entirely based on things we believe ours is best at. Freedom is the most important thing for a country; our country is the most free; therefore, our country is the best. This of course is uncritical ethnocentrism; and ignorant people fall into its warm embrace whenever the people on top need a favour.

One problem nationalism creates is that of borders—in effect, who owns what. Borders make sense when they are amicably agreed on by owners or negotiators appointed by owners. The borders of your property, for example, or unguarded borders in Europe that now demarcate cultural boundaries rather than the do-not-pass-or-we-shoot variety, actually delineate something. But when nationalism comes into play, and groups that, hundreds or thousands of years ago (before national boundaries were invented), used to control this territory, feel that it is theirs (and by extension, not yours), they are willing to kill each other to secure that border. These are our property and our people and our resources and our little lines drawn on the map.

But where is the logic of these boundaries? Even the idea that “we” used to control this or that territory, or have done for a long time, usually has no merit. Almost every (if not every) national boundary has been created by an empire. The empires of Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Russia, China, plus all the kingdoms that disappeared before the Treaty of Westphalia, all drew lines around their possessions. They needed to be clear what was whose. At the same time, these possessions contained people not native to the empire’s centre of power on them so they needed to keep them in line by inventing nationalities. Almost every (if not every) one of these borders did not reflect the cultural makeup of the people it enclosed: they were arbitrary. But when the empires left, instead of redrawing the borders, the elites decided they wanted to make everyone inside those borders think they were a cohesive group—a nation—because it would help them gain power. No government wants to relinquish control of part of its territory because it means less power; and less power is out of the question for anybody in it. So they invented myths about how everyone within the imperial borders has always been a nation, and since we are the political party who will help keep our nation together, support us. The story of post-colonial electoral politics in a nutshell.

Now, nationalism is an arbitrary expression of desire to kill and die for a space of land within whatever border the government claims to control, wherever the borders are, however many years ago they were set. Some form of tribalism is probably natural to humans, as we, like other primates, are territorial. First, however, we must not assume that something natural is something good. Second, man’s territoriality is an argument for individual property rights, not for nationalism. We all have something to defend against aggression, but to think we should defend an entire nation is to take the idea of property or tribe to ridiculous lengths. Your country is not your property. When I express this individualist point of view, collectivists ask me, “so what if one country was invading your country? Would you defend it with your life?” Quite simply, the answer is no. I would defend my friends and family to the death, and I would organise to ward off any attacks on other innocents as best I could. But my friends and family are all over the world. I have no deeper a connection to someone in “my” country that I do not know than I do to someone in Burkina Faso that I do not know.

Nationalism has always been dangerous, but now it is simply irrelevant. The only argument that is superficially plausible for the continuation of the nation state is the military and its defense of national security. It may have made sense when there were real threats to people from other nation states; hence the union of the Czech and Slovak people, or the Yugoslav republics, during the 20th century to protect against the predation of external empires. However, today’s national security threats are not from empires and foreign militaries (unless you are in the US or Israel’s crosshairs). Now, nearly all wars are intrastate, rather than interstate. The closest thing to national security threats from abroad are terrorists (whose threat is almost always a response to government-sanctioned military aggression), criminal organisations (which would barely exist if drugs, guns and prostitution were legal), and environmental disasters (rescue’s being entrusted to the same people whose main training is in weapons makes little sense; like the nature of the threat, rescue teams could be transnational). There are no national security threats because there is no national security. The nation itself is an illusion, and all countries are based on it. There is no longer any reason to have countries at all.

Though tribalism may be innate, in today’s world tribalist impulses are mitigated by the internationalisation of our society through our exposure to media, people and ideas from all around the world. Exclusive, outdated, national celebrations and traditions such as Independence Day are creations of the elites to sell loyalty to the state. The state and the nation are linked in the imagination, so when the state goes to war, it tells everyone that the nation is going to war. That is why we have the idea of “the national interest” and “national security”. Have you ever noticed that whatever the government wants happens to be in our national interest as well? Nationalism threatens to deny access to the rest of the world through narrow-minded protectionist policies that limit a country’s economic potential, and the creation of enemies that legitimises taking more money and more freedom from the people.

The idea of democracy promotion is related to nationalism, because it is based on a belief that our ideas are the best, because they are our ideas. Again, we are talking about ethnocentrism. Our culture is better and we want you to learn from us, then you will be better people. And as soon as a revolution breaks out somewhere they don’t know anything about, democrats say they are fighting for democracy. My guess is, they are fighting for freedom. Freedom to choose a few of the people who rule you is not real freedom. Real freedom means not being subject to rule by force by anyone. But our ethnocentrism blinds us, and leads us think they want a system just like ours. Maybe they want more freedom than we have. Maybe they only like the idea of democracy because they lack other ideas. After all, most people in the self-righteous rich democracies of the world tend to believe so fervently in the superiority of their system over all others that they have been forcing it down the throats of the rest of the world for decades. You should all be democracies like us, because we are America and so can you. If you want to help the people in a post-revolutionary state like Tunisia or Egypt, help them become self-sufficient, not as a nation but as individuals, communities, or whatever groups they want. Let them trade with whomever they want. Let them travel to any country they want. Help them build independent and voluntary businesses, charities and other institutions to deal with their problems. Teach entrepreneurship, medicine, and other things that healthy communities require. One thing they do not require is a new regime that does not know or care about them to tell them what to do. They can figure that out for themselves.

Why is it negative? Let us ask the hundreds of millions of people who were killed because someone loved his country. Nationalism is an arbitrary distinction created by elites to justify accumulating power, growing governments and starting wars, and if you do not know that, you do not understand nationalism. (Here is a primer.)

Nationalism is an outdated impulse based on our tribal instincts and has no place in modern society. It is another way elites divide us when we could move past such simplistic and dangerous divisions. Anarchy means no nations and no national rulers but cooperation with anyone who wishes to join us. It thus leads to understanding, respect and peace.

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