Curating Content To Support Learning About Humanity's Transition

This content was posted on  2 May 22  by   Hanzi Freinacht  on  Facebook Page
On a very basic level, most observers agree that nationalism—in theory—can be harnessed for both …

On a very basic level, most observers agree that nationalism—in theory—can be harnessed for both ethically viable and pathological purposes. As a social dynamic, it is the same as what we call “patriotism”; it’s just that we tend to call it patriotism when it’s attributed to the perceived underdog and/or when the actions it brings about are viewed as positive. People get swept away in collective effervescence and pride, giving blood, toil, and tears for the national or patriot cause.

And then after the “great historical events”, there is a sense of shared pride for the nation, a belonging, a characteristic form of deep sorrow of how we suffered through this. The American Spirit is not found in “artificial Americana” of Hollywood teenage movies, but in the solemn, rugged freedom you feel walking across an old bridge of its glory industrial age, listening to the blues, encountering the lonely vastness of the Great Plains or the Rockies, and hearing the dreams of young people and how they take it as their birthright to try to pave their own life paths. There is a romantic feeling to it that cannot be transmitted other than by being in the country for at least a period of time, by knowing the people, the environments, feeling its history. As foreigners, we can get little premonitions of the national pride of the USA, of the passionate but desperate absurdity known by the French folk spirit and its scent of revolution, of the grim Slavic sorrow of Russia, suffering and struggling from Ivan the Terrible, to the “Great Patriotic War” (WWII) and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like lovers, we tend to believe, at least on some level, that the nationalist sentiments tied to our own country are the strongest ones. But the art of ethnography and cultural perspective-taking can relieve us of such illusions: The national love stories of others are stronger than we can imagine. As Westerners, we are only now waking up to the force of nationalism in China and India.

History, language, music, art, food, and customs meld into one pattern—and this pattern is linked to a monopoly of violence. Given this “layered” nature of nationalism, it is as the depths of the sea: Invisible at the surface level. You need to dive into the depth of a collective psyche to see it, to feel it. It’s alive, and it’s always powerful, because it’s always sad, and it’s always proud—even if the pride may be a wounded one. When it rises from the depths, it can come as salvation, as ecstasy, as sudden unification, as unfettered rage, as terror, as genocide, as total war.

Individually, nationalism is not the strongest social force in the lives of most of us—we care much more about our personal life stories and of our families than about countries and nation states. But think about it: It’s the only social force that can involve millions of people and that people can be be prepared to kill and die for. Millions of people wouldn’t die for your life story or your family. Only you would. So it’s because a lot of people care not-so-little about the same thing that it’s such a strong force. In statistical mechanics, an average flow of a trillion particles will explain the events of the world better than the bouncing back and forth of any one particular particle. If ten million people in a certain geographical area simultaneously feel a bit of shame and respond with a bit of rage—but, individually, less so than if they had personally been slighted by a neighbor—what happens? A force is unleashed that spells murder and mayhem upon anything that comes in their way. Can big corporations truly compete with that power, even in our global days? Last I heard, McDonald’s is becoming “Uncle Vanya” in wartime Russia.

Most of us have a negative connotation to the word “nationalism” (although a growing minority on the right tend to disagree) and a positive connotation to the word “patriotism” (although some of our leftwing friends might disagree). Just like one man’s terrorist can be another’s freedom fighter, one’s chauvinist nationalism can be another’s patriotism.

To note this is not to say we are stuck with relativism. Although relativist stances can initially help us challenge our own biases, they offer no moral compass, and so they tend to inadvertently lead to a “might is right” perspective—as many critics have noted. So, even without accepting the naïve division into “good” patriotism and “bad” nationalism, we can be committed to using the forces of nationalism for good, to the best of our capacities of compassion and moral reason.

If nationalism is both terrible and wonderful, let us at least approach it with multiple perspectives, and try to get a rich and nuanced view of it. We cannot know what the fate of nationalism will be, but we can be almost certain that it will continue to play pivotal roles at key moments of world history. Ukraine is seeing the birth of a proud nation with more patriotic citizenry, perhaps even capable of curbing its history of corruption; those observers of the conflict from around the world who have wounded national pride at the hands of “the West” tend to hope to see a Russian victory over Western hegemony; and Russia itself is acting from a nationalist framework, whatever the geostrategic aspects of it may be.

There is no understanding the situation we are in without understanding the nature of nationalism. In short, this decisive moment is one of nationalism. As will future moments be. Those that understand this force the best will, perhaps, shape the history of the world the most.


Which perspectives have you been missing?

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