Monday, July 04, 2016

July 4 Twelve Years Ago Today, My Essay on Patriotism, Nationalism, and U.S. Incomprehensionism

Photo by Peter Turnley:
I re-post this every couple of years, hoping some of the ideas will be useful to people. When it was first posted twelve years ago, there was no need to mention Trump. One would have thought the reference a joke. But the seeds for his political success were all there ... (July 4, 2018)

(An excerpt)

I spent the early morning yesterday in my Paris apartment re-reading George Orwell's long essay, "Notes on Nationalism." It was written in 1945, but seemed the right thing for this year's Fourth of July when so many expressions of nationalism are in the air: the relatively benign World Cup competition, the blood-soaked tension between the Palestinians and Israelis and the ferocious violence of the war in Iraq.

Orwell wrote that nationalism is partly "the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects." He said it's not to be confused with patriotism, which Orwell defined as "devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people."

July 4, I would argue, is a patriotic holiday in just that sense—a true celebration of so much that makes the United States of America unique. It's the party thrown by a nation of immigrants to mark the creation of something new on the face of the earth, a society devoted not to the past but to the future—the incredibly elegant vision of "certain inalienable rights" to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

That's what the flags and the fireworks, the anthems, the civilians with hands on hearts, the soldiers at attention and saluting, the embassy receptions, and, yeah, not a few mind-bending beer-drinking binges, are most often about. I think most of us know in our hearts that the more we live up to our particular way of life, the more attractive it will be to others and the more they are likely to use its ideals to better their own lives. That's worth saluting, for sure, and raising a glass, too.

But American nationalism, unlike American patriotism, is different—and dangerous.

The second part of Orwell's definition tells you why. Nationalism is the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or an idea, "placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests." Patriotism is essentially about ideas and pride. Nationalism is about emotion and blood. The nationalist's thoughts "always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. ... Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception."

One inevitable result, wrote Orwell, is vast and dangerous miscalculation based on the assumption that nationalism makes not only right but might—and invincibility: "Political and military commentators, like astrologers, can survive almost any mistake, because their more devoted followers do not look to them for an appraisal of the facts but for the stimulation of nationalistic loyalties." When Orwell derides "a silly and vulgar glorification of the actual process of war," well, one wishes Fox News and Al Jazeera would take note.

For Orwell, the evils of nationalism were not unique to nations, but shared by a panoply of "isms" common among the elites of his day: "Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, anti-Semitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism." Today we could drop the communists and Trotskyites, perhaps, while adding Islamism and neo-conservatism. The same tendencies would apply, especially "indifference to reality."

All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts," said Orwell. "Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage—torture, the use of hostages, forced labor, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians—which does not change its moral color when committed by 'our' side.... The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them."

It's this aspect of nationalism that peacemakers in the Middle East find so utterly confounding. The Israelis and the Palestinians, Iraq's Sunnis and Kurds and Shiites, Iranians and Americans have developed nationalist narratives that have almost nothing in common except a general chronology. 

"In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown," Orwell wrote, in a spooky foreshadowing of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's nationalist musings . "A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one's own mind."...

One vital aspect of the debate about patriotism and nationalism in the modern world, however, slipped by this great British apostle of humane logic when he was writing more than 60 years ago, and that's the critical peculiarity of the way Americans see themselves and their national identity.

Precisely because American society is built on an idea of the future, created by people who came to America for no other purpose than moving forward, America's interest in the past—even its own past—is limited. You are what you can create in the U.S.A., what you have now, and what you are going to have.

We are, yes, very materialistic. You could see that in the long list of corporate sponsors for yesterday's July 4 reception at the American ambassador's residence in Paris. But much more importantly, you can hear materialism in the way we talk about almost everything, from the family we have, to the faith we have, the house we have, the cars and diplomas and the jobs we have. We pushed westward because we wanted to have land, which was almost free, and we wanted to have the freedom to forget whatever histories bound us to the past. Ours has become a society based on "having" in a way that's almost indistinguishable from "the American dream," or indeed, "the pursuit of happiness." There's no need to apologize. That's what makes us who we are.

But in much of the old world, people do not "have" families; they belong to families, which belong sometimes to clans and tribes (the extended families we inevitably describe in pejorative terms). Those families belong to a land and a faith—and a history of that land and faith—that may go back thousands of years. Their patriotism is in their blood, not just their hopes, and so is their nationalism.

As we saw in the Balkans in the 1990s, this history-driven, blood-driven nationalism can become brutally racist and explosively xenophobic: we belong, you do not. In Africa, the forces of tribally based nationalism constantly threaten the future of a continent where most national borders were drawn by foreigners. In Iraq, well, we Americans have helped tear apart a state that now shudders at the brink of utter failure in the face of ever-strengthening sectarian and racial nationalisms.

What does not help in the process of encouraging peace (because no one is going to "bring" peace), is the notion that we Americans can apply our nationalist vision to people who never chose to participate in our immigrant aspirations to begin with: people who feel safer, stronger and saner in their worlds of belonging than in our world of having. When we make that mistake, threatening to the core their sense of who they are, all we do is invite hatred.

"The pursuit of happiness" is, indeed, what the Fourth of July is all about, and I'd like to see that wonderfully vague and evocative principle accepted universally as an inalienable right. But let's never imagine that the pursuit of happiness is, everywhere, the same as the pursuit of the American dream. That's something we can share, but never impose.


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