A reluctant defence of nationalism
I mentioned that feeling close to those we have a lot in common is natural, but to try to justify nationalism on those grounds is simply an instance of the naturalistic fallacy. Rather, I think, one should look at what the alternatives to nationalism are.
On one hand, there is ruthless individualism. If one rejects nationalism, one rejects any kind of unification with people over what one and they have in common. As such, one is left with no care for or concern for anyone but oneself, except for one’s friends and family, since those bonds are of blood and of friendship, and so are not solely national. This seems like a bad alternative. Surely it is right that we care about our fellow nationals, that we want our country to prosper, that we help each other not just for the selfish reason, that we want to prosper together. Moreover, such a world would mean a world of no charity, of complete de-attachment, and most of all – of weakness. Unless people can unite around some common cause, unless there is something to make them stronger together, those people end up being able to do much less.
On the other hand, there is complete unification. Rather than uniting around a nation, many in the west would say we should unite around our humanity – we should care for everybody, and we should strive to help everybody equally, regardless of whether we share common values or history.
This is a preposterous, utopian, and impossible resolution. There is no way in a thousand years that an average Scotsman from the Highlands could form an equally strong bond and care for a person whose name they do not know in Bangladesh, as they could to their neighbour, who speaks the same language, with the same accent, cares about vaguely the same principles, and also admires the bravery of Sir William Wallace; none of them would likely know who Bangabir was, just as the Bengali fellow would not know who William Wallace was (unless he saw Braveheart).
Even if one wanted to embrace this kind of ‘universalism’ and somehow successfully managed to seize their emotions in such a way that they feel equal concern for someone on the other end of the globe as they do for someone who has more in common with them, even if they truly did not care for shared history, culture, or customs, pragmatic limits make it impossible. Simply by the virtue of the fact that two people cannot understand each other as they cannot communicate in the same language makes it impossible to communicate similarities and each other’s issues. It is also by this fact that any person will always be inevitably closer to those who speak their language than to those that do not. Perhaps only someone who masters every single major world language could truly become a ‘citizen of the world’ should they desire to, or if the world were to start speaking one language (the failure of Esperanto shows the difficulties of such a project); for anybody limited by linguistics, this ‘universalism’ is not an option.
It is only right and feasible that we unite in a certain nation, around a certain common history and set of values. In that, however, we cannot limit ourselves to meaningless premises for such a nation – it is ignorant to think that a nation is simply founded in one’s ethnic origin, as ethnonationalists do, and it is equally ignorant to think it is solely founded in a common set of values, as civic nationalists do. The truth is that a nation is founded in whatever the participants of that nation deem it to be, and while often it is common history, it can also be common ethnicity, common values, common upbringing, or even common sexuality, and the more the participants of a given nation have in common, the stronger the bond of that nation is. No strong nation could possibly be formed by the bond of ethnicity alone; it is said in Poland that a true Pole must be able to recite the beginning stanza of Mickiewicz’s famous work, ‘Pan Tadeusz’, also known as the ‘Inwokacja’. I know many people of ethnic Polish origin living in England who barely speak Polish, and their knowledge of Polish history or literature is almost nil. They are as Polish as a Japanese farmer. I call this romantic nationalism – uniting around a certain set of undefined ideas, which are very many and cannot be named, yet are apparent and powerful to whoever cares about them.
To be fair, many ethnonationalists understand it and say that ethnicity is not the only component of a nation, but it is the only necessary one. Never, however, are they able to answer – why? And indeed, there is absolutely no reason why ethnicity should be a more important or necessary component of a nation than any other. To claim so is senseless and arbitrary, indeed often founded on racism. People cling to ethnicity as an important factor because it is easily noticeable and does not require an education, as bonding over history would, but to many nations (especially since we established nations are self-defining) it is not important in the slightest.
I cannot emphasise enough that limiting a nation to ethnicity or civic ideas alone is absurd. A nation is only defined by the participants of the nation in question and is always an amalgamation of very numerous, more or less significant factors – never just one.
This also addresses the paradox of the heap within nationalism – at what point is one an Englishman, and at what point is one not? This will never be strictly defined, but just as a heap and a pile are not strict definitions, they are nonetheless useful terms. Some people will inevitably be considered by some to be a part of a certain nation, while others will deem them to be outside of it, and that is fine. Everybody is bound to be a part of a number of nations, and unless someone is a truly unique individual, they will fit in quite well into at least one. If they do not, this is no reason to oppose mutual concern and care between the members of other nations.
My (admittedly rather unpopular) definition of a nation rids nationalism of a number of issues and conflicts. Ethnonantionalists, for instance, would never admit that some parts of large German cities should become property and sovereignty of the Republic of Turkey, yet the majority of their population is of Turkish ethnic origin; according to ethnonationalists, the sole determinant of what makes a nation. Similarly, a Californian Democrat and a Republican from Alabama have completely different values from one another – they do not overlap almost at all. Yet, both would call themselves American. In that, civic nationalism, which grounds the nation in a set of values and customs alone, is also flawed. Numerous factors come into what makes a nation.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the division that nationalism facilitates. It is all well and good that those within a nation care about those in their own nation, but this extends into discriminating in favour of them against those who are outside this nation. This is a problem, but one which, I think, we must simply bear with. Nobody would be outraged if someone, given the choice to save either a stranger or their sibling, would save their sibling. We naturally discriminate in favour of those we are close to, and to go against this would be to try to destroy the family. Indeed, we should work towards stronger nations; the best way to prevent people being disadvantaged by nationalism is to ensure everyone has a strong nation that they belong to.
It must also be pointed out that there is no reason why different nations cannot cooperate with each other. There is a historic friendship between Russians and Serbians, Poles and Hungarians – such friendships should be facilitated. A dog-lover does not mean a cat-loather. The fact that someone loves their nation more than they love others is completely unattached to hating or even disliking other nations, and it should not be. Indeed, there is no reason why an Englishman may not appreciate Irish culture, despite historic hostility between the two, as I am sure many of the readers have experienced on St. Patrick’s Day.
Nationalism can be dangerous. It is an immensely powerful uniting force, one which makes you put your fellow compatriot before anything else, which gives you incredible willpower and determination to do all you can for them. It is a love and dedication unlike any other, a concern for a fellow human being giving almost superhuman strength. It has led to the abolition and creation of empires, to the fall of kings and to the rise of armies. It has also created some of the most beautiful art and poetry this world has ever seen.
Directed towards a righteous aim, humans uniting around what they have in common is a wonderful phenomenon, and, I think, undeniably, far better than the alternatives of ruthless individualism, or of a utopian and unfeasible concern for everyone as though they were your neighbour.