Dear Princess ‘Ishka,
When I was in high school, my philosophy professor was used to remind us the difference between 19th century patriotism and 20th century nationalism. In the 19th century, people all other Europe were oppressed by distant and authoritarian rulers, and longed for freedom and independence. Patriots started fighting for the self-determination of the oppressed, and the liberation of the fatherland (lat. patria). In the early 20th century, patriotism was replaced by nationalism, a popular movement connotated by aggressiveness and saturated by “identitarian ideology”. The word “nation” means “people”, and nationalism aimed at preserving one people’s identity, even if it happened at the cost of excluding part of the total population, depending on ethnicity, religion, political stands, etc.
I think both ideologies belong to the past and shall remain where they are, for reasons I find very convincing. Patriotism was a movement of liberation, which ended up being on the one hand the utopian dream of intellectual elites, on the other hand a tool for less intellectual elites to gain power. Even if most revolutions failed, many people obtained their independence over time. Lately, nationalism got rid of the elitist character of patriotism, at the cost of spreading xenophobia and fascism all other Europe, with the unfortunate consequences we all know.
What I have been sketching, is obviously an over-simplification of history, but the message I think we can agree upon is that the world of today has changed a lot since then. Feeling nostalgia for either one of the two ideologies is not only anachronistic, it is also dangerous. None the less, we see everywhere nationalistic slogans like “America first” (US), “Wir sind das Volk” (Germany), “L’Italia agli italiani” (Italy), “We want our country back” (UK), among others. Why do people still find such ideas appealing? Is there anything intrinsically wrong in the attempt to find shelter in one people’s identity against the threat of globalization?
First of all, we shall aknowledge that patriotism is nowadays impossible to realize for obvious reasons: at least in the western world, there is no patriotic elite anymore, either intellectual or otherwise, who could make sense of the movement. So, everytime we talk about the patriotic ideology referred to the contemporary world, we need to operate an implicit translation to “nationalism”. Nationalism focuses on the identity of certain individuals in a society, united by language, habits, customs and, more often than not, religion. The main idea of contemporary nationalism is that such individuals have a special status in society, which entitles them to “come first” in an exclusive way. “America first” means that individuals with an “American identity” shall be favored in their job opportunities, education, access to health care and other facilities. Other slogans may vary in their degree of xenophobic content, but they equally express the prominence of the national identity over non-national ones.
What is wrong in thinking that people with a national identity shall be exclusively favored in their own country? Before even answering this question, we shall ask ourselves what “national identity” means. Society is much more diversified and transitory than what identity makes us think of. People responding to criteria of citizenship may not conform to religious expectations, people otherwise culturally “identical” may lack appropriate linguistic knowledge, and wealth may also vary a lot among such individuals, generating a discrepancy too often underestimated.
National identity is not a “marble block”. It’s more like a sandy seashore: the sea constantly sucks in part of it, and constantly delivers new materials. You may still recognize the seashore after decades, but erosion will eventually transfigure it.
The vagueness of identity is not the only reason why nationalism is fallacious. The most important reason, is that society “comes before” individuals and groups of individuals. A society is “already there” and we can either think about it in an inclusive way, or struggle to find reasonable criteria of discrimination. In either case, our political ideas must address the whole of society, and not only part of it. Otherwise we would obtain the “law of the majority”, which equals tyranny rather than democracy. It is precisely because we believe in the general value of democracy that we must oppose nationalism as its relativistic antithesis.
In the past I have been arguing for the centrality of identity in our self-understanding and self-confidence. I have mixed feelings about the topic. I surely think that being discriminated is a very good reason to employ the concept of identity as a means for survival and flourishing. But I have also started developing skepticism about the reality of identity. Very often, it belongs more to our minds than to the external world and, sometimes, a critical eye can demystify its inconsistency.
However, I feel confident enough to say that there is nothing wrong in being proud of one’s country, for pride needn’t be based on nationalism. Irony usually works against taking one’s identity too seriously.