Nationalism—PART I

Last Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron added to the general confusion about the word “Nationalism” by saying:

“Patriotism” is the exact opposite of nationalism: Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By putting our interests first, with no regard for others, we erase the very thing that a nation holds dearest, and the thing that keeps it alive: its moral values.”

Perhaps the French have different meanings for the words “Patriotism” and “Nationalism,” but Macron’s statement makes no sense using the English meanings of the words. Yet English speaking people speak the same kind of nonsense. The meaning of “nationalism” and the importance of the concept to the maintenance of a good society needs to be sorted out.[i]

Merriam-Webster explains:

“…from the end of the 18th century onward for a number of decades, nationalism appears to have been largely interchangeable with patriotism, with both words primarily being used to refer to a general love of one’s country

In U.S. usage nationalism is now perhaps most frequently associated with white[ii] nationalism, and has considerably negative connotations.” [Emphasis added.]

People “loving”[iii] the groups of which they are a part is a near-universal human characteristic.[iv] To suggest that loving one’s family, clan, tribe, or nation is immoral is tantamount to saying humans are immoral. While humans may be immoral, they are less immoral when they must cohere to the ideas and ways of an effective group than when left to their own ideas and ways. In light of this, it is fair to say that, in English, Macron’s statement is foolish.[v]

Something not foolish about Macron’s words is that they presumed (accurately) that “Patriotism,” “devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country; national loyalty,” is good. Why might that be?

While all forms of life are miraculous, the most miraculous life form known to man is man. In addition to being conscious, inventive, creative, productive, interested, interesting, caring, loving, etc., unsocialized humans are also covetous, cunning, and cliquish, and are often brutal and cruel in satisfying their avarice (to mention but a few of their shortcomings). To enjoy that which is miraculously good about humans, the characteristics of unsocialized humans must be socialized, i.e., they must be made to behave in a way that is acceptable to their society. To work effectively, the socialization of humans must occur at all levels of societies, families, clans, tribes, and nations.

Socialization, however, goes for naught if the society is not capable of defending itself and its members against enemies. Because there is “safety in numbers,” humans, like many animals, form groups for mutual defense. Families join clans, clans join tribes, and tribes form and/or join nations in order to achieve for its members a greater probability they will be protected against those who do not share the common moral and practical beliefs, cultural norms, institutions, traditions, etc. of the clan, tribe, or nation. For the clan, tribe, or nation to avoid being torn asunder, the vast majority of members need to subscribe and conform to the group’s beliefs, norms, institutions, traditions, etc., i.e., the beliefs of the vast majority must cohere.

Humans can flourish most in societies that are reasonably safe and the actions of others are predictable. The feeling of safety comes from a reasonable belief that the other members of the family, clan, tribe, and nation will join in a common defense from an attack by enemies foreign or domestic. That state of predictable affairs can be achieved only when the vast majority of the society’s members sufficiently cohere to a common set of values, and non-conformists are kept in reasonable check.

The above is the reason why it is said that “a house divided cannot stand.”[vi] This is also why tribalism is such a threat to a nation.

To be an effective fighting force against an enemy, the troops must rally around the idea that they are fighting for something so good that it is worth the risk and cost in blood and treasure to fight for it. Evidence that being excited about the cause is part of a winning strategy can be seen every fall Saturday as football players come charging out of their tunnels onto the football field. In a fight for nation’s survival, patriotism, the belief by the vast majority of a society’s members that the nation is so good that its preservation is worth fighting for, is essential.[vii]

So, contrary, to Macron’s flourishes, the essence of nationalism is essentially indistinguishable from patriotism.

So why all the fuss about “nationalism?” That will be the subject of “Nationalism—PART II” and “Nationalism—PART III.”


[i] Many of the comments about nationalism made in this series of posts are based on the insights and analysis in an extraordinary new book, “The Virtue of Nationalism” by Yoram Hazony. “Yoram Hazony on the Virtue of Nationalism” is a great interview of Hazony about the book by Russ Roberts.

[ii] Dealing with the mention of “white nationalism” in the context of nationalism is beyond the scope of this series of posts. Suffice it to say, nationalism has a bad rap in the U.S. now with or without the “white” modifier.

[iii] “Love” is largely ambiguous due to its many gradations and nuances. I’m using the word “love” to describe a feeling that the country is worthy of respect, merits care, support and encouragement, and protecting it from enemies foreign or domestic is in the best interests of its inhabitants.

[iv] Jonathon Haidt says humans are “groupish.” See “The Groupish Gene – Jonathan Haidt” or, better yet, take the time to get the whole story with “The Groupish Gene: Hive psychology and the Origins of Morality and Religion.”

[v]  Although I do not subscribe to everything Megan McArdle said about nationalism in this article, she does make some good points about nationalism in, “Nationalism and Patriotism Don’t Have to Be Opposites.” She is particularly right in saying, “If we are to fight our way back from this soft civil war, we will need a muscular patriotism that focuses us on our commonalities instead of our differences.”

[vi]  See Lincoln’s “House Divided Speech,” or Matthew 12:25, Mark 3:25

[vii] In “The Ascent of Man,” Charles Darwin put it this way: “Obedience… is of the highest value, for any form of government is better than none. Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected. A tribe rich in the above qualities would spread and be victorious over other tribes: but in the course of time it would, judging from all past history, be in its turn overcome by some other tribe still more highly endowed.”

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