AN OPINION PIECE
In my experience, throughout the world, in many different time periods, and in varying (yet in some ways tiresomely similar) shades, there’s a recurring strain of thought that keeps rising to the surface and clouding perspectives. I’ve grown to loathe it with the very core of my being, partially because it’s antithetical to a global outlook, but mostly because it’s just plain stupid and makes people do stupid things. But it keeps cropping up, over and over again, in different manifestations and in different contexts, sometimes even in pretty smart people, even though it’s glaringly obvious to me how stupid and shortsighted it is.
Nationalism can mean two different things, closely related. One is the belief that people ought to be grouped together in “states” (countries) according to their “nation” (ethnic group). This seems natural enough, and I have no problem with it. But it quickly leads to the second meaning, pride in one’s own nation. Pride is one thing, but often this pride gets inflated into giant, overbearing, unreasonable arrogance. Nationalists have some sort of mystic belief that their country is somehow intrinsically better than others, that there’s a kind of spiritual force connecting their countrymen — maybe in the language, maybe in the blood, probably both — that elevates them above everyone else (and DEFINITELY above their neighbors, scoff!). When religion gets mixed into it, as it often does, nationalism can really get toxic, as its partisans scream that God is on their side (and therefore hates their enemies).
I’m personally not entirely convinced that the birth of nationalism can be pinned down to a certain time or place — it’s too primal a human emotion, rooted in a deep attachment to The Home that must go back eons — but historians say it began in the early 1800s in the Balkans. At the time the Balkans were under the rule of the Austrian and Osmanli (Turkish) Empires, and its peoples rankled at the difference between them and their non-Slavic and, in Turkey’s case, infidel overlords. The Austrians and Osmanlis had allowed (to their credit) native languages and cultures to flourish under their rule. As literacy spread in the 1800s, a sense of ethnic identity and opposition to the empire developed. Beginning in Serbia and Greece and spreading across the peninsula (Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Albania, etc.), the locals developed a passionate attachment to their language, religion, culture and heritage that spurred them on in wars to overthrow the empires.
As I wrote before, it’s all well and good for nations to rule over their own states. Nations probably know better how their own kind think and wish to be governed than some distant foreigner. But pride swelled into arrogance and narrowmindedness, and the mystic sort of nationalism that imbues nations with innate superiority and purity gained hold. Soon the newly freed Balkans began fighting amongst itself. Serbs saw themselves as superior to their neighbors and pinned them down into a Yugoslav (South Slav) union. Hungary, after a bitter struggle to gain equal standing with Austria in the Austrian Empire, turned around and oppressed the Romanians, Slovaks, and Croats. Greece relentlessly pushed for more and more territory at Turkey’s expense, until in the 1920s it was invading the Turkish homeland itself, eager to grab as much Greek territory (which, of course, it defined broadly) as it could while Turkey was shattered by World War I.
The most appalling consequence of nationalism was the world wars. Historians devote entire books to dissecting the causes of World War I, which were complex and not easy to understand, but they’re in agreement that nationalism was crucial. Fanatical Serbian nationalism drove Gavrilo Princip to gun down an Austrian archduke well-disposed to his empire’s minorities. Shortsighted German nationalism made siding with Austria-Hungary over Russia in those two empires’ dispute seem like a good idea… even when it made Germany face a 2-front war, something its founder, Otto von Bismarck, had always warned against. Slavic nationalism convinced Russia to wage war with the two Teutonic empires to its west, even when it wasn’t ready for it and couldn’t handle it at all. Italian nationalism propelled Italy into war against Austria-Hungary just so it could grab an Alpine region that’s mostly German anyway, and at great cost. Nationalism in general spurred the warring countries on, despite the horrible slaughter that ensued, despite the pointlessness of the fighting, despite how little territory was gained, despite how little was at stake for most of those involved.
World War I didn’t see the end of this kind of suicidal nationalism; in many cases it just opened up new wounds. Benito Mussolini picked fights, most notably in Ethiopia and Greece, just so Italians could feel proud of themselves and rejoice in the power rush of beating other, weaker countries up. Józef Piłsudski thought it was reasonable to march all the way to Kyiv (capital of Ukraine) to create as big a Poland as possible. Worst of all was Nazism, which had fanatical nationalism at its core. I don’t think nationalism necessarily means turning on Jews and trying to destroy them as a nation, but the Nazis’ ferocious attacks on the rest of Europe were motivated by nationalism, the notion that German blood somehow made Germany more advanced, powerful, and smart than other Europeans, and therefore it was ordained to rule over Europe.
I confronted nationalism run amok when I lived in South Korea. Irritated by being perpetually ignored in favor of its 2 big neighbors, China and Japan, who are always considered the 2 great nodes of East Asian civilization while Korea never is, Korea has developed a very strong and pompous sense of nationalism. 35 years of Japanese colonization, domination by the American military, and impressive economic growth and high living standards have combined to make Koreans fiercely proud of their country and eager to hear good things about it. Mostly I just laughed this off, but it would get shockingly virulent at times, especially when directed against Japan, the country most South Koreans see as their #1 enemy. A territorial dispute over a tiny island in the middle of the sea is exaggerated into a high national priority. The name of the sea it’s in is said to be the “East Sea,” because calling it the “Sea of Japan” somehow infers that Japan controls it. On an everyday level, Korean products and things are cherished as being superior just because they’re Korean. Meanwhile, in the North, state ideology teaches that Koreans are innocent and pure and easily taken advantage of by foreigners, fusing nationalism with militarism in a way reminiscent of the country Korea claims to hate so much.
Nationalism is really a global problem, but if I had to choose one country where it’s most worrisome right now, I’d pick China. The Chinese, like their neighbors, have historically been arrogant, condescending, and aloof, confident that their size, population, technology and strength could hold off pesky foreigners and make them irrelevant. In the 1800s it learned the hard way that that wasn’t true anymore. But its nationalism endured, and was fed in the 1900s by the Communist government, eager to rouse its people in collective endeavors that took a huge toll on them and ultimately went nowhere. As the Communist regime gets less and less Communist, it has to find a new ideology to bolster its control. Religion is a no-no (although it is beginning to promote Confucianism again), so that leaves nationalism, which feeds into a long Chinese tradition and strengthens the Party as a bonus. Kids are inculcated from an early age to feel shamed at their country’s humiliation, pride in its ancient and modern achievements, and love for the party and system that has made it rich and powerful. One scholar says they grow up “drinking wolves’ milk”; they not only feel pride in their country, but a determination to beat up others.
This is having consequences. Chinese nationalism leaves no room for China’s minorities, who are given autonomy and special status yet are constantly overruled by the huge Chinese majority. Uighur and Tibetan complaints about Chinese mistreatment and neglect are ignored, forcing them to turn to violence, which is ruthlessly returned. Chinese nationalism means that the Chinese people (the “Han”) get their way, but western China has to stay in China, no matter whether the locals want to or not. Outside China, nationalism makes the Chinese contemptuous of Japan, dismissive towards Korea, and outright condescending towards Southeast Asia. An ongoing Chinese attempt to claim the South China Sea by building islands there is basically a show of force in Southeast Asia, motivated by thuggish nationalism.
Another major country dealing with nationalism is Russia. Russian nationalism is also motivated by a sense of inferiority versus the rest of Europe. For centuries, Russia lagged behind the countries to the west, and when it began to catch up in an impressive way in the 1700s, it was still usually dismissed or scorned. This has made Russians both very proud in their own accomplishments and culture and peevish towards foreigners, especially other Europeans. The fall of the Soviet Union greatly enhanced this feeling of inferiority and resentment towards the outside world. Like China, Russia lost its unifying ideology, but Vladimir Putin is busily constructing a new one, and nationalism is a big part of it. It has led him to claim dominion over Russians living outside of Russia’s borders and to seize part of Ukraine because it’s mostly Russian. Soviet-era animosity against foreigners is being revived to an even greater degree. The Russian Orthodox Church is held up as proof that Russians are morally superior than their western counterparts; Western liberal values are seen as decadent. Russian narratives are said to be the only trustworthy ones; foreign points of view are openly scorned and mocked.
Nationalism is enjoying a resurgence across Asia. I have already described Hindutva, India’s peculiar strain of nationalism; India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, is motivated by a sense of Indian greatness mixed with fervent religious belief that has historically expressed itself by lashing out at non-Hindus. Luckily, large-scale religious or ethnic violence hasn’t broken out yet, but India’s Muslim neighbors are nervous and skeptical. More broadly, India’s neighbors feel ill at ease with a resurgent India, since nationalism tends to produce a dismissive, condescending attitude towards neighbors.
And then there’s Japan, which experienced a peculiar wave of nationalism early in the 1900s that combined emperor worship and devout belief in the national religion, Shintou, with fanatical, suicidal militarism. East Asia learned the hard way how painful this combination can be. Japanese nationalism has ebbed since World War II, and I consider Japan much less nationalist than its neighbors. But it’s still there, never far from the surface, and Japan’s neighbors have always been nervous. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzou Abe, seems reluctant to accept how malicious the Japanese Empire was, and pride in his country leads him to disdain more cordial relations with South Korea, scrap constitutional limits on military power, and deny unpleasant episodes in imperialist Japanese history.
On the other side of Asia, Turkey is awfully nationalist too. Sad at the loss of its empire in World War I, Turkey consoled itself with nationalism, by (mostly) discarding religion and embracing Turkishness, the Turkish identity, Turkish blood, Turkish language. As a consequence, it denies the genocide it perpetrated against Armenians and firmly suppresses any desire by the Kurdish people in southeast Turkey to break away or gain autonomy. Iran is fiercely proud of its heritage, leading it to needlessly antagonize its neighbors by propping up rebels in Yemen and Lebanon and Shi’ite regimes in Syria and Iraq. It has latched onto the nuclear bomb as a symbol of national greatness, and clings desperately to developing one even in the face of severe economic sanctions and the possibility of (more) political chaos in West Asia.
I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point clear by now. That point is: nationalism is dumb. Really, really dumb. It makes people — entire governments, entire countries — do super irrational things. It makes them suffer, even die, for something intangible. It gets perpetuated by nasty governments cynical enough to use it to stay in power and totally O.K. with convoluting the Nation with the Regime. It makes nations lash out at other nations because they’re beneath them, or worse, just to show off how big and strong they are. It ignores facts and reality and clings to barmy ideas and cheesy sentiment, rooted in silly things like food, architecture, or dress.
I’ve mostly focused on the big, obvious consequences of nationalism, like war, oppression and discrimination. But on a mundane level it’s poisonous too. To go back to Korea, Korean businesses would coast by for a long time because they were confident their countrymen would buy their products just because they were Korean. Some nationalists will believe anything their governments tell them, because their country is good, so somehow their government won’t lie. Festering problems that seem glaringly obvious to foreigners are ignored or excused by nationalists, because their country can do no wrong and foreigners are stupid. Americans will eat hot dogs, even when actual sausages that taste much better are easily available, because they’re somehow “all-American.” (They originate in Germany, by the way.)
Some might say that nationalism isn’t all bad, that I’m only focusing on fanatical nationalism that makes the headlines and that good-natured, friendly nationalism (“patriotism”) is fine. And I’ll concede on this point. Pride in your country, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. Cheering on your country in a soccer match is fine. Rooting for your home team in the Olympics is O.K. I’ll admit that nationalist traditions like flags and anthems have a certain charm to them. Nationalism’s ability to make people endure sacrifices and unite in a common cause can be inspiring; I’d have a hard time disparaging someone who “died for his country.” Nationalist arguments that make good points and rely on actual facts are all right, as long as the people who make them also acknowledge that their country has flaws.
But even soft nationalism or patriotism has its limits. Sports fans can get rowdy, competitive, and nasty, and tournaments along national lines can bring out ugly nationalism too. Nationalism makes countries self-centered — I’ve noticed that Olympics coverage invariably focuses on whatever sport that country does well in. Flags and anthems are actually part of the cult of nationalism, and rules like keeping the flag from touching the ground or putting your hand on your heart are stupid. They’re not holy, people.
Considering everything, I’d say that nationalism is much, much more of a scourge than a blessing. It makes people irrational, arrogant, condescending, domineering, and occasionally violent and racist. It’s based on a mistaken infusion of the Nation with a quasi-religious glow that’s a complete construct of romantics’ imaginations. It’s manipulated by governments to make their people do their bidding, even when it’s not in their interests (or even the country’s!). It’s not based on facts or even reality; if it was, countries like Sweden or Norway would be super nationalist, because they’re legitimately great countries. It’s led to 2 world wars and a bunch of genocides.
Asking for people to stop being nationalist is unrealistic. It’s not going to go away. Even extreme nationalism probably isn’t going to go away. But for the sake of world peace, for the sake of our collective sanity, for the sake of more reasonable global understanding — a primary objective of this blog — I hope it takes it easy.