Nationalism. Loyalty and devotion to a nation, often exalting and putting the ideas and interests of one nation above all others. We’ve all had experience with nationalism. It is what keeps us together. Gives us faith in our government and our democracy to protect us. Why Americans value our constitution and our rights. Why we can hate someone’s opposing opinion yet still respect and trust the system enough to correct for our differences. It is the only way American society - and every western society - maintains its stability and peace.
Nationalism stems from the idea of safety in numbers. It is convenient for us as people who live nearby to bond together for safety, so we do under the guise of nationalist fervor: morally justifying political convenience. This urge is not unique to humans; throughout the natural world animals bond into packs for safety. In some ways, the fear that drives us to each other is founded. The threats of starvation, disease, violence, and others are very real, and without society we would be unable to properly defend ourselves against these threats. We look for things to be scared of because that’s the only way to make sure we are safe from them. But when we can’t find something to be scared of, we have to make it up.
Fear is a powerful tool for leaders; it is, perhaps, the single thing that can unite humans under any circumstances. When looking to build a power base, otherwise incompetent leaders may draw on fear to establish political capital. But when they do this, they hype up the other. Overreact to otherwise nonexistent threats. Make a common enemy. And dehumanize people who aren’t in the ‘tribe’. Fear combined with n
ationalism creates a vicious cycle of politicization, denial of facts, xenophobia, and the supreme belief that you belong to the best group of people in the best nation in the world.
Regardless of the veracity of this belief, this form of nationalism (termed hyper nationalism) has, time and time again, led to extreme violence and hate. The go-to example of this is WWI, where, among other factors, the pride of each of the countries was wounded and therefore had to be rectified. If there are five countries in close proximity, each of which is claiming to be the best, then there is a logical contradiction. It is only natural that they decided to go to war to decide who was truly the best. And even then, the wounded pride of Germany was not enough to disavow them of their intense ethnocentric nationalism that led to fascism and the second world war.
Last weekend, in remembrance of the 100th anniversary of the ending of WWI, Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, made a speech to more than 70 world leaders condemning nationalism. Here are some excerpts:
The millions of soldiers who died in the Great War fought to defend the “universal values” of France and to reject the “selfishness of nations only looking after their own interests. Because patriotism is exactly the opposite of nationalism.”
“By putting our own 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”
Nationalism is a “betrayal of patriotism”
We must guard against “old demons coming back to wreak chaos and death.”
Macron spoke in the context of a world undergoing rapid change and isolation. Alt-right parties, mired with autocratic and racist views, have come to power in Hungary and Poland, while nations like France, Austria, Germany, and Sweden have seen sudden increases in popularity for far-right fringe groups. Brexit is an example of isolationism and nationalism triumphing over globalization. And in America, Donald Trump represents a populist resurgence of nationalism - even his slogan, make America Great Again, appeals to this sort of fervor.
I want to be clear that I’m not comparing our world today to the nationalism that gave rise to fascism in the early 20th century. We are nowhere near that point yet. But I am issuing a warning. Because when compassion and reason and facts give way to hatred and xenophobia and lies, the world has the potential of going to a very bad place very, very, quickly.