Like any large social movement, nationalism has its benefits but can also be a dangerous weapon. It can be a powerful tool with which to unite people under one banner, a people acting as one who can be wielded in any direction that is seen fit.
Nationalism can be a good thing, as easily demonstrated by how Filipinos, fired by its ideals, succeeded in kicking out the Spanish, the Japanese, and the Americans. So necessary was nationalism that Rizal and his generation saw the need to invent it to unite inhabitants of various islands who did not until then think of themselves as belonging to one “nation”. As historians have correctly pointed out, the concept “Filipino” – like so many other national identities worldwide – has been a modern man-made invention constructed for practical purposes.
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In that, across the globe, colonized peoples rose against their colonial masters inspired by a collective desire to be free, nationalism has been a force for good. To the extent that today, struggles against modern forms of colonialism still draw from its well, nationalism remains a potent force for emancipation. By dispelling the myth that some people are intrinsically superior; by making those who are presumed inferior to question their perpetual subordination; by compelling us to look to those who are part of our imagined community as equals and therefore deserving of solidarity and respect; by convincing us that together as a collective we can achieve goals we can’t otherwise achieve on our own; for all these reasons good nationalism can bring out the best in us.
There is an inherent danger in trying to “homogenize” the human population. We just are not built for that. Our unique cultures and lifestyles are worth preserving, and any trend towards tearing down all the walls in the name of world peace is in fact fascism in a dressed up form, parading itself off as worldwide nationalism, having the intent of the good of all at heart.
Nationalism, like private property ownership, is an inherent drive in human culture, but not necessarily a negative one. The Vietnamese conflict initially started out of a nationalistic movement. Communism took over as the driving force for Vietnamese independence early on. If nationalism had maintained a dominant role, the Vietnam War would have taken a decidedly different route (there was a good chance China wouldn’t have supported their struggle for independence.)
A healthy dose of positive nationalism can ease these anxieties by softening the burdens of economic change. When they feel especially connected to their compatriots, citizens who gain from change are more willing to support strong safety nets, employment programs, and educational systems that help ease the burden on those who otherwise would fall far behind. Socially, nationalism motivates people to fight against the threats to a society, and enables them to hang together when confronted with a crisis, like an invasion or a natural disaster. And the generosity of the winners in turn allows the nation as a whole to better accept the consequences of free trade, open capital markets, and more liberal immigration. Nationalism also serves to unite a country: be it in sport or industrial pride.
A society with a lot of positive nationalism is more likely to be tolerant and open toward the rest of the world because its people have learned the habits of good citizenship and social justice. Dictators and demagogues, on the other hand, flourish where social capital is in short supply. People who feel little responsibility toward one another will turn against minorities in their midst and outsiders across their borders, in return for promises of glory or comforting fictions of superiority.
Positive nationalism is that when our people are better off they’re more willing and better able to add to the world’s well being. But failure to choose positive nationalism almost surely promotes its negative twin- ‘bad’ nationalism, i.e. nationalism fueled with racism and chauvinism which can manifest worst consequences. Negative nationalism assumes that the world is a zero-sum game where our gains come at another nation’s expense, and theirs come at ours.
George Orwell said that nationalism is “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labeled ‘good’ or ‘bad’.” This hints that by subscribing to nationalism, or love of one’s country, is in turn subscribing to the belief that a culture is superior to another: good and bad. He goes on to make the differentiation between “nationalism” and “patriotism.” Patriotism, Orwell states, is harmless. It is a love of native culture, and the patriot has no need to impose that culture on others.
European colonists, convinced that they brought god’s light with them to the New World, decimated an uncounted number of Indians. The Nazis, believing they to be the superior race, exterminated over six million Jews. Turkish nationalists annihilated over a million Armenians. Zionists, believing they to be god’s own people, have killed thousands who happen to be living in land they claim to have received from god. The list goes on. Indonesian nationalism justified the taking of West Papua and Timor. Thai nationalists have made sure that Patani Malays will have no country of their own.
Nationalism has been mobilized to justify the continuing colonization of the Moro people and the indigenous peoples in Mindanao. It has been manipulated by those seeking an ideological cover with which to wrap their vested interests in the mantle of the “nation,” giving those that they entice to kill for them a flag with which to cover their coffins.
This kind of nationalism has been the first refuge of politicians eager to stoke prejudice in exchange for votes; of those threatened with losing a portion of their vast fiefdoms; of those whose careers depend on defending the status quo; of those like Teodoro Locsin whose justification for keeping Moros colonized reminds us of the Spaniards’ – that indios are barbarians and incapable of self-government; and those, even in the left, who will do anything just to frustrate the “principal enemies” even if it means turning their back on those whose freedom they claim to advance. Add to these those who, while recognizing the historical injustice committed against Moros, nevertheless insist on giving them no other recourse but to be part of the “Filipino family” – /who wants to be part of a family in which your brothers seek to kill you and throw you out of your own house!
Bad nationalism is of course not the preserve of the dominant power: victims too – as the case of Zionists or, for that matter, of Filipinos show – can easily turn into aggressors. Among Moros, opportunistic nationalism is also the refuge of those Moro elites who are just eager to take over the lands grabbed by Filipino landlords so as to replace them in oppressing the Moro masses. The god these elites may claim to be praying to may be of a different name; but the servants that they will coerce into kneeling before them will be the same people. Distorting Aung San Suu Kyi, they will use the freedom they seek to deprive others of theirs.
In that nationalism forces us to see those who do not belong to our “nation” – or who do not wish to belong despite us wanting them to – as “others”; in that it imbues in those who do belong a supposed essence that marks them from and often makes them feel superior to those who don’t; in that it becomes a justification for depriving those who don’t belong of what we claim for ourselves – their own nation and their own freedom; in that it denies our common humanity and replaces solidarity with hatred; for all these reasons, nationalism can be a very bad thing.
‘Bad’ or too much of nationalism can lead to the ill of blind allegiance to the state, in which decisions are accepted because the principle of “just following orders” exceeds the individual’s obligation to evaluate and make principled decisions in combat, commerce, and negotiation.
Nationalism in competitive politics justifies an endless list of abuses of liberty and civil rights. That’s why we are all so upset about Bush’s “War on Terror” jive. It’s also why Italians are upset about Berlusconi’s cooptation and abuse of his countries media. And it’s why we should be equally upset about Putin’s actions in Russia which have included, in all likelihood, murder and attempted murder – even of the leader of a neighboring country.
Nationalism causes people to view anything different from their country’s way of doing things as a bad thing. For instance, since the USA hasn’t had public health care, and other countries do, the “nationalists” are automatically against change, even when it is logical.
A healthy economy requires a degree of natural trust among people. This is sometimes called home bias. Within an economy, home bias subsidizes a sense of trust that greases the wheels of commerce, leading to greater prosperity. Nations with too strong a national identity, though, will tend to become economically insular. Japan, for instance, is notoriously protectionist due to home bias, and this has a very unfavorable impact on the efficiency of their economy. At its worst, excessive unquestioning belief in the nation itself can lead to police states and political purges, which themselves tend to destroy the level of intrinsic social trust necessary to a healthy economy.
Nationalism applied to economics can also lead to wars over resources that would have been more efficiently traded for than conquered. Germany’s invasion of Russia was largely motivated by the Nationalist/Autarkic view that trade was insecure and only through conquest could Germany assure access to needed resources. Japan had a similar motive for their invasions of neighboring countries.
Nationalism is inherently divisive because it highlights differences between peoples, emphasizing an individual’s identification with their own nation. The idea is also potentially oppressive because it submerges individual identity within a national whole, and gives elites or political leaders’ potential opportunities to manipulate or control the masses. Much of the early opposition to nationalism was related to its geopolitical ideal of a separate state for every nation. The classic nationalist movements of the 19th century rejected the very existence of the multi-ethnic empires in Europe. Even in that early stage, however, there was an ideological critique of nationalism. That has developed into several forms of anti-nationalism in the western world.
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In the liberal political tradition there is widespread criticism of ‘nationalism’ as a dangerous force and a cause of conflict and war between nation-states. Nationalism has often been exploited to encourage citizens to partake in the nations’ conflicts. Such examples include The Two World Wars, where nationalism was a key component of propaganda material. Liberals do not generally dispute the existence of the nation-states.
Ultra-nationalism is a more extreme form of nationalism that can lead to fascism, authoritarism and tight control over activities within the nation that supposedly will threaten the nation if left unchecked. It can lead to reduction or stoppage of immigration, expulsion, oppression, demagoguery, emotional aspects, talk of presumed real or imagined enemies, threat to survival, crack-down, limit of trade through tariffs, tight control over businesses and production, militarism, populism, propaganda and basically “us versus them” attitude. Ultra-nationalism ultimately can lead to conflict within a state, as well as between states, and in its extreme form leads to war, secession, or genocide.
Negative nationalists prey most directly on people who are losing ground economically and socially. The recent resurgence of negative nationalism in Austria, France, and Switzerland is especially evident among blue-collar manufacturing workers and young men who feel the economic ground shifting from under them. The ugly violence against ethnic Chinese in Indonesia during the currency crisis there was also rooted in economic fears. People whose livelihoods are at risk find it reassuring to be given specific targets for their frustrations.
Among economic insecurity’s first scapegoats are always immigrants, foreigners, and ethnic minorities.
There is no doubt that nationalism has been the most influential ideological force of the twentieth century. Through its success, it greatly undermined that other revolutionary concept of the 19th century, socialism. Clearly, national consciousness has been a much more important influence on people than international class-consciousness. Nationalism has also developed through the two centuries. What was originally “romantic nationalism,” arguing for the self-determination of peoples, became “racist nationalism,” positioning one’s own people above all others, or at least one’s closest neighbors. Certainly both have coexisted, and still do, but with “ethnic cleansing” having become a household term, nationalism at the expense of others, rather than along with others, seem to be grabbing the headlines.
It would make an interesting study to see whether this change has any relation to the fact that nationalism has also become a mass movement since its original appearances. Perhaps nationalism becomes truly popular only when it starts asserting its superiority over others. Nationalism, by its innocent and discrete self, can indeed be good. But we must be wary about who can gain from it and into what form it can be molded.
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