The right to national self-determination is the foundation of democracy. Without it, many of the countries we know today would not exist. Without it, we would still have the all-powerful empires that controlled vast territories pre–WW1. Without it, many of the human rights we take for granted in the Western world would simply not be a part of our reality. Beyond its strictly political impact, the kind of patriotism that stems from a sense of pride in one’s country can act as a healthy force in other ways too. In fact, most of us would affirm that it is good to take pride in where we come from and to enjoy the many cultural aspects and traditions unique to our national identity. This doesn’t have to lead to insular tendencies: engaging in local traditions can in fact help immigrants acclimate to a new society and ultimately feel more at home. Cultural traditions are meant to bring people together by celebrating a shared history, and it is heartening to hear of ways that this initial purpose has evolved.
Given that patriotism is a complex and easily corruptible phenomenon, a celebration of its unifying power should always be accompanied by a certain degree of caution: when nationalist sentiment begins to be laced with violent and hateful rhetoric and actions taken in the name of purity or ‘blood and soil’, one ought to be ready to draw a decisive line between its good and bad forms. Wanting to become independent from a government that does not care about the wishes or needs of an entire country is not bad but separating children from their parents and holding them in horrible conditions that are clear human rights violations because of a punitive immigration policy is. Saying that you are protecting your borders and calling it loyalty to your country or patriotism is evil at worst and hypocritical at best.
A particularly striking way nationalism intervenes on the political scene is through its use as a tool for governments during wartime. The ‘us’ against ‘them’ and ‘defence of the homeland’ rhetoric is useful for army recruitment and general support for a war: relying on it helps politicians maintain public support at home, making it easier to justify the human and economic cost of conflict so that it may continue. This often overspills into civilian life, with ethnic groups often being associated with the enemy that is being fought in the field. This happened after 9/11 with Muslims, during WW2 with German and Japanese civilians being placed in internment camps in Allied countries and during the Red Scare and McCarthyism in the 50s. Feelings of racially motivated hatred don’t suddenly go away after a war ends, and this is the way that prejudices can persist and develop. At such points, nationalism becomes particularly dangerous, as one then has a group of disenfranchised people with the potential to undermine the nature of democracy in their country. This is what has happened previously just before outbreaks of war, and that is what is happening in the world now.
An interesting question we might now ask relates to the motivations behind this sudden surge of vicious forms of nationalism, accompanied by a subsequent increase in racism and outright discrimination. For there has to be a reason: most of Europe didn’t just suddenly become openly racist. There are many systematic causes over a long period of time, but I would say that, currently, the core influencing factor is fear. The average person is afraid: of economic instability, of being at the receiving end of some attack, of being marginalised in a way or another. And these concerns are valid to an extent, in the way that it is true that there aren’t enough jobs, or in that there are terrorist organisations in the world who want to undermine governments and societies by sowing chaos, or there are politicians who aren’t necessarily always looking out for ordinary people. But this fear does not then justify violent actions and discrimination. It does not justify taking that fear – as many have done – and using it to gain political support. Instead of trying to fix the underlying causes of the problem, like feelings of disenfranchisement due to low standards of living, lack of jobs and economic instability, politicians are taking advantage of the situation, failing to do anything significant to improve people’s lives.
America and Scotland, two countries in which I have lived and associated myself with, are interesting to compare in that they are now home to almost complete opposite manifestations of nationalism. In Scotland, nationalism is mostly benign – it is simply about independence at this particular point in time, and the SNP is not using it to restrict immigration or prioritise Scottishness. But it would only take a small group within the party – a handful of MSPs or even the leader themselves – to begin spreading discriminatory ideas which could alter its currently legitimate foundations. Everyone needs to be aware of this risk, so that the likeliness of it happening diminishes. In America, nationalism has ironically become synonymous with racism. The people who chant the phrase ‘blood and soil’, who wear swastikas and white hoods and who support a border wall seem completely oblivious of the fact their ancestors were immigrants. Without the chance that America presented them, the chance to escape persecution and start anew, those same people would not be where they currently are. America would not exist and would not be the country it is today without the contribution of immigrants. To be an American is to be an immigrant. It is hypocritical to deny others the same chances your ancestors had, and all those who do so should feel ashamed.
The way to judge nationalism is by reasonable intention: whether nationalism is good or bad depends on the motivations and actions of each individual. There is a distinct line we can draw between the two, and it is usually very obvious which category an action or word falls into. As with most things, the moment hate is the main motivating factor, all justificatory claims fail, and this type of nationalism needs to be stopped so that it does not do further harm.
[Katerina Partolina Schwartz – she/her – @katpschwartz]
[Photo credit: Getty]