Nationalism and Patriotism: Which is the Dirty Word?

My son, a high school freshman, told me that his civics teacher taught him that, while it’s okay to be patriotic, it is not okay to be nationalistic. Her lecture, which I was told featured canned videos on the matter, is consistent with memes floating around the Internet, for example a cartoon with people of many skin colors and religions (indicated by wearing stereotypical costuming) holding an American flag (patriotism) in contrast to a disheveled Steve Bannon waving a Pepe the Frog flag and standing in the way of Muslims. President Trump’s recent insistence that he is a nationalist, along with his vocal rejection of globalism, lit up social media with “told you so!”

The anti-nationalist rhetoric has become so prevalent that Merriam-Webster devoted an essay to clarifying the subject, writing that “it’s more complicated than ‘patriotism’ good; ‘nationalism’ bad.” Patriotism has a long history, the dictionary explains, finding its roots in Greek word patrios or “of one’s father.” Patriotism means love of one’s country—literally “love of the fatherland” (how’s that for optics?). Nationalism as a term appears in the late 18th century, initially used as something of a synonym for patriotism, specifically devotion or loyalty to a nation. However, the concept of nation is open enough to avoid the blood and soil connotations left by the concept of the “fatherland.”

Since then, the meanings of nationalism have grown. Merriam-Webster provides this definition as primary: “exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.” Exaltation and culture promotion are interesting choices to emphasize. The term “supranational groups” suggests globalism or internationalism, carried on some type of transnational association or authority that possesses power or wields influence transcending national boundaries or governments. The Oxford Dictionary proceeds somewhat similarly: “Identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.” Oxford also provides this meaning: “Advocacy of or support for the political independence of a particular nation or people.” This suggests cultural, ethnic, linguistic, or religious character.

With the hegemony of cultural relativism and multiculturalism, “exalting” one nation above others became objectionable on the grounds that all cultures are presumed equal (assuming as given that which requires evidence); to judge other cultures is ethnocentric, especially Eurocentric, which is essentially chauvinistic, even racist. (Oxford takes the edge off this a bit by leaving out the word “exalted” and the idea of culture promotion.) But I have characterized the cultural relativist position too charitably; there is hypocrisy involved. For many multiculturalists, western culture is inherently imperialist, racist, xenophobia, even genocidal; westerners assert the terrible and destructive character of their culture whenever they appeal to its virtues. Cultural relativists are quick to clarify that their view does not reduce to moral relativism. That’s true; they are quite often anti-West. For the multiculturalist, the West is not allowed cultural integrity in the same way other cultures are because the West is guilty of extraordinary crimes.

What are the virtues the West asserts? Feminism, humanism, liberalism, and secularism, emphasizing civil, human, political, and social rights—in short: civic nationalism. These virtues are missing in many cultures around the world, cultures for which the multiculturalist demand respect and expect non-interference, even when people from these other cultures move to the West; those with cultures antithetical to western values should be allowed to practice their culture in the West in its integrity—the treatment of women, child-rearing, intellectual and artistic practice, religious rituals, whatever. Multiculturalists tell their fellow westerners (nonwesterners are not multiculturalists)—especially white men—that they have no moral standing to judge the adequacy of these other practices because of the awful behavior of their ancestors. A cosmic and eternal debt is owed to people whose cultural systems are marked by a backwardness and oppressiveness for which the West is allegedly solely responsible.

Merriam-Webster also defines nationalism as a sense of national consciousness, but fails to elaborate on what that means. I will. Nationalism as an ideological projection and support structure for the nation-state which, as a general framework, requires content-specification. Is it a liberal nationalism? Socialist nationalism? Ethnic nationalism? Racist nationalism? In other words, nationalism in itself cannot be identified as a bad thing; one has to identify its substance. Even ethnic nationalisms are not automatically on the same moral place, such as when a third world nationalist movement, expressing a nationalism that beings together different classes and fractions, fights to throw off the yoke of an imperialist power.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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