Nationalism: Positive and Negative

Reflecting on people's willingness to fight for what they believe is right.

We have been inspired over the last two weeks by the courageous resistance of Ukraine's people against the Russian invaders' barbaric violence. Outmanned and outgunned, the Ukrainians have fought on despite overwhelming odds, even as the invaders responded with crimes such as the bombing of a maternity facility in Mariupol.

The paradox is that both sides in this fight are motivated in part by nationalist allegiances that the transnational "new world order" has dismissed as outdated superstitions and folkways at best, and intolerant proponents of xenophobia and violent aggression at worst. What the Russo-Ukrainian conflict demonstrates is that patriotic nationalism, like nearly everything else we do as humans, may be beneficial or detrimental, depending on its objectives and purposes.

Nationalism's decline indicates the gradual development of globalist ideology over the last two centuries. It reflects two of modernity's defining developments: secularism and the world-shrinking technology that facilitated global commerce. For the majority of humanity, faith, together with language, history, culture, conventions, and mores, has served as a basis for national identity. However, faith has been reduced to a private preference that has been banished from the public sphere, rather than being a component of the collective expression of national identity, particularly in the West. It is no accident that the erosion of patriotism has coincided with the decline of faith over time.

The other development was the invention of new nineteenth-century technologies such as the railroad, telegraph, and steamship, which resulted in the establishment of a global economy. International business brought the world's peoples closer together and bonded them via trade, resulting in the establishment of a global economy that brought together various national cultures. The progressive expansion of global trade and the managerial elite that accompanied it implied that international cooperation and shared interests were more efficient and beneficial than the zero-sum national competition that frequently fomented violent conflict, much like religion. Similarly, transnational organizations, covenants, and treaties would render force a more expensive and ineffective method of resolving national interest conflicts than international diplomacy.

Particularly following the rise of fascism and Nazism in the twentieth century––which were attributed to nationalist allegiances rather than the malignant novel ideologies that exploited them––nationalism fell out of favor, particularly among global elites and supranational institutions of the "rules-based international order." Nationalism devolved into a malignant ghost of the past, loathed by the world's enlightened elites.

However, this argument against nationalism omits the fact that the majority of the world's peoples live and spend the majority of their lives not in an imagined "global community," but in a specific location with distinct languages and traditions that define their identity.

Additionally, it overlooks the vital function of the nation-state as the bedrock of modern consensus governance and political liberty. The nation-state enables vast groups of people to form a bond of solidarity and assign them a shared destiny. Without common identity and values, without this attachment to their own way of life and to others with whom they share it, individuals become rootless and split into niche identities connected only by consumerism, popular culture, and fleeting fads and fashions.

Finally, a Balkanized society is subject to more cohesive opponents and adversaries who believe in a cause worth fighting, killing, and dying for. As philosopher Alain Finkielkraut puts it, "it is inhuman to define man solely by blood and soil, but it is no less inhuman to leave him floundering through life with the earthy basis of his being removed." These "foundations" are what motivate people to put their lives on the line for them. After all, no one is prepared to die in the name of the United Nations, the European Union, or the World Bank. However, they, like Ukrainians now, will fight and die for their nation, the culture and customs that define them.

The current Ukrainian situation exemplifies this paradox of nationalism. Vladimir Putin has spent decades decrying the mutilation of the Russian people in the aftermath of the demise of the Soviet Union. According to his interpretation of history, Ukraine and its capital Kyiv were the heartland of the Russian people over a thousand years ago, occupying the region of ancient Rus and therefore the creators of the Russian peoples who shared a common language and religion. However, Ukraine was forcibly severed from Russia, first by the Bolsheviks and subsequently by the "geopolitical tragedy" of the Soviet Union's breakup, which rendered Ukraine a sovereign nation.

However, as Putin stated in 20211, Russia and Ukraine are "basically the same historical and spiritual space." Additionally, the loss of that unity is the "product of concerted attempts on the part of those forces that have always worked to undermine our oneness." They employ a technique that has existed since time immemorial — divide and rule. There is nothing novel in this. As a result, attempts are being made to exploit the 'national question' and create dissension among people, with the overriding purpose of dividing and subsequently pitting the constituents of a single people against one another."

The West, notably the United States, has been the agent of this Russian people's divide. Exhibit No. 1, in Putin's opinion, is the Baltic states', Poland's, and other formerly Warsaw Pact nations' accession to NATO, therefore bringing Western forces near Russia's boundaries. The plan to admit Ukraine to NATO, which has been shelved in order to appease Putin, exacerbates this insult, as Ukraine is an offspring of the original Mother Russia, the country exiled from its national brother, as Lithuania is in Putin's perspective.

Western critics have derided Putin's history, claiming that it is not only incorrect, but also a justification for his war against Ukraine, which he is waging to consolidate his own power and acquire access to Ukraine's natural riches. However, that is irrelevant. We must bear in mind that humans are capable of having honestly opposing motives at the same time. When Cortez scaled a pyramid in Tenochtitlan with a few warriors and risked his life destroying idols and washing blood-stained altars, his commitment to combating idolatry in the service of his Christianity was as serious as his thirst for money.

We don't know whether Putin truly believes in his history and the explanations for his aggression, but roughly half of the Russian population supports his policies on this basis. Whatever the case, whether genuine or untrue, sincere or fabricated, we must take it seriously, as it is an agent of action that is murdering people and destroying their homes and communities, as well as harming the West's economic interests and national security.

That is the end of toxic nationalism. The Ukrainians' bold response exemplifies genuine nationalism. They are fighting and dying because Ukraine is their homeland, the location of their history, culture, language, art, faith, customs, and holidays––everything that distinguishes them as a different people from others. That is the essence of patriotism: devotion to one's own people and the way of life that defines their nation.

Finally, the long-standing denigration of the type of patriotism and national loyalty that we celebrate in Ukraine is pernicious, as it erodes people's motivation to fight for their own. A recent study of Americans indicated that 55% stated they would stay and fight if an enemy came, but that figure reduces to 45% among men between the ages of 18 and 34. However, when party affiliation is considered, 60% of Republicans said they would, compared to 40% of Democrats. These are disturbing signals, implying that a sizable portion of the population, at least potentially, does not appreciate their country or the liberties they enjoy.

However, without a shared sense of our identity as citizens committed to unalienable rights, freedom of expression and religion, and equality before the law, we risk losing them. As historian Michael Burleigh poses the question,

Can any nation survive without a consensus on values that transcend special interests, and which are non-negotiable in the sense of “Here we stand”? Can a nation-state survive that is only a legal and political shell, or a “market state” for discrete ethnic or religious communities that share little by way of communal values other than the same currency? Can a society survive that is not the object of commitments to its core values or focus for the fundamental identities of all its members?

"No," is the answer. Our inhabitants' fragmentation into identities defined by superficial physical qualities and a fostered and repeated sense of grievance over long-forgotten transgressions makes this solution more likely. Nor does the supranational global elite's anti-nationalism provide any cause to love and defend our country. Indeed, as one observes so many of our national institutions, such as corporations, manufacturers, sports, and entertainment eagerly kowtowing to communist China––our self-proclaimed global rival that publicly declares its intention to replace us––for increased profits and market share, one gets the impression that loyalty to our country is secondary to profits and market share.

I hope I am wrong, and that when the inevitable moment of truth arrives, more of us will be willing to stand and fight, as Ukrainians are today. However, aside from rooting for distant Ukrainians, there are little indications that such an outcome is likely.

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