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There is a thin line between healthy patriotism and blind nationalism. How far do we have to go before we cross that line?

Nationalism. It is the glue that binds people together. A shared sense of culture, of achievement, of ideals or of values. But like any large social movement, nationalism has its benefits and 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 trigger dangerous thoughts but can also heal old wounds. And with instantaneous access to ideas and information due to television and the internet, we must ask ourselves, what is nationalism and is it a healthy part of today’s society?

George Orwell pessimistically summed up 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'.” But 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. But history is indeed littered with examples of triumphal nationalism, the notion of the nation as a claim to superiority.

The nineteenth century proclaimed the rise of the nation-state. By the twentieth century, nationalism had reached dizzying proportions. The First World War, which claimed fifteen million lives, was fought over national pride and was waged in order to keep national alliances intact along state lines. By the 1930’s, the British Empire covered a fifth of the Earth, the Japanese had master-race ambitions in China and the Pacific, and Spain and Italy underwent massive nationalist revolutions that boosted Franco and Mussolini to power. Not to mention Nazi Germany. Hitler rose to power on a wave of nationalistic feelings, bringing to the fore a celebration of all things German. A pride in culture: Wagner and Mahler; in industry: Mercedes Benz, Junkers and Siemens and in sport, with Berlin hosting the Olympic Games in 1936. After being humiliated by the reparations to pay for the Great War forced on them by the Allies, the Germans craved a feeling of identity, a feeling that they were worth more than being Europe’s underdog being beaten by the Great War’s victors. In the 1920’s National Socialist brown shirts played the national pride card in their brauhaus gatherings to divert the attention away from a downward spiral in the economy and an increase in poverty and civil unrest.

However, today’s pride of country is more fluffy, more harmless, in a mocha decaf frapuccino way and not nearly as dangerous, right? Wrong. As our old history teachers tried to drum into us: those who do not learn from history run the risk of repeating it. So is nationalism as dangerous as it was at the turn of the last century? Of course. But as with anything in our modern world, it is more subtle. Harmless patriotism that causes you to buy British strawberries in Tesco’s rather than off-season ones flown in from Maryland may be one thing, but commerce and governments can use a conceivably innocent love of country towards a more sinister means. It would be naïve not to think that governments around the world do not try to force through policy on the back of national pride.

Nationalism galvanises people. It is in any government’s interest to channel any nationalistic feelings towards any agenda that faces public opposition. Nationalism serves to unite a country: be it in sport or industrial pride. However, this fervour can be re-aligned, and indeed often is, in the name of pushing policies through on the back of passionate pleas in the “interest of the nation.” Humble, common, national pride outside the realms of fascist agenda can be found everywhere in today’s society.

Remember Cool Britannia? Liam Gallagher and Daman Albarn swilling champagne in Number 10 the week of New Labour’s rise to power? What better way to pull in public support for a fresh new governing party than by buying into the new pop music that was putting Britain back on the world music map? And it even had a name: Brit Pop. Oasis, Blur, Suede, Supergrass, Pulp and The Verve. But it didn’t just stop with music: Noel Gallagher’s Union flag guitar, Geri Halliwell’s union flag skirt, Damian Hirst, Tracey Emin and all the Young British Artists. March 1997 and Vanity Fair’s cover proclaimed “London Swings! Again!” The UK was hip once more and Britain was enjoying her time in the limelight. What better time then to get behind the young new Prime Minister with grand plans for a grander Britain? New Labour was shrewd enough to judge popular opinion right and to take advantage of a new feeling of Britishness, of our modern pop culture nationalism.

However, the one country whose politicians will wring the nationalist rag for every drop it is worth is, of course, America. It is seen as a blot on a presidential candidate’s resume if they have not served in the military and thus “served their country.” And what about “good old fashioned American values”? How many times have we heard that phrase barked out in every political television debate or ten second sound bite? Is this nationalism over moralism? Commercial companies are doing it too, playing on America’s love of country. With the declining fortunes in the automotive industry and the likes of General Motors and Ford losing out to Japanese imports, you hear phrases such as “buy American” and “made with pride in the USA” cropping up more times than that new pick-up truck advert, complete with cowboy and rugged frontier backdrop. Ironically, in a chicken and egg situation, these large companies have now become the embodiment of all things American: McDonalds, Coca Cola, Ford, Disney. These are not only corporations, they are icons of the USA. Indeed, one of the Bush Administration's reasons for not ratifying the Kyoto Agreement was that it would spell disaster for American business. And what better way for people to back you than threaten America’s heartland, free-market enterprise? Nationalism to the politician is gold dust in the United States. Phrases like “The American People” and “God Bless America” are so ingrained in the common psyche that they don’t seem out of the ordinary at all. But just how odd would it be if Gordon Brown lauded “God bless Britain” in the House of Commons next week? Not exercising your right to bear arms, as stated in the Second Amendment, is held by the American right to be “un-American.” And the war in Iraq? Remember french fries becoming freedom fries? And let’s not even get started on the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and the English-As-An-Official-Language bill in Congress.

But where does religion fit in? Some religious believers place their religion above their 'fatherland,' often resulting in suspicion and hostility from patriots, for example in the US: Roman Catholics and Muslims. In the United States and the United Kingdom, Roman Catholics were seen as owing loyalty to the Pope rather than the nation. This was a thorn in Catholic JFK’s side when running for president. Historically, the Knights of Columbus (referred to as "the strong right arm of the church" by several Popes) established the virtue of patriotism as one of their four principle virtues. Muslims are sometimes seen as owing loyalty to the Islamic community (ummah) rather than to the nation. Other groups find a conflict between certain patriotic acts and religious beliefs. Part of the current government’s “fight against terror” involves trying to bridge the gap between being Muslim and being British. The concept of the British Muslim is a new one and must be seen to be a plausible one if that policy is going to work. However, religion and nationalism aren’t always at odds with each other. One only needs to take a look at the Middle East, where nationalism is thriving under a symbol of Arab independence.

Arab nationalism is a common nationalist ideology in the 20th century. It is based on the premise that nations from Morocco to the Arabian Peninsula are united by their common linguistic, cultural and historical heritage. Even in Iran, nationalism has soared since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Iranian nationalism was a deciding force in the 1951 movement to nationalise Iran's oil wealth.
These are the raw ingredients for national feeling. Yet, this feeling is spread across the region rather than isolated to just one country. Europe is looking that way too. The EU is promoting the idea of European-ness to the extent of having an anthem, a currency and a flag. Have a look at your driving licence. What is the flag in the top corner? It’s not the Union Jack, but the flag of the EU: a little piece of Europe in everyone’s pockets. And what about that constitution? In fact, the nation state is the enemy of the European Union. National interests and national pride get in the way of closer European integration which has Eurocrats banging their heads against their brand new Brussels office walls. Sub-national movements such as the Basques and the Cornish independence causes receive funds from the EU along with pan-European political recognition. The aim? To bypass the state in creating mini-states who can deal straight with a federal central European super-state. Cut out the middleman, namely the humble European nation.

But it is human nature to stick together in a world defined by boundaries, closed borders, and foreign tongues. It’s a big scary world out there, and it’s not surprising that that the masses huddle to comfort themselves against all that is unknown. It is the quest for the familiar and it is a survival technique. 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 moulded.

1st September 2007
Is Nationalism a good thing?
By Jeremy Curl