Abusing Patriotism

April 14, 2008

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Dan has written a strong case against the criticisms of nationalism that I and others have leveled in recent weeks, and I have already responded to some of his points elsewhere, but in this post I want to address the criticisms of Orwell’s overly broad definition of nationalism.  Then in the next post I will consider this idea of “hubristic patriotism” and specifically the claim that the attack on paleoconservatives for their lack of patriotism was enabled by such a “hubristic patriotism.” 

On Orwell, Dan wrote:

But in any case, Orwell’s definitions are tendentious: what we call patriotism is always good (“no wish to force upon other people,” “defensive”) while what we call nationalism sounds inherently bad (“desire for power”). One cannot argue with loaded terms, so let me suggest less value-laden definitions: patriotism is indeed simply love of one’s country. Nationalism is the more specific desire for one’s people to have a sovereign territory of their own. Either sentiment can be defensive; both can be abused and militarized.

Certainly I agree with the claim that both can be abused and militarized, but who abuses and militarizes patriotism?  It seems inescapable to me that it is nationalists who do this, not simply because this is what nationalists do by definition, but because this is historically what self-described nationalists have done.  Why do they militarize patriotism?  Because they understand that war forges national identity through the shared mass experience of conflict, creating bonds of solidarity between fellow nationals that might be very weak or non-existent because of differences of region, dialect, religion and tribe.  This seems to be one reason why neoconservatives valorize WWII more than any other American conflict, with the War of Secession a close second, because it represents the full mobilization of national resources in an ideologically-charged conflict that they would like to replicate today. 

The desire for political independence is part of nationalism.  Dan will get no argument from me on that point.  But that is not all that nationalism is.  Nationalists also frequently identify their nation with a mission or an idea that they must collectively pursue, and these missions are defined by territorial acquisition or the consolidation of existing polities into a single nation-state.  For modern Greeks post-1844, it was the Megali Idea, for the Russians it was leadership of Pan-Slavic hegemony and the capture of Constantinople, for the French the spreading of the Revolution, for Americans it was “Manifest Destiny” and has since become Pax Americana.  Invariably, these missions are to be carried out through conquest.  Patriots don’t conquer.  Whether or not they are republican patriots as such, they don’t wage wars of conquest against other countries.  I take this to be a given.  It therefore makes no sense to me to look at what happened in 2002-03 and see it as an episode of misguided patriotism, except insofar as natural patriotic sentiments were stirred up by the jingoism of nationalists. 

One of the reasons Kuehnelt-Leddihn was hostile to any form of mass politics was his objection to the illiberal and collectivist effects of nationalism on the Habsburg empire, which actually affected the Austrian liberals more than most.  So there is an additional element of collectivism and identitarianism that requires uniformity and homogeneity, which inevitably involves some significant degree of coercion to realize that uniformity.  Austrian liberals, who were also among the German nationalists of the empire, waged a Kulturkampf just as the National Liberals and Bismarck did in Germany to bring universal state education to all at the expense of Catholic institutions and set about imposing uniform, “rational” regulations of the empire that worked to centralize power in Vienna within Cisleithania.  So nationalism typically entails considerable coercion and centralism, or nationalists are prone to employ these tools to realize their ends more often than patriots.  In the American context, nationalism advanced through a combination of expansion and internal consolidation at the expense of the federal system culminating in the War, and then the war against Spain was seen as a useful way to forge renewed unity between the sections.  With consolidation finished and the frontier all but closed, empire overseas beckoned, and the demonstrably more nationalist party lead the way.  When Brownson and other Catholics had once identified them as the “Red Republicans,” the comparison with Garibaldi’s liberal nationalist Redshirts was deliberate and apt.  T.R.‘s New Nationalism speech frames American nationalism as something fulfilled in and through the War even as Roosevelt argues for a nationalism that buries former sectional hatreds and carries within it the ideology of the consolidated democratic nation-state.  The emphasis is upon power and might as he addresses veterans of the Grand Army:

It is because of what you and your comrades did in the dark years that we of to-day walk, each of us, head erect, and proud that we belong, not to one of a dozen little squabbling contemptible commonwealths, but to the mightiest nation upon which the sun shines. 

The stress on primacy and greatness is something that nationalists tend to do and then overdo.  The assumption is that massive bloodshed and coercion are preferable to having “a dozen little squabbling contemptible commonwealths,” even though there is every reason think these would be more agreeable to republican government and liberty.  More worrying is the concentration of power in fewer and fewer hands, and then this nod to the expansive role of the executive (and the expansion of executive power this implies):

This New Nationalism regards the executive power as the steward of the public welfare.

As nationalists generally venerate state institutions as the embodiment of the nation, they tend to exalt the political leadership and the head of state even more.  Hence the cult of the Presidency that American nationalists have built up, especially during the Cold War.  The servility of the legislative branch in relation to the Presidency is also something that nationalism and the national security state encourage and institutionalize, which is why it is always so politically difficult, indeed virtually impossible, to halt military actions carried out on the orders of the President.  In the modern era, the President is made out to be a representative of the entire nation, which leads quickly enough to charges that the critics of the President are lacking in patriotism, given the conventional confusion of the terms, and may be anti-American.  When adherence to proposition nation, Pax Americana-guaranteeing Americanism becomes the definition of patriotism, as it did in the months prior to the Iraq war, it was possible to label the anti-imperialists and non-interventionists as “unpatriotic,” and they, we, were “unpatriotic” in that narrow sense, but then what they were calling patriotism was a form of ideological nationalism.    

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