Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Negative Nationalism, Positive Nationalism, and Misguided Patriotism

Excerpts from John Ralston Saul's "The Collapse of Globalism - And The Reinvention of the World"

Negative Nationalism:

Insecurity, poverty, and ambition are three of the roots of this destructive nationalism. Its expression is often dependent on ethnic loyalty, an appropriation of God to one’s side, a certain pride in ignorance, and a conviction that you have been permanently wounded – that is, an active mythology of having been irreparably wounded. On key subjects, ignorance is often encouraged. Such wilful ignorance allows highly sophisticated societies to remain fixated on specific wounds.

Giambattista Vico, the great Italian philosopher: “[W]here ever the human mind is lost in ignorance, man makes himself the measure of all things… [R]umor grows in its course… [T]he unknown is always magnified… [W]henever men can form no idea of distant and unknown things, they judge them by what is familiar and close at hand.”

What is closest at hand will most likely be family or race. Speaker after speaker at the 2004 Republican Convention in the United States invoked the family because, they said, family comes first and is the measure of a society. Of course family is central to human life and to our emotional life in all of its complexity. But family as the measure of structure of society is a mafia argument or an argument of the extreme right, for whom there are only two possible choices: either the sacred family or the sacred nation. In either case, loyalty is measured according to how successfully it represents a closed situation. Thus the democratic and humanist ideas of civilization, society, and community, which are all dependent on our ability to imagine the other – the one who is not close – are expelled to the margins.

Such nationalism of proximity is dependent on fear. The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm once put its existence down to an incapacity to recover from the loss of our pre-modern social structures. And so we embraced “a new idolatry of blood and soil.” This is a nationalism as a culture of belonging, rather than a nationalism as a civilization of culture. Thus, ignorance, often presented with the charm of innocence, becomes a state of sanctity. Erasmus warned against this almost before it existed: ‘lack of culture is not holiness, nor cleverness impiety.” And of course, this is nationalism in which nationality becomes a synonym of ethnicity.’ Finally it is nationalism as belief, as religion.

If you look around the world, there is the same slippage almost everywhere.

As for the United States, the general atmosphere seems to be, in historian Simon Schama’s phrase, a “Manichean struggle between good and evil, freedom and terror.” Why would such a complex and rich society fall in the simplicities of a Manichean view? Rorty’s guess is that the Globalization of the labour market without the protection of a welfare state leaves Americans “much more vulnerable to right-wing populism than are most European countries.”

More important, in this confused atmosphere with negative nationalism’s growing, we have seen the return of the idea of race as a quality of belonging.

The problem lies in the myth of race and racial division.

The Aga Khan: “The clash, if there is such a broad civilizational collision, is not of cultures, but of ignorance.” In this case, it cannot be plain ignorance and must therefore either be wilful or the product of fear.

The least expected and most obvious manifestation of negative nationalism has been God’s willingness to make regular appearances on the side of various participants in these new civilizational clashes.

Whether intended or not, God is clearly back in his old public, but non-religious, role, as a political sidekick, ready to justify whatever is required.

His fading participation – bored perhaps – in wars that drag on, such as in Northern Ireland, has been succeeded by star appearances in massacres all over Africa. He has been wandering the Afghan mountains with Taliban and Al Qaeda guerrillas. He has broken down temples and led riots in India. He has supported anti-immigrant campaigns in Europe. In his spare time, he inspires rhetoric of those who want more of the death penalty, and more virgin brides, more flags of specific colours flown. He accompanies American presidents, and for that matter, most American elected representatives, on all public appearances. In the 2003 State of the Union speech, there were twenty-two religious references.

As a perfect illustration of the Manichean model, both the United States and its worst enemies feel they have direct access to the divine.

It must also be said that in many places, God takes on a very different voice. This is a voice that can be heard via people organizing slums in Bangkok or Nairobi. These people are often the driving forces behind hospitals and schools. They speak for the God who never went away – the force of love working for the common good, quite a different divinity from the one leading armies in the name of political inevitabilities.

Positive Nationalism:

Positive nationalism has been with us throughout history. It is reinvented for each age. And there are equivalents in the Analects of Confucius and the Koran, to name just two among many non-Western approaches.

Adam Smith is perfectly clear about the good citizen’s priorities: “The wise and virtuous man is at all times willing that his own private interest should be sacrificed to the public interest of his own particular order or society. He is at all times willing, too, that the interest of this order or society should be sacrificed to the greater interest of the state or sovereignty.”

What we have seen over the last decade is a renewed and growing desire to build our societies at all levels with our own hands – that is, to find ways to be involved.

Adam Smith: “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition… is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”

What we do have so far at the international level in the way of regulations with teeth is very limited: the Ottawa Treaty against land mines; the International Criminal Court; the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. What these treaties demonstrate is that international relations do not have to be market driven. If binding agreements on such difficult issues are possible, then international treaties setting corporate tax levels and organizing labour conditions are possible.

Is it realistic to expect such progress? If you look at the evolution over the last decade, you can see that the process is surprisingly fast, considering that the blockage in most cases has come from the most powerful countries. But this is just another reminder that even the remarkable power of the United States cannot be spread thinly to determine world policy. There are now too many nations and regional groups with their own agendas.

Islam, the religion that most concerns the West these days, is fundamentally open and has a more flexible history than Christianity. As the Koran puts it,

We… made you into
Nations and tribes, that
Ye may know each other
(Not that ye may despise
Each other).

What our situation needs is precisely Adam Smith’s public interest, the imagination that Tocqueville invoked, and Rorty’s humanism.

The more complicated our national and international relationships are, the more all of us need to use our most complicated sense of belonging both to feel at home and to find multiple ways to be at home with the widest variety of people and situations.

The common call today is for an examination of values. I am not clear what this means. It has a slight ring of nineteenth-century self-serving nationalism. It would be better to concentrate on something more real, such as serving the public good. Adam Smith put it that “he is certainly not a good citizen who does not wish to promote, by every means in his power, the welfare of the whole society of his fellow citizens.”

If people who know each other well serve the welfare of their fellow citizens, they may learn something unexpected about each other, perhaps about how different they are. If people who do not know each other well, perhaps because they come from different cultures, serve the welfare of their fellow citizens, they may well discover how similar their values are.

In both cases, this would be the process of positive nationalism.

Charles Ferguson: "There has evolved a political duopoly in the United States, in which the two political parties agree to agree on certain things and agree to disagree on others. And, in particular, they agree on things related to finance and money and they disagree on social policy....My quite strong sense is that this is something that is now explicitly understood.

Video I enjoyed: Misguided Patriotism (click to watch)

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