The Pull of Nationalism
Nationalism is the love of nation. It is the love of your group and usually your ethnicity and those who look and behave like you. I’ve written before that nationalism and group identity are natural and even a source of pleasure and security. It’s a strong impulse based on the belief that you are of common descent with others like you. I had a student last year who was Irish and claimed to love all things Irish and was a fierce defender of Ireland. He had never been to Ireland and knew little more about Ireland than green beer on St. Patrick’s Day. But he felt this kinship with Ireland.
Of course the most vicious nationalist was Hitler and he and his glorification of Germany represents certainly the extreme. I don’t care to focus or write about Hitler because it is too easy and so much has been said that his character is almost cartoonish, which is not to say that he should not be studied and understood. And nationalism can rear its ugly head even if it is not in this extreme form of Hitler’s National Socialism or the Nazi party. But there are some interesting qualities of nationalism that I think are common to the idea personifying the nation whether it be benign and warm nationalism or the vicious extreme. Three of these qualities are described below.
- It is pretty much impossible to fight a war without it being associated with a “nation.” Again, nation is typically associated with a large political collective, but small groups who consider themselves oppressed and victimized can see themselves as consistent with the ideas of nationalism and the nation. ISIS is both a political and a religious group and while they are typically not described as nationalists there impulse to glorify Islam and political Islam is fueled by the fires of a nationalist psychology. Relatively few wars these days are purely over pragmatic and rational resources. Most of the difficult conflicts in the world have some element of nationalism or ethnic identity that stimulates violence.
- Nationalism wraps its ideas in sanctity. There is a sense that the state, or the land, or the people are sanctified which makes them special and above the fray. Nationalist literature refers to the ease with which soldiers go off to their death because they know they are defending sanctified land and ideas. Groups like ISIS justify unimaginable horrors (beheadings, sexual assault, slavery) on the basis of their presumed sacred ideas. And there is nothing sophisticated in any intellectual or political sense about these ideas.
- When issues and ideas are sanctified it’s easy to turn them into binaries; that is, the contest becomes between the forces of “good” and “evil.” You see in their literature metaphors of darkness and light. This creates a virulent form of competition and discourse where the only way to win is to annihilate the other and defend yourself which is justifiable because the threat is existential. There is no talk that might develop new relationships or negotiation in the service of common goals of “tolerance” or “give-and-take” or “compromise.” The struggle is only between life and death.
Psychologies that are conducive to sustaining the type of intensity and extremes associated with an Armageddon mentality begin to crop up and develop. Ordinary people begin to believe their leaders and nationalist entrepreneurs who are telling them that they are a “chosen elect” who are duty-bound to rid the world of an enemy. People are not born with these ideas and extremist capabilities. They are recruited into a smaller group environment and socialized (the common term “brainwashing” applies here) into a set of beliefs and psychological states of readiness to accept what seems to be indefensible and outrageous beliefs.
Of course, the first thing to do is to identify a threatening outgroup and begin the process of heaping blame on the group on your way to justifying any sort of treatment of this “enemy.” This group can be Jews, the West, democracy, or any convenient outgroup. It is the extremes of nationalism that are important to pay attention to. I reiterate that common ingroup identity is probably evolutionarily necessary and capable of individual protection and reinsurance. We may think that Hitler and Nazi Germany were extreme examples, but you do not have to look far to see it happening again.