With the rise of globalization, one would expect to see the emergence of a global identity. However, this is not the case, and if anything, national pride is steadily increasing. So, what is nationalism, and what should we do about it?
First and foremost, a clear distinction needs to be made between patriotism and nationalism. Although similar, patriotism is related more to a sense of love and devotion for one’s country, while nationalism refers to a pride that one has in the superiority of their country.
This distinction between patriotism and nationalism seems to paint a picture of good patriotism and bad nationalism, and most of the time this is true. To hold genuine love for one’s country is not only okay, but is possibly the standard to which we should all hold ourselves. On the other hand, we should avoid making false claims of exclusivity and superiority only in the name of the country in which we were born.
Unfortunately, nothing is ever as simple as strictly good or bad, and patriotism and nationalism are no exceptions. As Merriam-Webster says, “it seems certain that, at least with nationalism, it may mean different things to different people.” This difference in intended definition presents a challenge in trying to understand not only the usage of nationalism, but its context as well.
As mentioned in my previous column, a word is not defined only by its literal denotation, but also by the relationship it holds between the user and the world at large. For this reason, it may be easier to understand nationalism not by its definition, but through the connotation with which it is used.
Most arguments related to nationalism paint it as this tremendously powerful evil, and as I said earlier, this is mostly warranted. Nationalism tends to be divisive, and it has been the leading cause of some of the worst conflicts in human history.
However, especially recently, nationalism has been separated from inherently nationalistic things without the realization that one cannot exist without the other.
For example, in his essay “The Problem of Nationalism,” Kim Holmes, executive vice president at The Heritage Foundation, states that nationalism differs from national identity, national sovereignty and even national pride. To his credit, Holmes does acknowledge the benefits of nationalism — or what would probably be better defined as patriotism — but in separating nationalism from national identity, sovereignty and pride, he fails to realize the impact that one has on another.
Strong nationalism fuels a certain national identity built on the rejection of other identities, and this creates an even stronger sense of nationalism — one cannot exist without impacting the other.
Although we see that nationalism is related to national belonging, this does not necessarily mean it is something we should ascribe to. In fact, some of the reasons used to justify nationalism show just how bad nationalism can get.
In another essay entitled “The Virtues of Nationalism,” Reihan Salam argues for the use of nationalism over such things as polyethnic hierarchies and caste systems. Salam asserts that “melting-pot nationalism” can be used to blur the distinctions between ethnic groups within a country, and with the increase of globalization and diversification of countries, this melting-pot identity can increase intra-state unity.
However, we once again see a distinction being made without an actual solution being reached.
Sure, orienting toward a nationalistic view may help decrease the conflict within a country, but it is also can just as likely lead to an increase in conflict between that country and others. Nationalism, in this way, does not cure the problems created by cultural hierarchy, but rather changes the scale on which they operate.
Exploring nationalism and its context gives us a greater understanding of what nationalism is, but does it help us discern whether or not it is good? Well, it seems that in the best case scenario, nationalism can be used to unify against other nations, and in the worst case, it can blind those within a nation to believe in a false supremacy.
For that reason, it seems as though nationalism, for whatever good it affords us, should be left behind — if that were possible. Unfortunately, it isn’t.
Nationalism is inherent to human nature because we evolved to create specific in-group, out-group dynamics. Innate within our being is a necessity to ascribe to a larger identity, and this can only be done by rejecting other possible identities.
Fortunately, this acceptance of a greater identity is an incredibly powerful motivator, and that means we can use nationalism to further any objectively good agenda. For example, in the case of civil rights, we can adopt a nationalistic mentality toward justice, and use that motivation to improve our country for the better.
Nationalism has a complicated definition and an even more complicated connotation, and for that reason, it cannot be simply defined as good or bad. However, if we employ it sparingly with the intention of improving national wellbeing, we can create a country that makes us proud.