I am very pleased and gratified at the reaction so far to my "Ireland I Had Dreamed Of" series of posts. A comment from Roger Buck (who blogs at Cor Jesu Sacratissimum) looked forward to my treatment of cultural nationalism. Of course, along with Catholicism, that is at the core of my vision of an ideal (not perfect) Ireland. However, it is also the most daunting part of such an outline, which is why I rather delayed coming to it.
National identity is a subject I have dealt with again and again in the four years I have been writing this blog; I'm a little bit scared of boring my readers about it. It's a subject I have been thinking about my entire life, and my attitude towards it has shifted radically, not only once but again and again. In truth, questions of national identity have preocuppied me for much more of my life than have matters of religion.
As a phenomenon, national identity-- and patriotism, and nationalism, and everything else connected with national identity-- is the most maddening of subjects. Sometimes, nothing seems more nebulous; at other times, nothing seems more solid and real. It's always there, but it's rarely in the foreground-- only at times of national crisis (and more fleetingly, when there are major international sporting triumphs, or defeats).
Despite having reacted strongly against my Irish nationalist background in the past (and that background was far more than just a family background; it was extended family, community, school, and more), I have very much become a believer in nationalism. I like to specify that it's cultural and social nationalism I believe in, to distance myself as much as possible from the terrorism of the IRA during the the last forty years or so. (I have nothing but contempt for the murderers of the IRA; incidentally, their political wing, Sinn Féin, are the most secular and anti-Catholic party in Ireland).
Why am I a believer in nationalism? For many reasons; but I think it boils down, like many other of my social and cultural beliefs, to my fundamental anti-utilitarianism. Utilitarianism, as you know, is the belief in "the greatest happiness of the greatest number"; its most famous proponent, Jeremy Bentham, insisted that the pleasures of pushpenny (a kind of game) and the pleasures of poetry were, effectively, the same. You can't weigh one sort of happiness over another, in other words; if round-the-clock reality TV brings more happiness to society than art galleries, than round-the-clock reality TV should be chosen over art galleries.
Now, that is the most bullish variety of utilitarianism, and other utilitarians (John Stuart Mill, notably) have tried to soften it and to take higher and lower pleasures into account. In any case, the utilitarianism that I am 'anti' is not so much the philosophy (though I am anti-that, too), but utilitarianism understood in the simple sense of putting the most value on what is useful rather than on what has no obvious use.
Everything I'm passionate about, in terms of what I value, is anti-utlitarian; it has no obvious usefulness. Nationalism is useless. Tradition is useless. Community is useless. Poetry is useless. Ritual is useless. Ceremony is useless. Masculinity and feminity are useless. Public monuments are useless. Of course, an argument can be made for the usefuless of all these things; but it would have to be a roundabout argument. Their utility is not obvious.
Christianity is a profoundly anti-utilitarian religion. It insists that God created everything from pure love; He didn't have to create anything. Furthermore, Christ redeemed us even though we didn't deserve it.
Undoubtedly (to my mind) the greatest anti-utilitarian text of all time is the story of the woman pouring the jar of perfume over Jesus, in the house of Simon the leper. The disciples (or just Judas, in John's gospel) complain that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. We all know Jesus's response: "You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me with you."
More concisely, during his temptation in the wilderness, he tells Satan that "man does not live by bread alone", which phrase is often used to express this idea of anti-utilitarianism.
In our own time, the Catholic Church is constantly attacked for its "pomp and ceremony"; which is really just the voice of Judas in the house of Simon echoing down the centuries. It's always a good sign when the Church is attacked for its "pomp and ceremony".
Of course, that does not bear directly on the question of nationalism. In fact, it seems to me that the Catholic Church has said very little authoritative on the subject of nationalism and patriotism; and what it has said is open to considerable interpretation. So I will not dwell on it.
There is an obvious danger of the nation becoming an idol, of nation-worship. This is such an obvious danger that I almost resent having to mention it, but I suppose I should. I think it was best expressed by C.S. Lewis, who said: "A man may have to die for his country: but no man must in any exclusive
sense live for his country. He who surrenders himself without
reservation to the claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is
rendering unto Caesar that which of all things most emphatically belongs
to God: himself."
Who is really in danger of this, though, in our modern Western society? Patriotism is at such a low ebb that it's hard to think of anybody who is tempted to idolise the nation. A kind of over-reaction to the Nazis, Italian fascism and imperialism is partly responsible for this, I think.
How important do I think patriotism should be, and what role would it play in my ideal Ireland?
The best way I can put it is this: in my ideal Ireland, the soul of Ireland is a subject for regular public debate; a subject that people take very seriously, in the way they take water charges and hospital waiting lists seriously. It should be, perhaps not a burning issue, but a live issue. The maintenance of Ireland's distinctiveness, the preservation of its traditions, should be something that ordinary people worry about-- not all the time, but a good deal of the time.
This raises the problem of cheesiness-- at least, to other people it raises the problem of cheesiness. My international readers may have heard terms such as "plastic Paddy", "stage Irishness" and "Paddywhackery". These are pejorative terms for an ideal of Irishness, which is (supposedly) often harboured by those of Irish extraction, amongst others. This ideal, we are told, is overly romantic, sentimentalised, and reliant on stereotypes. Stage Irishness bothered W.B. Yeats to the extent that he insisted none of his books should be bound in green cloth, and he used the word 'trefoil' in preference to 'shamrock'.
In deference to Yeats as the greatest poet of all time, and the greatest secular Irishman of all time, I find this sort of thing more than a little tiresome. Everyone frets about 'authenticity' when they are in their teens. When they grow up, they stop worrying about it so much; not because they become any less idealistic, but because they outgrow the simplistic dichotomy between 'fake' and 'real'. They realise, for instance, that there is nothing brave or noble about rudeness, and that there is nothing necessarily shallow about cheerfulness. Along with this, hopefully, they learn that there is difference between a romantic ideal and a lie.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Irish people subscribed to a romantic ideal of themselves that was agrarian, lyrical, rather isolationalist, high-minded, exceptionalist, rugged, and so forth. Its iconography featured such images as round towers, Celtic crosses, Irish wolfhounds, thatched cottages, Celtic knotwork, shamrocks, St. Bridget's crosses, and the like.
I am very comfortable with this sort of iconography. Intellectuals and aesthetes may scoff at it, preferring a more complex and nuanced vision of Irishness, one reflected in the ambiguities and self-questioning of high art.
But high art is always a minority pursuit. The soul of a nation is not, for the most part, shaped by poems and plays. The soul of a nation is shaped by popular songs, advertisements, commercial art, shop signs, magazine covers, logos, street names and place names, and so forth.
When I think of cultural nationalism, I always think of a particular school copy-book that was widely sold in my childhood. On the back of the copy-book, there was a map of Ireland. On the front, there was a round-tower. The name of the copy-book was written in uncial script, similar to the script used in the Book of Kells. My vision of cultural nationalism is that crude, and that vulgar, and that populist. It really is!
Well, I said this was a big subject, and I'm far from finished with it. But I'll leave it there for now. I'm tired.