Friday, April 12, 2013

Why I am No Longer a Nationalist

Some months back, this blog played host to a friendly exchange of views between me and fellow Irish Catholic blogger, Young Ireland. It starts here. (This series of posts were among the most often viewed on this blog). In that discussion, though I was defending nationalism, I admitted my views were tentative and in flux.

Now, I have come to the conclusion that I am not really a nationalist of any sort-- not even a cultural nationalist. I come to this conclusion reluctantly and rather sadly.

What is nationalism?

Well, obviously, the definition could be discussed all day long, and into the early hours, and for the rest of the weekend, with black coffee and loosened neck-ties and three-day shadow all round. (I'm not wilfully excluding the ladies, it just seems a more striking image if my debaters have loosened neck-ties and three-day shadow, that's all.)

But I think most people would make a distinction between patriotism and nationalism, although there would be no broad consensus on what that distinction actually is.

For my part, I would say that patriotism is rather more casual than nationalism. Patriotism is cheering for your soccer team in the World Cup, hanging out the flag, taking pride in your national heritage and history, and so on. It is rather a happy-go-lucky kind of sentiment. It doesn't really go much deeper than the fellow-feeling you might have for the people in your office, or the attachment you might have for your old school.

Few people would object to this kind of patriotism, though there are always some ultra-leftists (and others) who dislike any display of "tribalism", as they call it. But to be entirely devoid of such sentiment seems rather inhuman.

Nationalism, I think, is distinguished from patriotism by the depth of feeling involved, and the importance it plays in the mental life of the nationalist. A nationalist doesn't, like a patriot, simply feel national sentiment when he comes across something (like a football match or a visit to a musuem) that stirs it up inside him. The thoughts of the nationalist dwell upon his country. It is a big part of his life, perhaps even the most important thing in his life. It is a major part of his identity. It might even be the dominant factor.

A nationalist also wishes for his nation to retain its national identity, and probably to strengthen it, too. He feels a sense of loss when national customs are lost, or replaced by those of another nation, as in this extract from an article by Peter Hitchens about the Americanization of England (I don't know whether Peter Hitchens would call himself a nationalist):

And so, with our games of street baseball, our cricket trying to look like baseball to survive, our politicians running rather than standing for election, our coffee-consumers asking "can I get?" instead of "Please may I have?” and our Presidential politics, we quietly become America without in fact being American. Is this is a good thing? In some ways. The pettiness of class created much stupid misery (see Nevil Shute's charming wartime novel 'Landfall' for a witty and kind examination of this problem) and wasted many good lives.

But we lose other things too, and one of them is our specific sense of who we are, of place, history and belonging.

That seems to me to be the biggest difference between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism more or less accepts one's country for what it is, and celebrates it. Nationalism has a definite vision of what one's country should be-- not a vision of what society in general should be, but of what your particular country should be.

I see nothing whatsoever ignoble in this attitude. I have simply ceased to be a nationalist because I no longer believe it is possible to hold onto that vision of nationality. National identity, I have come to think, is simply a matter of historical happenstance, and not the outward manifestation of some essence such as "the Irish soul" or "the American psyche". It is a particular combination of climate, history, genetics, culture, demographics, politics, and so on. As such, it is doomed to change.

You might as well have a love affair with a cloud, as give your heart to the spirit of a nation.

Do I sound like a disillusioned lover? I guess that's because that's what I am.

I tried to be a nationalist, but I could never quite convince myself. I couldn't convince myself that there was something called "the Irish condition" that was significantly different from the human condition. I couldn't quite convince myself that the "saga of Ireland" was one overriding narrative rather than a succession of stories set on the same stage, which do indeed overlap but are not really the same tale.

More than anything else, I became exhausted by the emotional toll of knowing that the whole developed world was being submerged in a tide of suburban housing estates, round-the-clock television, indoor supermarkets, multinational franchises, industrial farming, and other forces of homogenization-- and knowing that nothing could be done to stop this. To be a cultural nationalist was simply to defy the executioners of history-- noble, perhaps, but heartbreaking.

Why did it seem so important to me to be a nationalist? There were three main reasons.

One was filial piety. Not only do I come from a family of Irish nationalists going back generations, but it seems to me that all of the people of Ireland-- apart from the Unionists, who have their own traditions-- have inherited a national aspiration which meant an enormous amount to their forefathers. It's not just a question of the lives lost in the struggle for independence. It's all the yearning and effort that went into reviving Irish traditions, from the time of the Gaelic Revival and after-- the ballads, the Irish dancing, the efforts to save the Irish language, the study of Irish mythology, the poring over Irish history, and so forth. It would be unnatural (I think) not to feel a certain reverence for all this, whatever attitude you take towards the Easter Rising and other controversial matters.

The second is a reverence for tradition in itself. I like old things because they are old.

The third is the deeply-rooted desire for a world full of interesting and distinctive places. Even if I never go to China, it makes me happy to know that China is so very different from anything I know. I thought it was up to everybody to do their bit for the world's diversity by keeping their own homeland as distinctive as possible, and trying to save it from losing its specialness. I thought this was worth a fair amount of effort and mental attention.

I still desire a world full of special places, and for one place to be very different from another. But I have stopped yearning for it so arduously-- because it hurts too much, since the tide seems to be going in an opposite direction.

When I started practicing my Catholic faith, a few years ago, this had a big impact on my attitude towards nationalism. And this for several reasons.

One was the Christian conviction that we are not of this world. "Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him." "For the fashion of this world passeth away". Measured against eternity, all the kingdoms of the Earth were like a puff of smoke.

Another was the recognition that nationalism had usually been either an opponent to Christianity, or an even more unfortunate ally. Hadn't the mixture between nationalism and Catholicism in Ireland ultimately been baneful for the Faith? People should come to Christ out of love for him, not as an expression of national pride. "Catholic" terrorists had sullied the name of the faith by bombing and shooting their enemies in a sectarian feud. In our time, the artificial buoyancy that religious nationalism gave to the Catholic faith in Ireland through so many generations has disappeared-- and rather more than the Scriptural seven demons have come to fill the house that was swept and cleaned through all that time.

Another reason my Catholic faith made it difficult for me to maintain my nationalism was because of Catholic social teaching. As a cultural nationalist, I felt a hostility to supra-national institutions such as the European Union and the United Nations, and I was also hostile to mass immigration. (I do not feel that cultural nationalism is compatible with widespread immigration.) Although a faithful Catholic might still be able to hold onto these positions without offending the letter of orthodoxy, I ultimately came to feel that the tension between the drift of Church teaching and my own isolationist views was too strong. Papal encylicals and Church documents have more and more emphasised the interdependence of nations and peoples, and the need for international cooperation. I do not want to pick and choose from my Church's teaching, especially by the contrivance of quibbling over what is authoritative teaching and what is not.

And so...I am a nationalist no more.

But not an anti-nationalist. And certainly not a mocker of the ideals and aspirations that animated previous generations of Irish people, and for which they were willing to strive, sacrifice and even give their lives.

But I remind myself of Pope Benedict's words: "If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great." Everything that was noble and lofty and sublime about Irish nationalism, is to be found in a fuller and truer way in Christ. Heaven is our real homeland, and McDonalds will never build a restaurant there.


  1. I have to say that for me patriotism has a much greater meaning than that you give to it. I take patriotism to mean, in its best sense, the belief that one should give yourself in service to one’s country or state and to its people, seeking their good, even when that may conflict with your own interests. It’s a kind of self-sacrifice, even an act of love, to the greater community.

    The key danger in it is if one takes the ‘my country right or wrong approach’. There may be times that patriotism will require one to criticise your own country, in the manner of a loyal opposition.

    A patriot may be nationalist but not necessarily so. A nationalist, for me, is more concerned with the culture of their people, hoping to maintain and strengthen its identity, and to organise a polity, ideally a sovereign state, based on that identity and aimed at promoting the culture involved.

    (I realise that this comment is posted long after your initial post but I found this article through a link in a more recent one.)

  2. Hi Alan

    I do agree that the meaning you give to the word "patriotism" is also a correct usage and that in itself it's a noble ideal. I think my problem with it is that I don't see, in that case, the difference between patriotism and public spirit, or civic-mindedness, or concern for the public good. Or are these just all terms to describe the same thing, which I suppose they could be?

    I also think that, accepting your definition of nationalism and patriotism, it would be hard to imagine a nationalist who was not also a patriot-- at least, one who thought of himself as a patriot, since he would see the maintenance of national identity as a service to the country.

    They are certainly engimatic terms.

  3. I think that all of those terms look similar (patriotism, civic-mindedness &c.) but I think that the animating spirit or motivation are a little different. Patriotism is more earthy and emotional. The civic-minded won’t necessarily lay down their lives: the patriot would.
    It’s the self-sacrifice element that may also be absent in that it is not a necessary feature.

    The original meaning of nationalism was a political one: that each nation should have a state to correspond to it. That political doctrine could either lead to the break-up of empires into their constituent elements (Austrian Empire) or to the unity of smaller states into one national (or perceived to be) identity (Germany and Italy).