Friday, February 10, 2017

Patriotism, Nationalism, Exceptionalism and Superiority

Today, as I was getting dressed, I found myself pondering on the four subjects above.

I call myself an Irish nationalist. The term "nationalist" has been stigmatised in recent decades, so I very deliberately employ it. 

It's a very strange thing. When I was growing up, Irish history was taught as a narrative in which the Irish nationalists were the good guys. This wasn't so true at university level or in intellectual circles, which were already post-nationalist, but certainly in school and in popular discourse.

Even now, historical Irish nationalism seems to get a pass, despite 'nationalism' being a dirty word. Presumably this is because the Irish nationalists of that time were rebelling against the British Empire, and anything that is anti-colonialist is good, in the weird logic of modern progressivism. As Chesterton once wrote, lambasting the inconsistency of the typical 'progressive' in his own day: "He calls the flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble."

To resume my train of thought; I call myself an Irish nationalist, but I'm not really particularly an Irish nationalist. I'm a nationalist who happens to be Irish.

I'm always on the side of nationalism and particularism, so far as it pertains to culture and society. For instance, I am very much on the side of the Slavophiles in Russian history, even though I have no dog in the fight. (I should add the qualification that I believe religion should transcend ethnicity or culture.)

I don't really think there's anything special or exceptional about Ireland, except insofar as every culture is special and exceptional. Growing up, I often found Irish nationalists tiresome in their efforts to demonstrate how ancient, noble, wise, eco-friendly etc. etc. some aspect or other of Irish culture was. The ancient Brehon laws were marvellously enlightened and equitable. The Irish bardic poets wrote a highly accomplished and classical verse which compared well with the mawkish emotionalism of Victorian English poetry. Ireland had the oldest literature in Europe. And so on. And so on.

Now, I don't want to be too harsh on this sort of thing. Nobody blames the husband who says he has the most beautiful wife in the world, the mother who says she has the most adorable baby in the world, the son who says he has the best parents in the world. That's sweet. But you expect them to realise, at some level, that they're using a figure of speech.

I don't really care about how Ireland 'rates' as against other countries. Yes, I'm proud of the history of Irish monks evangelising Europe. But even if Ireland had not been especially distinguished in the history of Christianity, I would revere my Irish Christian heritage just as much.

As readers will know, I've been trying to improve my grasp of the Irish language recently. It's not for some intrinsic love of the language itself. Is Irish beautiful? Sometimes I find it beautiful. Sometimes I find it very beautiful. Sometimes I find it less than beautiful. On the whole, I probably find English more attractive as a language.

Then again, I think most languages have their own beauty. I especially like German and Russian. (I don't like Spanish.)

Nor, for the most part, do I feel any ancestral 'tug' towards the Irish language, or the Irish landscape, or Irish culture in general. Insofar as I do, it's based on nostalgia for my childhood. I'm terribly nostalgic for the conventions of Irishness which were current back then, or the ones I picked up on.

I don't even really believe there is some kind of essential 'Irishness' which stretches from this island's aboriginal inhabitants to today. Maybe there is in some regards, but not in most or all. The history of a nation is not like the history of the Catholic Church, where we can clearly perceive the unity of Catholicism from the Acts of the Apostles to our own time. I agree with Dr. Johnson that there is no permanent national character. Only yesterday, I was reading that visitors to Ireland in the eighteenth century commented on the freedom with which even men would kiss each other.

Nevertheless, the identity of a nation persists, like P.G. Wodehouse's typewriter or the ship of Theseus. We can cherish the memory of those who went before us, and incorporate them into our identity, without believing in some mysterious affinity.

I used to identify with England and Englishness when I was younger. I did this partly out of contrarianism, partly out of a kind of 'black sheep' syndrome, but mostly out of genuine love for English culture-- a love I still feel. However, I began to realise how irritated I was by English people who didn't appreciate and identify with their own heritage, and I began to realise that this could just as well apply to me.

I once encountered a quotation from the Mishnah or the Talmud (I'm thinking it was a misquotation as I can't find it now) which ran thus: "If I am him, who will be me?". I agree with that.

As I've mentioned quite often recently, I'm a big admirer of many figures in the 'new free speech movement' such as Milo Yiannapoulous. However, I'm not sure I agree with them when they loudly proclaim that "the West is the best", or "America is the greatest country that has ever existed". I do understand why they're saying it; they're fighting back against cultural relativism. And I agree with them that we need to be less sensitive, much less sensitive, about criticizing other cultures.

But that doesn't mean I think the West is the best in every respect, or that America is the greatest country in the world. If the argument is that America's Founding Fathers were the wisest and most far-sighted nation-builders in history, I fully agree.

I believe in American exceptionalism to some degree, but ultimately I don't think America is a nation founded on an idea. I don't think there's any such thing. America is a people, a history, and a culture, like every other nation.

The argument against nationalism is that it's jingoistic and it's motivated by a belief that your country is superior to others. I, for one, have no such belief. Maybe I am a romantic without illusions.


  1. Hi,

    Thank you for posting your thoughts on America and nationalism. Your point about being a nationalist who happens to be Irish is exactly right! Nobody else talks about nationalism-as-particularism these days; one only hears about progressive globalistm or nationalists-as-fascism-or racism.

    If I may, I would like to challenge you on the point of American Founding Fathers being "the wisest and most far-sighted nation-builders in history." Of course, one can take a broad or a narrow definition of "nation-builder", but to really get to the point, consider the secularism which is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Isn't America founded on a disordered view of religion, namely by setting the political (the State) as the arbiter of the metaphysical (religion)? How does one justify this from a Catholic perspective? Surely the State, being a worldly institution, ought to serve the Church, a divine one (to say nothing of not actively opposing Her, which has happened throughout American history in various forms) and the attempt of post-enlightenment secular democracies to subvert this natural order must only end in at least failure, if not also disaster and suffering. Your response would be most appreciated.



    1. Thanks for your kind words, MacCruimein. Yes, I don't think you could have put it better; the false choice between cosmopolitanism and nationalism-as-fascism is constantly presented to us.

      Regarding America, I would actually make the argument that the American rejection of an established religion has been good for religion, including Catholicism. Whereas countries which had a Catholic establishment, like France and Spain, are now deeply secular. Indeed, Malta is one of the few countries left in the world where Catholicism is the established religion, and its bishops are now spouting heresy. That's my view, anyway. I'd also appeal to our Lord's words about giving unto Caesar and his kingdom not being of this world.

    2. Cheers, Maolsheachlann. Many thanks for your response. Let us compare America and Ireland. With respect to religion, the situations are almost exact opposites: America is a society in which, as you point out, religious faith, at least defined as individuals who claim belief or religious affiliation, is much more widespread than in Ireland. But the culture is completely secular, materialist, and often even hostile to Christianity. Religion is what one does on some Sunday mornings if at all (you may have come across many Democrats' recent preferred term "freedom of worship" as opposed to "freedom of religion"), and what one talks about publicly on occasion with reverence which usually comes across awkwardly, as either sentimental or inappropriate, or both. Religious claims -- whether dogmatic, metaphysical, ethical, have no right to exist in civic life, which means that despite the fact that most people consider themselves Christians, this is all dissipated in a collective culture which does not welcome religion. Note the steady retreat of Christian morality in America over the last century, steadily yielding ground to a still tiny non-religious (mainly elite) crowd, but one which has the power of the law and culture behind it. Though America is a beautiful land, you will find scattered upon it endless ugly and cheap buildings, and an endless stream massive advertising signs on all the motorways and highways. The American response to faith is to go out and buy a billboard with a Bible verse on it, or perhaps a line like, "Life is short. Eternity isn't. -God". The Irish response is to do something Christian like write poetry, or sing a song, or drink a beer. The first results in rock concert megachurches, the second in parish churches and nice old ladies.

      In Ireland everything visible about the Church is in decline -- Mass attendance, vocations, etc. However, Catholicism is so rooted into the society in so many invisible, cultural ways, that it feels much more like a Christian one than America. Acquisitiveness and materialism have never and will never come close to American proportions; many people still love beauty and simplicity more than money, they take much better care of the land, family bonds and village/neighborhood bonds are much stronger, and there are still ties to traditional culture which roots the people in the past, though perhaps in many cases less than in former days. These things still shapes the moral sensibilities of the Irish in a remarkably Catholic way. For a number of historical reasons that you know better than me, record numbers are visibly turning away from the Church. But, in many cases, is it because they reject Christ, or because they feel too hurt or angry or fed up, or perhaps are just ignorant? Particularly in light of the relentlessness of mounting pressure that has been against Ireland for centuries, and decades, and years, I still find much hope for the future of Ireland in the core of Catholicism and traditional culture that may for now only subsist, but which are at the heart of Irish identity, perhaps waiting for future generations to remember again. I am sorry to say that it is more hope than I have for America.

      Please do come back at me with any thoughts you may have. As a young American currently living in the UK, of almost completely Irish descent, who feels more at home in Ireland than in America for many of the above reasons, (I have lived in Ireland for two summers and visited family there for years) this is a topic often on my mind. All the more so as the wife and I must within the next couple years decide where to raise the little ones!



    3. Thanks for that, MacCruimein. We are in the strange position of both having more favourable views of the others' culture than of our own! I'm familiar with the "mile wide and inch deep" critique of American religiosity, but I can't really sympathise with it. It seems to me that religion really does make a difference to American peoples' lives, for instance in the greater number of Americans who are willing to homeschool their children to keep them from being indoctrinated, or to vote according to religious considerations.

      I do think aesthetics and lifestyle is important, but I wonder are you given it an exaggerated importance? Ugly buildings aren't really a moral flaw. Please don't think I'm dismissing the importance of culture, because really I'm not, but I do think that conscious religious practice is way more important than some kind of internalised, 'deep' Christianity you might be identifying in Ireland. I do think that the Irish rejection of the Church is overwhelmingly a genuine rejection of Christianity, even though it sometimes masquerades as rejection of the "institutional" Church (as though there was any other kind). As for whether an essential Christianity remains in the Irish pysche...I hope that is true. I think it might well be.

      America may be more materialistic..I'm not sure.

      You may be interested in the blog and writings of Roger Buck, an American living in Ireland, whose views seem very similar to yours. Indeed we have had much the same discussion. Here is his blog: