Why is Nationalism vilified these days?

Ntionalism  is vilified only by a minority.

It is becoming the clarion call of vast numbers of people all over the world.

Fact is, Nationalism is to a citizen what love of parents is for a normal son and daughter: unbounded and unconditional love.

Large groups of people who are born in a given geographical region, are emotionally bound by virtue of their common language and customs. At one time they all shared a common cultural ancestry for several generations. They used to form nations in olden days. Tribal adhesion has generally been the cement of nationhood

The word nation is from the Latin word meaning to be born. We still talk of a person’s native place, meaning the place where he/she was born. Technically speaking, whereas a country is defined by government and laws, a nation need not be so. The Romani, the Tulu, the Kurds, the Yoruba, and many Native American groups examples of nations without being states or countries.

For long centuries, indeed until travel became easy and migration for work and better opportunities elsewhere started on a grand scale, the people of a nation shared the same language and culture in their generational homes. They were part of the same ethnic group.

By and large they were anchored to their past and cultural commonalty which often included religion. People were strongly bound by ties of tradition, collective history and lore. When there was an external threat of invasion the bonds of the people became strong and infused a resolve to respond to the enemy. Emotional attachment to one’s nation constitutes nationalism.

Nationalism acquires great force when a people are politically subjugated, economically exploited or culturally marginalized, or feel that way. That is how the idea of nation and feelings of nationalism arose in eighteenth century Europe after the French Revolution (1789). Interestingly, in that era, conservatives were for internationalism under the rule of the Church of Rome, and liberal thinkers were the ones who sowed the seeds of nationalism. Nationalistic feelings replaced allegiance to monarch or Pope for holding a people together.

What has nationalism to do with philosophy? The idea of nations arose from the works of cosmopolitan philosophers: eighteenth century philosophes of the French Enlightenment and German philosophers of the post-Revolution period articulated forcefully the need for nation states.

When Napoleon’s imperialism swept Europe in the early nineteenth century Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762 – 1814) was prompted to call upon German-speaking people to proclaim their German identity and the philosopher of history and Georg Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831) expounded on the uniqueness of the German people in the history of the world. Likewise, by the close of that century Indian nationalism was ignited by patriots like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and M. K. Gandhi and others. They were responding to British colonialism just as Hindu nationalism was a reaction to Islamic intrusions into Hindu society. German nationalism spurred interest in local lore and ethnic epics: standard appendages of nationalism in today’s world.

Commonalty of language, culture, and religion were often the criteria in the formation/construction of nation states.

In positive terms nationalism brings people together with a sense of belonging to a large family of fellow humans with the same historical and cultural roots. It reminds people of the deeds of valor and the great virtues of their heroes and heroines, ancestral and current, real and imaginary. It fosters cooperation for specific goals. It urges poets to sing the glories of their people, composers to a write music adulating their country. It infuses one with collective pride and jubilation, saluting the flag and singing the anthem.

Many early nationalists were humanists at heart. For example, Fichte spoke of serving humanity as one of his goals. But he also linked virulent anti-Semiticism with German nationalism: – a grievous blunder that was to have ugly and catastrophic consequences eventually. This was because an intrinsic aspect of nationalism is overt exclusion of the other: a growing danger in today’s world.

Nationalism has the potential for vaunting the greatness of one’s own nation in ways that verge on convictions of superiority vis-a-vis other nations. Nationalism can be used as a tool by charismatic leaders to gain and maintain political power, and stir up hate against other nations or peoples. There is hardly a political leader that has not fanned the fire of narrow nationalism in times of serious trouble. One invariably finds a foe (another group within or outside the nation) as scapegoat for the problems vexing the country.

Extreme expressions of such nationalism led to fascism of various forms in Europe and Japan in the first half of the twentieth century. Charles de Gaulle said in the context of Nazism that patriotism was love of one’s country and nationalism was hate for another’s country. Perverse nationalism is one of the causes of the bigotry and intolerance that are raising their ominous heads in many parts of the world today.

In so far as nationalism demands loyalty to one’s own traditions, culture and history, it is difficult to inculcate it among all the citizens of a multicultural country, especially among a growing number of immigrants whose emotional ties to their former home-lands are not easily replaced, let alone erased. Given that race, religion, and language are the primary binding forces among people, nationalism is seldom universal in countries where a variety of groups speak different languages, adhere to different faith systems, and belong to different ethnic shades. This can become a major problem when the percentage of people who don’t belong to the majority becomes significant.

This is illustrated dramatically in India (significant religious minority). Canada and Belgium (significant linguistic minority) and the United States (significant ethnic minorities). While diversity enriches nations culturally, linguistically and religiously, it also has the potential for disruption whenever a subgroup feels uncomfortable, threatened or marginalized and mistreated. In the absence of healthy nationalism the bonds of national unity are seldom as strong.

In the musical Cabaret set in Germany in the 1930s, groups inspired by the rise of Nazism sing a song with the following lines:

Of Fatherland, Fatherland show us the sign

Your children have wanted to see.

The morning will come when the world is mine.

Tomorrow belongs to me!

These sentiments resonate in the hearts of millions of people today in China and India, in the Arab world and elsewhere too. These lines are inspiring for sure. But the people of Germany who sang spiritedly with genuine love for their country did not realize what was in store for them when exuberant nationalism takes over.

This is one reason why many awakened thinkers are concerned about the growing nationalism in the world.

From the book Polysophical Reflections: Reflections on Major Philosophical Systems. https://www.amazon.com/dp/1727822463


Published by:

Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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