Commonweal has published an open letter “against the new nationalism.” Most of its 27 signers are academics. In the fourth paragraph, they oppose nationalism to patriotism, defining the latter as “love of the laws [of one’s country] and loyalty to them over leader or party.” The distinction made there between nationalism and patriotism is what some people mean when, opposing “ethno-nationalism” to “civic nationalism,” they espouse the latter and reject the former. Some avowed nationalists, though, embrace the former. Some embrace both kinds of nationalism, or parts of both.
The first problem with “nationalism” is that the word is broad. Different people mean different things by it. I wish that the authors of the letter had taken more care to acknowledge the degree to which the issue they’ve taken on is complicated by semantics. Their definition of “nationalism” is selective. Someone who defines the concept in rosier terms will object. He loves whatever noble ideals he has in mind when he speaks of “nationalism.”
Here’s a rule of thumb: Words ending in “ism” tend to generate more heat than light. Try to avoid getting burned. Try to avoid burning others.
The letter in Commonweal is vulnerable to the complaint that the authors have conflated the good nationalists, who are reasonable and prudent, with the bad nationalists, those wild-eyed neo-fascists. As I see it, the problem begins when the good nationalist decides to call himself by the same name, “nationalist,” that is commonly used to describe blood-and-soil parties and movements and parties and movements that are ambiguous in their relationship to (here come more isms) nativism and isolationism. He ends up as a human shield for xenophobes who huddle under the same banner, “nationalism”: We need to discuss the nationalism of, say, CasaPound Italia, or of the Chinese Communist Party, but how can we do that without implying that our friend over here who advocates a nuanced, benign-sounding ideology that he calls, inconveniently, “nationalism” is some kind of 21st-century Blackshirt or Red?
To the good nationalist who wants to escape being collateral damage in the campaign against the bad nationalists, my advice would be: Remove yourself from their company linguistically. Pick a different name for your project. “Nationalism” has already been taken. In many cases, by characters you don’t want to be associated with.
Or do you?