The Corner

On Patriotism and Nationalism

Okay, my apologies. I’m on the train to New York and I decided I’d take a whack at Ilya Somin’s essay-posts “Against Nationalism” and “On Patriotism” as I had promised. I started off writing a very quick post and ended up vomiting up a very long stream of consciousness. I’ll hide most of it under the fold.

I must say I find Somin’s whole thing more than a bit over-thunk.

Somin admits that he’s being more than a bit unfair to me in his post since, I was praising a “little mystic nationalism is a good and healthy thing because it provides the emotional sinew that helps us hold onto our patriotism.” From this entirely defensible and (in my view) completely correct yet utterly banal observation Somin goes off on a tear about how nationalism has killed lots of people and has led to very bad economic policies and, therefore, nationalism is bad.


As there have been so many smart responses to Somin (do read the comments), I’m not sure I can cover much new territory, so I’ll just lay out where I’m coming from.

First, I think he forgets a very basic principle. The lethality of every poison is in the dosage. As a conservative, I’m perfectly happy to admit that I think Somin’s argument could be deployed, to one extent or another, on pretty much every ism, creed, and concept. We all understand that too much authoritarianism, socialism, nationalism, etc. can be terrible. But we should also understand that too much freedom, too much democracy, too much individualism can be terrible too. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t contend that the right amount of these things is smack in the middle. I don’t think we should split the difference between say authoritarianism and freedom. The knob should be set far over to the freedom side of the scale, just not all the way at ten.

Here’s the point: Taking nationalism and setting it apart from other concepts as uniquely bad because, in its most extreme form, it does terrible things is sort of a debater’s trick. Pretty much all things, including perhaps even love (depending how you define it), can be taken too far if it means losing control over our faculties and reason. 

Second, irrational affection is getting a terrible rap here. Let us take love as a good illustration of what I was getting at, since nationalism sets off so many alarm bells. See, for example, my friend Will Wilkinson’s disappointingly vile and absurd response to my initial post.

Love binds us to all sorts of institutions, the two most famous being marriage and family. A family without even a little “mystic love” (is there any other kind?) will not get through the bad times all families endure. Why stay in a loveless marriage when the money runs out? Why stick it out when you can flee for greener pastures on your own? Why take care of your loved ones when they are sick and your time and financial resources are tight? And please, let me hear no responses involving the word “contract.”

But love also binds us to larger institutions. Marines love “the Corps” and make tremendous sacrifices for it. Catholics love their church, and that love informs what they do in myriad ways. People turn down better jobs because they feel irrationally obliged to their businesses and they stay in small towns because they have deep love (sort of a micro-nationalism) for the place where they have roots. The little mystic nationalism of which I spoke is this sort of love for your country. It is a natural love. Yes, when taken to an extreme it can lead to terrible things. But it can also lead to incredible heroism and sacrifice. Wilkinson’s mockery wouldn’t be possible if thousands of Americans hadn’t died in an effort to defend his right to mock. He may think Marines leap on grenades and charge machine-gun nests out of a deep and abiding respect for Lockean contracts, but I think the evidence breaks against him. As the saying goes, people will die for a dogma who will not stir for a conclusion. Or as Chesterton said, “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”

Third: A minor but relevant point to help deflate Somin’s case is that nationalism is often given too much credit for Nazism. To be sure, it was a big part of the equation, but not necessarily in the way that many often think. The uniting vision of the National Socialists, the Bolsheviks, the Jacobins, the Maoists, the Khmer Rouge et al was that they invoked nationalistic sentiment in order to wipe the slate clean, to start over at Year Zero. This impulse, derived in equal measure from nihilism and utopianism, has a more instrumental than genetic relationship to nationalism. But that’s a subject for another time.

Fourth: Another deflating point: Nationalism and socialism as actually lived and applied in the 20th century are the same thing (and in the 18th and 19th century, nationalism was often a force for classical liberalism!). It’s all a kind of reactionary tribalism (another “ism” which becomes poisonous quickly as you up the dosage). When you nationalize an industry, you socialize it. When you socialize an industry you nationalize it. Yes, international socialism rejected this formulation. And that’s why international socialism failed! People wanted to be Germans or Russians or Italians and they wanted to be socialists. Even the Soviet Union embraced national-socialism (socialism in one country) because that “workers of the world unite” crap wouldn’t fly. After Stalin, no Communist or socialist regime failed to exploit nationalism to one extent or another. I’ve written a book that covers a lot of this if anyone is interested.

Fifth: As for the relationship between patriotism and nationalism, I don’t have too much to add that hasn’t been said by somebody else (or by me elsewhere) But one point Somin seems to ignore is that patriotism is a vital counterweight to nationalism in America (he seems to think that patriotism is love of government, which is very odd). When nationalistic fervor overtakes the nation — and it has in the past for good and for ill — patriotism provides a means of dissent that appeals to our conscience. The beauty of America’s political culture is that you can invoke “Americanism” to beat back “Americanism.” In more ethno-tribalistic countries, to disagree with the crowd is to be not merely a traitor, but to deny your own identity as a member of the group. Indeed, in many countries, to stand athwart your own nation’s fevers demands that you form allegiances to causes or isms outside your country, be it “Europeanism,” “Aryanism,” or “humanism” in Europe or Islamism, pan-Arabism, or Western liberalism in the Middle East.

I’ve mentioned it more than a few times around here that Hitler considered himself a proud nationalist but in no way a patriot. (Contrast that will Bill Buckley who said something like “I’m as patriotic as anyone from sea to shining sea, but there isn’t a bone of nationalism in my body.” I’m not sure Bill was entirely right about there not being a bone of nationalism in his body, but you can see where his priorities were). Sadly, the traditions associated with patriotism in Germany — both monarchy and democracy — weren’t strong enough to stand up to Hitlerite nationalism.

One of the great frustrations for progressive thinkers is the “problem” of pre-commitment. We are born into a system that constrains our democratic freedom of action. The enduring — as opposed to “the living” — Constitution locks each new generation into certain rules even though they were never given the opportunity to vote on them. To me, this is the beauty of our nation and at the core of its greatness. We are born into our nation with a natural love for it because it is ours. But that love is channeled toward creeds of equality, the rule of law, individual rights, private property, etc. (I think Glenn Reynolds and Sarah Hoyt make this point very well. But Chesterton got there first). Werner Sombart famously asked: “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” The standard long answer has to do with the lack of feudalism in America. The short answer is that both American nationalism and American patriotism most of the time serve as bulwarks against it (which is one reason why many Europhilic progressives loathe talk of American exceptionalism when it comes to our economic arrangements). Somin might want to keep that in mind.

In short (even though it is way too late to use that phrase), what is poisonous in larger doses provides immunity to all sorts of diseases in smaller doses. And I, for one, wouldn’t want to abandon that elixir simply because there’s a danger of overdosing. Because there’s always a danger of overdosing — with everything.

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