Select Page

By Colin Rule, Chair of the Board, Consensus Building Institute
Originally posted on the Can We Keep It Facebook page.

I have noticed some voices in our national dialogue attempting to rehabilitate the concept of nationalism. Rich Lowry, a respected voice on the right, has written a new book arguing that it is “…time to recover a healthy American nationalism, and especially a cultural nationalism that insists on the assimilation of immigrants and that protects our history, civic rituals and traditions, which are under constant threat.”

This redefining of nationalism as a virtue obscures the sordid history of nationalism around the world and throughout human history. Many of the worst atrocities of the last century have been fueled by toxic nationalism. Humans evolved in tribes, so we possess a psychological drive to create a shared social identity with others. Fed by leaders looking to manipulate the populace, this kind of nationalism can lead us toward in-group/out-group thinking that weakens our common bonds of humanity, undermines feelings of empathy for those we perceive as not being like us, and feeds prejudice and jingoism.

It is important to define nationalism as distinct from patriotism. As Charles de Gaulle put it, “Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.” A love of one’s country can easily be confused with superiority over other countries (or other cultures). Patriotism is a creative force that leads toward love; nationalism is a destructive force that leads toward hate.

The lessons in the book of history about the dangers of nationalism are an important memorial for its millions of victims. Here are some of the wise voices reminding us not to forget those lessons:

  • “Pervading nationalism imposes its dominion on man today in many different forms and with an aggressiveness that spares no one. The challenge that is already with us is the temptation to accept as true freedom what in reality is only a new form of slavery.” – Pope John Paul II
  • “There is a fuzzy but real distinction that can and I believe should be made, between patriotism, which is attachment to a way of life, and nationalism, which is the insistence that your way of life deserves to rule over other ways of life.” – Todd Gitlin
  • “Nationalism is a tool increasingly used by leaders to bolster their authority, especially amid difficult economic and political conditions.” – Richard N. Haass
  • “Whereas nationalism still seeks power, honour, and glory through means that endanger other countries, patriotism knows that a country’s strength and honour can only be permanently safeguarded through concourse with other countries. And whereas nationalism scoffs at the idea of international laws and regulations, patriotism seeks to create such.” – Ellen Key
  • “All of nationalism can be understood as a kind of collective narcissism.” – Geoff Mulgan
  • “Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.” – Albert Einstein
  • “Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception.” – George Orwell
  • “Nationalism has a way of oppressing others.” – Noam Chomsky
  • “When societies go backwards and slide into authoritarianism, nationalism, and tribalism, machismo and sexism are also emboldened.” – Elif Safak
  • “We are all living together on a single planet, which is threatened by our own actions. And if you don’t have some kind of global cooperation, nationalism is just not on the right level to tackle the problems, whether it’s climate change or whether it’s technological disruption.” – Yuval Noah Harari
  • “We’re a social species, and we want to get along with the people we like and who are like us. That’s just good adaptive behavior. We’re more likely to accept something if we hear it from a friend, whereas we’re skeptical of people who are not like us – which is what leads to racism, nationalism, sexism and all forms of bigotry.” – Daniel Levitin
  • “Every day we’re told that we live in the greatest country on earth. And it’s always stated as an undeniable fact: Leos are born between July 23 and August 22, fitted queen-size sheets measure sixty by eighty inches, and America is the greatest country on earth. Having grown up with this in our ears, it’s startling to realize that other countries have nationalistic slogans of their own, none of which are ‘We’re number two!” ― David Sedaris
  • “I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.” ― Albert Camus
  • “Every miserable fool who has nothing at all of which he can be proud, adopts as a last resource pride in the nation to which he belongs; he is ready and happy to defend all its faults and follies tooth and nail, thus reimbursing himself for his own inferiority.” ― Arthur Schopenhauer
  • “Our true nationality is mankind.” ― H.G. Wells

Just recently an article in the Washington Post described how researchers have identified particles from meteorites that date back 7 billion years, 2 billion years longer than earth has existed. We are the smartest mammals on a small blue rock that is spinning around in a universe older and larger than we can comprehend. Our challenge is to learn how to live together on this planet without succumbing to made up stories and cognitive biases that whisper in our ear that we are better than those other people. Resuscitating nationalism as a virtue takes us in the exact wrong direction.