thoughts on nationalism

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I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this but I was thinking about it this morning for whatever reason and feel interested in noting it now.

I find it a curious thing that I come down on one side of the political fence, and a good many of the people I would call friends come down on the other side. Indeed, there are people who I would agree on all manner of topics who would become quite angry at me when I talk about certain issues relating to war and patriotism.

Patriotism is a mixed word these days, no one wants to deny having it, but a good many people are suspect of those who seem to have too much of it. Patriotism, in this way, is really our civil religion. Pull it out for holidays and parades, but leave it at home for the most part and don’t make a show of it for others who think differently.

I, however, like waving the Flag, value the Pledge of Allegiance, and think the Star Spangled Banner is a rousing tune. I don’t think America is a force of evil, nor moving that direction, and I think a show of patriotism is a wonderful thing, even when others may disagree with the sentiment.

Having a civil fervor seems a dandy delight, so I wonder why some are so suspect. I think it has to do with having a different understanding of what it is such people like me are about when we wave the flag and rouse the American conscience.

Europe had a bit of nationalism over the last several hundred years, and it caused all manner of problems. That I think is how America is understood. European nationalism was defined in terms of contrast. I am German, you are not German. I am Italian, you are not Italian. I am Russian, you are not Russian. And with this contrast comes an attempt to define their being in some way, which gets tricky when everyone basically looks alike. Sure there are language differences, but sometimes these aren’t firm lines, and people move around to different locations. The uniting force then became this vague since of national identity, where one is not just part of a nation but birthed from a Nation, and it is the vague understanding of Nationhood which forms the identify for the people within. Thus Germany is the Fatherland, and a patriotic resident of Moscow speaks of Mother Russia. People are defined by their national identity, and thus protection and defense of the national identify in contrast to other national identities forms the basis of each person’s own understanding of being and value.

Then, like with individuals, the assertion of being often becomes the assertion of oneself over another. To be approved one must conquer, and to be supreme one must vanquish. The national identity is challenged by other national identities, and thus wars result from this curious nationalistic psychology. Thus, to recover its own sense of being and value after World War I, the Germans felt it entirely right to do so by invading others, and seeking to rid their society of anyone who did not meet their understanding of what it meant to be German, which was, above all, a dedication to Germany as the height of identity. Any other identity, whether it was Jewish, or French or Russian, was rejected and anathema, so must be destroyed in order to affirm the fullness of German being. Paternity does not like being challenged.

So, when Americans wave their flag, and invade other countries, and assert that we are, in fact, #1 not only in warfare, but also at the Olympics and in strip malls per capita, people get worried. The Brits, and the French, and the Spanish all had a go at this and affected global politics profoundly. The Germans got their national identity together a little late to join the carving up of lines of longitude and so when they tried to do what the others did, they mucked up the whole show, but it wasn’t because they were doing something new. Now, each of these countries had various levels of success in their attempts to assert their Alpha Nation status upon the world, but all have been marked by that arrogance and attitude of master and slave, which the master finds quite all right but the slave would rather do without thank you very much.

Now, people think we think it’s our turn. We’re the Alpha Nation now, and when we wave our flag people think we too want our little stars and stripes in the corner of the Iraqi or Afghani or Korean flag.

This is where the trouble in understanding each other can be found. Some of the people think this is how we think, the rest, including me, understand America in rather entirely different terms. Ours may be nationalism and patriotism but it is entirely unlike the German, or the Spanish, or even the British form of such.

I, for instance, can be entirely patriotic, but it would be entirely awkward for me to say or hear “Mother America” or speak of returning to the Fatherland when I am overseas. I am entirely American, however, with my roots being here as thoroughly as can be found, with only the occasional sprinkling of new blood from the old countries mixing in during the past hundred years or so. One side can be traced back to Texas, the other back to North Carolina. Records do not say where Oden comes from, nor my maternal side McBride, though supposition suggests a Celtic land for the latter and a Nordic for the former. My identity is American, and a Western American at that, which in my opinion is a particularly American sort of American.

But, I don’t think in terms of American forming my reality, inspiring my devotion and forming my being. I don’t think of being part of this overarching reality called America, to which I am just part of a long line of participants in the Form of America, to which I must conform or be rejected. European Nationalism is a top down sort of reality, starting with National Identity in which participants must attune themselves in order to assert their being.

American Nationalism is something different. It is a bottom up sort of nationalism, defined not by assertions of America as forming a people, but as a people forming America. Waving the Flag is not an expression of Nationhood, as much as it is an expression of allegiance to my neighbors, in space and time. America is a symbol of the people who make up America, which is why we are a changing sort of people, contentious with ourselves, and adaptable to new realities. Our identity is not formed in contrast to other identities but in the sharing of particular values and emphases and struggles. America is not diminished by there being a Mexico, nor weakened when Japan has an unhealthy trade imbalance. Because we do not form our identity in contrast with others, we have the inherent abilitity to working well with others, if they want to work with us. Indeed, the American consciousness values the assertion of others. We do not want to make a little America in Iraq, rather our American values and sense of identity wants to assert our being by helping Iraq become fully Iraqi, letting the people there define their reality in their way as we define ours in our way.

We the People is the hallmark of American patriotism, not the fatherland or the motherland or antipathy towards other identities. Ours is a bottom up nationalism, and in my estimation this kind of nationalism is thus far entirely new to the stage of World History, and thus comparisons of past versions of nationalism may show similarities, but have a different sort of heart at the core. Our language, our singing, our flag waving may look eerily similar to societies past, but we approach this all entirely differently, which makes us confusing and threatening and hopeful all at once. Democracy, we showed, can work for a people used to a king. And maybe, just maybe, our form of nationalism may also work, which is a nationalism rejoicing in other nations finding themselves, because we are whole in who we are, and want others to find the same wholeness.

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