Nationalism: a scourge with an alluring visage
We inordinately admire the color crimson. This incisive insight was made by the father of Cajal. The crimson in question is that of human blood, and the suggestion is that we forgive, or even celebrate, those who cause the spilling of large quantities of it. If true, this gruesome aspect of our nature serves well nationalism, which philosophy has caused much suffering over the centuries, including genocide, and continues to the present day. We see it in wars, in exploitation, in suicide bombings, in restrictions on freedom, in the shabby treatment of humans, in debilitating poverty, in desperate men dying in salty waters, and in women denied education.
It was in the summer of 1945, when the map of Europe was being redrawn, that George Orwell attacked the ghoul of nationalism in an essay. The term is ambiguous, but his paraphrased definition calls it “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects, that whole blocks of millions of people can be labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’, of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil, and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests”. He differentiated it from ‘patriotism’, which he considered “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life”, without an associated wish to enforce similar devotion on other people. One can love a city, and be a patriot, delighting in the praises of its boulevards, festivals and dialect; it is when one starts throwing things at people, of refusing to speak with them, only because they are from another city, that a nationalist declares herself.
A crucial part of the definition of nationalism is that it need not entail irrational monomania for a particular nation, but that it can also be for a supranational entity, such as a religion, a race, a social class, a language, or a political party. The commonly accepted notion of racism, therefore, is a subset of nationalism. Although nation states need not necessarily be racist, nationalism itself typically includes notions of racial purity and racial superiority. A few examples may help to illustrate the connection between racism and nationalism.
Consider the two philosophers Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Most people would call the former Indian and the latter German. However, Tagore was born and died a British subject in Kolkata, in what is today the Republic of India, whereas Kant was born and died in Königsberg, in what is today the Russian Federation. So, either Tagore is British, or Kant is Russian, if we choose a certain way of looking at these things, and apply it consistently. Somehow, Kant is rarely called Russian, and Tagore not often British, in spite of having been awarded a knighthood and probably drinking tea.
On September 15, 1935, the German legislature introduced the infamous ‘Law for the protection of German blood and German honor’ with the words “Moved by the understanding that purity of German blood is a necessary condition for the continuing existence of the German people, and inspired by the unfaltering will to ensure the existence of the German nation for all time…..”. Here, the relationship between imagined membership of a human race and nationality is quite explicit.
Similar ideas were present on the other side of the Atlantic too. The Supreme Court of the United States of America ruled in 1923 that the plaintiff was “racially ineligible for naturalized citizenship in the United States”, in United States versus Bhagat Singh Thind. Incidentally, it took a few more decades before even citizens by birth were not systematically segregated on the basis of race; in the present day, rumors abound that certain ethnicities (races?) are more often shot dead by police forces than an extrapolation from their proportional representation in the total population might indicate.
The ‘Wilhelmus’ is claimed to be the oldest national anthem in the world. It is sung in the first person, and the first line declares the singer, William of Orange, to be of Duytschen (German) blood; the point being less that it is German blood, but blood of any specific kind whatsoever. The anthem persists to the current day, although one imagines that Holland does not make Duytschen blood a prerequisite for government office.
Indeed, when one strips away the racial element of nationalism, one is confronted with the distressing but undeniable notion that nation states are entirely arbitrary. Borders of nation states are created and changed through human agency, to quote Adolf Hitler who changed a few borders himself, before his suicide in the period when Orwell was writing his essay. What this means is that a person with a loud voice can stand on a boulder and establish a new nation, and repudiate existing ones. If one is in a romantic mood, one draws upon historical or even mythical precedence, linguistic similarity, a God’s directive, the ‘will of the people’ et cetera, puts on fine clothes, hires musicians, and makes a feast of it. What is absolutely recommended is a bunch of thugs with sharp sticks who are willing to kill others to enforce the newly defined borders. The essential veracity of this procedure is borne out by the changes in the borders of nations over the past five centuries. The sharpening of sticks has been replaced by multi-billion-dollar armaments industries and surveillance services.
Many modern nations offer nationality also to foreigners, irrespective of the places of their birth, religions, primary languages, shapes of their noses, or colors of their skins. Indeed, citizenship can be granted by a bureaucrat filling out certain forms. The same bureaucrat could have saved Kafka’s sister from Auschwitz-Birkenau, by providing her with appropriate papers. Far away from Prague and Poland and the early 1940s are many lands where, today, if a bureaucrat were to hand out passports of Denmark or Switzerland, it could make a difference of life and death. This is true for many millions, if life, in this context, means life with basic human dignity. If an artificial piece of paper can save lives today, and this piece of paper is deliberately withheld, then one wonders whether the fires of Auschwitz have been truly extinguished?
The managers of Auschwitz were innovators only in some aspects. The two nations which declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939, Britain and France, agreed wholeheartedly with at least one of the principal demands of the Nazi party: the bit about establishing and exploiting colonies. There was one difference, though: the Nazis wanted colonies for themselves and the British and the French wanted them for their own selves. Nationalism and logic are not often compatible. Indeed, Orwell suggested in his essay that a “British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency”. The ills of colonialism, the destruction caused by inter-European wars, the Dantesque Holocaust, the comfort women of Korea, apartheid, the threat of nuclear war – of a long list of horrors is nationalism guilty.
One day, it shall be enough to vaguely resemble a human being. One will not need to prove one’s nationality, racial purity, caste, membership of a linguistic group, or religion as a prerequisite to being accorded basic human dignities. Till that day, we must inure ourselves to death and suffering. On the bright side, these things usually happen to the scum of the earth, the Other; it is really their fault that they were not born with the right papers, or in the wrong place. However, perhaps we are sporting and shall allow the scum of the earth more of a fighting chance, through our votes, our voices, and our choices.
Some political parties and their candidates are rather explicit about their contempt for foreigners. Some preachers wish a plague on the unbelievers. We can reduce their influence, by voting against them, using ballot papers or with the feet.
When we see movies which enforce racist stereotypes, or newspapers which take a nationalist stance, or streets named after those who murdered or maimed people because of nationalist reasons (various emperors, kings, prime ministers, presidents and religious leaders come to mind), we can react, with letters and protest marches, and make a dissenting voice be heard.
Perhaps most inconvenient are the choices we are confronted with daily – of confronting those who would strengthen nationalism by parroting prejudices, or use contemptuous terms to describe the Other, on social media, in the workplace, in buses, at the dinner table. When we take to task those who refuse to speak German with a certain person only because she happens to be of Slavic ethnicity, or those who would mock all Frenchmen as cowardly, we send a clear message. The message is the choice made between some form of nationalism, and a belief in human dignity and individual freedoms for all.
God is dead, wrote Nietzsche, but lamented that, as the flickering shadow of the dead Buddha was for centuries displayed to the devout in a cave, we will have to live with the aftershocks of that decaying colossus – the idea of God. Nationalistic ideas – chauvinism related to religion, nations, race, caste, language, party, class – have been fed enough millions of human lives, surely. We do not wish Nietzsche to rise from his grave, but who shall proclaim the death of nationalism? For many millions of the yet living, time is running out