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Is there such a thing as ‘good nationalism’?

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In the world of Brexit, Trump, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán and all the rest, “nationalism” has become all too frequent a topic. In the 20th century the term became associated with fascism (the word “Nazi” comes from “national,” after all), but the story of nationalism goes back much farther than Nazism and isn’t nearly so one-sided a concept as it’s often made out to be. Does nationalism necessarily lead to aggression and prejudice?

If I may start with a platitude, the goodness, or lack thereof, of nationalism depends on how you define it and how broad a concept you want it to be. Merriam-Webster defines nationalism as “loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially: a sense of national consciousness  exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.” If you stop at the “especially,” there’s no problem. If you add what follows it, then of course there’s an issue. In this sense I think the word “nationalism” is often too broadly applied – most voters for “nationalist” parties in the EU, for instance, are not actually nationalist by the narrower standard.

“Good nationalism is a certain specific solidarity based on the things you have created together, as a nation, and the things you aspire to create,” wrote Zoe Williams in an article last year in, of all places, The Guardian (certainly not known for friendliness to conservative views). Among other things, Williams cites the NHS and the Internet as “things they have created together.” Interestingly, though – and to me, conspicuously – she mentions nothing on a less tangible and more “cultural” level: things such as philosophical ideas, literary works, or anything religious. Her “good nationalism” looks to, in her words, “concrete achievements that it can point to, whether of infrastructure or of living standards.” Valid as far as it goes, but too narrow. I suspect that, to her mind, going further than this would be “uninclusive” of other cultures. Heaven help us if we should be so close-minded as to be proud of our own ideas! But if we tread so (over)cautiously, why speak of nationalism at all, even a “good” one? A good nationalism will indeed take pride in concrete achievements but also in the ideas and convictions that undergird those achievements.

“I could admire another country…but I wouldn’t take pride in it, except at the generic level of the species.” Incomplete though Williams’s picture may be, here she hits the nail on the head, and the point can be extended beyond national borders to the West as a culture more generally. Too many nowadays miss the distinction and act as though taking pride in what is our own would necessarily imply an exclusionary attitude. But in the end such an outlook simply turns the exclusion in the opposite direction, seeking to exclude one’s own in order to be more inclusive of everyone else. This flipped prejudice is no better. Saying a culture is automatically worse is as damaging as saying it’s automatically superior, and leads to backlash. This is one reason for the rise of nationalist parties, particularly in Europe – people want to be allowed to take pride in their own culture and history again. Obviously I’m not saying that all such parties are good or that everything they espouse is right, but this aspiration at least is quite legitimate.

C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves gives a very good take on patriotism (which is close enough to “good nationalism” for our purposes, if not the same thing):

“It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves. In any mind that has a pennyworth of imagination it produces a good attitude towards foreigners. How can I love my home without coming to realise that other men, no less rightly, love theirs? Once you have realised that Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs – why good luck to them and let them have it. The last thing we want is to make everywhere else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.”

This value of difference is something that postmodernity, for all its obsession with “diversity,” has only taken to heart in a one-sided and superficial fashion.

In any case, whatever the word we use, nationalism not in a jingoistic sense but rather as a pride in one’s culture, history, institutions, and so on, together with a legitimate desire for sovereignty, is a good thing. And we should note that this good sense doesn’t say anything about race. Flemish and French, for instance, can both be “nationalist” in this sense with regard to Belgium. And an assurance in one’s own culture – could we call it “good culturalism”? – helps rather than hinders the inclusion of newcomers. Someone who’s grounded in a set of principles can look objectively and thoughtfully at other ideas and ways of thinking, while someone who’s grounded in nothing has no standpoint for such an approach. Too many of the West’s cultural elite base themselves on vague generalities of “tolerance,” “open-mindedness,” and – I would add – a pervasive distrust if not outright rejection of the Western cultural heritage. And from this nebulous position they face the challenges of migration, globalization, demographic decline, and all the rest. And we wonder why it’s not going well?

I certainly don’t agree with people who say things like, “Not one penny for foreigners – America first!” (We’ve all seen social media comments to that effect.) But I certainly do believe that if we in the West aren’t convinced that there is good in our culture (and the individual cultures within it) and that it’s something worth defending, this whole story will come to a very unsatisfactory end. The desire for peace, harmony and prosperity is noble – it’s a desire we all have – but a lack of cultural self-assurance is a recipe for failure. In this sense I would say that “good nationalism” is not only good, but essential.

(Photo credit: Britfan97, Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0. This photo has been cropped.)

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Joshua Gregor Joshua Gregor is International Relations Assistant at the Acton Institute. Before coming to Acton he received a BA in philosophy from the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome and an MA in linguistics from Indiana University.

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