Nationalism in One Lesson

People in general naturally group themselves into specific peoples: this is called “ethnicity.” People in general also have sentimental attachments to the particular places where they live: this is called “patriotism.” Furthermore, civilized people live in political communities in which an organized government has jurisdiction over a defined jurisdiction. To the nationalist, these facts point towards a normative conclusion: a people and its territory ought to be coterminous – in other words, a whole folk should have its own land.

The fundamental question of politics, then, is: what makes one people out of many people? Aristotle defined “man” as a “political animal,” i.e. an animal of the polis, the city-state, which was the characteristic political unit of his civilization. Ethnically, the ancient Greeks regarded themselves as one people, as against all the miscellaneous “barbarians” who surrounded them, but this did not have political relevance until much later times. In other words, patriotism trumped ethnicity. Be that as it may, Aristotle rightly rooted the legitimacy of the state in man’s social nature, which effloresces into different cultural forms.

In modern times, Hobbes addressed himself to this question, and invented the “social contract” theory, according to which society and the state are established by the agreement of the various individuals involved, each pursuing his own self-interest. The fact that this never actually happened, nor ever could happen – that it is contradicted by the fact that people do not pop into existence, fully-formed, out of thin air, but are born and grow to maturity in particular places, among particular peoples – did not stop this theory from transforming civilization and creating the modern regime of freedom, equality, and democracy.

Both Aristotle and Hobbes offer principles of legitimacy for government. Both challenge the authority of regimes founded by force alone. The Aristotelian view, however, implicitly re-roots legitimacy in the primordial and perennial fact of man’s natural sociability. The Hobbesian view goes on to challenge the authority of custom, faith, ancestry, or anything else other than consent. In common parlance, this means “the will of the people” – a problematic concept, open to many interpretations.

To restate my previous question, then: who are “the people”? Any random agglomeration of individuals who happen to live within some arbitrary boundaries? That answer only serves to legitimate the acts of force that created those boundaries. The nationalist answer is to look at the actually-existing social units in contiguous territories, and redraw the political boundaries to match them as closely as possible. This is obviously nice, tidy, rational, and democratic.

The minimal, pragmatic standard for a political community is a common language. How are people to unite if they cannot even communicate with each other? How smooth, efficient, and harmonious will be their interactions if they must all be mediated by a translation-bureau? Why should anyone have to go to the time and trouble to learn a foreign language, just to accommodate a bunch of freeloading foreigners?

Moreover, language is the paradigm of cultural diversity. It is the matrix of all culture. Man is by nature capable of reason; reason in turn is expressed in the form of language. Every language is a map of the Universe, and as such, is as rich and complex as the Universe itself. Every language has its own logic and beauty, is capable of the highest flights of poetry and philosophy, and is equally worthy of preservation and cultivation. This, of course, requires a fair amount of healthy, ethnocentric self-assertion on the part of those who speak the language; and if that entails some xenophobia as well, I say “so be it.”

Language alone is necessary, but not sufficient. Contiguity is conducive, but neither necessary nor sufficient: witness the persistence of old-country ties within immigrant communities and of hostilities between neighboring and intermingled ethnicities. Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosnians, and Orthodox Serbs all speak the same language; but Yugoslavia lay across the fault-lines between three distinct civilizations. Their situation was thus analogous to that of Northern Ireland, but even deeper-rooted than the conflict between Catholic and Protestant, and without the issue of Celtic versus Anglo-Saxon ancestry to complicate the matter.

In America, the issue of ethnicity is bedeviled by ancestry, in the form of descent – however thinly diluted – from African slaves. Ironically, Our First Black President™ is the son of a free African and a white woman; the cultural contagion of slave-ancestry in this country is so powerful that he is magically inducted into that community of hereditary grievance. I see no way out of this quandary except to pose every “African-American” with the existential choice between his ancestral continent and his native land. America – love it or leave it!

The true significance of heredity for nationhood, I would argue, is as a function of nativity. Wherever our ancestors came from, here we are. We all inherit the language, customs, institutions, and territory bequeathed to us by our (literal or adoptive) forefathers; we have an obligation to pass them on to our own posterity – withal, to adapt and enrich them. Thus nationalism is a respecter of traditions, but equally capable of innovation, creativity, progress. In the principle of continuity between past, present, and future, it recognizes that a nation constantly changes while always remaining the same thing. It offers permanent standards of the common good: the security, sovereignty, and cohesion of the people, uniting them together, independently of all others. These general principles must be applied by each nation-state according to its particular circumstances, defining its own interests and exerting its own power with respect to other states.

This traditionalism in culture and realism in foreign policy are both generally “conservative” principles. In economic matters, nationalism points to “liberalism” in the broadest sense – balancing and combining both its “classical,” capitalist aspect, emphasizing freedom and opportunity, and its “progressive,” welfare-statist aspect, emphasizing equality and security. The former is necessary for economic growth, the latter for social solidarity.

What nationalism cannot abide is cosmopolitanism, which in practice means the partisan division of compatriots into the enlightened, progressive, tolerant, peace-loving Us versus the benighted, reactionary, bigoted, war-mongering Them. In this dispensation, actual foreigners are so completely Other that they do not register as real persons at all, with identities and interests of their own; they serve only as a screen onto which the We project their own ideological fantasies. The ashes of 9/11 had hardly stopped smoldering before the high-minded anti-patriots were admonishing us to Be Kind To Muslims.

This brings us to the matter of geopolitics: the interaction of world Powers and their control (direct or indirect) of their respective peripheries. The "Third World" concept is a relic of decolonization and the Cold War; the collapse of the USSR, the rapid modernization of East Asia, the somewhat less dramatic progress of Latin America, Africa's descent into tribal chaos, and the political mobilization of Islam, all highlight the disparities within Europe's periphery. Cultures previously defined by their relation to "the West" are reasserting themselves in their own right.

Within this new, multipolar world, NATO continues to extend American protection (and therefore hegemony) over the European heartland of Western civilization. With the end of the Cold War, the alliance lost its original reason for being, and for a decade it drifted aimlessly. Now it must be adapted to face the Islamic threat, or finally discarded. In particular, our former Russian adversaries are now our logical allies.

Within our own hemisphere, we have gone from regional hegemony to being occupied by burgeoning foreign populations – mainly Hispanic, primarily Mexican. The Muslim threat is more dramatic, but directly threatens only Europe. For Americans, the Mexican threat is more pervasive, imminent, and enduring. A reorganization of North America is in order, consolidating the English-speaking regions and finally, permanently separating them from both Mexico and Quebec. In place of NAFTA, we should have nine new States to the North.

Finally, there is the matter of expansion into Outer Space. This is the Space Age; the sky is not the limit. The final frontier is completely empty and open, without even Indians needing removal. Because of its commercial and military utilization, it is already of crucial strategic importance. Let us return to the Moon, lay claim to it, and secure our future power and prosperity.

© 2011 by Karl Jahn