What the world needs now is love sweet love…..lets have a chat about nationalism

Never has the music and lyrics of Burt Bacharach and Hal David resonated so poignantly as on the day Leonard Cohen passed away (he reportedly died on Tuesday 8th November 2016, announced on the 10th), the day the people of the United States of America (did we ever envisage questioning the term ‘united’?) elected Donald Trump as their 45th President.

What do  we actually mean when we use the terms, state, nation, nation-state, nationalism, patriotism and culture ? whilst these terms,  in one context, may have a specific definition, in another they can have the same or overlapping definitions.

For example, Russell Bova, teacher of international relations observes:

“A state is a piece of territory and its population. A nation, in contrast, refers to  a group of people who see themselves, due to shared historical experiences and cultural characteristics, as members of a common group. By combining the two, one ends up with the idea of the nation-state – defined as a state that exists to provide territory and governance for a group of people who see themselves as a single nation” (41).

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP), “the modern ideology of nationalism is based on the belief that people care about their national identity and they are motivated to seek national self-determination by acquiring a state of their own” (Miscevic). http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nationalism/  It is widely acknowledged that the ideology of nationalism did not exist before the the seventeenth century. Power and authority were often in small localized entities and in Europe that was certainly the case;  for example ,”city-states such as Florence or Venice as well as a host of other tiny […] territories over which princes, bishops, barons and trade guilds claimed authority” (Bova 41). It was not until the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, ending the thirty years war, that saw the emergence of sovereign political units.

Things start to get more murky with the definitions of nationalism and patriotism. The Oxford English Dictionary defines nationalism three ways, firstly, ‘patriotic feelings, principles or efforts’, secondly, ‘An extreme form of patriotism marked by feelings of superiority over other countries’, and thirdly, ‘Advocacy of political independence for a particular country’. They define patriotism as, ‘the quality of being patriotic; vigorous support for one’s country’.

Interestingly philosophers until a few decades ago showed very little interest in the topic of patriotism, which, according to Primoratz in SEP:

this changed in the 1980s, due in part to the revival of communitarianism, which came in response to the individualistic, liberal political and moral philosophy epitomized by John Rawls’ Theory of Justice (1971); but it was also  due to the resurgence of nationalism in several parts of the world. There is now a lively philosophical debate about the moral credentials of patriotism […] A parallel discussion in political philosophy concerns the kind of patriotism that might provide an alternative to nationalism as the ethos of a stable, well-functioning polity. (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/patriotism/)

This post cannot possibly hope to do justice to the complexities and debates surrounding nationalism and patriotism, feel free to gorge yourself on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as not a bad place to begin any such inquiry. Knock yourself out exploring the various arguments such as Leo Tolstoy’s who “found patriotism both stupid and immoral” (1987, 97), or the American George Kateb, who argues that patriotism, “is a mistake twice over: it is typically a grave moral error and its source is typically a state of mental confusion” (2000, 901). You can explore the various concepts and arguments for patriotism, such as, ‘extreme’, ‘robust’, ‘moderate’, ‘deflated’ [no kidding], ‘ethical’ and ‘political’ and then I advise a lie down.

Discussions of both patriotism and nationalism are often marred by lack of clarity due to the failure to distinguish the two, as Primoratzs’ article points out “much that applies to one applies to the other. But when a country is not ethnically homogeneous, or when a nation [or people] lack a country of its own, the two part ways”.

The irony and privilege to be in a position to write on this topic is not lost on me for a moment. Isolationist, protectionist, nationalistic and patriotic sentiments are on the rise globally and statelessness, described by Hannah Arandt in 1951 as, “the newest mass phenomenon in contemporary history” (352) is rapidly becoming, if not already an even greater crisis today then Arandt ever envisioned. As a citizen of a state I am afforded certain rights and protections and as a citizen of the European Union I am also entitled to certain rights and freedoms, for example, to move, work , study and live in any European state, and to certain benefits and protections should I need them.

The European Union was born, in large part, out of the resistance movement of the Second World War and a deep seated fear of nationalist ideology. Today, liberalism, diversity, and multiculturalism are fast becoming dirty words and nationalism is once again on the rise. I am, unquestionably, one of the lucky ones. Stateless people loose not only citizenship rights but also human rights, as we witness on our TV screens every night. It is no exaggeration, in the words of Fergal Keane to, “feel as if the train has entered a long tunnel at the end of decades of financial recklessness, military adventurism, cultural debasement and rampant narcissism” (Sunday Independent). 

So bringing culture and Irish writing, specifically, into the equation, Luke Gibbons argues:

to make culture impervious to history and politics, insulating it from the contingencies of context and social change, makes the imagination itself a closed book, converting the autonomy of art into a pretext for aesthetic fundamentalism. Art is at its most autonomous when it negates the official boundaries between private and public experience, text and context, bridging the gap between what can be said and often what goes without saying  (22).

Ireland is a country with first hand experience of nationalism, having achieved its independence from Britain. It also cost us a civil war and a partitioned country. But what did we do with our revolution when we got it? What sort of country and society did we create for our citizens? What do we value? Have those values changed? What can the study of Irish writing and film teach us or tell us about our selves and what we might do with our revolution? One observation I note is that many theorists support the concept of nationalism, for example, David Lloyd (see his essay “The Spirit of the Nation”). Personally, his definitions of nationalism have a far too excessively purist positioning for my tastes.

I have no problem celebrating a nations culture or its history and political development, nationalism, however, is a very different beast. Whilst I understand the role it can play during times of oppression and in a battle for self-determination; what greatly concerns me is the powerful appeal to origins, within nationalism, that can blind us to the here and now, and prevent necessary change and tolerance. Nor do I accept revisionist arguments that we invent traditions. However, the argument that looking backwards enhances or enables us to look forward has never been made convincingly for me. But it is the language of nationalism that concerns me most and we only have to look west and listen to the cries of “make America great again” or east to “take Britain back” to taste its power and everybody knows what that world might look like.

works cited

Arandt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Schocken, 2004. Print.

Bova, Russell. How The World Works: A Brief Survey Of International Relations. Glenview: Pearson, 2012. Print.

Cohen, Leonard. Everybody Knows. 13th Apr. 2013. You Tube. Web. 14th Nov. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lin-a2lTelg

Gibbons, Luke. Transformations in Irish Culture. Cork: Cork University Press, 1996. Print

Kateb, George.  “Is Patriotism a mistake?” Social Research 67 (2000): 901-24. Reprinted in Kateb, Patriotism and Other Mistakes, Ithaca: Yale University Press, 2006.

Keane, Fergal. “Culture and politics of US collide, splattering us all with toxic spray” Sunday Independent Oct 30 2016. Print.

Lloyd, David. “The Spirit of the Nation”. Theorizing Ireland. Ed Claire Connolly. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 2003. 160-172.

Miscevic, Nenad. “Nationalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition) Edward N Zalta (ed.), URL= <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/entries/nationalism/&gt;

Primoratz, Igor. “Patriotism”, The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), url<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr/2015/entries/patriotism/&gt;

Rumer. What the World Needs Now is Love Sweet Love. 11th Nov. 2016. You Tube. Web. 14th Nov. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZVwkeoW_Xs

Tolstoy, Leo. “On Patriotism” and “Patriotism, or Peace?” Writings on Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence, Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1987. 51-123, 137-47.

2 thoughts on “What the world needs now is love sweet love…..lets have a chat about nationalism

  1. While I enjoyed the article immensely it strikes of an essay on Nationalism rather than your views in nationalism. Loads of rhetorical questions but no answers. A tiny dip into the mind of the writer but no firm conviction. No matter how many definitions are thrown up Margaret it won’t matter to me. I will be forever grateful to my ancestors who were peasants and small farmers for allowing me great opportunities in my life. They are all dead now but their mores ( many Catholic and Nationalist influenced) will always influence my thinking Great Blog that gets me discussing like this.


    • Really appreciate your observations, I do tend to ask a lot of questions, that cannot be denied!! Fair comment. In my defense, it tends to be a mechanism for working my thoughts out, if that makes any sense? The point I was attempting to make, appreciate not successfully, was that, this is a complex topic. I am very frustrated by our ‘digital’ mentality/society, everything is binary, black and white, 1 or 0, right or wrong, so that definitely influences my thought process, my intent was to demonstrate/highlight the complexities.Also I am very, very alarmed at the rise of the more right wing nationalist sentiment across the globe, that is not to say that a liberal like me has all or any answers. A great article in the Sunday Times on the great British divide, titled the Somewheres V Anywheres (yep I am an anywhere!!) from a new book by David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics. Really balanced piece for a change.
      I am also hugely grateful to my ancestors, who I would like to propose would give your own a run for your money in who were the greater peasants!!!
      I am enormously proud of my humble origins, sure why wouldn’t we be?
      My grandad, who was a big influence, fought for the Republic in Limerick and served a stint on Spike Island for his troubles. However, he never got over the fact of the civil war, it broke his heart, he just couldn’t countenance it. When, what we know now as the IRA in the north, took the name of the army he had fought for, he burned his uniform and refused ever again to speak of his role in the fight for freedom. That is his story, not mine. Point being, there are as many different stories and perspectives and versions of history as there are theories and definitions. I think that is why they invented University so we have somewhere to go with our theories, and definitions till the cows come home!


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