The Cloyingly Sweet Rot of Nationalism


Guantanamo Sept  11 Trial
Nationalism, whether that of some other country or America’s own self-proclaimed “exceptionalism,” is given to jingoistic catch-phrases. These are emotional rather than intellectual. They are designed to make you feel, not think. And typically, they make you feel good. When they are not making you feel good, they are making you angry. They are designed never to inflict emotional detachment, the kind given to unwanted fits of sober reflection.

Not to mention fits of personal integrity. Apparently, what super patriots like Rand Paul do, is first hire neo-Confederate secessionists and then compare President Obama’s executive action on immigration to throwing Japanese-Americans into internment camps during the Second World War. Rand Paul is certainly a nationalist (albeit for the wrong country), but hypocrisy is not patriotism.

Interestingly, nationalism, like the pseudo-scientific idea of “Caucasians,” and that of “homosexuality,” largely a product of the 19th century, is presented by its boosters as a positive. But if nationalism has love of country as its stated product, it too often has as its fuel, hatred; hatred of the “Other,” whether foreign or domestic, and sometimes both.


During the First World War, this hatred manifested itself against German-Americans. During the Second, against Japanese-Americans, who, having the disadvantage of (unlike the German-Americans) not looking like the rest of us, were thrown into “internment” camps, which is just a word Americans use to excuse themselves from having thrown some of our own citizens, because they were different from us, into concentration camps.

Nationalism needs enemies, and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) has no problem supplying these: the Hispanic immigrants President Obama just let stay in the country, or as she calls them, “unskilled, illiterate, foreign nationals.” Bachmann says this is all about a “wink and a nod” and “new voters” for the Democrats. Racism and ignorance go so well together when it comes to generating fear. Demagogues ever know which buttons to push.

Speaking of ignorance, Sarah Palin almost literally jumped right into my lap while I was writing this and said, “Hey! Don’t forget about me!” I won’t, Sarah. Never fear. The Wasilla Grifter, she of “Real Americans” infamy, came out with a new direct-to-online video yesterday. In this, Palin is more direct in identifying the Other: our own president.

According to Palin, President Obama, through his executive action on immigration, is “giving voters the middle finger.” He is “rejecting our democratic system.” Like Bachmann, she smells new voters: “He’s turning it into the big-D Democrat system.” He is, she says, “placing our nation in grave danger.”

But the real enemy for Sarah Palin is not foreigners, but apparently those not-real Americans, apparently from those not-pro-America parts of the country, who voted for Obama – twice:

“We’ll survive this president. The question is (pause for effect) can we survive the people who voted for him, twice?”

For Obama, whose goal, she says, “is to fundamentally transform America,” democracy “is an inconvenience. It’s something to be discarded when the votes don’t go his way.” Where have we seen this disregard of democracy? Oh, that’s right, for the past six years when the votes didn’t go the Republicans’ way.

General George S. Patton said, “All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle.” Apparently, Sarah Palin’s real Americans love short memories, not to mention lies and hypocrisy generated in search of an enemy for a nationalism that has become an excuse for their shoddy and inexcusable bigotries.

Nationalism is often, though not necessarily, a product of conservatism, a defense or espousal of traditional values. But leftists can be nationalistic too, as in the days of progressive president Teddy Roosevelt. Liberals tend towards a nationalism based on the shared ideals of liberalism, those ideals born of the American Revolution.

Conservative nationalism tends now towards the idea of ethnic solidarity (ethnic nationalism); Sarah Palin’s “real” Americans versus apparently “fake” Americans, and of “true” religion versus a bunch of fake religions.

Opposing ideologies are easily subsumed within the category of religion, where not only liberalism becomes for conservatives a religion (and therefore is delegitimized in ways it cannot be if it remains only a political ideology), but also, absurdly, secularism, which by definition is the absence of religion. Again, the motivating force is deligitimization.

Liberal presidents lead their countries into war in the name of freedom, as did Woodrow Wilson in 1917, and Franklyn D. Roosevelt in 1941, or in defense by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, of (however misguided) the idea of Vietnamese freedom in the 1960s.

Conservative presidents, like George W. Bush use nationalism as an excuse to push America into actions it might otherwise not take. We invaded two countries during the Bush decade. If Republicans get their way, we will invade a few more before this decade is out.

The nationalism expressed during these episodes had, as nationalism always does, negative consequences. Besides the demonization of our own citizens, it expressed itself in hatred of our foreign enemies. It is not only Germans and Japanese who committed atrocities in the name of nationalism. The greatest generation mowed down surrendering German boys with same enthusiasm shown by American troops in Vietnam and Iraq.

In the name of dehumanization, the Japanese became “Japs,” the Germans “Krauts” and the Vietnamese “Gooks.” The people we were purported to be helping in Iraq became “hajiis,” “ragheads,” and worse to their American occupiers.

This process of dehumanization has been turned against our own president, who has become a “Kenyan anti-colonialist Muslim terrorist,” and even someone who is “demon-possessed” if not Satan himself to those Palinesque real Americans, and you’ll notice the accompanying calls for his execution, legal or otherwise. Nationalism does not bring out the best in us. Often, as we can see, it brings out the worst instead.

It is easier to kill somebody you have dehumanized. Thus, turning people into non-people so that you can more easily kill them is, like love a country, a product of hate.

Nationalism makes you feel good. It’s easy to see why people so easily fall into the trap of mindless swaying masses, be they at Nuremberg or some American venue: it’s “Homey.” If not the Nazi Heimat of “blood and soil,” then a very American simple-minded love evoking mom, apple pie, and the flag.

We’re brave pioneers, going forward in the name of Manifest Destiny, or perhaps a Shining City on the Hill, slaughtering everyone who gets in the way of an America for Americans as readily and efficiently as a Germany for Germans.

But love, including love of country, should never be fueled hate. It should be sufficient unto itself, desirable for its own sake. It should be its own end, not an excuse for some other. Otherwise, that apple pie you’re smelling on Thanksgiving is only the cloyingly sweet rot of the grave.

32 Replies to “The Cloyingly Sweet Rot of Nationalism”

  1. The republican propaganda machine is preparing the loons for the future. If the gop is ever in charge of this country we will be at war and they will have to support it in the name of America. No second thoughts allowed. They are taught to hate anything not republican and they will not be allowed to recognize misery or compassion for others. The machine is at full roar. You see it on facebook, from fox news, you see it in the comments here(and a great many comments you dont see). Everywhere the machine is blasting out hate. And it will not be fought against by niceness. Far too late, the uneducated and the haters will see what they have been brought into.
    It was the hate machine that drive the midterms. The people elected are blatantly insane and there is no care for the governing of America. I am glad I have a limited time left

  2. An outstanding column, Hrafnkell.
    Just plain outstanding.

    This intrigues me:
    Nationalism makes you feel good. It’s easy to see why people so easily fall into the trap of mindless swaying masses…

    I immediately reflected on the power of Music to bind, and blind. The Greek Choir; Medieval Plainchant; Hitler’s Wagner; America’s Mormon Tabernacle Choir

    There are numerous examples;
    and I am convinced that, absent the bonding and blinding of Music, Nationalism (of whatever stripe) would be as fragile and ephemeral as a fart in the elevator.

  3. “…they will have to support it in the name of America.”

    Or perhaps more to the point of the matter, they will have to support it in the name of “America, Inc.” as our military’s first and foremost role will be to protect global profits from global commerce for global corporations for whom American citizens are first and foremost a highly fungible resource to be used in whatever way and to whatever extent is best for their bottom line.

    The good news is that if we can get more and more wealth concentrated into fewer and fewer hands at a faster and faster rate, we may reach the point of critical mass where some of that concentrated wealth could possibly trickle down from on high.

    It’s not so much that trickle down doesn’t work, it may just be that those in the middle and bottom haven’t done enough and haven’t worked hard enough to get enough wealth concentrated into few enough hands to trigger the benefits of trickle down. …..or not.

  4. I see the same thing Shiva. It is disconcerting to read comments on right-wing sites, yes I do read some of them for educational purposes. I like to see what they have to say, but I can only read so many of them before I want to scream. If we can’t stop them somehow, this country is headed for some very bad times.

  5. You are wrong Mr. Haraldsson. During WWII German Americans were also interned. As a matter of fact, more than 50 internment camps and detention centers were used to lock them up! In addition, thousands were deported, including US-born children and infants, to a Germany under siege. Many were held long after the war was over. Why is it, that you did not know this? Could it be that the Government has kept this a well-kept secret? Could it be that your teachers did not know about it either? Could it be that the AP, UPI, etc., has not reported it as they should have? Or could it be that you, like the Government, are also keeping it a secret?

  6. OK, OK, we get your point…we aren’t educated or, perhaps as you have suggested, there has been a conspiracy of “secrecy”; I think not. Shame is more likely as these camps were made illegal by the UN after WWII…I know, I know, Gitmo and other camps we created around the world during Iraq war. Moving on…

    If you go to Wikipedia under “internment camps” you will find a list of all countries and there involvement in these camps. Here is the outline of the US’s participation:

    United States:
    35.1 Indigenous people
    35.2 Philippines
    35.3 Japanese-, German-, Italian-Americans and Native Alaskans During WWII
    35.4 Vietnam
    35.5 Afghan War and the Occupation of Iraq

  7. We tend to forget the most cruel camp in American History because it doesn’t fit the narrative of a “great cause”

    Andersonville Prison AKA Camp Sumter
    It was commanded by Major Henry Wirz, who was tried and executed after the war for murder. It was overcrowded to four times its capacity, with inadequate water supply, reduction in food rations, and unsanitary conditions. Of the approximately 45,000 Union prisoners held at Camp Sumter during the war, nearly 13,000 men died.

  8. Americans love their redemptive violence. Tom Englehardt (Tomdispatch)wrote a great book called: “The end of Victory Culture.” Slotkin’s “Gunfighter Nation” is another good analysis of American rationale for wanton killiing.

  9. Don’t beat yourselves up too much. Canada did the same thing. In fact, in a family very close to me, there were 5 sons fighting for Canada — three overseas and two at forces bases in Canada. Their father, born in Italy and a Canadian citizen since the age of 16, was interned for 3 months….because he associated with fellow Italians. And yet, he was an ordained minister in the largest Protestant congregation in Canada!
    Fear of the other, the enemy, makes people do too much without giving thought first.

  10. ‘Scuse? I never was; my father never was; my sister never was; my patrilateral aunt never was; my uncles never were, my Iowa cousins never were; we were never in fear of it. The area was full of Kruegers, Zimmermans, Moheisers, Schäringhausens… nobody got locked up. You want to supply some reliable statistics and sources?

  11. There were three government agencies who ran the camps in WW2. Most people are familiar with the Camps run by the War Relocation Authority. Manzanar was their best known camp. The Immigration and Naturalization Service ran mixed race camps. The two most famous camps are Ellis Island and Crystal City. The army ran internment camps, mostly in Hawaii. SandIsland and Honouliuli are the best known of the Army camps. If you go to you tube and type in Crystal City camp, you can see a government produced propaganda video of the Crystal City camp which held Japanese Americans, German Americans and Latin Americans who were brought up for internment.

  12. I find it amusing and I include myself, that we are focusing on camps instead of the stink of nationalism which will be the death of us all

  13. Great article,as one who has been called “One of those liberals” I’ve been on the receiving end of their vitriol.
    If being a liberal means being passionate about my compassion.Yeah I’m a liberal
    If being a liberal means questioning what I read and hear.Yeah I’m a liberal.
    If being a liberal means seeing the privatization of the government as theft of the commons.Yeah I’m a liberal.
    These people need to label others to inflate their own self esteem and keep us divided.

  14. Right. The camps were definitely not the focus of the article, but rather mentioned as a byproduct of excessive nationalism. The British used concentration camps in the Boer War, by the way, as long as we’re on the topic.

  15. Are you seriously advocating further wealth inequality? You think that the oligarchs will EVER share the wealth? I suggest you read a history of the Robber Baron Age and get back to us.

  16. As I’m fond of reminding right-wingers: Their much-vaunted Founding Fathers were LIBERALS, progressives, and products of the European Enlightenment; NOT Conservatives, who were known as Tories.

  17. This article conveniently leaves out the fact that it was FDR who authorized the internment of Japanese Americans. Then it goes on to praise him for ‘leading his country into war in the name of freedom’.

    What a load.

  18. Ah you were the one that wanted to learn German! I would love to hear your outlook on how things were at that time. After all you were there

  19. Do you have a reading comprehension problem? The article is about when we let nationalism cloud our judgments. It don’t make any difference who does it but it is wrong. Now you may be the fool who thinks this country can do no wrong and that is your fault. Just stop saying USA and think for a change

  20. Ironic.

    This article portrays liberal nationalism as good, and conservative nationalism as bad. Liberal nationalism is based on shared values born out of the American Revolution. Conservative nationalism is based on ethnic solidarity that pits the truth against what’s “fake”. Liberal presidents lead their countries into war in the name of freedom. Conservative presidents use nationalism as an excuse to push America into actions it might otherwise not take.

    Nationalism can be very dangerous, but at this juncture in history, I’d have to say hyperpartisanship is the greater danger.

  21. Arch nationalism is the first sign of totalitarian-oriented thinking (you should pardon the word). Reasonable people have no need of characterizing their status as “exceptionalism” since to many of us Britain and most of Europe have health care that is more exceptional; election laws that are more exceptional; protections for women that are more exceptional; do as you wish lgbtq laws and attitudes that are more exceptional; weapons laws that are more exceptional, &c. (the list is well nigh endless). The arch nationalist can stick his exceptionalism where the sun don’t shine.

  22. We lead in only three areas these days:

    1. The most incarcerated citizens per capita.
    2. The number of adults who believe in angels.
    3. We spend more on our military than the top 26 countries combined, and 25 of those are our allies.

    I got this from a short video titled: Why America is not the greatest country in the world. It’s worth Googling and watching.

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