The Cloyingly Sweet Rot of Nationalism

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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.

Read: The Republican Presumptive Nominee for President is A Convicted Felon

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.

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