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Liberal nationalism

September 28, 2011

A reader asks:

Why bother looking for ways ‘to control, channel, and liberalize our nationalisms’? Nationalism is bad! Far better and safer to eliminate it.

In ordinary times I’d probably use this as a jumping-off point to saying something snarky about Francis Fukuyama, or Esperanto, or the continent that could be filled with the ghosts of those who have died as a result of policies aimed at extinguishing various ‘nationalisms’, or the fact that getting rid of nationalism is usually code for getting rid of the distinct identity (and sometimes existence) of a particular disfavored ethnic group that just happens to be inconvenient to another, dominant group. But then I remembered that the mini-goal of this mini-project is somewhat related to ideological ecumenism, so I’ll just pretend to accept the premise that nationalisms can be safely eliminated.

In a similar vein, I’d normally base my defense of nationalism on a full-throated rejection of the liberated modern self, maybe even tossing in a little philosophy of mind; but again my goal is to win friends and influence people, so instead I’ll let Rebecca West do the talking.

Yes, that Rebecca West: liberal and feminist in the broadest and best senses, Victorian damsel par excellence, and author of the greatest travel memoir ever written. The same Rebecca West who, having stood upon the Field of Blackbirds and seen the Serbian youths recite the legend of St. Lazar Hrebeljanović was moved to write:

The little boys looked noble and devout as they recited. Here was the nationalism which the intellectuals of my age agreed to consider a vice and the origin of the world’s misfortunes. I cannot imagine why. Every human being is of sublime value, because his experience, which must be in some measure unique, gives him a unique view of reality, and the sum of such views should go far to giving us a complete picture of reality, which the human race must attain if it is ever to comprehend its destiny. Therefore every human being must be encouraged to cultivate his consciousness to the fullest degree. It follows that every nation, being an association of human beings who have been drawn together by common experience, has also its own unique view of reality, which must contribute to our deliverance … There is not the smallest reason for confounding nationalism, which is the desire of a people to be itself, with imperialism, which is the desire of a people to prevent other people from being themselves … Here certainly I could look without any reservation on the scene, on the two little boys darkening their brows in imitation of the heroes as they spoke the stern verse … This was as unlikely to beget an ill as the wild roses and meadowsweets we had gathered by the road. (1936)

There is a sad, sick irony in such a beautiful sentiment emerging from such an unfortunate example. Go to Kosovo Polje/Fushë Kosova today, as I did a couple of years ago, and you will find that those wild roses and meadowsweets seem altogether more threatening.

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