Russia has invaded Ukraine, racial tensions are flaring up here in the States, and the Middle East is even more violent and pissed off than usual. Some have even speculated that World War III is becoming likelier. As Lewis Black said of the 21st century, “This is the 20th century […] all over again, only this time it’s in high-definition.” At home and abroad, nationalist sentiments are intensifying. For better or worse, they threaten to destabilize the current world order. More importantly, nationalist sentiments play out in people’s everyday lives, quietly affecting how they think and often subverting objectivity and reason.
In light of recent events, George Orwell’s essay “Notes on Nationalism” merits review. I encourage you to read the whole thing. It’s a relatively brief essay, and you can read it for free here.
What is Nationalism?
Orwell uses the term “nationalism” as the word that best describes a broader psychological phenomenon. He states that:
“By ‘nationalism’ I mean […] the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. […] Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”
More succinctly, he defines nationalism as “power-hunger tempered by self-deception.”
Characteristics of Nationalism
Orwell notes that nationalist thought is characterized by obsession, instability, and indifference to reality. Nationalists often can’t tell the difference between assumptions and inferences. Nationalists are prone to confirmation bias, and sometimes even hold mutually contradictory beliefs. An example of this is the anti-Semite who accuses Jews of controlling Hollywood, the news media, and banks in order to accumulate vast amounts of power and wealth for themselves, while he also accuses them of promoting a communist agenda (which innately opposes large disparities of wealth).
Kinds of Nationalism
Orwell identifies three kinds of nationalism—Positive, Negative, and Transferred.
Positive nationalism is positive not because it is necessarily good, but because it’s for something. An example of this is white nationalism—a set of feelings about the superiority of whites and a desire for their advancement over other races. The particularities of those other races are not so important to the white nationalist. Whether the other race is black, hispanic, or Martian, the white nationalist believes he and his race are superior and should be in charge.
Negative nationalism is the opposite of positive nationalism. It is not negative because it is necessarily bad, but because it’s against something. An example of this is anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism naturally aligns with white (or some other non-Semitic) nationalism, but it is essentially an attitude about Jews. For example, consider a man with a white father and a black mother. If he has healthy, loving relationships with both sides of his family, we would expect him to be neither a white nationalist nor a black nationalist. And yet, this man could also be an anti-Semite.
Lastly, transferred nationalism has traits of both positive and negative nationalism. Transferred nationalism is distinguished by the nationalist having a disdain for his own native culture or social authority, leading him to transfer positive nationalist sentiments to a foreign entity. Orwell’s example of this is the English Russophiles, Englishmen who despised their English heritage and deified the Soviet Union, despite having never traveled there and despite the atrocities committed by Stalin’s regime, which Russophiles ignored or denied.
A modern example of transferred nationalism is the cluster of sentiments espoused by Guilty White Liberals. Having a general distrust of authority and white American culture (perhaps due to estrangement from their fathers), GWLs become personally, emotionally invested in groups to which they do not belong, such as minority races, gays, and even animals. GWLs do not just oppose what they perceive to be injustice for the sake of justice itself. Instead, they feel personally involved with whatever struggle they attach themselves to. Whites are not innately insulted by the use of racial epithets against minorities, and yet GWLs will consider themselves personally offended when hearing them.
This is totally not about attention whoring or self-aggrandizement—because reasons.
GWLs also exhibit the instability of transferred nationalism as described by Orwell. The GWL flits from cause to cause, crusading against whatever “oppression” is currently trending in liberal discourse. Ultimately, though, most GWLs are hypocritical frauds. Just as the English Russophiles never actually moved to Russia, GWLs don’t elect to live in ghettos. Many decry the plight of black youth, but relatively few volunteer to be mentors. Many bitch about the unfairness of capitalism, but freely embrace the excesses of materialism. As Orwell said, “Transferred nationalism, like the use of scapegoats, is a way of attaining salvation without altering one’s conduct.”
Nationalism in Culture
Nationalism is a powerful force in organizing people into groups because it makes members feel as if their personal interests and those of the group are congruent, even when this is objectively untrue. Here are some of the ways this is manifested in culture:
A mundane form of nationalism is the devotion some fans have to a particular sports team. It would be perfectly reasonable for a man to feel good when the Green Bay Packers win, so long as he stands to win money from a bet, or if his son is a member of the team. A lover of football could even appreciate the execution of complicated plays, or the drama of a game-determining struggle. However, to otherwise feel personally increased or decreased by a team’s victory or defeat is irrational, the height of such nonsense being found in hooliganism.
Race and Justice
Unfortunately, nationalism can lead to controversies and conflicts, putting justice and peace at risk. The recent shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent unrest illustrate how potent nationalist tendencies can be, precisely because nationalist sentiments exist before reason, leading people to select and interpret evidence that fits what they already believe to be true. As Anonymous Cop points out in his article, the media immediately branded Michael Brown as an “unarmed black teenager” shot by a white police officer, which fit nicely into a narrative about power and authority that some people already believe. Thus, the barest details of the incident immediately prompted not just suspicions, but conclusions. Accordingly, the following people believed the corresponding statements to be true:
The white nationalist: The police officer was justified in shooting and killing Michael Brown.
The GWL and the black nationalist: The police officer was not justified in shooting and killing Michael Brown.
A reasonable, neutral person: A policeman shooting and killing an unarmed person is serious. We should investigate this and see what the facts say.
Nationalism involves feelings of superiority, and GWLs and black nationalists have convinced themselves that blacks are victims and are therefore morally superior to whites, the oppressors. This is why GWLs and black nationalists respond so angrily to anyone who asserts that whites are oppressed. Over the past few weeks the GWLs and black nationalists have invoked past allegations of racism as evidence that the death of Michael Brown is just one more murder in a pattern of racist police brutality. However, such a pattern, if it exists, would at most warrant suspicion of Officer Wilson’s motivations. Ultimately, the sins of other officers do not prove that Officer Wilson acted similarly, and to believe so is to claim guilt by association. Citing past racism proves nothing, but for GWLs and black nationalists, it serves to justify what they already believe.
“Meine schadenfreude macht mich frei”
Modern feminism fits Orwell’s succinct definition of nationalism—“power-hunger tempered by self-deception.” These feminists have prioritized the interest of women over those of men, children, and society. More than that, they seek to control men, children, and society in order to advance those interests. These feminists obsessively view everything through their narrative of victimization, and many of their beliefs are hypocritical, changing whenever it suits them.
In their minds, men are essentially bad, women are essentially good, and when conflicts arise between a man and a woman, the modern feminist can only take pleasure from the woman winning some advantage over the man. Contrary to their rhetoric, feminists have sought to advance the interests of women not through genuine equality, but by any means necessary.
Toward the end of his essay, Orwell makes sure to point out that nationalism is not always or necessarily bad. However, nationalism is a very powerful and potentially dangerous force, and everyone is susceptible to it. The first danger of nationalism comes from its subtlety, the way it can lead to biases and irrational assumptions and cause people to dismiss or become indifferent to reality. The second danger of nationalism is that it compels people to act, and history attests to the results. For Orwell, struggling against nationalistic impulses is a moral effort. Understanding nationalism will help you better understand society and culture. More than that, understanding nationalism will help you free your mind and better know yourself.
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