What Is Nationalism?

National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement.

- Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country

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After decades of untrammelled globalisation and in the face of the dominance of a kind of ‘We Are the World’ cosmopolitan ethic, nationalism now seems everywhere on the rise.

Its expressions, however, are far from uniform: they range from blood-and-soil European nationalism, to the chest-beating, “brand U.S.A.” nationalism of Trump and his like, to the more traditionalist, rural British nationalism, to the opportunistic and often explicitly racist nationalism in Australia.

Regardless of their variety, what each of these forms of nationalism have in common is that they are bound up with a strong anti-immigrant sentiment, they easily become intermingled with a kind of anti-establishment populism, and they offer simpler, flattened-out view of the otherwise immensely complex terrain of modern life.

But is this all there is to nationalism? Are there particular conditions under which its more exclusionary or even quasi-fascistic expressions emerge? Alternatively, are there conditions that might be amenable to more virtuous, mutually enhancing, morally transformative nationalisms?

Listen to Can Nationalism Be Redeemed? on The Minefield podcast

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...The chilling precision of these words resulted in renewed interest in Rorty, who died in 2007. Eighteen years after its release, “Achieving Our Country” sold out on Amazon, briefly cracking the site’s list of its hundred top-selling books. Harvard University Press decided to reprint it.

Rorty’s new fans may be surprised, opening their delivery, to discover a book that has almost nothing to do with the rise of a demagogic right and its cynical exploitation of the working class. It is, instead, a book about the left’s tragic loss of national pride. “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals, a necessary condition for self-improvement,” Rorty writes in the book’s opening sentence, before describing in grim detail how the democratic optimism, however qualified, of Walt Whitman, John Dewey, and James Baldwin has been abandoned in favor of what he calls a “blasé” and “spectatorial” left....

Continue reading Stephen Metcalf's short article: Richard Rorty's Philosophical Argument for National Pride

Further Reading

Nationalism has long been ignored as a topic in political philosophy, written off as a relic from bygone times. It came into the focus of philosophical debate two decades ago, in the nineties, partly in consequence of rather spectacular and troubling nationalist clashes such as those in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet republics. Surges of nationalism tend to present a morally ambiguous, and for this reason often fascinating, picture. “National awakening” and struggles for political independence are often both heroic and cruel; the formation of a recognizably national state often responds to deep popular sentiment but sometimes yields inhuman consequences, from violent expulsion and “cleansing” of non-nationals to organized mass murder. The moral debate on nationalism reflects a deep moral tension between solidarity with oppressed national groups on the one hand and repulsion in the face of crimes perpetrated in the name of nationalism on the other. Moreover, the issue of nationalism points to a wider domain of problems related to the treatment of ethnic and cultural differences within democratic polity, arguably among the most pressing problems of contemporary political theory.

In the last decade the focus of the debate about nationalism has shifted towards issues in international justice, probably in response to changes on the international scene: bloody nationalist wars such as those in the former Yugoslavia have become less conspicuous, whereas the issues of terrorism, of the “clash of civilizations” and of hegemony in the international order have come to occupy public attention.

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Nationalism by Nenad Miscevic

Related Topics

Capitalism | Colonialism | Globalization | Sociology

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