Guest Post: Nationalism: Opium for the Conservative Masses


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The Classic Liberal often challenges we Conservatives to evaluate our beliefs and actions.  In keeping with that sometimes aggravating, but always thought provoking trait, here is a recent post; Nationalism: Opium for the Conservative Masses.

It’s important to understand the roots of the ideas you espouse and meaning behind them. Especially in politics, where words and meanings constantly get twisted around for purposes of demagoguery.

If you simply “choose sides,” you’ll soon find yourself following the crowd off a cliff. Making policy prescriptions not on principle but à la carte, on the assumption you’re being “realistic,” is a dangerously haphazard way of making decisions which ultimately leads to chaos.

As Richard Weaver famously warned: “Ideas have Consequences.”

I take the view that the conscious policies of men and governments are not mere rationalizations of what has been brought about by unaccountable forces. They are rather deductions from our most basic ideas of human destiny, and they have a great, though not unobstructed, power to determine out course.

As my regular readers know, I’ve been struggling with the modern version of American conservatism for quite some time. Interested and active in politics since I was young, I’ve watched with great concern as the conservative movement morphed into something virtually unrecognizable from its past. You may disagree, but as I see it, a careful respect for timeless truths and healthy skepticism of power has been usurped by a tribalism primarily bent on power and political expediency.

Patriotism vs. Nationalism

While both patriotism and nationalism refer to the love of one’s country, in practice each represents a unique ideology with entirely different consequences.

The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility, but the second a feeling of blind arrogance that leads to war. — Sydney J. Harris

Patriotism is a local, natural love and affection for one’s community – its land, people, culture, language and shared heritage. Patriotism is like family love.

You love your family just for being your family, not for being “the greatest family on earth” (whatever that might mean) or for being “better” than other families. You don’t feel threatened when other people love their families the same way. On the contrary, you respect their love, and you take comfort in knowing they respect yours. You don’t feel your family is enhanced by feuding with other families.

The patriot … can laugh at his country, the way members of a family can laugh at each others foibles. Affection takes for granted the imperfection of those it loves … whereas the [nationalist] sees nothing to laugh about.

In contrast, nationalism focuses on the state, distorting man’s right of self?determination into a right of the state – seen as the collective will of the people – to determine its destiny. This is Rousseau’s Civil Religion, which has been infecting the West since the rise of Napoleon. The nation is a soul, a moral principle, which is manifested in the state.

The nationalist differentiates between the good state and the bad state based on a zero-sum game of political power. The nationalist has total faith in his own state. He can’t even imagine living without it. As with all state socialism ideologies, nationalism worships the state as a god. Anyone who opposes the state, whether within or from without, are barbarians, foes … the diabolical enemy.

“The worship of the state is the worship of force,” said Ludwig von Mises. And Erich Fromm observed that nationalism or “Sadism has essentially no practical aim; it is not ‘trivial’ but ‘devotional.’ It is [the] transformation of impotence into the existence of omnipotence; it is the religion of psychical cripples.”

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George Orwell: Notes on Nationalism

By “nationalism” I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled “good” or “bad.” But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By “patriotism” I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseperable 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.

OBSESSION. As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit. It is difficult if not impossible for any nationalist to conceal his allegiance. The smallest slur upon his own unit, or any implied praise of a rival organization, fills him with uneasiness which he can relieve only by making some sharp retort. If the chosen unit is an actual country, such as Ireland or India, he will generally claim superiority for it not only in military power and political virtue, but in art, literature, sport, structure of the language, the physical beauty of the inhabitants, and perhaps even in climate, scenery and cooking. He will show great sensitiveness about such things as the correct display of flags, relative size of headlines and the order in which different countries are named.

INDIFFERENCE TO REALITY. All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by “our” side.

The Kennedy Twins: Nationalism: The Opium of Confused Conservatives

Nationalism celebrates force; it frolics in force; international status is nurtured and grows with force. Force expands the nation’s control over its own people every time it is successfully applied to an enemy; therefore pure nationalists seek enemies to destroy. Nationalism looks beyond the nation’s borders for opportunities to expand the nation’s influence—be it economic, ideological, commercial and/or military influence or, when the opportunity allows, not just influence but absolute control. Notice that this new “nation of force” will ultimately look and act more like an empire than a simple nation.

Patriotism, on the other hand, is local; it looks inward to a community with local traditions. Patriots see the nation as a means to protect local communities that compose the nation. Patriots are members of local communities and their primary desire is simply to be “let alone.” Patriots view people residing outside of the nation’s borders as possible trading partners in which they can engage in voluntary exchange—an exchange in which both sides gain. Patriots rally to the flag to defend the nation because the nation is necessary to preserve and defend local communities. Whereas nationalists need and ardently seek to create and expand a strong centralized supreme and ultimately oppressive national government. Patriots, on the other hand, seek to create and maintain local self-government that allows for maximum liberty (i.e. minimum taxation, regulation, etc.) for we the people at home in our local communities.

This sense of “minding our own business” or being “let alone” can be seen in John Adam’s warning that America should “… not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”; or Thomas Jefferson’s admonishment that America seeks to be “… friends with all nations—entangling alliances with none.”; or George Washington’s advice to avoid “foreign entanglements”. Nationalists … seek to paint this traditional American view as somehow being un-American.

The truth is that personal liberty, limited government, and a constitutional republic cannot exist when nationalists make up the nation’s ruling elite. Nationalists will use any means that will allow them to consolidate power—thereby taking power/control away from “we the people” at the local level and transferring it to the centralized, nationalist, (big) government.

This is a warning to all conservatives who believe in the primacy of personal liberty, limited government and constitutionalism. Nationalists of both political parties never allow a crisis to pass—they know how to rattle the saber in order to rally patriots around the flag and then convince limited government conservatives to “violate the free market in order to save it” or to surrender just a little privacy in order to be more secure.

Yet each year the free market is less free, more regulated and less able to grow a productive, jobs producing, economy; government has its hand deeper in our pockets (and now even in other private personal places); and the only thing that is secure is the system of supreme federalism that provides nationalists ruling elites of both political parties with almost unlimited perks, privileges, and power—all paid for by an increasingly oppressed and once free people.

The Founders of our country certainly had no illusions concerning obedience to the state. On the contrary, they declared independence from it! So, be proud of your country’s virtues, but never hesitate to correct its errors.

In other words, be responsible. A government that violates your natural rights – “that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” – has violated your sacred trust and therefore should not be tolerated.

Stand as an individual, not a docile sheep of the masses. And always remember that America has no Caesar.

Every man who parrots the cry of ‘stand by the President’ without adding the proviso ‘so far as he serves the Republic’ takes an attitude as essentially unmanly as that of any Stuart royalist who championed the doctrine that the King could do no wrong. No self-respecting and intelligent free man could take such an attitude. — President Theodore Roosevelt