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TAUBE: Taking back nationalism’s good name

Despite past aberrations, love of country can signal societal health

- - Tuesday, April 1, 2014

In the academic discipline of political philosophy, there are certain theories and ideas that hold both positive and negative connotations. One prime example is nationalism.

It is well known that there have been moments in world history in which nationalism has been used for terrible purposes. Nazi Germany and fascist Italy stand out, as well as antirevisionist movements, such as Marxism-Leninism, China's Cultural Revolution and the Cuban Revolution.

At the same time, it's wrong to overlook the positive virtues of nationalism and the nation-state in many European democracies. There are different forms of nationalism, and some individuals, countries and political movements have twisted its meaning to serve their own wicked purposes.

Hence, I think we have reached a point where good people need to take back nationalism, the nation-state and national identity as a means of improving society and enhancing liberal democracy.

John O'Sullivan, a former National Review editor, special adviser to then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and current director of Budapest's Danube Institute, has helped jump-start this long, difficult process.

In a March 22 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, he wrote, "nationalism is an increasingly necessary word that is too often misused as a term of abuse. Nationalisms and nationalist movements are popping up all over Europe. These can take very different forms: left, right and ambivalent."

Mr. O'Sullivan also points out that nationalism means different things to different people in different countries. He provides a brief summary: " ... the full spectrum of nationalist loyalties runs roughly as follows: from Nazism, which is totalitarian, racial nationalism; to fascism, which is authoritarian and aggressive nationalism; to ethnic nationalism, which is exclusivist, treating ethnic minorities as second-class citizens (if that); to civic nationalism, which opens full citizenship to all born in the national territory in return for their loyalty to the nation and its institutions; and finally, to patriotism, which is that same national loyalty plus simple love of country — its scenery, its sights and sounds, its characteristic architecture, its songs and poems, its people, its wonderful familiarity."

Some readers probably didn't know there were so many definitions of nationalism. Then again, there are enormous deviations and minutiae in political philosophy that are largely unknown to the general public.

Consider how many people there are who still can't figure out the inherent differences between liberals and conservatives, for example.

Alas, they're going to have trouble defining today's nationalism. It's beginning to evolve into a completely different political beast.

As Mr. O'Sullivan wrote, "those voters for whom patriotism and the national interest were determining issues found comfortable homes in parties of both the left and the right. But that has gradually ceased to be true."

He uses the example of the U.K. Independence Party, which has "secured its base among traditional middle-class Tories" and is starting to harvest "new votes from patriotic blue-collar Laborites."

Mr. O'Sullivan obviously doesn't support "nationalism as a universal principle of statehood. There is no such principle." At the same time, he's concerned about the future of the nation-state, which is "an almost necessary basis for democracy."

The attempt to "abolish or replace the nation-state," which is a distinct possibility in parts of Europe, "is almost certain to produce more evils than it deters. The lesson of recent history is that nationalism is here to stay — and that secure, stable and satisfied nation-states are likely to want friendship with neighboring countries rather than their conquest."

Fortunately, Americans won't have to face these sorts of difficult matters anytime soon. The United States was shaped by federalism rather than some variant of nationalism. This country has never been a nation-state. Moreover, there are a significant number of races, religions and ethnicities living together in the great American melting pot.

Still, it's important for Americans to strongly support a positive face for nationalism. For one thing, it provides an effective counterpoint to the debilitating state-enforced ideology of multiculturalism. Meanwhile, the theory of national identity can help create pride in a country's ideas, advancements, inventions, values — and above all, its citizens.

It's incumbent on us to remove the vicious historical stains of ethnic and racial nationalism, and enhance the positive virtues of identifying with one's nation. By doing so, we will all be ensuring that productive, successful and democratic nation-states continue to exist in Europe and elsewhere.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.