5 July 2005

Renouncing nationalism

I've been wanting to write something about nationalism for July 4th. Then I came across the following article (via Cut to the Chase) by Howard Zinn. I particularly like how Zinn points out the different significance of nationalism as practiced by mini-states and ethnicities (Sweden or Armenians) and giant hegemons like the U.S. I've copied the full-text of the article below:

Put away the flags

By Howard Zinn July 3, 2005

We would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols on Independence Day -- its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed. Is not nationalism -- that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so fierce it engenders mass murder -- one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred? These ways of thinking -- cultivated, nurtured, indoctrinated from childhood on -- have been useful to those in power and deadly for those out of power.

National spirit can be benign in a country that is small and lacking both in military power and a hunger for expansion (Switzerland, Norway, Costa Rica and many more). But in a nation like ours -- huge, possessing thousands of weapons of mass destruction -- what might have been harmless pride becomes an arrogant nationalism dangerous to others and to ourselves.

Our citizenry has been brought up to see our nation as different from others, an exception in the world, uniquely moral, expanding into other lands in order to bring civilization, liberty, democracy. That self-deception started early. When the first English settlers moved into Indian land in Massachusetts and were resisted, the violence escalated into war with the Pequot Indians. The killing of Indians was seen as approved by God, the taking of land as commanded by the Bible. The Puritans cited one of the Psalms, which says: "Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the Earth for thy possession" (Psalm 2:8).
When the English set fire to a Pequot village and massacred men, women and children, the Puritan theologian Cotton Mather said: "It was supposed that no less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day."
On the eve of the Mexican War, an American journalist declared it our "Manifest Destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence." After the invasion of Mexico began, The New York Herald announced: "We believe it is a part of our destiny to civilize that beautiful country."


It was always supposedly for benign purposes that our country went to war. We invaded Cuba in 1898 to liberate the Cubans and went to war in the Philippines shortly after, as President William McKinley put it, "to civilize and Christianize" the Filipinos. As our armies were committing massacres in the Philippines (at least 600,000 Filipinos died in a few years of conflict), Elihu Root, our secretary of war, was saying: "The American soldier is different from all other soldiers of all other countries since the war began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order and of peace and happiness."

We see in Iraq that our soldiers are no different. They have, perhaps against their better nature, killed thousands of Iraqi civilians. And some soldiers have shown themselves capable of brutality, of torture. Yet they are victims, too, of our government's lies. How many times have we heard President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld tell the troops that if they die, if they return without arms or legs, or are blinded, it is for "liberty," for "democracy"?

One of the effects of nationalist thinking is a loss of a sense of proportion. The killing of 2,300 people at Pearl Harbor becomes the justification for killing 240,000 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The killing of 3,000 people on Sept. 11 becomes the justification for killing tens of thousands of people in Afghanistan and Iraq. And nationalism is given a special virulence when it is said to be blessed by Providence. Today we have a president, invading two countries in four years, who announced on the campaign trail last year that God speaks through him.

We need to refute the idea that our nation is different from, morally superior to, the other imperial powers of world history. We need to assert our allegiance to the human race and not to any one nation.

Howard Zinn is the author of A People's History of the United States.

3 comments:

Pat in NC said...

We ARE asserting our allegiance to the human race and not to any one nation when we bring liberty to millions of people who have lived under terrible tyranny! Yes, terrible things happen in war because humans are not perfect but we are helping others. If people think another country does more for humanity they should seek to be part of that country.

Glen Dean said...

You confuse nationalism with patriotism or love of country. The term nationalism is derived from the word nation or nationality. In other words, race. America is not defined by race. We are a melting pot of many different nationalities. America is a great place with good people. If it were not the great place that it is, you would have left a long time ago. But you haven't left and you won't leave and many continue to immigrate to this wonderful place everyday. We are not perfect and our history is not perfect, but for the rest of the world we are still the shining city on the hill.

Karlo said...

I would agree that there is a natural and even wholesome love of the familiar--where one's from, one's family, the place on grew up, one's community, and so on. But I'm wary of conflating this natural affection for home with allegiance to the abstract entity of nation. The term "nation" ultimately distorts the calculus of decision-making. Thus torturing teenagers in a far-away place is suddenly regarded as an unavoidable practice while people feel complete outrage at the slightest injustice towards their "countrymen" (look at all the hullaboo over a blonde girl killed in Aruba just because of the perception that the local court system may not be as fair as that of the U.S.) Seen without the distorting lens of nation, people everywhere are seen for what they are--people: who's lives and aspirations are just as valuable as those of any one else.