Current tensions in different regions of the world have re-introduced old political concepts to dinner table, water cooler, or coffee break conversations, often with vaporous imprecision. I refer to nationalism and patriotism. Which one is a good thing? Is nationalism dangerous while patriotism is good?
For instance, I was reading a column by Philip Stephens of the Financial Times only last week (See ‘The perils of Asia’s nationalist power game’ ) and he wrote this:
What’s wrong with nationalism, a friend in Tokyo asked me the other day? Well, there is much to be said for patriotism. As for nationalism, the answer is found in the bloody pages of European history.
That got me thinking: is it the case that nationalism is bad and patriotism is good?
To decide, I think we need to set up a standard. Here is what I propose. I think in every country in the world we should desire greater public spirit, not less. But what does that mean? It means a selfless, abiding interest in public welfare, in the good of the community. For instance, to promote good governance in any country, to launch and defend needed reforms, to fight corruption, bring succor to the afflicted, and so on, what you want is an outbreak of public spirit. In fact, what you want is an epidemic of public spirit.
Now, if that is the standard, nationalism is dangerous. For, according to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, nationalism is:
…a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.
If that is true, there is little wonder that the rise of nationalism – always an elite project – has led to so much bloodletting.
But is patriotism better? According to the inimitable Dr Samuel Johnson , lexicographer extraordinaire:
A patriot is he whose publick conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in parliament, has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers everything to the common interest.
Thus, while nationalism has acquired an odious reputation that can no longer be repaired, maybe patriotism can be saved. I suspect that in the column that I referred to above, Stephens was using patriotism in the Johnsonian sense.
Having said all that, I would stick with ‘public spirit’, and I do so because I am deeply committed to a Ciceronian conception of the good life: self-cultivation and public duty. As Cicero teaches in ‘On Duty’ , the idea of public spirit extends beyond service to one’s immediate social and political community, vital though that is, it extends to the whole of humanity. The ideal is humanism, civilized and urbane. As Cicero argues:
Another objection urges that one ought to take account of compatriots but not of foreigners. But people who put forward these arguments subvert the whole foundation of humanity – and its removal means the annihilation of all kindness, generosity, goodness and justice.
Reflect on that and you will see in stark, bold relief why nationalism and its variants can be real threats to mental health.
Sadly, nationalism is on the march…once again.
Photo courtesy of Max Klingensmith via Flickr 
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