Is Nationalism A Myth?

No other modern ideology has divided mankind into tribal groups and compelled them to kill one another as effectively as nationalism. We must pivot the essence of nationalism away from violence and towards civic service.

Is Nationalism A Myth?

"There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”Howard Zinn

The world today has become more polarised than ever before despite unprecedented progress made in the means of communication that humankind has access to. With the earth politically fragmented in 195 fragments, each claiming to be independent of each other, the people on this planet are now confined within territorial limits, whereby any transgression i.e. illegal crossing of boundaries, is subject to severe punishment.

In other words, human beings’ movements are restricted by regulations imposed by states. Fair enough! All persons have the right to choose whom they give access to their front doors, then why not countries? So, just as people are sovereign in their homes, nations too have their right to open or close their borders for anyone. Amazingly, animals, birds, winds, dust, waters etc. are free to roam around the planet wherever they please—nature on one side and human beings on the other.

This scenario has given rise to nationhood where the entire world is divided into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ The concept of brotherhood has been overtaken by nationhood, where every nation considers itself unlike the other in practically all aspects of life. The rise of nation states has led to an imbalance in human values and the concept of being inferior or superior has become ingrained in the minds of humans. Just like a family hiding its secrets from its neighbours, each country desires to safeguard its own natural and acquired resources from other countries. Being suspicious of one another, doubting the other’s intentions and securing its territorial limits have become the highlights of our global political system, that has in turn segregated humans into friends and enemies on extremely flimsy grounds, and also blurred the difference between patriotism and nationalism.

One of Todd Githin’s quotes is: “There is a fuzzy but real distinction that can and I believe should be made, between patriotism, which is attachment to a way of life, and nationalism, which is the insistence that your way of life deserves to rule over other ways of life.” However, Frans Timmermans thinks: “If nationalism makes us poor, weak, and morally insecure, how can it claim to be patriotic? I maintain that nationalists are unpatriotic.”

George Bernard Shaw wrote: “Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it....”

Maxiame Bernier writes: “Nationalism can be a destructive force when it promotes intolerance and division. But it can also be a force for good, when it seeks to defend local autonomy against the homogenizing forces of larger entities.”

In the words of Sun Yat-sen: “Our position is extremely perilous; if we do not earnestly promote nationalism and weld together our four hundred millions into a strong nation, we face a tragedy - the loss of our country and the destruction of our race. To ward off this danger, we must espouse nationalism and employ the national spirit to save the country.”

Another notable person Ellen Key addresses politicians in these words: “At present, the most effective way of preventing war would be for statesmen to direct politics so as to support a sound nationalism. This leads to concordance between people of kindred race and languages, whereas the conquest and coercion of people of different race and language inevitably lead to new wars.”

While there are few intellectuals who support the idea of nationalism, many others are weary of this term. According to Jiddu Krishnamurti: “When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind.”

Elif Safak says: “When societies go backwards and slide into authoritarianism, nationalism, and tribalism, machismo and sexism are also emboldened.”

Erich Fromm goes a step further in his criticism. He writes: “Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. 'Patriotism' is its cult... Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love, love for one's country which is not part of one's love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.”

Thorstein Veblen laments: “Born in iniquity and conceived in sin, the spirit of nationalism has never ceased to bend human institutions to the service of dissension and distress.” On the same lines Frans Timmermans has said: “Nationalism makes us weak because its eternal seeking of enemies, its disdain of others, its need to feel superior makes cooperation with other nations to collectively guarantee our freedom and security much more difficult.” George Orwell goes on to say: “nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception.”

Going back in history, Olav Thon comments: “Nationalism in Norway was very strong in 1905, that we must be free of Sweden. But I must say, I'm not 100 percent sure that was a wise decision. We had the war; we were occupied by Germans from 1940 to 1945. And if there had been one Scandinavian country, then it would not have been so very easy probably to go ahead with the occupation.”

Addressing his youth, Anubhav Sinha says: “When I hear of nationalism in my country today from the youngsters, I want to sit them down and tell them that flags and songs are not nationalism. Stopping at the traffic signal, opening the door for a lady, doing something for your country is nationalism.”

Perhaps one of the most critical statements was given by Stephen Colbert: “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.”

Lyrics of John Lennon’s song “Imagine” reflect the sentiments of all those who want to see this world as one regardless of nationalities.

“Imagine there's no countries

It isn't hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace

You may say that I'm a dreamer

But I'm not the only one

I hope someday you'll join us

And the world will be as one.”

The writer is a lawyer and author, and an Adjunct Faculty at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE)