Jul 05 2010

George Orwell and Howard Zinn on Nationalism

(noon. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Writing in 1945 in his remarkable essay Notes on Nationalism, author George Orwell noted the following distinction between patriotism and nationalism

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 inseparable 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.

Author and journalist George Orwell

Is the expression of nationalism in itself, as George Orwell suggests, necessarily an undesirable urge?  Not if seen in its proper context.  After all, the desire to define a group’s identity and live under some form of societal organization gave birth to the idea of the nation-state and hundreds of years later, led to mass de-colonisation and independence for hundreds of millions of people around the world — particularly in the period immediately following World War I and leading to a trend which accelerated during the years after World War II.

A bombardier in World War II, historian Howard Zinn came to detest war and killing.  On this day in 2007, he wrote this article in The Progressive magazine in which he recounted the American obsession with the idea of nationalism and how it manifested itself in American foreign policy

On this July 4, we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: 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.

2nd Lieutenant Howard Zinn, bombardier, Army Air Force in England, pictured decades earlier in 1945

Zinn didn’t condemn the kind of benign nationalism that exists in smaller countries lacking the technological wherewithal or the pernicious desire towards expansionism.  He didn’t explicitly state it but agreed that if nationalism is the celebration of a common culture, shared history, and similar experiences or of traditions, language, and ethnicity, he wouldn’t offer too many objections to this definition of an imagined community.  In countries where this wasn’t an evolutionary process, and which came into being without the pre-requisite conditions for the creation of a nation-state, the results have been disastrous.  The old Soviet Union comes to mind — a country that disintegrated for many reasons but also, importantly, perhaps because it became a state before it became a nation.

In the United States, given its size and propensity towards expansionism since its early years, Zinn saw a strain in the American character that he felt no pride in and found a country full of contradictions. From the early English settlers in this country to the years when Manifest Destiny was all the rage in the mid-19th century to our present ill-advised adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, Zinn saw an American desire to dominate other peoples in direct contrast to its professed aims of ‘liberty,’ ‘democracy,’ and ‘freedom.’

Many years ago, I wrote this diary — Is the United States Imperialist? — which directly addressed the concerns raised above by Zinn

From Thucydides to Machiavelli to Bismarck to Winston Churchill to Charles de Gaulle to George Kennan on down, historians, theorists, and politicians have offered real lessons and, importantly, caution flags to our leaders.  It has become a cliche to suggest that the United States has never been and never will be an imperialist nation — damaging historical evidence to the contrary.  Our kids are taught that from an early age.  It is ingrained in our bones.  And too many of our leaders have often perpetuated this myth by painting our global actions in the best possible light.  We never seek to dominate and exploit other nations. We are Americans, they tell us, and not a hegemonic power conniving to stifle other cultures.  Our role is to assist, enlighten, reform, and lift up other nations.  It is indeed our ‘Manifest Destiny.’

In the period of the Great Depression and during the years in which this country was involved in the Second World War, leaders like President Franklin Roosevelt mobilized the entire country and this successful mobilization of men, women, material, and minds allowed the United States and its allies to ultimately prevail over the dark threat of Fascism.  Even during the decades-long Cold War from 1946-1991, leaders of both political parties appealed to the American people to join hands in an ideological struggle against an external threat and rallied this country to ‘contain’ Communism. Contentious as that policy was domestically — and  often carried to extremes during periods such as the McCarthy Era in the 1940’s and 1950’s — it was largely free of excessive religious rhetoric.  

If you’ve ever seen the movie The Spy Who Came in From the Cold based on John le Carre’s famous spy thriller novel, you’ll remember this unforgettable quote by Alec Leamas, the novel’s cynical, self-loathing protagonist

What the hell do you think spies are?  Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx?  They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives.  Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?

In 2007, Zinn reserved his harshest words for the likes of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for their distinctly non-secularist foreign policies

How many times have we heard President Bush tell the troops that if they die, if they return without arms or legs, or blinded, it is for “liberty,” for “democracy”?

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 in 2004 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.

During the Bush Years — particularly since that fateful day on September 11, 2001 – discussions of American nationalism in a complicit media frequently degenerated into arguments over whether this country was more superior in its way of life when compared to others.  A natural extension of this xenophobia and the policies that flowed from this attitude were brilliantly captured in this article by Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker magazine.

It was the emergence of this kind of ‘virulent’ nationalism that once compelled someone like Keith Olbermann to offer this special comment in which he quoted Oliver Cromwell in sending a message to the Bush Administration

You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately… depart, I say; and let us have done with you.  In the name of God, go!

Three years ago on Independence Day, Zinn found that sham of an administration openly flouting the rule of law and true to form, attempting to, though failing miserably to stifle dissent — an idea, coincidentally, central to the very basis of this country’s foundation.   Offering a cautionary note of restraint and self-reflection, he reminded us that excessive or ‘ultra’ nationalism could be quite dangerous to a country’s long-term democratic health.

In 1945, Orwell could have as easily been describing today’s delusional, irrational, and, yes, in many instances, racist Teabaggers when he wrote

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them… every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered.  He spends part of his time in a fantasy world in which things happen as they should.

If I can summarize George Orwell’s and Howard Zinn’s important messages, it would be this: it is useful, now and then, for every country to take a good look at itself in the mirror and never be afraid to air its dirty laundry even as it celebrates its many accomplishments.

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For the diary poll, please refer to these lists — Founding Fathers of the United States, Top 10 Founding Fathers, and Delegates to the Constitutional Convention — to learn more about the country’s Founding Fathers.

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I first wrote an abbreviated version of this diary on July 4, 2007

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Crossposted at Daily Kos and Docudharma

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