Once upon a time Nationalism was an ideology reserved for extremists. But in recent years it has moved from the irrelevant fractious fringes to become a central movement in western politics. Rooted in fear, it feeds on tribal instincts and has become mainstream by offering oversimplified explanations to complex problems, such as poverty and immigration.
The ideal of a post-cold war tolerant world where resources (including food and water), are shared equitably, governments cooperate and borders soften has been usurped by rabid intolerance and racism, wall building, flag waving, cruel unjust immigration policies and violent policing of migrants and migrant routes. Rather than addressing issues and tackling underlying causes the ardent nationalist blames some group or other, ethnic, religious or national.
Love, distorted but potent, and hate sustain the monster: Love and corrupted pride of nation and ‘our way of life’, seen among the flag wavers as somehow superior; hatred of ‘strangers’, and hatred of change to that which is familiar. It is an insular reactionary movement of introspection and division based on false and petty notions of difference: skin color, religion, language, culture, even food.
Such prejudices lead to an agitation of suspicion and hatred of ‘foreigners’. National interests are favored over international responsibilities; minorities and refugees insulted, abused or worse. Covid has intensified such vile human tendencies, and highlighted what were already strained relations with ‘outsiders’ – those that are different — with ‘the other’.
People of Asian appearance have been victimized in various countries, most notably the US, Australia and Britain; trapped in refugee camps, asylum seekers/migrants have been forgotten, and vaccine nationalism, the “me first approach”, with wealthy western countries buying up vaccines, has been widespread. As a result of this injustice, while the rich will have their populations vaccinated by late 2021, developing countries (relying on the inadequate COVAX scheme) are looking at mass vaccination by the end of 2023, if ever. It is a moral outrage that flows from and strengthens ideas of global separation, enflames resentment and will prolong the virus.
Central to the fear inducing nationalist program is reductive national identities and cultural images tightly packaged in ‘the flag’. Described as “primordial rag[s] dipped in the blood of a conquered enemy and lifted high on a stick” (in Flags Through the Ages and Across the World by Whitney Smith), national flags evolved from battle standards and means of group identification held aloft during the Middle Ages. They are loved by nationalists who always believe their country to be ‘the greatest on Earth’, their people the strongest and the ‘best’, their way of life superior.
Such ignorant, meaningless and completely false ideas have become common elements of political rhetoric. Politicians (of all colors) in many, if not all western democracies, believe they must reinforce such crass sentiments, or face losing populist support, being attacked as ‘enemies of the people’ – as High Court Judges were in Britain during the Brexit fiasco, or labelled ‘traitors’.
Torrents of abuse
There are various interconnected threads to and expressions of Nationalism, from the political realm to mainstream and social media, popular culture to education. This suffocating network strengthens discrimination and prejudice of all kinds, including racism. During the recent Euro ’21 tournament black England players who had missed penalties in the final were subject to a torrent of abuse online. The same England ‘fans’ booed opposition teams singing national anthems and their own team, when they ‘took the knee’ before matches; a universal non-political act of solidarity that UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel disparagingly described as “gesture politics”.
She was later (rightly) accused of “stoking the fires of racism”, by refusing to endorse the players’ actions. Her new widely condemned immigration policy, has also given license to nationalist bigots and racists. Some of them have recently been recorded hurling abuse from the beaches of southern England at refugees in boats crossing the English Channel.
Irresponsible nationalist politicians like Patel (and the world is full of them), thick with ideology and ambition, are dogmatic in their beliefs and concerned solely with getting and retaining power. To this narcissistic end they employ the inflammatory rhetoric of nationalism – ‘our country’, ‘this great nation of ours’, ‘controlling immigration’, and ‘the flag’. Predictable and crude methods used to cajole the slumbering masses and agitate their tribal tendencies.
In order to strengthen their nationalist credentials presidents, politicians and military men and women, adorn themselves with the national emblem: embossed badges, a trend led by the US, who are flag-waving world leaders, and at press briefings/interviews they are rarely seen without a flag at their side – two, where there were none pre-Covid, in the case of the totally inept UK Government, desperate one suspects to shift the focus away from their homicidal management of the pandemic, and the calamity that is Brexit Britain. The flag is not in itself the problem, but its growing use is a powerful sign of the unabated rise of nationalism, a trend that with the fall of Trump, many had hoped was in decline.
Unifying acts of kindness
Nationalism grows out of fear, it feeds hate, leads to violence, and creates a climate of ‘us’ and ‘them’, indeed it thrives and is dependent upon such divisions. The stranger, the foreigner, refugee, asylum seeker or migrant is targeted. Blamed for the country’s ills, slandered as criminals, rapists, murderers. Accused of stealing jobs, draining health care services, degrading housing, corrupting the pristine national culture with their vile, primitive habits and beliefs.
In this way the ‘stranger’ becomes dehumanized, making it possible to abuse and mistreat him or her in varying degrees: From verbal insults on the street, the workplace or in the classroom to violent assault; detained in offshore prisons (Australia), imprisoned for years without charge (Guantanamo e.g.), housed in inhumane conditions in refugee camps, detention centers and/or temporary housing, or allowed to drown in the Mediterranean, North Sea and elsewhere.
Such atrocities are all fine, because the men women and children who are being mistreated constitute the ‘them’. ‘They’ are the enemy, the destroyer of civilisation and decency, less than human, even the children, and as such they deserve it. And the further away such ‘strangers’ are kept the easier it is to perpetuate the demonisation myth, maintain suspicion and strengthen hate. Conversely as Joe Keohane makes clear in The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World, “connecting with strangers helps to dispel partisanship and categorical judgements, increase social solidarity and make us more hopeful about our lives.” Mistrust of ‘strangers’ is strengthened by division and dispelled by contact; by sharing a moment, by acts of kindness – given and received, in which our common humanity is acknowledged.
Nationalism poisons the mind and the society and must be rooted out. Despite the apparent signs to the contrary, it is completely at odds with the tone of the times, which is towards unity – greater cooperation, tolerance and understanding. It is in reaction to this unifying movement that the demon of nationalism has risen; it is cruel, ugly and extremely dangerous and must be countered by unifying acts of kindness and compassion wherever it is seen.
If the unprecedented crises confronting humanity – environmental emergency, displacement of people, poverty and armed conflict – are to be faced, mitigated and overcome, individuals, communities, businesses and governments must increasingly come together, agree methods and global policies and build united integrated societies founded on compassion. Given the unprecedented scale and range of the issues, particularly climate change and the broader environmental calamity, there is no alternative.