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Saturday, 1 March 2014

Nationalism or Patriotism?

Baldassare Verazzi, Episode from the Five Days of Milan during Italy's Risorgimento patriotic wars



Is nationalism a good thing or a bad thing?

Some people say that nationalism is bad, whereas patriotism is good.

In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, "patriotism" is defined as love for one's country or devotion for it, even to the point of sacrifice. It seems that there is no excess of patriotism in this sense, as it's always positive.

The Merriam-Webster gives this example of use of the term: "You may not agree with him politically, but no one can question his patriotism."

The two examples offered by the same source for "nationalism", on the other hand, are: "The war was caused by nationalism and greed." and "Nazism's almost epic nationalism appealed to downtrodden Germans still suffering the humiliation of being defeated in World War I." Not very nice.

This belligerence associated with nationalism is reflected in the Merriam-Webster's definition of the word, with loyalty to and pride for one's country replacing patriotism's more benevolent connotations of love and devotion. The belief that one's homeland is better and more important than other countries also forms part of the definition, as well as placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups, and a desire to be a separate and independent country.

The motto "My country, right or wrong" should probably sound nationalist, not patriotic, according to these definitions.

Wikiquote would generally agree:
This page is for quotes about Patriotism, which is a term denoting a devotion to fundamental fellowship with other human beings united in common causes, usually related to identified geographic regions or those within particular political associations and boundaries. Frequently compared or contrasted with ideas of nationalism, which are often, but not always, designated as less noble manifestations of similar distinguishing impulses with a greater accommodation of bigotry.
The Oxford Dictionary is more nuanced in its distinction, though. It provides this definition and example for "patriotism":
[V]igorous support for one’s country: ‘a highly decorated officer of unquestionable integrity and patriotism’
and for "nationalism":
Patriotic feeling, principles, or efforts: ‘an early consciousness of nationalism and pride’. An extreme form of patriotism marked by a feeling of superiority over other countries: ‘playing with right-wing nationalism’. Advocacy of political independence for a particular country: ‘Scottish nationalism’.
So, not all nationalism is bad, it implies, only its extreme manifestations.

"Liberals" (a misnomer) can be blamed for many things but not for having too clear ideas. Notoriously Leftist Wikipedia says:
Nationalism is a belief, creed or political ideology that involves an individual identifying with, or becoming attached to, one's nation. Nationalism involves national identity, by contrast with the related construct of patriotism, which involves the social conditioning and personal behaviors that support a state's decisions and actions.
What? Maybe the second sentence's utter confusion explains why at the moment the Wikipedia entry page on patriotism is empty, and the relative Talk page reveals a political-ideological row among its editors that I have no desire to follow in this little semantic tour of mine.

Other sources use "nationalism" and "patriotism" almost interchangeably and think that both can be excessive.

What conclusion to draw from all this? I think that nationalism, as well as patriotism, can be a force for the good. Human beings, like all social animals, need to be part of a group, to "belong", and recognising one's membership of a circle of people inherently has a divisive element. If there is an "us", there must be a "them".

There is nothing wrong in this. Not only is it natural, it is also beneficial in establishing ties and communities and in the organisation of human societies. A world government is only desidered by totalitarians like people who adhere to Islamic law and communists.

To blame nations for wars and national supremacism is like, as Richard Dawkins and his fellow self-alleged - there is no element of novelty in their ideas - "new" atheists do, to blame religions for wars: absurd.

As a zoologist, Dawkins should know that many social animals including human beings, especially the younger males of the species, will fight other groups or individuals. Humans just find more inventive excuses to do so. If you abolish nationhood or religious affiliation, they will make up something else. They've already done so: now that these groupings are less strong than before, they've created more artificial ones, like football teams, as a cause to battle for, sometimes even violently.

My conclusion is simple. Words don't have a magical power. Some semantic disputes are useful to clarify issues while others are pointless. This particular one seems a borderline case to me. But, for purely pragmatic reasons, given a choice, I would opt for the term "patriotism", as it usually - albeit not necessarily - denotes a more benign feeling and less aggressive idea than "nationalism".

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