I’m old enough to remember when nationalism was viewed as a good thing. And I’m not just referring to my Irish childhood.
In the Canada of 40 to 50 years ago, many high-profile progressives self-described as nationalists. People like former finance minister Walter Gordon, journalist Peter C. Newman and the luminaries gathered around the Committee for an Independent Canada were proud to be known as nationalists. They campaigned for Canadian economic and cultural independence.
The desire to assert, promote and preserve a distinct, historically-based group identity was seen as a natural, even virtuous, thing. It was a social psychology, a form of kinship that helped to create a cohesive society.
Intellectual fashion, though, has changed. Now, nationalism is controversial and often characterized as nativist, xenophobic and a likely prelude to war.
In his latest book, The Nationalist Revival, American writer John B. Judis takes a more balanced view. Although he’s a longtime denizen of the social democratic left, he doesn’t adhere to the politically correct script.
Judis points out that, historically speaking, nationalism covers a wide front. Yes, it includes unsavoury figures such as Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco. But it was also embraced by the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Charles de Gaulle. In and of itself, nationalism can be benign, malign or neither.
If you’re familiar with David Goodhart’s somewhere/anywhere paradigm, you’ll recognize part of the Judis analysis. The terminology is modified – the somewheres are nationalists and the anywheres are cosmopolitans – but the idea is the same. The distinction comes down to personal identity and one’s attitude towards globalization.
Nationalists have an identity rooted in home, family and nation, whereas cosmopolitans are more internationalist in outlook. It’s not a matter of cosmopolitans being unpatriotic, but rather that “they don’t depend primarily or even significantly for their self-approbation and esteem” on being any specific nationality.
Cosmopolitans have also either benefited – or been protected – from the economic impact of globalization. Job offshoring and low-wage competition haven’t been a particular concern for them.
And this cleavage has fostered a social disconnect. The ties that bind aren’t what they used to be.
For instance, when ExxonMobil CEO (1999 to 2005) Lee Raymond was asked about building more American oil refineries, he had this to say: “I am not a U.S. company and I don’t make decisions based on what is good for the U.S.”
Similarly, a 2015 poll of Silicon Valley startup founders discovered that 73 percent prioritized “global trade” over “American workers.”
A significant chunk of what Judis has to say pertains to Europe.
Noting the post-war influence of thinkers like Jean Monnet and Altiero Spinelli, he traces the development of what is now the European Union to their desire to abolish national sovereignty in favour of what could be called a United States of Europe.
Judis, however, points out fundamental differences between Europe and America.
The U.S. was built outward from a core cultural-ethnic identity. In 1790, 90 percent of white Americans were British in origin, Protestant in religion and English-speaking. And while American identity expanded beyond that core, the expansion was for a long time based on the concept of a melting pot. Newcomers were expected to adapt to being American, to effectively assimilate.
Europe, in contrast, starts with many ethnicities, languages and cultures. Rather than slowly building out from a common core, the process of establishing a European identity involves pushing the other way. In effect, subordinating historical sovereignties and aspirations to a new creation.
Another difference has to do with immigration. Unlike the American experience, Europe’s history for most of the last 300 years was one of emigration, not immigration. Consequently, many of the cultures have little or no historical experience with integrating newcomers, particularly those who are culturally or ethnically different.
While the strains of this process are widely experienced, they’re especially intense in countries like Poland and Hungary.
Both have long histories of unfortunate encounters with invading foreigners and a form of Christian nationalism has become identified with survival. Slogans like “Hungary for the Hungarians” and “To be a true Pole, you have to be a Catholic” resonate.
So while the European Union worries about the growth of ethnocentric autocracy, Budapest and Warsaw chafe over what they see as a form of liberal imperialism marching under the banners of democracy and multiculturalism.
Sometimes, different people really do have different values.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps just a little bit.