I have paid particular attention to “nationalism” over the past month. Various perspectives have presented themselves. At the beginning of August I traveled in South Africa and at the end of the month the memorial to Senator John McCain dominates public attention.
South Africa’s Nationalistic Victory
While in South Africa I visited the Apartheid Museum and the Mandela “Capture Site”. During the apartheid era, South Africa perpetually and harshly denied majority rights. African friends of mine at the University of California, Davis back in my graduate school days predicted a blood reckoning once apartheid was defeated.
Through the fortunate leadership of a great man (men) and an astute appeal to better natures, the peace largely held and South Africa endured as one nation. Specific efforts such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission attempted to provide accurate information, justice and importantly conditioned mercy.
Ascending to Leading a Nation
As Tony Leon a leader of the opposition chronicles in his book Opposite Mandela Encounters with South Africa’s Icon, the efforts were only partially successful. Mr. Leon wrote that though there was much controversy about the conclusions he demonstrated an important national perspective.
This was demonstrated by President Mandela continuing to endorse the Truth and Reconciliation findings. “Mandela’s role here, in stark contrast to his successor Mbeki’s, proved in my view how at crucial moments he could ascend from partisan combatant to leader of the nation.” (p 137)
Liberty of Nations
On August 24th, the Wall Street Journal presented an essay “The Liberty of Nations”. Nationalism is often used as a pejorative. It is denigrated as a shallow and narrow construct, subject to being captured by bigoted, ignorant groups. Nationalism and nativism are used in conjunction. It is used to denote intolerant movements such as white nationalism. How can any word survive such bad company?
Nationalism: Disordered Habit of Mind?
Yoram Hazony’s article in the Wall Street Journal provides background and context regarding nationalism. He refers to George Orwell who regarded nationalism as a disordered “habit of mind.” His criticism emphasizes the exclusivity of the nationalistic concept where there is a single identity which treats the particular nation as beyond moral reproach which only advances that nation’s interests.
In contrast to nationalism, Orwell praises “patriotism”. He views it as a “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.”
Mr. Hazony expands upon anti-nationalist authors when he reviews Elie Kedourie and his 1960 book Nationalism. Kedourie determined that nationalistic agitation precipitated many of the 20th Century mega wars.
His analysis is built upon the relationship of national borders to majority and minority populations. This critique draws much from the relatively recent history where minority populations in many countries have been attacked by nationalistic majorities.
Nationalism and Power Sharing
But Nelson Mandela provides a good contrast. The nationalistic identity does not have to be tribal. The key to an effective national experience is power sharing. It is best developed when there is a compelling sense of cohesion within the nation.
Cohesion can be accomplished when there is an increasing sense of shared identity. This may be through joint development programs that emphasize national identity, or a unified common history which has built trust and rapport and in which truth and reconciliation is the overriding goal.
Retreating from National Trust And Rapport
Most recently in America we appear to have advanced and then retreated from national trust and rapport. For Americans to advance culturally, socially, and economically our beneficial common history must be featured. Unified joint action is required to advance our history.
We need to evaluate carefully whether we want to revisit a history of fire-eaters and abolitionists where all parties were pulled into a deadly tribal division. The result after the Civil War freed 4,000,000 enslaved Americans at the cost of around 620,000 battlefield deaths. Though immense sacrifice there was great progress in freeing Americans from slavery. Relatively soon thereafter we retreated into an amnesia with no durable reconciliation achieved over many generations.
All the implications of this calculus has yet to be fully resolved, but undertaking our own American truth and reconciliation initiative may well be beneficial. It must address all aspects of our national discontent. It must be grounded in a unifying American cause greater than ourselves. A special kind of leadership will be required to unify Americans to this purpose.
Senator John McCain’s Farwell Statement
John McCain’s Farewell Statement provides the national rationale to earnestly address our challenges:
But, we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country, we get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.
Common Effort is What We Do
Some call it nationalism other patriotism. I believe it is both – they are best symbiotic having reinforcing elements. If we are to build the nation, we much launch common endeavor, requiring service and commitment, but introducing us to each other and advancing the fruits of our common effort.
This effort may not financially enrich ourselves immediately, but we should be able to see our communities and our nation advance, providing increased opportunity and achieving the object of providential hope for the broader American community.
Common ground is where we stand while common effort is what we do. In this regard Senator McCain summed it up best in his “Farewell Statement”: “Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but are enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.”