I first posted a slightly different version of this diary on July 4, 2010.
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
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
More than anyone else, including his mentor and departed co-conspirator, Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney has been the intellectual author and bureaucratic facilitator of the crimes and misdemeanors that have inflicted unprecedented disgrace on our country’s moral and political standing: the casual trashing of habeas corpus and the Geneva Conventions; the claim of authority to seize suspects, including American citizens, and imprison them indefinitely and incommunicado, with no right to due process of law; the outright encouragement of “cruel,” “inhuman,” and “degrading” treatment of prisoners; the use of undoubted torture, including waterboarding (Cheney: “a no-brainer for me”), which for a century the United States had prosecuted as a war crime; and, of course, the bloody, nightmarish Iraq war itself, launched under false pretenses, conducted with stupefying incompetence, and escalated long after public support for it had evaporated, at the cost of scores of thousands of lives, nearly half a trillion dollars, and the crippling of America’s armed forces, which no longer overawe and will take years to rebuild.
It was the emergence of this kind of 'virulent' nationalism that once compelled someone like Keith Olbermann to offer this special comment (video) 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!
Four 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.
Orwell wrote this essay towards the end of World War II in 1945. He 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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