I first posted an abbreviated version of this essay on Independence Day in 2007. As the years go by, it seems to me that we should be paying more attention to the writings of brilliant authors like George Orwell and Howard Zinn.
They force us to re-examine our conventional assumptions while challenging us not to be swept away by blind loyalty or political conformity. Regardless of one's political leanings, it is our duty as citizens to do just that in a country whose foundation rests upon the notion of dissent.
We should never, ever shy away from questioning the dubious actions of both political foes and friends.
The above quote is frequently misattributed to George Orwell. As this comment below points out, the quote is by Selwyn Duke, a freelance writer. Also, see this 2021 Reuters article which points out that thorough research showed no record of Orwell ever writing it anywhere.
Note: I posted some July 4th editorial cartoons that just went online above the diary poll. Check them out.
“Nationalism is Not to Be Confused With Patriotism”
Writing in May 1945 in his remarkable essay "Notes on Nationalism" while he was living in Morocco and just as World War II was ending in Europe, author George Orwell made a distinction between patriotism and nationalism, two concepts often used interchangeably even to this day. In the essay, Orwell defines patriotism as loyalty to one's country and its guiding principles. Nationalism, he felt strongly, was an idea compatible with individuals obsessed with the acquisition of more power.
Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By "patriotism" I mean 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.
Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.
In two other essays, Orwell writes at length about these concepts. That he was somewhat of a contrarian should not surprise anyone who is familiar with his many books and essays. However uncomfortable, his internationalist views co-existed with his love of many aspects of life in England.
In "My Country Right or Left" (1940), he discusses his inner conflicts and how to reconcile his love for country and pacifist views. In a later essay, "The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius" (1941), he writes that there is no contradiction between being a socialist and a patriot.
Is the expression of nationalism in itself, as 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. Hundreds of years later, it led to mass decolonization, freedom, and independence for hundreds of millions of people around the world — particularly in the period immediately following World War II and leading to a trend that accelerated over the next couple of decades after that brutal conflict.
“That Self-Deception Started Early”
A bombardier in World War II historian and political activist Howard Zinn came to detest war and killing. In 2006, he wrote an article titled "The Scourge of Nationalism" in the Progressive magazine in which he criticized the American obsession with the idea of nationalism and how it manifested itself in American foreign policy.
We need to assert our allegiance to the human race, not to any one nation
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.
National spirit can be benign in a country that is small and lacking both in military power and a hunger for expansion (Switzerland, Norway, Costa Rica and many more). But in a nation like ours — huge, possessing thousands of weapons of mass destruction — what might have been harmless pride becomes an arrogant nationalism dangerous to others and to ourselves.
Our citizenry has been brought up to see our nation as different from others, an exception in the world, uniquely moral, expanding into other lands in order to bring civilization, liberty, democracy.
That self-deception started early.
Pictured above is 2nd Lieutenant Howard Zinn, bombardier, Army Air Force in England in 1945, the year World War II ended. You can read a lot more about this remarkable man here at howardzinn.org.
Zinn didn't condemn the kind of benign nationalism that exists in smaller countries lacking the technological wherewithal or the pernicious desire for 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. As the Cold War was ending, the former Yugoslavia suffered a similar fate. 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 recent 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.'
“Nationalism is Given a Special Virulence When it is...Blessed by Providence”
In early 2004, I wrote a diary — Is the United States Imperialist? — which directly addressed the concerns raised above by Zinn.
From Thucydides to Machiavelli to Bismarck to Winston Churchill to Charles de Gaulle to George Kennan on down, historians, theorists, and politicians have offered real lessons and, importantly, caution flags to our leaders. It has become a cliche to suggest that the United States has never been and never will be an imperialist nation — damaging historical evidence to the contrary. Our kids are taught that from an early age. It is ingrained in our bones. And too many of our leaders have often perpetuated this myth by painting our global actions in the best possible light. We never seek to dominate and exploit other nations. We are Americans, they tell us, and not a hegemonic power conniving to stifle other cultures. Our role is to assist, enlighten, reform, and lift up other nations.
It is indeed our Manifest Destiny.
In 1872 artist John Gast painted a popular scene of people moving west that captured the view of Americans at the time. Called "Spirit of the Frontier" and widely distributed as an engraving portrayed settlers moving west, guided and protected by a goddess-like figure of Columbia and aided by technology (railways, telegraphs), driving Native Americans and bison into obscurity. It is also important to note that the angel is bringing "light," as witnessed on the eastern side of the painting as she travels towards the "darkened" west.
During the Great Depression and 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. During the five-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 domestic policy was — and often carried to extremes during periods such as the McCarthy Era in the 1940s and 1950s — it was largely free of excessive religious rhetoric.
If you've ever seen the movie The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) based on John le Carre's famous spy thriller novel, you'll remember this unforgettable exchange between Alec Leamas, the novel's cynical, self-loathing protagonist played by actor Richard Burton and Nan Perry, an idealistic British Communist played by actress Claire Bloom. She is largely unaware of the cloak-and-dagger world of high-stakes espionage that Leamas operated in.
(Go to the 1:28 mark of the video to watch the below rant from Richard Burton)
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: little men, drunkards, queers, henpecked 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? Yesterday I would have killed Mundt because I thought him evil and an enemy. But not today. Today he is evil and my friend. London needs him. They need him so that the great, moronic masses you admire so much can sleep soundly in their flea-bitten beds again. They need him for the safety of ordinary, crummy people like you and me…
If you have never seen this movie, you can watch The Spy Who Came in From the Cold on Pluto TV. Released when international political tensions were high in 1965, it is an excellent movie about that period of Cold War history. Look for it by using the ‘Search’ function and you don’t even have to download the app to access Pluto TV as it is completely free.
In 2006, Zinn reserved his harshest words for the likes of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for their distinctly non-secularist foreign policies.
How far have we advanced as a country since that time?
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.
“In the Name of God, Go!”
During the early Bush Years — and ever 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 superior in its way of life when compared to other countries.
Myths last a very long time. However, whatever remaining claims the United States had to a "superior morality" quickly evaporated after the Iraq War — and probably well before it. A natural extension of the xenophobia and policies that flowed from this attitude was 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 political commentator Keith Olbermann to offer this Special Comment (go to 8:06 mark of the video) in which he quoted Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell in sending a message to the Bush Administration.
Cromwell's April 20, 1653 Speech Dissolving the Rump Parliament
It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonored by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice...
Ye have no more religion than my horse. Gold is your God. Which of you have not bartered your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth?
Your country therefore calls upon me to cleanse this Augean stable, by putting a final period to your iniquitous proceedings in this House; and which by God's help, and the strength he has given me, I am now come to do.
I command ye therefore, upon the peril of your lives, to depart immediately out of this place.
Go, get you out! Make haste! Ye venal slaves be gone! So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors.
In the name of God, go!
You can watch the film version of this speech here in the movie Cromwell, in which actor British Richard Harris plays the lead role.
“Every Nationalist is Haunted by the Belief that the Past Can be Altered”
Well over a decade ago on July 4, 2006, 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 his prescient essay over six decades earlier in 1945. He could have as easily been describing today's delusional, irrational, and, yes, in many instances, racist members of the disgraced Trump regime and their many violently clueless supporters.
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...
Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also—since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself—unshakeably certain of being in the right.
There is no question in my mind that had Orwell never volunteered to travel to Spain in December 1936 to confront Fascism in the Spanish Civil War for the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista), he would have probably never written Animal Farm or 1984. After his escape via France in the Summer of 1937, the disgust that he felt against the totalitarian Stalinist Left in Spain after the ’1937 Barcelona May Days’ and in later years should not be taken as evidence of his Rightward tilt. This long article, "Looking Back at the Spanish War" reveals his contempt for some of his political allies who were promoting outright lies. In subsequent writings, and in perhaps the best book that he ever wrote, Homage to Catalonia, he would reiterate his commitment to democratic socialist principles. Click on this link to read the book for free.
Howard Zinn was a national treasure who answered the call of duty when his country needed him in the 1940s. Contrary to popular perception, he was not a pessimist. We need more people like him to shine a light on this country's achievements as well as its shortcomings. We have enough phony, flag-waving, ultra-nationalists in this country.
As former Undersecretary-General of the United Nations, Brian Urquhart noted in this excellent article in the New York Review of Books many years ago.
The word "nationalism" never quite seemed to fit the United States, where continental vastness and enormous power have hitherto been tempered by an often-expressed distaste for empire and by the notion of world leadership by example. Two American presidents, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, both sponsored world organizations whose primary objective was to contain and disperse the aggressive force of nationalism. In the first years of the twenty-first century, however, in a dramatic departure from traditional policy, the spirit of unilateralism and militant nationalism began to dominate Washington’s policies and attitudes toward the outside world.
Reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001, gave new force and a new direction to this change. Anatol Lieven’s America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism examines the roots of longstanding American nationalistic tendencies that have given public support to this fundamental change in United States policy.
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.
It is constructive criticism and thinking out of the box — not passivity, blind obedience, and mindless conformity — that will spur healthy debate and strengthen the foundations of this country.
We should demand nothing less from ourselves.
If the average, somewhat-apolitical American voter is unsure about the future of the country — given the deep political divisions in the country over the past several years — it is perfectly understandable.
One thing is quite clear: the three Trump appointees to the US Supreme Court are beginning to chip away at the fabric of American society as I wrote in my last diary only a couple of days ago.
Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about the future direction of the country? Remember to take the diary poll.
Ha! Serves Him Right
Just Shut Up!
A Classic Tom Toles Editoria Cartoon
A Question from Andy Rooney
Remembering George Orwell