Thursday, January 8, 2009

Orwell on Nationalism

An incisive bit on nationalism by George Orwell is receiving quite a few cites on the internets of late (e.g. here and here and here), and deservedly so:

Indifference to Reality. All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side ... 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.
The quote is from Orwell's "Notes on Nationalism," which begins with a rather less convincing distinction between nationalism and patriotism:
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.
It's a valid enough distinction as far as it goes, but it reminds me of the distinction between radical and moderate monotheism: surely there are plenty of gentle patriots and mild theists out there tending their own gardens, but sooner or later, their "defensive" nature will be roused to belligerence by real or perceived threat, whereupon the moderate/radical distinction dissolves.

There is no line but a continuum, and the common root flaw is the too-close identification with the tribe. That flaw seems stamped indelibly on human nature, so all we can do is commit to interrogating it in ourselves.

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