In the wake of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union (“Brexit”), op-ed pages are overflowing with scathing descriptions of “nationalism” as a corrosive political force. On the surface, this is nothing new: the modern Left frequently displays a visceral avulsion to anything that celebrates a “national identity.”
Tragically, this is partly due to the co-optation of “identity” language by neo-Nazis and white supremacists. But on a deeper level, the impulse to denounce the “tribal” impulse of patriotism has become so reflexive and so unreflective that nationalism’s critics find themselves slipping into a moral quagmire.
National culture matters, and acquires value relative to other expressions of culture, because human rights matter. If you believe it makes sense to talk about the moral objectivity of human rights (and most people, on both the Left and the Right, implicitly reason from this assumption), it logically follows that some nations are objectively better than others at promoting human rights. Almost everyone on the Right and Left would agree it is right and good for us to condemn countries that countenance death sentences for LGBT individuals (Uganda), arrests of dissident journalists (Russia), nerve-gassing of civilians (Syria), and the crucifixion of children (Islamic State).
Schlock-horror maven Eli Roth drove this point home with brutal effectiveness in last year’s film “The Green Inferno.” The movie centers on a group of activist college students who travel to the Amazon in an attempt to save indigenous tribes from capitalist developers. When their plane crashes in the rainforest, the students are successively hunted, killed, and eaten by the tribe they originally came to “help.” It’s a gruesome, over-the-top spectacle—but at the same time a stark indictment of attempts at cultural moral relativism. Roth’s thesis speaks for itself: all ways of life are not equally praiseworthy, and (obviously) cannibalism is morally inferior to compassion.
Well-Founded Patriotism Is Good and Natural
When one adopts a broad perspective, descriptions of Western liberal democracies as unrelenting engines of imperialist oppression fly in the face of our moral intuitions. Regarding human dignity and prosperity, it is fair to assess nations along a continuum—and for all its weaknesses, the ascendance of liberal democratic culture has been a titanic achievement in human flourishing. If people could choose in a vacuum which country they would most like to be born into, the odds are good that most people would choose a liberal democracy. Attempts to pretend otherwise are disingenuous: flows of left-wing Westerners are not exactly pouring into countries ruled by autocrats or theocrats.
This is the moral wellspring from which a properly ordered “love of country” flows. There is a very real difference between this sort of patriotism—this affirmation that human rights objectively matter and that certain nations have proven to be more successful at promoting them—and the kind of jingoism that treats foreign cultures and traditions as automatically inferior because they are different.
Two societies may differ radically with respect to worship, dress, food, literature, art, political structure, et cetera, yet both may share an equally robust commitment to human dignity and human rights. Moreover, thinking about nationalism in a constructive, value-oriented way does not mean a nation cannot, or should not, be criticized for its failures to live up to its own high standards. America is still grappling with its horrific treatment of African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and other groups who have suffered through centuries of discrimination. But as horrible as they have been, America’s failures are not automatically an indictment of America’s broader national values: liberty and equality before the law.
The contemporary Left’s violent rejection of anything that feels like “nationalism” (coupled with the chronic inability to articulate and apply a transcultural standard of human rights) results in a fundamental tension: the language of traditional national values (inclusivity, openness, equality) is deployed in the service of political ends alongside denunciations of the nation qua nation. The resulting message is intrinsically self-defeating: “Uphold your country’s values. But by the way, your country is bad, and you’re wrong to identify with it.”
‘Hamilton’ Demonstrates Healthy Love of Country
Isolationism, xenophobia, and stereotyping certainly aren’t the answer to contemporary ills, and the rise of vitriolic populism undoubtedly poses a serious threat to the democratic order. Societies need to find healthy avenues for resolving these underlying tensions, and, if need be, find these avenues in unexpected places. For example, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical “Hamilton” successfully epitomizes what a healthy “love of country” can look like.
“Hamilton” traces the founding of the American republic through the eyes of Alexander Hamilton, exploring the life of a major, often-overlooked American leader. As a result, the pro-Hamilton cultural groundswell has become so influential that it stymied efforts to replace Hamilton on the $10 bill (and resulted in Andrew Jackson getting bumped instead). At the same time, “Hamilton” is by no means an uncritical celebration of American exceptionalism. By casting persons of color in lead roles and adopting rap-music stylings, “Hamilton” illustrates the universal applicability of the principles for which the American Framers fought and, simultaneously, the Framers’ failure to reckon with the moral inconsistency of slavery alongside declarations of equality.
“Hamilton” doesn’t demand that its viewers (or listeners) be ashamed of their nation. It doesn’t require its audience to disavow their “love of country.” It does provoke reflection over the ways in which American promises may or may not be realized today. The world needs more art like “Hamilton”—more creative forms that celebrate what is objectively good and praiseworthy about a given nation and culture, while simultaneously calling that nation “onward and upward” to better facilitate human flourishing.
“Nation-shaming”—denouncing all patriotic impulses as barbaric, tribal, and intrinsically racist—will never produce constructive outcomes, and will only fuel the isolationist fires stoked by Donald Trump and the U.K.’s Independence Party and Greece’s Golden Dawn. A better approach, for those seeking to ward off the implosion of global cooperation, is to embrace the validity of “love of country” while still recognizing and grappling with any nation’s inevitable failures.
“Nationalism” deserves to be reclaimed from the leftists and fascists alike. Too much is on the line.