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                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

Nationalism, patriotism, romanticism

This posting was made on 24/10/2003, but I don’t know where! Clearly the subject is nationalism and patriotism, discussing Johann Gottfried von Herder as introduced by Herder, (online here.)

Torontoman said

“I don’t think anybody here thinks that nationalism on itself is bad thing. What makes nationalism dangerous is the feeling for superiority and disrespect for others.”

Well I do think that nationalism is a very bad thing – but the nationalism I detest is not the nationalism you favour. I think that there is a confusion here between nationalism and patriotism. Nationalism is a state ideology and a belief about how the state can be organised and how it relates to its citizens. Patriotism is a feeling, and a feeling you can have about your home village, your football team, the two or more different countries you have lived in and loved, etc. all at the same time. You can be patriotic about the subtle possibilities of Azeri, and the glorious literature of Farsi, at the same time. Patriotism is not exclusive. But a state ideology is necessarily exclusive, because we have only one state and one government in one territory. The state (echoing Weber, who got it from Trotsky) is whatever body exerts a *monopoly on the use of force* in a defined territory: monopoly and exclusion are in its nature. When feelings of affinity and pride in religious, historical, cultural or language are translated into a definition of the state, the result will always be ugly.

Halsall is correct that nationalism *was* one of the most successful philosophies of the 20th century, but the 20th century was not one of the most successful in human history, was it? National socialism (Nazism) and fascism are the German and Italian variants, and there were Japanese and French and English variants too – not to mention the third world variants such as the Pol Pot. Being successful does not mean being a good thing! Nationalism was responsible for plunging the world into war several times, for justifying colonial brutalities, and for totalitarian suppression of many countries’ own citizens – especially those that did not fit the ideal type proposed by the local variant of nationalism.

As Halsall says, the basic problem facing any nationalism is that the ‘nation’ is an imagined thing, a fiction. To make nationalism work, people have to be told and taught that they are a “natural nation”, and since there is nowhere on earth where the population is homogenous, this is done by choosing some attributes that are fairly widely spread, but are not shared by most of those defined as outsiders. Inevitably there are some people not in the country who share that attribute, so every nationalism is seen as a threat to neighbours (eg Farsi nationalism would be seen as a threat in Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union republics, because if Farsi-speakers are a “natural nation” then Dari-speaking areas belong to Iran – likewise Azeri nationalism is a threat to Iranian integrity, German-language nationalism justified the anschluss, etc). But there are also people within the country who do not fit the required mould: gypsies and Jews, Hugenots, Bahais, homosexuals, Sunnis, Shias, brown people, white people, Asians …

“Romantic” is a nice cuddly word, but von Herder’s romantic nationalism is the father of Nazism, the feeder pipe for the gas ovens, the open gate to the killing fields. Perhaps it was in some places a necessary stage, as compared to earlier national identities such as the religious one – in multi-religious countries, language or racial nationalism could be used as a way to include more people into the definition of who belongs. But even if we concede that in some cases, the price paid for the nationalist conception of identity was terrible, and the end of nationalism in Europe (outside the Balkans) has been the principal cause of Europe’s progress in the late 20th century. I would be loath to think that Iran might have to go through the horrors of a nationalist interlude before it can achieve a post-modern state.

[Forum participant] Oldman’s quote is confusing, because he doesn’t mark where the text goes from Halsall’s objective and accurate evaluation of nationalism’s historical importance, to Herder’s dangerous ideological ravings. I think the switch is at the words “nature brings forth families.” If we look at what Herder says from that point on, it can be summarised in order under 7 headings:
1) diversity of races in one state is a bad thing
2) human nature is determined by material causes
3) “peoples” each have an in-born nature (essentialist fallacy)
4) historically, peoples have remained pure (racist fallacy) up until the present day
5) the ideal is the life of the simple savage: cosmopolitan and urban life is bad
6) inter-marriage leads to degeneration
7) every people has to find its own solutions, not learning from other peoples

Ask yourselves whether this poisonous rubbish is likely to lead the way to a successful society in the contemporary world. And look where it led Germany – the waters of the Rhine had to turn to blood twice, before the German people saw through the sham.

“O banks of the Rhine! We have seen you covered with gore, inasmuch as the swords of retribution were drawn against you; and you shall have another turn. …”

Baha’u’llah, Kitab-e Aqdas, circa 1870-1873

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