I’m done with Steve Bannon for now, but I’d like to expand on a topic that came up in my last posting on him. He’s generally denounced for being a “nationalist,” and my readers may recall that I didn’t criticize him for that, but the opposite – for seeming more committed to furthering “Judeo-Christian” values and “Reaganesque” economic policies than to anything resembling actual nationalism. You may gather from this that I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with being nationalistic and – within limits – you’d be right. Let me elucidate.
I’ve always considered myself an American nationalist; at least I did until Trump and his buddy Bannon came along and tainted the brand.
Nationalism gets a bad rap these days. Pundits on the right and on the left have labored to distinguish it from patriotism, which to them means loving one’s country in a harmless, peaceable, moderate, happy-face kind of way – as opposed to nationalism, which is ignorant, bigoted, intolerant, warlike, and no fun at all.
Obviously, this isn’t the paradigm I prefer.
I’m a student of political theory, and I like to view these issues dispassionately, so my perspective is a little less judgmental. To me, nationalists simply are people who give allegiance and support to the nation-state – which they believe to be the only truly viable and legitimate kind of government – whereas patriots are loyal to the political society they live in, whether it’s a nation-state or not. That might not seem like a very dramatic difference, but I never said it was.
Nationalists deem that the human race can be divided into distinct communities of sentiment and interest, called nations. Each of these popular groupings is marked by a distinctive culture – language, history, and way of life – which creates a bond of union between its members, while setting them apart from outsiders. Each is associated with a defined territory that it considers to be its ancestral homeland. Because every nation’s customs and mores are unique, their political expectations will be unique as well, and it follows from this that every nation should be self-governing – or, to say the same thing differently, no nation should rule or dominate another. In general, nations should mind their own business and stay out of each other’s way.
Roughly speaking, this is the theory underlying the world’s state system today. When I say I’m a nationalist, that’s what I mean.
Numerous questions are raised by this formulation, most of which I won’t have space to discuss in this blog posting, so I’ll limit myself to just one topic: nationalism as the political expression of Pagan values. Though it’s a modern theory, nationalism has its roots in the ideas of Pagan antiquity, and it presupposes an essentially Pagan world-view. This is true in two important respects.
First, nationalism recognizes the plurality of fundamental ideals which is at the heart of Paganism. Pagans are polytheists; we believe in a multitude of Spiritual Forces, which the ancient sages personified as Goddesses and Gods. Human beings naturally seek to live in accordance with the will of those Divinities, yet since there are many of them, with many different powers and attitudes, this opens up many different avenues whereby people may lead a Spiritually meaningful life. Nationalism is a manifestation, in the political realm, of this multi-colored Pagan mythos.
In other words, just as Paganism rejects the arrogant religious notion that there’s only one God deserving of worship, nationalism constitutes a repudiation of the equally arrogant concept that there’s one best way for human beings to organize their political affairs. Nationalists feel that it’s wrong for any faction – whether Western modernizers, or Islamic fanatics, or Christian fundamentalists, or Marxist revolutionaries – to inflict their preferences on people who’d prefer something else. Human beings who’ve been brought up in a particular cultural milieu will experience the imposition of alien values as a violation of their very being, and aren’t likely to be improved by it. A world which offers a variety of lifestyles and social possibilities is much more attractive, than a world in which all peoples have been bullied into uniformity.
Second, Pagans are traditionalists. We honor our earliest ancestors, and we wish, as far as possible, to walk in the Spiritual path they trod before us. Nationalists revere their ancient forebears also – like Pagans, they’re people of the land. Nation-states may be fairly recent creations, but they almost always center on an ethnic group, proud of its age-old customs and past glories, living on its historic ground. This tribal bond, which connects individuals with one another, with the national territory, and with generations past and future, provides nation-states with the strength to fight off foreign aggressors, overcome internal divisions, and unite for the common good. Populations lacking this quasi-familial tie will be less committed to the communal project, and more susceptible to political indecision and domestic strife.
Speaking for myself, I’ve been attracted to nationalism as a political theory for some of the same reasons I’m attracted to Paganism as a religion: I don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all solution to the perplexities of the human condition, and I’m more inclined to consult the wisdom of the past, than to waste my time concocting unlikely answers to social dilemmas that have, for millennia, engaged bigger thinkers than me. Most of the time, I think, the elders know best.
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