On nationalism

{Warning: This is a little more hard-hitting than my other posts in this month-long blog binge.}

Robert Kennedy, in a March 18th, 1968 speech at the University of Kansas, said

Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.  Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.  And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

Little has improved since then. Except the GNP ($17 trillion as of Q4 2013). But it still factors in all those bad things he called out.

I consider myself a patriot, and as such much of the nationalist rhetoric revolts me. I think people today confuse patriotism and nationalism, and George Orwell thought the same in 1945. He said patriotism “means 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.” Unfortunately, I see a lot of people wanting to force their way of life on other people: dictating women’s healthcare and removing choice, opposition to gay marriage, pick a Tea Party or extreme religious position…

Orwell had a lot to say about nationalism (in his essay of nationalism…go figure).  On 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.

Sound familiar? If not, then I’m writing to the wrong people.

I see on Facebook things I consider stupid like “I was spanked as a child and I turned out okay.” Is there a connection between nationalism and that kind of ignorance? I don’t know…I’ll leave that one for the social “scientists”. More Orwell:

“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.”

I wonder what Kennedy would think of the state of the state today. Post 9/11 brought an uncomfortable (to me) blind nationalism to the forefront. Outrage over the attack? Abso-freaking-lutely. Carte blanche to invade Iraq? Quite simply…no. Pride in country? Yes. Blindness to the wrongs we do not only to others in the world, but to our own citizens? An unequivocal no.

Kennedy’s GNP could “tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans”. When I see that there are people screaming at children on a political border, I don’t feel pride. When I see more states passing laws permitting same sex marriage ( a legal institution, nothing more or less) I do feel pride. Obviously, there’s more to it than that.

I’ll finish with two more lines from Robert Kennedy’s speech that are still relevant and applicable:

We can do better here in the United States, we can do better.  We can do better in our relationships to other countries around the rest of the globe.

My reach is small. My impact less. I wish our leaders who have the reach and impact could keep Kennedy’s (and Orwell’s) observations in mind.


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