The Blinding Power of Nationalism


W.J. Astore

One of the challenges of my teaching career was to encourage students to think critically about American history and actions.  Since I taught at conservative institutions (the Air Force Academy; a technical college in rural Pennsylvania), many of my students had a strong “America: love it or leave it” mentality.  They associated criticism with lack of patriotism.  Fortunately, I had the advantage of wearing a military uniform (at the Air Force Academy) and later the status of a retired military officer (in Pennsylvania), so few students could readily dismiss my critiques as the work of a “libtard” leftist academic.

Patriotism, I would tell my students, meant an informed love of country, meaning that a patriot was open to seeing the faults in his or her country, and willing to work hard to change things for the better.  The “love it or leave it” mentality, I explained, was a form of false patriotism; an unthinking form, a type of blind infatuation.  Nationalism, in a word.

George Orwell, as usual, beat me to the punch, writing with great clarity in 1945 on the distinction between patriotism and nationalism.

By ‘nationalism’ I mean … the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with 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…

Orwell further explained the dangers of nationalism.  The way a nationalist “thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige.”  The way a nationalist’s “thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.”  Nationalism, Orwell explained, “is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right …”

Flagrant dishonesty combined with unshakable certainty is a combustible mix.  To explain why, it is worth quoting Orwell at length:

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. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war. Their own antisemitism has caused this vast crime to bounce off their consciousness. In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind…

The point is that as soon as fear, hatred, jealousy and power worship are involved, the sense of reality becomes unhinged. And, as I have pointed out already, the sense of right and wrong becomes unhinged also. There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when ‘our’ side commits it. Even if one does not deny that the crime has happened, even if one knows that it is exactly the same crime as one has condemned in some other case, even if one admits in an intellectual sense that it is unjustified — still one cannot feel that it is wrong. Loyalty is involved, and so pity ceases to function…

The nationalist succeeds in constructing his own “reality,” a twisted version of alternative facts, an unthinking construct, a remorseless world without pity and compassion for others.

Contrast the nationalist to the patriot.  A patriot thrives on thought.  She is unafraid to face reality as it is; she does not suppress emotions like pity and compassion.  True patriotism is critical, open-minded, and defensive, as Orwell explained in his Notes on Nationalism:

“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 easy, in the “might makes right” reality of nationalism, for murder to become sanctioned as a positive good, or at the very least for nationalists to become oblivious to murder.  As Orwell said, a nationalist can justify anything in the cause of “protecting” his construct of the state.  Again, nationalism is a form of infatuation, a willed blindness, that can be used or manipulated to actuate, support, and justify the most inhumane actions.

The world today faces a rising tide of nationalism.  Its dangers are well documented in history and well explained by Orwell.  “Love it or leave it,” in short, is a murderous path, not a patriotic one.  Let’s not go down it.

(My thanks to Mike Murry and Monotonous Languor for their stimulating comments on Orwell and nationalism at this site.)

15 thoughts on “The Blinding Power of Nationalism

  1. Couldn’t agree more with all of it but find myself disagreeing with Orwell on one point in his definition of patriotism: “[…] which one believes to be the best in the world […]”. I would attribute that to nationalism, as such belief carries the seed of a feeling of superiority and thus of considering the rest of the world & nations as inferior. I may subjectively like and love my country more than any other and indeed be ready to defend it if attacked, but that does not mean that it objectively IS the best one or that I should even think it is.
    As for turning a blind eye to crimes against humanity being committed on our watch, another British writer, Graham Greene, already in 1936 mentioned nazi concentration camps in one of his novels situated in West Africa – probably ‘Journey Without Maps’. Even now most Europeans and I rather suspect also Americans do not know about Stalin’s artificially created Famine in the Ukraine. Just like most westeners do not care to acknowledge the existence of their own GWOT gulag archipelago. A psychologist friend who studied that subject once told me, that it takes societies some 60 years before they find the courage to face such atrocities, let alone acknowledge any complicity and guilt.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agree with your 1st paragraph.
      2nd para: “it takes societies some 60 years before they find the courage to face such atrocities”, maybe that is true as a rule of thumb, but in the case of Israel those atrocities have been going on since the creation of the state, and even before, ever since the Zionists set foot in Palestine at the end of the 19th century.

      But then Israel is exceptional, or in any case that is the way it & the US project its image.


  2. An interesting article, and here are a few of points:
    1. The Olympics, World Cup, World Athletics, etc. all contribute to nationalism; in my view these kinds of events should be abolished, esp. with trends in today’s world. I am realistic enough to know that will not happen, but I am also realistic enough to know that nationalism will not disappear, and in said today’s world will only increase.
    2. You mention concentration camps, but you leave out the world’s largest concentration camp: Gaza.
    3. You mention antisemitism, meaning in its generally accepted form, but Arabs are Semites too, and the Zionists are among the world’s biggest antisemites, while Israel is the world’s most antisemitic country.


  3. A coda: A patriot accepts the idea that foreigners may also love their respective countries, and that, if one had been born in Italy or Poland or Russia and so on, one might be an Italian or Polish or Russian patriot.

    This reminds me of a story that I think I read in a Bill Bryson book. It involved a Swedish exchange student who lived in the USA for about a year while attending an American high school, I think somewhere in the Midwest. Before she returned to Sweden, she was asked by her American hosts which country she loved the most, and her U.S. audience was taken aback when she answered Sweden! As if one year in the USA should have convinced her of American superiority in all things.

    I may not have all the details right here, but this was the gist of the story: Many Americans are truly convinced their country is the best in everything. That other peoples may also take great pride in their respective countries seems almost unfathomable.

    Many Americans, of course, never travel overseas, or, if they do, they have a theme-park-like experience, perhaps taking a cruise or other form of guided tour, remaining effectively within their bubbles, traveling among other Americans.

    I was fortunate to live in England for three years, within village settings, among the natives, so to speak, while also traveling to Wales, Scotland, Italy, and Germany, outside of military settings, meeting and talking to foreigners on their terms, not on mine. When you do this, you learn to love (or miss) certain aspects of America, even as you come to appreciate the way the Welsh do things, or the Italians, or the Germans …


    1. Americans’ travel overseas sums up their interest in other cultures & countries when they say “we are doing Europe”, referring to their 2 week vacation there. Their patriotism is based on the concept of “god’ own country”.


      1. Yes. It’s just an exercise in ticking off tourist sites. Saw London, saw Paris, waited in line to glimpse the Mona Lisa, and so on.


  4. Stephen Decatur, in an after-dinner toast of 1816–1820:
    “Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”

    I remember hearing this quote, during the late 1960’s and 1970’s to justify the draft and the War in Vietnam. Even if we proles thought the War in Vietnam was wrong and repulsive, the “Best and the Brightest” along with LBJ, Nixon and a majority in Congress told us to go anyway. As a draftee in late 1969 we were told in so many words our country called us body and soul and we were expected to “serve” our country, just as our ancestors did in WW 1, WW 2 and Korea. Through convoluted reasoning a guilt trip was laid on – resistance to the draft and the War in Vietnam dishonored the Vets before us.

    Carl Schurz is an interesting person from our past. Born in Germany, a German revolutionary, emigrated to the United States, abolitionist, Union General, US Senator and a member of the American Anti-Imperialist League – established on June 15, 1898. Schurz was sent to the South after the Civil War to study the conditions there and wrote a report on his findings. The origins of Jim Crow can be found in his report.

    Schurz, changed Decatur’s words – “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

    AmeriKa, the myth endlessly propagated in the media is thought of as this giant peace loving country, bringing the Light of Liberty to the world. Peace is the Pax Americana, of domination through political, economic, and military methods. If one method does not bring the desired result others and all three can be used. Religion can also be used such as creating and funding religious extremists as it happened in Afghanistan during the Soviet Invasion.


    1. A strange tension in American society is the notion that big government is bad. Wasteful. Bossy. Untrustworthy. And so it must be resisted. At the same time, people profess their admiration, even love, for the U.S. military, which is a very big part of government, which they otherwise profess to distrust and even to revile.

      Surely this is partly because patriotism is constructed or defined as saluting the troops and defending the flag. Sometimes, patriotism is equated with obedience to the military and government, as in the Vietnam war. “Do your patriotic duty and kill gooks.”

      We need a much broader definition of patriotism in America, one that includes a healthy dose of skepticism about powerful agents of control, such as the military.

      Sadly, in America today patriotism often begins and ends with flag-waving and flag lapel pins and chants of “USA! USA!”


      1. Decades ago (before I went to Vietnam), I heard Ralph Nader speak. Essentially Nader turned the idea of let the buyer beware on it’s head. The consumer had rights to truth in lending, truth in labeling, the American people had a right to clean air and clean water among other things. At the time I had been brainwashed to believe that Patriotism began and ended with answering a call to arms by the military.

        I remember leaving his speech with the idea – Ralph Nader was a Patriot in his own way. Something was wrong in America and correction was needed.

        I do agree with you there is a strange tension in America concerning the government. A large part may be that the perception is our elected and appointed officials represent first and foremost their campaign contributors and lobbyists.


        1. Sure. Money is the main lubricant of American politics. Politicians, especially at the national level, are constantly raising money, even before they’re elected, in fact. All those lobbyists, patrons, and big-time contributors expect payback, and if they don’t get it, they’ll put their money elsewhere.

          I think most Americans recognize the corrupting influence of money; even most politicians do (so they say). But few politicians are willing to work seriously on campaign finance reform. Why would they? As “moneyed” incumbents, their seats are safer if the playing field continues to be tilted in their favor.


  5. If I may be so bold:

    The primary issue is expansionist political ideologies classically seek to align their interests with established institutions such as religion, nationalism, and etc to pursue expansionist ambitions such as ‘American Exceptionalism’, ‘Indispensable Nation’, ‘Global Force For Good’, ‘Spreading Democracy’, and etc that centrally blurs national defense with national interests.

    Case and point, it doesn’t matter what the nation’s figures are selling; people see it as ‘politics are derived by the barrel’.

    The next aspect is military options in mythology are symbolic of men while civilization (City-States/Nation-States) are symbolic of women; it’s totally unacceptable to force one’s will on another against their own.

    The US Foreign Policy as so many nations and Empires before it ultimately lead to implosion or explosion; it’s simply a question of severity. The arguments centrally ‘this time is different’ is a rather hollow one.


  6. Ran across an interesting article this AM that touches on American nationalism and patriotism.

    Some excerpts:

    I would never have admitted it, or thought to say it, but looking back, I know that deep in my consciousness I thought that America was at the end of some evolutionary spectrum of civilisation, and everyone else was trying to catch up.

    American exceptionalism did not only define the US as a special nation among lesser nations; it also demanded that all Americans believe they, too, were somehow superior to others. How could I, as an American, understand a foreign people, when unconsciously I did not extend the most basic faith to other people that I extended to myself? This was a limitation that was beyond racism, beyond prejudice and beyond ignorance. This was a kind of nationalism so insidious that I had not known to call it nationalism; this was a self-delusion so complete that I could not see where it began and ended, could not root it out, could not destroy it…

    “It is different in the United States,” I once said, not entirely realising what I was saying until the words came out. I had never been called upon to explain this. “We are told it is the greatest country on earth. The thing is, we will never reconsider that narrative the way you are doing just now, because to us, that isn’t propaganda, that is truth. And to us, that isn’t nationalism, it’s patriotism. And the thing is, we will never question any of it because at the same time, all we are being told is how free-thinking we are, that we are free. So we don’t know there is anything wrong in believing our country is the greatest on earth. The whole thing sort of convinces you that a collective consciousness in the world came to that very conclusion.”

    Adapted from Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen, which will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on 15 August


    1. I was going to post a link to that Guardian article. I think it is a must read for Americans.

      Looking beyond nationalism and patriotism, I wonder why it is so difficult for people to stand on their own instead of rushing to create identity from a host of things including sports teams, cars, on and on. The question to be asked is – if all the stuff I put around me is stripped away, all the groups that offer me a place within, then who would I be?

      My sense of American nationalism is that it is a shallow mask that is easy to put on and gives a feeling of self-righteousness with no effort. We aren’t a people informed about the history of our country, in fact we are blissfully ignorant of things about American history that a typical European would likely know. Perhaps it comes from the ease with which we can live a materialist life and pay no attention to what goes on in the wider world. One can spend lots of time listening to music, going to movies, surfing pop culture websites without any fear that reality will intrude and this has been going on since the end of the Vietnam War…until the intrusion of 9/11 which I believe is felt by most to have come out of the blue on a completely innocent and benevolent country.

      America projects power effortlessly (if not inexpensively) and every citizen can grab a feeling of power from that. That we never feel the effects of power from elsewhere keeps us childlike, sheltered from the knowledge of what being on the receiving end of power gives to people elsewhere who know a side of America that the have experience but that we need not investigate.


  7. Anytime anyone questions the “Official History” of events they are labeled as Conspiracy Theorists wearing aluminum tin foil hats to block the truth.

    The idea that a government would stage events – now known as false flags – is enough to categorize you as belonging to the tin foil hat group. The truth is out there: Operation Northwoods hatched out by the DOD and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Northwoods was plan to stage false flag attacks to justify an attack on Cuba back in March 1962.

    Interesting article on future intentions: On June 14, when United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, Republican Congressman Ted Poe of Texas asked him about the government’s policy toward Iran.

    Poe asked Tillerson directly whether the U.S. government supported “a philosophy of regime change, peaceful regime change?” Tillerson responded: “Our policy toward Iran is to work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government. Those elements are there, certainly.” In other words, Tillerson said, the U.S. government was committed to overthrowing the current government in Iran by peaceful means.

    What he means by “peaceful” should not be taken lightly. No regime change operation is ever peaceful.
    I suppose our McMega-Media will have their various actors carefully scripted to appear with a long list of bogus reasons why regime change is a necessity and how easy it will be. Perhaps some relative of Shah will be waiting in the wings. A dust off of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident will be a piece of the script.


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