My previous post offered a definition of nationalism. I recently stumbled across a great example of nationalist sentiment worthy of consideration. The following clip contains the John McCain concession speech following his loss to Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential Campaign. The portion relevant here is between 4:00 and 4:10 in the clip below.
McCain, after several moving statements about the historic significance of the Obama presidency, indicated his intention to support the new president as well as his respect for Obama, because “We are fellow Americans, and believe me when I say that no association has ever meant more to me than that.”
This statement was met with fairly vigorous applause. I admire the graciousness and apparent sincerity of the speech. Moreover, I think it demonstrates one of the greatest gifts of modern democratic politics: the routine and peaceful transfer of power.
On the other hand, I am intrigued by the nationalist sentiment evinced in McCain’s statement and the applause it received. McCain has many associations that might be deemed significant. After all, he is someone’s son, husband, father, and friend. McCain identifies as a Christian as well. Yet it is Americaness that is his most important association?
To some scholars of nationalism, sentiments like this come as no surprise. Benedict Anderson believes it no mere coincidence that
The eighteenth century marks not only the dawn of the age of nationalism but the dusk of religious modes of thought. The century of the Enlightenment, of rationalist secularism, brought with it its own modern darkness. With the ebbing of religious belief, the suffering which belief in part composed did not disappear. Disintegration of paradise: nothing makes fatality more arbitrary. Absurdity of salvation: nothing makes continuity more necessary. What then is required was a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning…few things are better suited to this idea than an idea of nation.
We can imagine our nation with a great and glorious past and a “limitless future.” Moreover, “it is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny. With Debray we might say, ‘Yes, it is quite accidental that I am born French; but after all, France is eternal.’”
Anderson is not suggesting a causal relationship between the decline of religiousness in the West and the rise of nationalism as a predominant mode of conceptualizing the individual’s relationship to the world. His point is that “nationalism has to be understood by aligning it, not with self-consciously held political ideologies, but with the large cultural systems that preceded it, out of which—as well as against which—it came into being.”
Essentially, nationalism is a taken-for-granted frame of reference in much of the modern world. This frame is large in scope and makes demands on our loyalty that were once reserved for kinship or religious faith. It is important to remember, however, that nations are “imagined communities.” Or, as Ludwig von Mises put it,
It is illusory to believe that it is possible to visualize collective wholes. They are never visible; their cognition is always the outcome of the understanding of the meaning which acting men attribute to their acts. We can see a crowd, i.e., a multitude of people. Whether this crowd is a mere gathering or a mass (in the sense in which this term is used in contemporary psychology) or an organized body or any other kind of social entity is a question which can only be answered by understanding the meaning which they themselves attach to their presence. And this meaning is always the meaning of individuals. Not our senses, but understanding, a mental process, makes us recognize social entities.
At bottom, America is a group of persons related to one another by a common set of institutions–some formal, some informal. Institutions are perpetuated to the extent that the norms of conduct which comprise them are internalized by the individuals that make up the community in which they arise. They are important, but they are not sacred. Institutions–even national ones–are valuable only to the extent that they achieve the goals for which they are formed. As countless historical examples attest, we worship our nation at our peril.