The Mighty Nation

There were several comments in my posts on nationalism, and I started to respond to them, but then decided to do a separate post instead.

In the previous posts, I questioned whether two politicians were laying on the nationalist rhetoric a little thickly. In one, John McCain referred to his Americaness as his most meaningful association. In the other, David Cameron defended the mythic achievements of the UK with great flourish. One commenter pushed back against the point I was making a little and did so quite charitably. He concluded with:

nationalism is something I hold near and dear to my heart. I love this country and I believe if everyone shared in this passion we would live in an even greater one.

Danielle responded to this comment with a question (which I paraphrase): Isn’t too much nationalism a bad thing?

I would say that I don’t think the question is one of degree, but of priority. Another way of putting it is to say that a nation can either be an instrumental good or a final good. Valuing our institutions because they accomplish some positive good for our persons, families, neighbors, property etc. is something qualitatively different from valuing the nation as one’s most meaningful association. I think our nation is great to the extent that it does good. Note that I value it as a means to other ends and its value is subordinated to those ends. When, heaven forbid, it becomes destructive of those ends, it becomes our duty to oppose it, even destroy it. Recall that great passage from the Declaration of Independence:

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

But if the nation itself becomes the most meaningful association, all other values are subordinated to it and only valued in as much as they contribute to the preservation of the nation. The mention of Hitler in the comments illustrates the point I am making. Historian Paul Johnson expresses the danger quite pithily in his history of the 20th century:

As Churchill correctly noted, the horrors he listed were perpetrated by the ‘mighty educated States.’ Indeed, they were quite beyond the power of individuals, however evil. It is commonplace that men are excessively ruthless and cruel not as a rule out of avowed malice but from outraged righteousness. How much more is this true of legally constituted states, invested with all the seeming moral authority of parliaments and congresses and courts of justice! The destructive capacity of the individual, however vicious, is small; of the state, however well-intentioned, almost limitless. Modern Times (1983).

A.K.

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