Revisiting Doctor Orwell: The Illness of Nationalism

We are only likely to be more tolerant of other identities if we also learn to love our own a little less. Breaking down stereotypical images of others is only likely to work if we also break down the fantastic elements in our own self-regard.

— Michael Ignatieff

In his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism,” British essayist George Orwell likens Nationalism1 to schizophrenia. Is the famed writer perhaps overextending and overtaxing his association and, in turn, being a bit too flippant for his own good? Is his analysis dated, given that it was published during World War II? Sadly, no. The various motivations for nationalistic support, atop the logistic inconstancy with the theory proper, finds that the author of 1984 and Animal Farm is not only poignant, but unwaveringly faithful in the assessment of his theme.

Nationalism is predicated upon two vacuous concepts: land ownership and citizenry. When land is divided via capricious delimitation, i.e., assigned boundaries aside from those which are naturally occurring, and a person is born into such a geography, it thereby makes the individual a “citizen” of the territory and, by deduction, not another. Interestingly, one will inevitably, due to a forum of tiered conditioning, gradually develop an allegiance to his or her associated region despite the fact that there is no valid geopolitical basis for such affinity.

The adherence to one’s citizenry is due to hubris atop existential ineluctability. As American philosopher Benedict Anderson observes and social psychologist Michael Billig seconds in Imagined Communities and Banal Nationalism respectively, an individual is not given to select one’s family anymore than he or she is permitted to choose one’s race, gender, or familial socioeconomic standing in that his or her lot could have easily been another. As such, the protective, oftentimes defensive, attachment one develops for his or her (inherited) heritage (verses earned, which justifies pride) is arbitrarily founded. Granted, one could argue — as sociobiologists often do — that a genetic devotion is inherent in every organism, but blood kinship — and especially the extension to local, state, and national affiliation — is devoid of logistic foundation. Why do people adamantly maintain and, moreover, delight in their happenstance associations? Simply put, ego. The drive for social identity eschews the demand for the legitimization of associative pride as the drive for self-worth (due largely to the fear of death) leads an individual to not only place implicit importance upon oneself, but to align him or herself with such, particularly in situations in which a person is unable to readily sever one’s corollary ties (such as family). This is why Orwell professes, “Nationalism [ … ] is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not [Orwell’s emphasis] for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

It is with this that the foundation is paved for one to unjustly, and oftentimes rashly, (pre)judge others. Paradoxically, given that discrimination upon race or genderżdue to their existential considerationsżis untenable, the irony nonetheless exists that bias in respect to the equally coincidental relation to one’s nationality is readily humored. This is why Orwell outlines that Nationalism houses “[ … ] the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labeled ‘good’ or ‘bad.’” With this, Particularism is evoked, for one is allowed to freely favor one’s own under Nationalism. Thus, the all-inclusive sentiment that “Americans” are good becomes acceptable and, unfortunately, permits the counter to the uttered with little or no ramification, i.e., “The French are bad.” Irrefutably, a nation can act unjustly. However, unless a country has the unanimous support of its inhabitants, such comments — when directed at the nation as a whole — are generalized, but ultimately hollow. Regrettably, such stereotyped ideas become all-too-frequently absolute and forbid dissenting persons to disavow responsibility for acts committed in their name.2

Inimical disputes, from verbal to physical in both individual as well as collective form, arise due to associative allegiance in the guise of fanatical sports fans to nationalistic backing. Such loyalty is due to arbitrary affiliation and rarely because one agrees with the ideas expressed by one’s party. Hence, most baseball fans cheer for the home team, not because they have evaluated the team and decreed it is worthy of unwavering support, but because its athletes are regionally connected with them. Likewise, wars are often reinforced by a populace, not because it consents to the reasons for the conflict, but merely due to the fact that it is vicariously involved by way of citizenship, citizenship whose allegiance — given the motivations for partisanship — would be the converse if the mass of individuals were to have been born in the opposition’s country.

Perplexingly, while ardor for one’s country is frequently extolled as a virtue, ethical relativism supercedes universal morality once the same is expressed in the opposition, i.e., from an American perspective, the French cannot be proud of who they are because they are the opposition. Ironically, this provides a segue for the non sequitur of an American being outraged at the thought of a Frenchman killing an American in battle while the converse prompts applause. Thus, ethical inconsistency befalls the theory of Nationalism because the justification for the American’s grievance is that the French citizen should be infallibly supporting the United States. Of course, this again overlooks the basic concern for partisanship being established upon an analysis of the conflict, the motivations for such, and how each party is addressing the situation. As British philosopher William Godwin poses in Enquiry of Political Justice, “What magic is there in the pronoun ‘my’ that should justify us in overturning the decisions of impartial [author’s emphasis] truth?”

In short, it is not what is being done but who is conducting the action that governs the legitimacy of the Nationalistic act, whichżas a consequence of citizenshipżignores the cosmopolitan obligation to the human race in favor of regional fidelity. Thus, a consummate shortcoming of the Nationalist is the inability (or unwillingness) to identify parallel scenarios. For instance, if an American is taken into foreign custody and transported to an area in which the Geneva Convention doesn’t apply so that the captor will not be obligated to formally change the individual, thus allowing the hostage (to be a prisoner, one must be charged of a crime) to be held indefinitely, an enraged outcry of protest will more than likely be uttered on behalf of the American Nationalist. Conversely, upon the citation that America is conducting the same practices at Guantanamo Bay, the Nationalist will invariably retort that contingencies are present (while prohibiting the same to exist for the American hostage) — that what is being done is in the country’s best interest and that there indubitably exists just cause — despite the fact that there may be no evidence upon which to base such sentiments given that no charges have been filed. On this, Orwell notes, “Moreover, although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge, the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him.” As such, it can be reasonably conjectured that the fuel of Nationalism is, in part, an internal self-loathing experienced on behalf of the proponent, which is being projected onto an external entity.

When a nation is viewed, in British sociologist Anthony Giddens’s terms in The Nation-State and Violence, as a “power-container” — power being something which Nationalism must promote in order to garner and retain advocates (which is why when an individual recognizes his or her national identity and the nation is threatened, the person’s surrogate power is perceived as being subsequently endangered) — and it becomes obvious that one’s representative interests are in inevitable decline, the Nationalist will almost always refuse to acknowledge and accept guilt even when applicable. Should a Nationalist’s cause be unsuccessful, with dogmatic, chauvinistic rigor, the person will indubitably specify a scapegoat. For example, if America sets a mission in Iraq and the mission fails, it is not that the agenda may have been flawed or poorly executed, or that he or she didn’t enlist, make a donation, or volunteer in order to aide the effort, but that the mission did not have the unanimous support of its people. Ergo, the dissenters are to blame (for it is unthinkable that America would never meet its agenda in the face of a — by definition — lesser adversary).

Furthermore, under Nationalism, one’s innate sense of self-worth reinforces, not only regional stereotypes, but prompts and goads subjective evaluation in respect to information. As British journalist Sydney Harris observes in Pieces of Eight, “The pride of nationalism, however, trumpets its country’s virtues and denies its deficiencies, while it is contemptuous toward the virtues of other countries.” As such, Nationalists often unabashedly seek the proverbial Sartrean “Yes Man” for argumentative fortification. In reference to the opposition’s stance, retorts are oftentimes either issued rote and with little examination (largely due to the innate fear thatżby allowing the circumstance under consideration to be earnestly scrutinizedżsuch might permit the rival’s plight to gain sympathy or, worse yet, prove itself to be justifiable) or counterarguments are wholeheartedly ignored, thereby implying that such is not worthy of reflection or mention.

Returning to Orwell’s comment that an individual will literally merge his or her own identity into that of one’s nationality, it can be frequently witnessed that “[t]he smallest slur upon his own unit, or any implied praise of a rival organization, fills him [the Nationalist] with uneasiness which he can relieve only by making some sharp retort.” A not uncommon reaction by a Nationalist to even the most vague, insinuative support (or even neutrality) of the opposition from a compatriot is defamation of the speaker’s loyalties regardless of the content of his or her sentiments. Yet, in the case of an American Nationalist defending his or her country’s reputation, intents, and actions, such becomes historically problematical and ironic given that the United States was founded by a collective of questioning rebels. This is why Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff’s observation in “Nationalism and the Narcissism of Minor Differences” that “Nationalism is the transformation of identity into narcissism” is a very astute, psychopolitical assessment of the ideology, the consequence of which merely exacerbates the problem in that prejudice is easier to achieve and maintain when one’s focus is upon a group as opposed to an individual. Moreover, the assimilation of self into a collective also permits the Ad Populum fallacy free reign for, in the event of a Nationalist’s personal ethics conflicting with his or her nation’s itinerary, more often than not the individual will defer to the group, the Nationalist’s decision being based upon the presumption that the consent of numbers is assurance of correctness.

Interestingly, this defense tactic often results in logistic dilemmas, such as when a Nationalist’s country shifts alliances from renunciation of a long-hated rival to unflinching endorsement. As a consequence, in most cases the Nationalist will readily second his or her country’s decision without bothering to inquire as to the motives for its sudden polarity. On this, Orwell cites H. G. Wells’s Outline of History, which houses the exemplary instance of “the United States [having been] praised almost as extravagantly as Russia is praised by Communists today: yet within a few years this uncritical admiration had turned into hostility.” Moreover, American novelist Mark Twain succinctly satirizes the unassuming allegiance of association in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when he has his titular character query Buck as to why the Grangerfords are harboring a thirty-plus-year feud with the Shepherdsons, to which the latter responds:

“[ … ] [H]ow do I [Twain’s emphasis] know? It was so long ago.”

“Don’t anybody know?”

“Oh, yes, pa knows, I reckon, and some of the other old people; but they don’t know now what the row was about in the first place.”

Aside from eschewing the opportunity for solemn contemplation upon a topic, Nationalism’s polemical approach deprives its opposition of its humanity for, as Orwell states, “[When] [l]oyalty is involved, and so pity ceases to function,” before adding, “Nationalism is power-hunger (sic) tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is alsożsince he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably (sic) certain of being in the right,” which is seconded by American philosopher Fredy Perlman’s citation in “The Continuing Appeal of Nationalism” that the ideology evokes a sense of superiority in its hosts by way of xenophobia. Like racism, Nationalism arbitrarily selects whom it deems valuable as Spanish cellist Pablo Casals makes clear in his rhetorical inquiry within Joys and Sorrows: Reflections, “The love of one’s country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?” Instead of a cosmopolitan, egalitarian outlook, Nationalism’s narrow, knowingly superficial emphasis permits it to discriminate at the cost of cultural understanding and, in the event of war, human lives. For example, before the ethical ills of outsourcing were brought to light, the slogan “Buy American” was trumpeted with the insinuation that, upon the hierarchy of importance, the American economy was — by default — above that of foreign markets. Granted, in so doing, the act of purchasing American goods would help to ensure lower unemployment rates, fewer taxes, and a sense of nationalistic pride, yet — given that the United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world — at the expense of the inhabitants of other countries merely because they were not American.

A Nationalist’s steadfast provincial fervor frequently extends beyond any political concern and reaches disparaging, absolute proportions. Orwell observes, “[ … ] he [the Nationalist] will generally claim superiority for it [his or her country] not only in military power and political virtue, but in art, literature, sport, structure of the language, the physical beauty of the inhabitants, and perhaps even in climate, scenery and cooking.” At first, such a person’s culpability seems doubled-sided for, from a psychological perspective, the thought of being wrong, even vicariously via association, is mentally unbearable, especially after an individual has invested one’s time and energy in defending a cause, which is why Orwell reports that “[p]eople of strongly nationalistic outlook [often] perform [this] sleight of hand without being conscious of dishonesty.” Yet, in lieu of one’s Particularism and regardless of whether one’s motives for mental defense are conscious or subconscious, few proponents of Nationalism can state they are cognizant of even a small minority of the facets which comprise the rival’s cultural-historic plight, thus have no litmus upon which to base such value judgments. Worse yet, such individuals consequently fail to exhibit concern for what is being forsaken in turn for what is being automatically assumed to be of greater value, all of which fashions a forum for hegemony wherein one nation presumptuously decrees that another country’s principles, culture, and customs are illegitimate, which thereby absolves its inhabitants of the obligation to attempt to gain insight and understanding in hopes of achieving tolerance — while saying nothing of acceptance — of other ideas. As such, a nation can authorize entering a foreign sovereignty and instilling its own precepts because, at the utterance that the converse would be equally jingoistic, the Nationalist will almost always state that validation for such action lies in his or her country’s innate “correctness,” thus intuitively supporting the concept of universal standardization on his or her country’s behalf.

Under Nationalism, the Dutch door of empathy is therefore forbidden to open, not just in one direction, but both. This is because Nationalism’s presumptuousness forms a homogenous exclusivity and self-satisfaction which blocks access inward as well as outward, that is, most every opportunity to understand the Nationalist’s perspective. This conveniently allows the Nationalist to state of any, not opponent, but — literally — foreigner that meaningful elucidation of his or her country’s ideals are futile because any external attempt to comprehend them is, by ideological protocol, an inevitably vain one because the inquisitor, by definition, cannot be part of the group and, more importantly, cannot harbor Nationalistic sentiments for any other country other than one’s own. On this, in “European Unity and its Vicissitudes,” Latvian philosopher Isaiah Berlin states, “It is a belief in the unique mission of a nation, as being intrinsically superior to the goals or attributes of whatever is outside it; so that if there is a conflict between my nation and other men, I am obligated to fight for my nation no matter at what cost to other men; and if the others resist, that is no more than one would expect from beings brought up in an inferior culture, educated by, or born of, inferior persons, who cannot ex hypothesi understand the ideals that animate my nation and me.”

Additionally, a person may fly a country’s flag or don a shirt which simply states “American” and such action evades the illogic of proudly announcing one’s pride for happenstance occurrence, i.e., he or she was born in America (for such analogously legitimizes brandishing other declarative terms of chance, such as “Male,” “Norwegian,” or “Born Rich,” all to little ado) because the individual may proclaim that he or she is merely honoring one’s national history. Referring back to Harris’s citation concerning polarized, subjective readings of circumstance, such historic gratification is merited given that Nationalism demands a cultural mythos be created and sustained so as to make its audience approve of a country’s past actions (often under the precept of morale), thus creating a Machiavellian legacy of Right, thereby making it all the more difficult to humor the possibility thatżsince the country in question has never willingly committed an illżit may currently be doing so. In American elementary schools, Christopher Columbus is portrayed as admirable yet, as American historian Howard Zinn relays in A People’s History of the United States, like all humans, the explorer housed more than his fair share of virtues as well as vices. Obviously, if it were freely taught that Columbus was not the first person to cite the New World and that his initial thoughts upon viewing the native populace for the first time was enslavement, such — though fair to historical checks and balances — would nonetheless provide a less-than-gallant image of the country’s beginnings. Of course, should a failure somehow arise where journalistic omission is prohibited, there exists the aforementioned scapegoat which, in Zinn’s case the — albeit conveniently relative — subjectivity of the recording of history, which allows the Nationalistic slate to remain unblemished. Furthermore, linguistic manipulation occurs with the routinely incorporated Nationalistic terms “Motherland,” “Fatherland,” and “Homeland,” which, by etymological connotation, implies that a familial correlation (and obligation) naturally exists between an individual and his or her country.3 For Americans, a theological/paternal-national amalgamation is present in the country’s national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” with the line, “And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust!’” Moreover, and as cited by Billig, many American schools open each day by having their students recite the “Pledge of Allegiance,” which implies that other students — within the country as well as abroad — are doing likewise. As such, given Nationalism’s polarity and disparity regarding loyalty to other countries, this subtly inculcates an antagonism in the students’ minds in respect to the inhabitants of other nations.

Schizophrenia is commonly evidenced by megalomania, a biased worldview in favor of the individual, an inability to admit and assume guilt, atop sporadic-to-frequent delusions, the latter often appearing in the guise of auditory hallucinations. In this respect, it should be no surprise that a flawed theory grounded upon the arbitrary principles of land division and citizenry catalyzes its proponents to commit irrational acts, for Nationalism instills in its adherents each and every schizophrenic symptom: an unsubstantiated sense of self-worth via the provision of a perpetually positive evaluation of circumstances (and, in the rare case it cannot, provides a seemingly viable scapegoat for blame so as to avoid harboring guilt) and the humoring of ideas which a person decrees worthy while unrepentantly permitting the dismissal of others due to a projected unease with oneself. The cure as outlined by George Orwell?

“As for the nationalistic loves and hatreds that I have spoken of, they are part of the make-up of most of us, whether we like it or not. Whether it is possible to get rid of them I do not know, but I do believe that it is possible to struggle against them, and that this is essentially a moral effort” and “It is a question first of all of discovering what one really is, what one’s own feelings really are, and then of making allowance for the inevitable bias. If you hate and fear Russia, if you are jealous of the wealth and power of America, if you despise Jews, if you have a sentiment of inferiority towards the British ruling class, you cannot get rid of those feelings simply by taking thought. But you can at least recognise that you have them, and prevent them from contaminating your mental processes.”

  1. Historically, Nationalism is semantically distinct from Patriotism. The former is an ideology whereas the latter is more formerly and attitude. Not beleaguering the question of whether a distinction may be made between and ideology and attitude, due to the manner in which Nationalism will be addressed and treated, which also reflects their syncretism in respect to their contemporary usage, “Nationalism” and “Patriotism” may be considered synonymous if, for no other reason, their implementation, practice, and expression are indistinguishable. []
  2. Under Hobbesian theory, a citizen within a democratically-led society surrenders the right to renounce responsibility for the action of one’s leadership given the option to vote, thereby select his or her representatives, was granted (even if it was not assumed). As such, even if one’s chosen candidate wasn’t elected, the person nonetheless housed the power to sway such and, consequently, thereby takes responsibility for the electoral results and the events enacted in one’s name. Yet such theorizing overlooks the fact that the individual might not approve of the current political system but has yet to garner the means by which to remove him or herself from it or that the person might well be operating under the auspices that he or she should not be forced to leave one’s home and that change can be made from within. Thus, in this regard, it is not unreasonable for the person to attempt to make the proverbial “best of a bad situation” by voting. []
  3. Granted, Nationalism proper is a 19th- (or, arguably, 18th)-century invention while the aforementioned terms have a much longer history, yet the latter became politically charged during World War II. []

Michael Gurnow is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in Fifth Estate, The Externalist, The Modern Word, Herbivore, M10K, Word Riot, among others. Read other articles by Michael.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. anonymous said on September 22nd, 2007 at 8:14am #

    Great article!

  2. Hue Longer said on September 24th, 2007 at 12:06am #

    I remember reading Animal Farm in Junior High School in 82 or 83 and everything we were supposed to have gained from it was filtered by the teacher (and her work manual?) so that we only saw and feared the USSR.

    Much better reading when the teacher is taken out of it. I recall reading that Orwell was frustrated by such Soviet Only comparisons (telling me that his message had been hijacked well before the Reagan regime) and tried to correct many that it was totalitarianism of any flavor he was exposing