Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Problem with Nationalism

In my post on immigration, I referenced the Catholic principle, the notion that (in Catholic social teaching), the concept of neighbor extends to the whole human race. In that sense, I have some basic problems with nationalism, the glorification of the nation state, or at the very least, the claim that it takes precedence over other claims of loyalty.

The way many Americans treat the concept of culture, flag, nation-- well, borders on idolatry. Nowhere is this clearer than with discussions of the Iraq war. Priests have been accused of treason for merely preaching Pope John Paul's opposition to the war from the pulpit. And in right-wing Catholic circles, one often sees more fealty shown toward the Bush administration than the pope! Many point that the Catechism seems to defer to the civil authorities when it notes that "The evaluation of these [just war] conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good." Hence soldiers and draftees are morally obliged to obey orders, and civilians are urged to support the war effort lest they be accused of a bevy of abuses ranging from disloyalty to treason. We see this quite clearly in the ongoing debate today. But it's wrong. It is certainly a necessary condition that the secular leadership evaluates the just war conditions, but it is not a sufficient one. The judgment could be wrong, immoral.

Were soldiers in Nazi Germany obliged to obey orders? Was the German population obliged to support the war effort? Of course not! The Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter died as a martyr when he refused to be drafted by the Nazis. He reasoned very clearly that while obedience to the government was ordinarily required, this was not the case in gravely evil situations. And the Nuremberg trials concurred, stating clearly that the "following orders" defense was invalid.

Where am I going with this? In earlier days, before the Enlightenment and the rise of the nation state, nationalism, at least as understood today, was non-existent. The ruler was regarded as having a divine mandate to rule, but this was contingent upon the ruler supporting the common good. There was never any obligation to support tyrants. Of course, the environment was very different, during a time when borders were in constant flux, and when there was no real concept of a "state" demanding allegiance. Loyalties were of a local nature. But the rise of nationalism changed the equation, as (absent any notion of the divine), the state itself became an end in itself. It is by no accident that many trace the birth of modern nationalism to the French Revolution. As Christianity waned, secular mythologies and ideologies arose take its place, and those ideologies often glorified country. In its extreme forms, this ideology quickly shifted into the venomous pseudo-religions that so marked the 20th century. Even its more benign forms (such as in the United States) it is, in its essence, an artificial concept prone to corruption.

Perhaps we need to reassess nationalism. The ruler in a modern democracy is obliged to protect the common good, chiefly to protecting basic human rights. Borders are necessary to establish administrative boundaries. But should these boundaries be accorded a mystical quality of their own? I don't think so.

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