Nationalism: Hymns Ancient and Modern

Nationalism: Hymns Ancient and Modern

Mini Teaser: Why can't the world seem to settle down into nice well-ordered democratic nation-states on the Western model?

by Author(s): Robin W. Fox

The coming dissolution may not be as blatantly territorial as in the
Civil War but it will be no less ideological, and ideology kills as
surely as ever territory did. We have always, from our beginnings as
a "contractual" nation, been a mish-mash of warring factions only
loosely linked by "national" sentiment, however noisy that has been
at times--and it has had to be noisy to drown out the dissent. Can
any sociologist tell us how to measure how much more or less of a
mish-mash we are now? The mish-mash has been held together by some
very strong sense of being "American" - something that led even
segregated black and native American regiments in World War II to
feel "proud" of what they were defending. Does this still exist?
Since the sixties nothing is certain.

The paleolithic mentality and emotions cannot be indefinitely fooled,
for they are what we are. We can, of course, try to destroy them with
the likes of drugs, super nation-states, and impersonal bureaucracies. But they will fight back and the fighting will get rough. Not on
ly nationalism but a whole parade of so-called "modern social
problems" from teen pregnancy epidemics and high divorce rates, to
soccer hooliganism and religious fundamentalism, may well prove to
be, like "ethnic cleansing," examples not of system-driven
pathologies at all, but of the paleolithic organism fighting for its
survival, which is, after all, the most basic thing it knows to do.

Appeals to rational self-interest are always at a disadvantage, for
the interest may shift. The beauty of an appeal to "national
sentiment" is precisely its non-rational and often irrational nature.
It is an appeal often against self-interest and for self-sacrifice.
Hobsbawm's skeptics may turn out to be wrong: There is an
irresistible desire to form something, and even if it is not a
nation-state, it is homogeneous. Perhaps we could call this
irresistible desire "the perennial appeal of tribalism," and try to
remember that it allows for virtues that rational state bureaucracies
know nothing of but which are very dear to our basic natures. Try
heroism for starters. Hollywood and the sports world understand (and
profit from) this very well, even if political scientists and
economists find no place for it in their dreams of the "rational
actor" and other fantasies of academic life.

National states will continue insofar as they supply basic needs and
are small and homogeneous enough to appeal to basic sentiments of
belonging. But let us never be complacent about supra-national
political entities when they come into competition with the perennial
appeal of tribalism. A few hundred years is not even a blink of an
eye in evolutionary time.

Essay Types: Essay