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Detail of “The Israelites gathering manna in the desert”, c.1626, by Rubens

Over the past few years, nationalism has returned to the front pages. The Western intelligentsia is almost uniformly appalled. They decry the cynical leaders using nationalist sentiments to exploit the uneducated masses. They counter with a flawed syllogism they deem so simple that even those masses can understand it: Nationalism caused two world wars. World wars are bad. Therefore, nationalism is bad. For masses too dim to grasp even that argument, they simplify it further: Hitler was a nationalist. Curiously, the masses remain unpersuaded.

Readers content with that level of analysis should avoid Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism. Hazony has the audacity to pose thoughtful questions: what is nationalism? If you’re not a nationalist, what are you? Is all nationalism the same, or are there different types of nationalism? Are there good nationalisms as well as bad ones? Did nationalism really cause two world wars? Was Hitler’s National Socialism actually a nationalist movement? If not, what are examples of nationalism?

Hazony frames the discussion early on:

[N]ationalism . . . is a principled standpoint that regards the world as governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference. This is opposed to imperialism, which seeks to bring peace and prosperity to the world by uniting mankind, as much as possible, under a single political regime . . . Either you support, in principle, the ideal of an international government or regime that imposes its will on subject nations when its officials regard this as necessary; or you believe that nations should be free to set their own course in the absence of such an international government or regime.

The rest, as they say, is commentary. Most of the book expands upon the tension between nationalism and imperialism. It does so in ways that many readers may find surprising, and all should find provocative.

Imperial governance has dominated much of the world through much of recorded history. In an empire, one group — the Emperor’s — conquers many others and “unifies” them beneath a single regime. Empires are always multi-ethnic. Their constituent ethnicities are rarely equal. The Emperor’s tribe, faith, laws, customs, and culture always have pride of place. Members of other ethnic groups are expected (or more often, required) to recognise the superiority of the Emperor’s people and ways. If they’re lucky, the Emperor will return the favor by granting them considerable autonomy; many captive peoples have governed their own internal affairs as loyal second-class citizens of an empire. The less fortunate may experience slavery, prostitution, exile, or genocide.
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Lawrence James
August 31st, 2018
9:08 AM
The suggestion that 'imperialism' was and is a deadly sin is at best naif and at worst ridiculous. It would have astonished Spanish Catholics and British Protestants who warmly endorsed their countries' empires as instruments for conversion. Modern imperialism grew out of European and American nationalism. America's 'Manifest Destiny' and France's 'mission civilatrice' were expressions of national identity and virtue. As for the nature of empires,the most recent did spread the European scientific and intellectual enlightenment, established civil peace and stability and raised standards of living. In 1880 life expectancy in Africa was about 30 and in 1960 it nearing 60. There were of course cruel and exploitative empires - the Japanese and the Italian - but there were also the generous and benevolent - the British and French. The former has produced Canada, Australia, New Zealand,and, dare one say it, India. Failed'Nation states' such as Burma, Somalia and the Sudan would benefit from a revival of imperial government. As for nationalism, its offshoots are fear and loathing of the other and a mean insularity - emotions which sadly broke surface during the Brexit campaign.

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