As I write these words Ukraine and Russia are in the midst of what has been called a resurrection of the Cold War. The military standoff is so tense that the United States, ever the watchful world policeman, has found itself in the middle of this crisis. As it stands Ukraine, Russia, and the United States are in the middle of a heated dispute about national sovereignty. Incidentally I am a United States citizen, who is an ethnic Ukrainian, who is married to an ethnic Russian. Things could get interesting.
That said, these events, which are largely reminiscent of a round of the popular video game, Civilization 5, illustrate the archaic, and wicked, system of ideas that still rules this world. This nefarious system is: nationalism (or at the very least, a popular variety of nationalism, that can be called “ultranationalism”)
As you read this, I would kindly ask you to deliberate on the whole picture before (a) considering me some form of traitor (b) automatically thinking of some worst case scenario like anarchy (c) thinking of the reasons why your side of the Ukraine/Russia debacle is more right.
What is Nationalism?
“Nationalism is an infantile disease… It is the measles of mankind.” Albert Einstein
There are numerous varieties of nationalism that have been defined and defended. However, the particular flavor I would like to speak about is largely the predominant understanding of nationalism in popular thinking. The definition of this type of (ultra)nationalism is: “a feeling that people have of being loyal to and proud of their country often with the belief that it is better and more important than other countries.”
Nationalism is not merely the existence of nations, but the mindset of preferring your nation over another.
Growing up in an ethnic Slavic community I frequently saw displays of such nationalistic thinking. Generally speaking some/many Ukrainians think that Ukraine is a far better nation than Russia, while some/many Russians scorn Ukraine, and just about everyone once thought the Slavic ethnic traditions were superior to those in America. In some cases this form of nationalism has more to do with the lineage of ethnic tradition rather than the promotion of current political leaders. Yet nationalism is very strong in the Slavic community of my origin, so much so, that one of the most pressing theological and ecclesiological debate, for decades, was the social incorporation of Western elements (such as the English language, theology, or music style).
The American culture is also plagued with a severe form of nationalism, often rebranded with a more attractive term: patriotism. The idea of patriotism brings up sentimental and meaningful ideas, such as glorious American flags waving high above the battlefield, valiant men laying down lives for grand values, like liberty, freedom, and justice for all, and a land of dreams and opportunity. We have everything from bumper stickers that shout “these colors don’t bleed!” (completely ignoring the fact that blood is red, and multitudes of soldiers have bled red blood, mostly because of this disease called nationalism) to grand slogans that remind us this country is the best country on earth.
The 8 Ugly Sisters of Nationalism
If you take away emotional songs, poems, and bright colors, what is this thing “nationalism” really about?
Nationalism is, quite literally, about making borders. One creates a border between his own nation to mark the distinct boundary between “my people” and “not my people.” Putin crossed a border, giving the excuse that he is doing so for the protection of ethnic Russians, would Putin ever do such a thing for the protection of other ethnic or national groups? (I admit the international legality of such things is very complicated and it is mainly a rhetorical question)
Nationalism is a self-centered way of thinking. A nation is, first and foremost, preoccupied with taking care of its own people, image, resources, wealth, and stability. This is the very DNA of nationalism, being so engrossed in oneself that one refuses to consider the wellbeing of others, unless it affects personal national wealth and stability. For example Russia cares about it’s citizens when there is a strategic port involved, but doesn’t when they are gays who are being beaten in the streets.
3. Ethnic prejudice
Nationalism condones and creates numerous forms of prejudice towards people from other nations. It doesn’t merely segregate other human beings, it is also creates a system wherein it’s easy to label others in order to negate, trivialize, or stereotype them. One can easily think of numerous national prejudices that are used for nothing more than to slander or degrade other human beings. For example, the historical Ukrainian nationalist organization founded by a Ukrainian hero, Bandera, was involved in numerous “ethnic cleansing” (aka murder) of Jews and Poles.
4. Superiority complex
Nationalism doesn’t merely create a selfish entity, that is concerned about itself, but also creates the mindset of superiority in its participants. Generally speaking, nationalists aren’t just selfish, they are elitists who think their way is better. If we deconstruct, nationalism, we can see it is nothing more than a group of people that have gotten together to create their way of life, unique and distinct from others, largely because they genuinely believe themselves superior.
5. Propagandization of history
Nationalism often leads to a misreading of history. I am always disheartened when I look at the sad history of the human race, there is so much bloodshed and violence, unfortunately much of it was necessary. Yet within a nationalistic mindset one can see the deaths of thousands or millions as a source of pride. From outside, one can make objective judgments of historic events, while those with a nationalistic mindset are always predisposed to reinterpret history in order to make their tribe the hero or martyr of every story. Every nation has ugly skeletons in its past, yet only nationalists hold these as trophies.
6. Fanatical ignorance
Nationalism often causes a blatant ignorance of other people and cultures. Because you have already segregated and stereotyped other nationalities, as well as declared your own superiority, there very little room for genuine learning about each other. In some cases, nationalism causes one to be ignorant of the very things that unite humans, for example the Arabs and Israelites have much more in common than Semitic people do with the Japanese, however, nationalism leads to a fanatical ignorance of these things.
7. Blind Ethical Obedience
Nationalism leads to the formation of a cultural identity and national pride, and this often causes citizens of one nation to gleefully approve of actions by their nation that they would vehemently reject if authored by another nation. Wars or military incursions are supported as heroic, because they come from “my” country. Yet if these things happened at the urging of a foreign power, and against “my county” then I am likely to consider the very same act “illegal.” Because of nationalism, ethics and morals are determined largely based on whether the perpetrators are “my people” or “my enemy.” Nationalism dulls the inner moral convictions of right and wrong and replaces them with blind obedience.
Finally, nationalism often amounts to nothing more than a “lite version” of racism. While early human civilizations were largely racist at the core (these same civilizations founded nationalism) we have finally evolved to the point that most people consider racism a dimwitted and malicious form of idiocy. It is my contention that nationalism of a very similar entity, which I hope will likewise disappear one day. Until that day, those who have a severe form of nationalism for Ukraine, or Russia, or even the US (albeit, cutely rebranded as patriotism) will continue to proliferate the ugliness of racism under the noble guise of patriotism.
The Worst Kind of Traitor
So what does it all mean? Should we disband nations and allow rampant anarchy? That is hardly the case. However I am strongly arguing that elitist nationalistic thinking is harmful for the human race.
Consider that one of the most immoral and severely punishable crimes within any country is treason, or the betrayal of said country. (This is something Ukraine, Russian, and the US would handily agree on). If a person condones, performs, or assists in some action that harms his nation, he or she is considered a traitor. If I provide assistance to another nation that enables the other nation to hurt or kill citizens in my nation, I will receive the death penalty.
Now here is the irony, those who thrive under nationalistic thinking are committing treason against the whole human race. When one group of nationalists considers itself superior to others, it is a detriment to the human race. When one group of nationalists hoards resources and allows children in other nations to die of starvation, it is a traitor to the human race. When one group of nationalists invades and assaults others for political or religious ideologies, it is a traitor to the human race. When one group of nationalists spends valuable resources competing with other groups, rather than helping the impoverished multitudes, it does so as a traitor to the human race.
Therefore my dear Ukrainian friend who hates Russians, to my dear US friend who patriotically thinks our country is the best in the world, and to my Russian friend who think’s Mother Russia is always right, please, don’t betray the human race.
I don’t stand for America, Ukraine, or Russia. I stand for maximal human flourishing for all people, regardless of their race or nationality. I would rather betray my country of birth or citizenship than the human race.