Why all the flag waving?

By Brian Low

Nationalism confuses me. It doesn’t take much to confuse me, really, so perhaps I should further qualify that statement. Try as I might, I just can’t understand the nationalistic urges that work people into such a frenzy that they’re willing to undertake unspeakable atrocities against their fellow man. When I read about the stuff going on in the world, I sometimes think nationalism is more trouble than it’s worth.

I suppose it is probably human nature to be a little parochial. Even if it isn’t, modern society has convinced us that we should feel some affinity to those who are nearby or like us, in one respect or another. In some ways, these feelings are extremely useful. They are often the whip that drives us to help one another. Nationalism motivates us to consider our own fate as linked to that of our fellows, and to endeavor to improve our common lot. That nationalistic feeling of propinquity is the whole reason we pay some of the highest taxes around in order to help our compatriots. Well, that and the fact that they’ll throw you in jail if you try to dodge them.

The part I can’t figure out is why the definition of the nation varies so much with time and space. In Canada, it seems you become a member of the Canadian nation at about the same time you become a citizen of the Canadian state. This may differ a little if you are Quebecois. In this case, it is possible that you only consider other francophones of common descent members of your nation, regardless of their citizenship.

In other parts of the world, however, it works differently than either of the above scenarios. For example, you can’t tell a Bosnian from a Serb by looking at two of them side by side. You’ve got to ask each his name in order to figure out if his ancestors adopted the Orthodox or the Muslim faith. Those two nations are defined by religious and cultural heritage.

Still others define themselves in terms of racial origin. When is a German not part of the Volk? When he is a Gypsy, African, or Turk, regardless of how long he or his ancestors have resided within the borders of Germany and behaved just like every other German. What you look like makes the difference here. Depending on where you are and what period of time you look at, different criteria are used to determine if a particular person is one of "us." I myself have been trying for years to establish a nation based on a common love for abrasive woolen underwear. So far, I haven’t had too many requests for membership.

The definition of nation is actually fairly arbitrary, as far as I can tell. Is there any objective reason we define our nation on the basis of a civil relationship, the Germans on the basis of a racial relationship, and the Yugoslavs on the basis of a religious-cultural relationship? If there is, I’m certainly not aware of it. This is why I can’t figure out how people get so riled about nationalism. As long as we’re just making up the definition of nation, is it that hard to come up with a definition under which no one is unfairly discriminated against or killed? I mean, come on. I get the impression that a lot of these people aren’t even trying.

In Germany, for example, it doesn’t even matter if you were born there. You’re still not a citizen if you don’t have the right parents. This is the cause of no small contention in that country. In the Yugoslavian republic of Kosovo, the Serbs and the Kosovars are shooting guns at each other. Again. In Indonesia, ethnic Maylays and Dayaks are rounding up and chopping the heads off of all the ethnic Madurese they can get their hands on. Then they burn down their houses. As far as I can tell, they do this in order to make sure that the Madurese they just killed don’t ever consider moving back in. They may not be the brightest bunch, but at least no one can accuse them of being less than thorough. The list goes on. All over the world, nationalism is the cause of strife, contention and bloodshed. People suffer and die. Others inflict suffering and death. They’re doing it for the nation, and the sad thing is, they usually enjoy it.

This whole nation bit just seems a little overrated to me. Sure, nationalism causes others to pay taxes through the nose so that I can pay less to go to school, and I guess it’s also nice that nationalism gives me a sense of pride that I am part of something greater than myself, but if some is good, more is not always better. The benefits don’t always outweigh the costs. Just ask a German Turk, a Yugoslavian Kosovar, or an Indonesian Maduran. I’m sure they’d agree.


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