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Emmanuel Macron got it right

REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
French President Emmanuel Macron delivering his speech at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France, November 11, 2018.

Good for Emmanuel Macron. On a weekend heavy with remembrance, when raw sentiment would do, the French president threw some light on one of the modern world’s big problems.

Hosting a ceremony Sunday that marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, Macron focused on the war’s ruinous nationalism, contrasting it with an idealistic patriotism that he declared to be the exact opposite. Nationalism, he said, is a “selfishness of nations only looking after their own interests.”

The remarks came only days after two other anniversaries that are a reminder of the power of national sentiment – for evil or for good: the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, freighted as the latter was with German reunification and the impending freedom of many nations from Soviet domination. Macron’s words seemed to be aimed especially at two practitioners of a modern-day nationalism who were present Sunday: Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Trump, who during a campaign rally in Texas a couple of weeks ago declared himself to be a nationalist.

Trump probably hasn’t thought much about what that means. His comment was almost certainly just another MAGA moment – another way of saying “America first.” But others of considerably more depth who witnessed the carnage of 20th century Europe have thought about it long and hard, and ended up with a view more subtle than a politician’s bright rhetorical lines.

One was Isaiah Berlin, among the century’s most prominent political philosophers. You can read Berlin’s famous 1972 essay on the subject here.  Berlin notes that German philosophers argued that nationalism is a natural expression of a human need to belong. In its most basic form, it expresses a distinct culture and way of life — and there is nothing wrong with it. Put an idealistic spin on it, and perhaps this is akin to what Macron calls patriotism.

Here is another way to look at it: Reihan Salam, executive editor of the conservative National Review, cites the work of another political theorist, William McNeill, who argued that nationalism has been a way to overcome ethnic caste structure within societies. Instead of tearing at each other, people coalesce around a common identity.

Perhaps that’s so. In any case, according to this view, if you tried to eliminate national sentiment, you’d be trying to reshape human nature. That, too, was tried in the 20th century; communist theory replaced nationalism with class consciousness.

In 1991, the year the Soviet Union ceased to exist and Yugoslavia started coming apart, Berlin declared in this interview that “nationalism is not resurgent; it never died. Neither did racism. They are the most powerful movements in the world today.”

The problem is that the benign nationalism imagined by German romantics isn’t static; in Germany, clearly, it metastasized. Claims of exclusivity become beliefs in superiority; a belief in superiority can easily become a justification for aggression. Political leaders see a handy tool. Historian Robert Zaretsky cites a “slow accumulation of real or imagined injuries and insults that, when economic, political, and cultural factors converge, snaps back with sudden and sharp violence” – which Berlin compared to a bent twig snapping back (come to think of it, that collection of injuries and insults sounds like a summary of a Trump speech).

Macron sees a lot of twigs snapping back right now: Russian twigs and American twigs, British twigs and German twigs, Hungarian twigs and Polish twigs, to name a few.

And it doesn’t mean that he has a clear solution. There isn’t one.

Many people feel migration somehow threatens their culture. Another reason is the disruptive influence of technology. Berlin didn’t have much good to say about Karl Marx, but did credit him with pointing out the transformative power of technology – a trend that still is accelerating and making the world smaller. Yuval Noah Hariri worries that technology has the power to create a discontented “useless class” of people.

More than 50 years ago, as Richard Nixon was formulating his appeal to the “silent majority,” Zaretsky points out that Berlin already had noted middle American hostility toward coastal elites – another trend that continues.

Berlin thought it possible to maintain a benign form of nationalism. But it’s not clear how. It took two world wars and the Holocaust to persuade Europe to focus on political integration and a common currency. Even then, the memory is fading. On Veterans Day, it’s worth recalling that America has frequently (but not always) exhibited an idealistic impulse that has benefited others, and itself.

We’re not really in danger of recreating World War I. But this makes arguing about whether it’s unpatriotic to take a knee for the national anthem seem trite, doesn’t it?

If some form of nationalism is a fact of life — and if civil conflict, economic dislocation and climate change mean that migration will continue — it would be wise to stop demonizing people fleeing violence and poverty, and craft an actual immigration policy balancing self-interest and compassion.

If technology threatens millions of livelihoods, can we look for better ways to level corporate power and workers’ rights? Can Washington promote U.S. interests – and the broader good – without resorting to threats, tariffs or weapons? Perhaps that’s getting close to a useful definition of patriotism.


Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/12/2018 - 10:25 am.

    “…Can Washington promote U.S. interests – and the broader good – without resorting to threats, tariffs or weapons? Perhaps that’s getting close to a useful definition of patriotism.”

    Perhaps, but I won’t hold my breath waiting for it. Chauvinism and racism are as American as apple pie and Mother’s Day and a fervent belief in American exceptionalism, and they’re a combination abundantly evident in our current chief executive. Thinking deeply about what a speechwriter’s phrase – or an ad-lib remark – might mean, and therefore what its consequences might be, doesn’t appear to be something Mr. Trump does very often, if at all.

  2. Submitted by David Markle on 11/12/2018 - 12:34 pm.

    Yes, Macron got it right, while Trump proclaimed himself a nationalist before the UN General Assembly.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/12/2018 - 12:56 pm.

    It is interesting to note the Germany’s outlook from pre-WW! to WW2 was characterized by the similar outlook that they were simultaneously the damaged and endangered victims of vast conspiracies and the rightful rulers of the world.

    It should be noted that Trump has said that it is the right of every nation to act with their own self interest, which precisely strikes at international accords and agreements and is little different than the claim of “lebensraum”.

  4. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/12/2018 - 01:04 pm.

    Nationalism is unthinking. It posits that my country is the best without taking any time to explain, or even to ask, why. In the end, it amounts to loyalty to a patch of dirt because that’s where you happen to be.

    Patriotism asks why, and tries to make things better. Every human institution is by definition imperfect, and there is always room for improvement. Patriotism seeks to find a way towards that improvement

    Yes, there will be disagreement among patriots as to the best way forward. That is not disloyalty; that is part of the thinking and questioning.

  5. Submitted by Charles Thompson on 11/12/2018 - 04:42 pm.

    A. Einstein – “Nationalism is a childhood disease, like the measles.”

  6. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 11/12/2018 - 10:47 pm.

    “Nationalism is a political, social, and economic system characterized by the promotion of the interests of a particular nation, especially with the aim of gaining and maintaining sovereignty over the homeland. The political ideology of nationalism holds that a nation should govern itself, free from outside interference and is linked to the concept of self-determination. Nationalism is further oriented towards developing and maintaining a national identity based on shared, social characteristics, such as culture and language, religion and politics, and a belief in a common ancestry. Nationalism, therefore, seeks to preserve a nation’s culture, by way of pride in national achievements, and is closely linked to patriotism, which, in some cases, includes the belief that the nation should control the country’s government and the means of production.”

    This doesn’t seem so bad to me.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/13/2018 - 10:07 am.

      “Nationalism is further oriented towards developing and maintaining a national identity based on shared, social characteristics, such as culture and language, religion and politics, and a belief in a common ancestry.”

      That part is troubling.

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 11/13/2018 - 10:36 am.

        Why? Without a common language you can’t communicate effectively. Nations are created because of shared characteristics. Diluting that leads to turmoil and eventually dissolution of said nation into multiple states.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/13/2018 - 10:55 am.

          Common culture?
          Common religion?
          Common ancestry?

          The United States was created because of a shared belief, not because of “shared characteristics.”

          • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 11/13/2018 - 06:02 pm.

            Looking at the paintings and reading the history of our founding fathers, I’m not sure that it was the most diverse group, which kind of looks like shared characteristics to me.

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/14/2018 - 09:14 am.

              Does that mean that today, in 2018, we are to say that the character of the true American is found in wealthy white male land-owners, many of whom owned slaves?

  7. Submitted by Steven James Beto on 11/13/2018 - 08:36 am.

    Our species has taken Nationalism as far as we safely can. We need to embrace the tenets of the United Nations and the European Union instead of sabotaging outcomes in favor of a need for power, control, and profit and in so doing replace fear and hatred with responsibility and mutual respect.

  8. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 11/13/2018 - 09:10 am.

    Macron is wrong. Nationalism is a good thing. If you don’t protect your own nation, your nation will cease to exist. Nationalism and patriotism aren’t opposites, they are on the same side. Nationalism is the exact opposite of Globalism. Just look at the mess in Europe to see what happens when Nationalism is gone.

    • Submitted by Brian Gandt on 11/13/2018 - 03:08 pm.

      Are you implying that nationalism worked well for early/mid 20th century Germany?

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 11/15/2018 - 01:21 pm.

      The mess in Europe is nationalism run a muck. Macron no doubt wishes otherwise, but, head wear and clothing bans in France go further than anything we do. And, as commented, Germany was exhibit A for the dangers of nationalism in the 1930s and still is scared by it.

      Patriotism, not nationalism, protects our nation and the courageous patriots who serve come from all races, religions, economic status. Nationalism attacks and the denigrates the patriotism of diverse races, religions, economic statuses.

      From our Charlottesville white nationalists:

      “Jews will not define us”

      I guess Jews can’t be counted on to protect our nation in the nationalist world.

  9. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 11/13/2018 - 06:05 pm.

    Macron also has a 29% approval rating (as of September) in his own country which could make him as right as, say, President Trump.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/14/2018 - 09:20 am.

      It’s always about the ratings, isn’t it?

      I’ll bet M. Le President’s ratings have gone up in response to Trump’s self-inflicted humiliation in France.

      • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 11/15/2018 - 09:01 pm.

        I’m not sure that anything is about the ratings but it appears that most of France must be on the wrong side of history. Macron deserves a ratings boost as his approval has fallen for several months in a row and they can’t go much lower.

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