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When Patriotism Becomes Evil

There’s an old Jimmy Stewart western, “Winchester 73” (one of his best), during which he and his sidekick are riding through hostile Indian territory on a moonlit night. Suddenly they’re surrounded by hundreds of Indians.

high-spade-frankie-wilson‘High Spade’ Frankie Wilson (played by Millard Mitchell) says to Lin McAdam (Stewart’s character), “I told you night riding wasn’t smart.” “I guess you were right,” replies McAdam. “Being right ain’t gonna do us any good,” High Spade retorts, before riding for their lives.

I feel like High Spade sometimes. For a year I’ve been saying that the United States may well elect, for the first time in its history, an openly fascistic president. If so, any semblance of American leadership in the world will be finished, and with it any hope that the international order can ‘evolve’ into a genuinely global order.

While this dangerous farce is playing out, America has been consumed with the audacity of a pro football player, Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, not standing for the national anthem. That alone attests to the fact that an extreme nationalist is likely to give the word POTUS new meaning.

Making a false distinction between Trump’s ‘ethnic nationalism’ and ‘’America’s tradition universal nationalism’ is deeply disingenuous, even diabolically misleading. ‘Universal nationalism’ is not only oxymoronic, it’s just plain moronic. There is no such thing; it’s a complete contradiction in terms.

Europeans and Canadians, like many Americans (especially on the west and east coasts), cannot imagine Donald Trump becoming president. People in Ottawa I’ve spoken with, including friends of their new, Obama-like Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, believe there is no alternative to American leadership in the world.

Such an attitude reflects a failure of moral imagination. Donald Trump and the rump Republican Party represent the death throes of nationalism, not only in America but globally. Nationalism has become atavistic, whether in America, Britain, France or Russia.

When patriotism loses all substance, as it has in America, it degenerates into the jingoism of “Make America Great Again.” When nationalism is defended to the last by patriots on the right and the left, then xenophobia and Trumpism is the logical end.

Like Trump, leading members of the commentariat believe they can have things both ways. They wave the flag while decrying Trump’s chauvinism; they support nationalism while speaking of radical solidarity. It is pure hypocrisy. What was radical 240 years ago is completely conventional today.

If the 9/11 attacks had been viewed and dealt with as crimes against humanity, America and the world would be in an immeasurably better place right now.

Instead they were couched in nationalistic/patriotic/militaristic terms, resulting in hundreds of thousands being killed in a needless war, the destabilization of an entire region, the self-fulfilling prophecy of the proliferation of terrorism, generating a perpetual ‘global war on terror;’ and very possibly the election of an extreme nationalist and blatant fascist for the most powerful office in the world.

Barack promised us greatness but gave us mediocrity. Like Trump, Obama rode a wave of populism to the presidency—in Obama’s case a wave of hope and transformation, which, when unrealized, turned into the wave of hate and anger that Trump rides. Barack wasn’t just hamstrung by Republicans; his own veneration of national interest, lack of vision, and division between campaigning and governing hamstrung him first.

Patriotism does not arise from an idea system, but from identification with a particular group, a group that psychologically stands for humankind as a whole. The tribe was emotionally experienced as humanity; then came the clan, the empire, the city-state, and finally the nation. Outsiders were the other, barbarians or sub-humans, and now immigrants in the Trumpian worldview.usa-nationalism

The microcosms (at best) of humankind are gone now. Now humanity is all of humanity. Nationalism has become degenerate tribalism; and ‘my country first and last’ (the traditional definition of patriotism) has become evil.

To speak of America’s ‘civic religion’ is to desecrate both the religious impulse and the founder’s vision. Lincoln was great not first because he saved the American union, and forged in blood the United States of America; but because his presidency had genuinely universal aspiration and application in ending slavery as an institution. Nations are no longer the primary reality however; the earth and humanity as a whole are.

Sovereignty is not divisible; it applies to something whole or it doesn’t apply at all. The so-called international order is based on the sovereignty of 200-odd separate nation-states, each believing they embody a holy writ of supreme principle.

In this de facto global society, sovereignty no longer applies to nation-states but to humanity as a whole. Yet even in an indisputably global economy and society, elites on the right and left cling to the tribalism of nationalism and patriotism.

Given the imminent end of American leadership and the collapse of the post-World War II international order designed and built in the United States, who and what is going to fill the vacuum?

Citizens of the world urgently need to begin asking that question, because if the good don’t fill the vacuum, the bad certainly will.

Martin LeFevre

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