Archive | Nationalism

O Say Can You See

Happy 4th of July, everyone.  This is a holiday in which I think about the Declaration of Independence, but sometimes find myself, like today, drifting to think about America’s national anthem.  Views on the Star-Spangled Banner usually start – very sensibly – from the concession that as a piece of music, it’s mostly un-singable and not very attractive as a song.  But most countries have fairly lousy national anthems, being accidents of history and all and America is no exception, so get used to it.

I don’t think this is quite true.  Three terrific national anthems, and I’m sure there are others: Germany’s is genuinely beautiful (taken from a slow movement in a Haydn quartet).  South Africa’s is what a good, idealistic national hymn should be, and a lovely song to boot.  And, upon hearing the Marseillaise, who can resist at least a twitch to join the French Foreign Legion?  Pour la France and all. A touching moment of one of the recent French elections, after all, is a split screen YouTube video of the two candidates and their parties on election night, each singing the French national anthem with a heart and soul that I’ve never heard an American confab match.

It’s not for want of patriotic spirit.  But the musical hurdles are daunting – starting with a range of an octave and a fifth.  There’s a reason, in other words, for the evolution – at ball games, of course, but if you look around, you’ll see a wide variety of settings where it is customary to open with the national anthem – toward having someone else sing the song while everyone else puts hand over heart and mostly mouths the words.

The New York Times has an article in today’s Arts section on the many pitfalls for those […]

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Putin Signs Law Banning Adoption of Russian Orphans by Americans

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently signed a law banning the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans:

President Vladimir V. Putin signed a bill on Friday that bans the adoption of Russian children by American citizens, dealing a serious blow to an already strained diplomatic relationship. But for hundreds of Americans enmeshed in the costly, complicated adoption process, the impact was deeply personal….

The law calls for the ban to be put in force on Tuesday, and it stands to upend the plans of many American families in the final stages of adopting in Russia. Already, it has added wrenching emotional tumult to a process that can cost $50,000 or more, requires repeated trips overseas, and typically entails lengthy and maddening encounters with bureaucracy….

The bill that includes the adoption ban was drafted in response to the Magnitsky Act, a law signed by President Obama this month that will bar Russian citizens accused of violating human rights from traveling to the United States and from owning real estate or other assets there. The Obama administration had opposed the Magnitsky legislation, fearing diplomatic retaliation, but members of Congress were eager to press Russia over human rights abuses and tied the bill to another measure granting Russia new status as a full trading partner.

As the New York Times article quoted above points out, the new Russian law is a traumatic blow to American parents currently in the process of adopting Russian orphans, including some who have already formed relationships with particular children. It also probably violates a recent US-Russian agreement on adoptions, that requires a year’s notice prior to any termination by either side. Worst of all, the law consigns thousands of children who might have been adopted by Americans to life in Russia’s horrendous system of orphanages, which is among […]

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Racial “Obligations” of Mixed-Race People

Co-blogger David Bernstein links to a New York Times column by Thomas Chatterton Williams which argues that “[m]ixed-race blacks have an ethical obligation to identify as black — and interracial couples share a similar moral imperative to inculcate certain ideas of black heritage and racial identity in their mixed-race children, regardless of how they look.” He justifies this by the moral imperative of overcoming the legacy of anti-black racial oppression, claiming that “the black community can and does benefit directly from the contributions and continued allegiance of its mixed-race members, and it benefits in ways that far outweigh the private joys of freer self-expression.”

Such claims are not unusual. We often hear arguments that blacks, Jews, and members of other racial and ethnic groups have special obligations to their fellow group members. But there is no good justification for such claims. No one has a special moral obligation to another person merely because they happen to share the same race or ethnicity. Do I have a special moral duty to other whites or other Russian Jews that does not extend to nonwhites or gentiles? For reasons well articulated by Randall Kennedy, I reject any such notion.

Williams’ argument in regards to blacks has superficial plausibility because blacks have been victims of major historic injustices in this country. But it is not clear why other blacks – or mixed-race individuals – have a special obligation to combat those injustices that is greater than that of other people. If anything, the duty to combat an injustice falls most heavily on those who inflicted it – who, in this case, were mostly white.

Even if we accept Williams’ notion that interracial parents should consider the benefits to the “black community” from the contributions of “mixed-race parents,” how does he know that those […]

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When a Horse has to be More than Just a Horse to be Eligible for the Olympics

In order to compete in the Olympics, a horse has to be more than just a horse [HT: Tyler Cowen]. It also has to have the right “nationality”:

Their bond was a gold-medal partnership years in the making — and practically impossible for Canadian equestrian Eric Lamaze to duplicate.

When Lamaze’s horse Hickstead collapsed and died at a competition in Italy on Sunday, it left the world’s No. 1 show jumper mourning his longtime teammate. He also could be without an Olympic-calibre mount less than nine months before the London Games….

“It’s fair to say there certainly isn’t another Hickstead in the world, and that will be a misfortune for Eric,” said Akaash Maharaj, CEO of Equine Canada.

Much like a human athlete who must be a citizen of a country for a required period of time before representing that country in the Olympics, a similar rule applies to horses.

“A horse can only represent a country at the Olympics if he has been owned by his country or a citizen of his country for the requisite amount of time,” said Maharaj.

That deadline is January.

Although I’m no fan of nationalism, it is fun to watch national rivalries play out at the Olympics. And it makes at least some sense to attribute national loyalties to people. When it comes to horses, it seems silly. Olympic equestrian competitors should be able to ride whatever otherwise eligible horses they want, regardless of their “nationality.” […]

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Current Controversies Volume on Patriotism

The Current Controversies series has recently published a volume on Patriotism, which includes contributions by Eugene Volokh and myself. Mine is an expansion of this post, which argues that patriotism goes wrong when it leads us to value the nation for its own sake, as opposed to a means to the end of promoting the freedom and happiness of its people. Eugene’s chapter argues that patriotism doesn’t justify imposing a legal ban on flag burning.

The other contributors include well-known scholars like Michael Kazin, George Kateb, and Thomas Sowell. A complete table of contents is available here. […]

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An Underappreciated Advantage of American Professional Sports Over International Soccer

This month, as two years ago, we have an interesting coincidence of a Celtics-Lakers NBA finals and a major international soccer tournament. In 2008, I wrote a post on the subject that I think is still relevant today:

The conjunction of the Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals and the European Soccer Championship [this year, the World Cup] led me to reflect on two important advantage of US pro sports over international soccer: soccer often promotes nationalist and ethnic violence and provides propaganda fodder for repressive or corrupt governments, while US pro sports (with extremely rare exceptions) do not.

European and Latin American soccer rivalries are commonly linked to nationalistic and ethnic antagonisms (e.g. – England vs. Germany, England vs. Ireland, Germany vs. Poland, etc.). Even the fan bases of teams in internal national soccer leagues often break down along ethnic lines. This conjunction of sports rivalries and nationalistic/ethnic rivalries often leads to violence. The most notorious example is the 1969 “Soccer War” between El Salvador and Honduras – a conflict which might have been funny except for the fact that 2000 people were killed and tens of thousands displaced from their homes. And there are many lesser cases of riots and other violence resulting from soccer games.

Many European and especially Latin American soccer teams are also closely associated with governments. This often allows repressive and corrupt regimes to obtain propaganda benefits from the teams’ victories. For example, the repressive Brazilian and Argentinian military governments of the 1970s increased their public support as a result of their national teams’ World Cup victories in 1970 and 1978. In Europe, Mussolini, Franco, and the communist government of the Soviet Union derived similar benefits from their teams’ successes. On a lesser scale, incompetent or corrupt local governments in Europe sometimes benefit from the victories of

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Jonah Goldberg on Nationalism

Jonah Goldberg of National Review has written a response to my post criticizing nationalism. Here is his main point:

Somin admits that he’s being more than a bit unfair to me in his post since, I was praising a “little mystic nationalism is a good and healthy thing because it provides the emotional sinew that helps us hold onto our patriotism.” From this entirely defensible and (in my view) completely correct yet utterly banal observation Somin goes off on a tear about how nationalism has killed lots of people and has led to very bad economic policies and, therefore, nationalism is bad…..

Here’s the point: Taking nationalism and setting it apart from other concepts as uniquely bad because, in its most extreme form, it does terrible things is sort of a debater’s trick. Pretty much all things, including perhaps even love (depending how you define it), can be taken too far if it means losing control over our faculties and reason.

I fully acknowledge (as I did in the original post) that Goldberg is only advocating a small “dose” of “mystic nationalism.” However, Goldberg ignores a crucial point I made that anticipates his response: “doses” of nationalism are hard to calibrate. A government that promotes a little bit of nationalism can easily end up with a lot more than it bargained for. Moreover, few governments are willing to confine themselves to promoting just that little bit in the first place. The relatively moderate nationalism of late 19th century Germany and Italy readily morphed into Nazism and Fascism. The same thing has happened in many other countries, even if not to the same extent. This is true in part because, as Goldberg notes, nationalism is a form of “irrational affection.” Irrational sentiments are difficult to restrict to small doses, and […]

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On Patriotism

Some commenters and others reacting to my post on nationalism raise the issue of its relationship to patriotism. Even if nationalism is an evil, perhaps patriotism can still be good. Patriotism is certainly distinguishable from nationalism, as I defined that term in my previous post: “loyalty to one’s own nation-state based on ties of language, culture, or ethnicity.” It is also differs from nationalism defined as a sense of moral obligation to members of one’s ethnic or racial group across national boundaries. In common usage, patriotism generally means loyalty to one’s government and/or its ideals regardless of ethnic or racial identity. For example, one can be a patriotic American even if you are a member of an ethnic minority, English is not your native language, you dislike mainstream American popular culture, and so on.

To the extent that patriotism simply means supporting your country when its government promotes good ideals and policies, I’m all in favor of it. Indeed, I place high value on the American political system because, despite serious flaws, it provides a great deal of freedom and happiness to large numbers of people. I also admire it because, unlike most other nations, it is not primarily based on ties of race, language, or ethnicity.

At the same time, I am opposed to patriotism in the sense of valuing a nation or government for its own sake. Unlike senior conspirator Eugene Volokh, I don’t believe that we should “love” our country in the same unconditional way that we love a spouse or family member. That kind of patriotism too readily leads people to support governments that are oppressive and unjust. More fundamentally, it loses sight of the principle that governments and nations are means, not ends in and of themselves. The Founding Fathers, I think, got […]

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Against Nationalism

Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg recently expressed the common view that “A little mystic nationalism is a good and healthy thing because it provides the emotional sinew that helps us hold onto our patriotism.” Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry expounds on this defense of nationalism in more detail here. My own view of nationalism is far more negative than theirs. Indeed, I believe that nationalism is second only to communism as the greatest evil of modern politics. There are many different meanings of nationalism. Here, I refer to loyalty to one’s own nation-state based on ties of language, culture, or ethnicity, which I think is roughly what Goldberg and Gobry are referring to as well.

I. Nationalism as a Cause of Mass Murder and Repression.

One big problem with nationalism is that it is a leading cause of mass murder. Fascism and Nazism were, of course, extreme forms of nationalism and the mass murders Nazi and fascist regimes committed were justified on the grounds that they were necessary to advance the interests of racially or ethnically defined peoples. Obviously, most nationalist governments do not commit mass murder on that scale. This is one reason why nationalism is not quite as pernicious as socialism Nearly all full-blown socialist regimes that have lasted for any length of time have engaged in mass murder; “only” a substantial minority of nationalist regimes have done the same.

But many non-mass murdering nationalist regimes still use nationalism as a justification for protectionism, discrimination against minority groups, suppression of dissent, and the like. Nor are these abuses simply the result of misinterpretations of nationalism by unscrupulous rulers. To the contrary, if you genuinely believe that we have special obligations to members of your ethnic or national group that sometimes trump universal principles, consistency requires that you be willing to […]

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