French President Emmanuel Macron tried to make some point over the weekend about Nationalism vs. Patriotism, in a rebuke of Donald Trump’s nationalistic ways.
Not the rebuke of Trump; that was much needed. But the idea that we can distinguish between nationalism and patriotism.
They’re synonyms. They more or less mean the same thing. Yeah, there are maybe some slight differences of connotation, of usage, but they’re pretty close to interchangeable.
English is a highly overloaded language and there’s a lot of redundant words, and we use them to reflect nuance, but sometimes that nuance isn’t really there, or isn’t really as big as we make it. But for one reason or another, we end up deciding we like one word over another, like we have better taste for having a more refined vocabulary.
But I digress.
There’s good things and bad things about countries, and therefore there’s good things and bad things about loving your country. You can’t take all the good things, shove them to one side, and say “we’re going to label that ‘patriotism'” and then take all the bad things, shove them over to the other side, and say “that’s nationalism”.
We have to come to grips with the fact that whatever label you use, there’s good and bad wrapped up in humanity, and therefore, irreducibly, in any human collective.
What we need to do is use our brains, our reason and judgment, our ability to perceive, to fix the problems that the bad causes, and amplify the good. We can do this. We have had a good, long run of doing it. The overwhelming trend over the last 10,000-50,000 years has been that we do it. It seems like as we’ve scaled up our numbers, the challenges have gotten greater, and that lately maybe we’re coming up short more than not. Those glaciers are melting. We need to get back to doing smart things, and fixing problems. Less petty fights, and definitely way less concentrating wealth and power into the hands of a tiny fraction of a percent of all people.
Back to Macron: If your takeaway from his speech was that there’s bad nationalists and good patriots and hey I’m a patriot, and that sounds good and makes me feel good to say it, and now I’m better than these bad nationalists, you’ve completely missed the real truth.
The real truth is this: There’s plenty of fucking bullshit wrapped up in patriotism. Plenty. There’s plenty of bad carried out in the name of patriotism. Patriotic sentiment can and has at times netted a positive good for human civilization. But it nearly as often carries with it that bad stuff that you can’t just scrape off and shed onto the word “nationalism” and then say “our country is so good, it’s the best! I’m a patriot!” and feel like all is right with the world. It doesn’t work that way.
A lot of the good stuff about patriotism could be applied just as well, just as easily to a larger collective of people inside an even larger border.
We could draw the border as the edge of our solar system, and feel all the good things that we currently ascribe to how we feel about our country.
We could say “We are the people of Earth! A good people! The only people, in fact, anywhere! We’re all here trying to make shit work, keep each other alive, and comfortable, and maybe laugh a bit, before we die.”
We could say that. There’s no reason we couldn’t. But most of us won’t, won’t even consider it. Why? Because countries. Because invisible lines agreed to by the ancestors of powerful men, and paid for in blood. Because we’re too afraid of each other to forgive and to forge trust. Because we’re too concerned with our small concerns, and trying to fuck over someone else just to get a leg up on everyone else.
In the mythical past when we were great, which existed even then as an imperfect, incomplete fiction, we dreamed of global unification, of reaching out into the cosmos and taming the void. We dreamed about mega scale engineering projects to transform dead worlds and branch out, extending our civilization. Because we thought that it was worth something, and worth preserving, spreading, and sharing.
No one much talks about those dreams any more. We talk about oil and natural gas reserves. We talk about garbage patches, turning the oceans into a plastic soup. We talk about fresh water, and sometimes about glaciers. We talk about the Kardashians, and not very much about the disappearing animals and the vanishing rainforests. We talk about our skin color and who we like to have sex with, like it’s some big deal that overshadows the great extinction event we’ve triggered. And we talk about wars that were fought a century ago, having learned nothing from them, even as we ignore the wars happening in poor places encircling the planet, the direct heritage of the War to End All Wars, which we so foolishly perceive to have “ended”.
We needed to discard patriotism a long time ago, and embrace humanism. We are a tremendous disappointment in so many ways. And a good third of us, at least, are mindlessly tugging the whole lot of us backwards, while another third of us passively do nothing, and another third express some reservations — politely, as though “how you play the game” matters more than winning or losing.
Well, I don’t have a tidy wrap-up. No happy ending. No hopeful message. No plan. Just some observations and some judgments. You can hammer the Like button if you want to, you can share this far and wide, you can copy and paste it, you can mail it and email it, you can print it on billboards, and you can carve it into mountains, but it won’t make a bit of difference, it won’t change a thing.
What will make a difference is what you do with your life.
Enjoy your time here, while you can. Try to fix some problems. Try to learn from some mistakes.