Ac Grayling: It's but a short step from pride in your team to wicked nationalism

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National pride plays a great part in international sporting fixtures such as last night's football match between England and France. It will do so especially at the Olympics, where the medal winners will be greeted by national flags and anthems when they stand on the podium. If one leaves aside such aberration as football hooliganism, expressions of national sentiment seem (to some) innocuous, even praiseworthy, positively moving in their celebration of solidarity and belonging, as the flag-waving jingoism of next Saturday's Last Night of the Proms will again show.

National pride plays a great part in international sporting fixtures such as last night's football match between England and France. It will do so especially at the Olympics, where the medal winners will be greeted by national flags and anthems when they stand on the podium. If one leaves aside such aberration as football hooliganism, expressions of national sentiment seem (to some) innocuous, even praiseworthy, positively moving in their celebration of solidarity and belonging, as the flag-waving jingoism of next Saturday's Last Night of the Proms will again show.

When more is at stake than gold medals and Elgar, national sentiment acquires the name "patriotism," a feel-good word that summons ideas of love of country and a determination to promote its interests, which includes defending it against foes - even, should the ultimate be required, unto death (or by preference murder, since the aim of military endeavour is to kill rather than die). But as soon as one sees the connection between "Land of Hope and Glory" and patriotism as an inducement to risk your life by killing others, a sinister note enters. Once it was loyalty to a monarch - for many still, it is loyalty to a god - which prompted such commitment. But since the 18th century it has increasingly been an abstraction called the "nation," and the ideology which has promoted this loyalty - a false and wicked ideology, fertile in causing war and fostering hatred - is nationalism.

Nationalism takes certain unexceptionable desires and muddles them with unacceptable ones. People wish to run their own affairs; that is unexceptionable. Most people value the culture which shaped their development and gave them their identity; that too is unexceptionable. But the nationalist argues that we owe a special allegiance to the collective in which we happen to find ourselves. Because other groups and cultures can threaten these things, he says, we must protect them by seeing ourselves as a distinct entity, defined by ethnicity, geography, or sameness of language or religion. It is not enough that the others are Other; we have to see them as a menace: at the very least to "our way of life", perhaps to our jobs, even our daughters. In times of war it might be "the Hun" who so threatens; in the current peace, it is the Brussels bureaucrat, or the McDonald's burger.

When Europe's overseas colonies sought independence, the only rhetoric to hand was that of nationalism. It had well served the unifiers of Italy and Germany in the 19th century, which in turn prepared the way for some of their activities in the 20th; and we see a number of ex-colonial nations going the same way today. The irony is that Europe's colonies were shaped for the convenience of the colonists, not respecting tribal traditions or native arrangements, and therefore many ex-colonial nations are disastrous constructs, at war with themselves within and their neighbours without, sometimes in hideous ways.

The central weakness of nationalism is the vacuity of the concept of a "nation". Consider the English and the Americans: they are the most mongrel of "nations", a mixture of so many immigrations over time that the idea of an English ethnicity is comical, that of an American one positively bizarre. For small and marginalised peoples who claim some sort of racial integrity, their boast has either to be that they remained so remote and disengaged, or so conquered, for the greater part of history, that they succeeded in keeping their gene pool "pure" (a cynic might say "inbred"). Even for such groups, much nonsense is talked about nationhood. Emerson spoke of the "genius" of a nation as something separate from its numerical citizens; Giradoux described the "spirit of a nation" as "the look in its eyes". Other such meaningless assertions abound. Consider Scotland: in the 18th century, Lowlanders such as David Hume described themselves as "English", and their Highland neighbours, whom they thought of as barbarians, returned the compliment by calling them "Sassenachs". The tartan identity that contemporary Scottish nationalism invokes was created by Sir Walter Scott, Queen Victoria, and assorted other romantics in the 19th century, thereby helping the Scots to forget the great economic and cultural flowering north of Hadrian's Wall which followed Union.

Thus the process of reversing history began, to reduce the people of North Britain to a merely local status once more, when for a time they had played a leading part on a great imperial stage. What this prompts us to remember is that "nations" are fabrications, as are the boundaries of the "nation-states" with which they are identified; for these latter are artefacts drawn in the blood of past wars, or in the imagination of demagogues.

The biggest mistake is to confuse culture and nationality. There is no country on earth which is not home to more than one different but usually co-existing culture. Cultural heritage is not the same thing as national identity; Europe has a culture which its many peoples share and its bonds are firmer and deeper than the historical accidents of where the current boundaries of Europe's states have been left by war and past royal dynasties.

The Olympics have the power to bring home the sheer unpleasantness of nationalism in its ordinary daily dress. Suppose a British athlete wins gold: in the past he or she would have been greeted by the Union flag; but what if the athlete stated a preference for the Cross of St George, or the Welsh Dragon? What if the flag requested were the EU's circle of stars? Anything other than the usual choice would create a storm; and in the process would reveal once again nationalism's divisive and destructive genius.

It is said that we know a thing by its fruits. In the two centuries that nationalism has been a driving force it has given us conflict, suffering, cruelty and injustice in increasingly vile forms. Combined with racism, on which it frequently feeds, it has produced discrimination, apartheid, Nazism, the Holocaust. Its true character is nakedly exposed in the Balkans and in vicious ethnic wars such as in Sri Lanka. Its expansionism is exemplified in the rape of Tibet by China. It continues to afflict us now by interrupting the great historical movement towards larger comities of peoples where loyalty is to peace and cooperation, and whose citizens are humans first and foremost, before they are Serbs or Aryans or Tutsis.

Dr Anthony Grayling is Reader in philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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