Nationalism: A Delusion of Grandeur in Disguise

The concept of nationalism, with its alluring promise of unity and shared identity, is, at best, a grandiose delusion, a collective self-deception that flirts dangerously with the possibility of self-destruction. Its seductive charm resides in the human longing for a sense of belonging, a wish to be part of something larger than oneself – a desire that nationalism exploits, distorts, and often, perverts.

It is an idea that has traversed the gamut of human history, from ancient empires to the modern world, leaving in its wake a trail of blood and tears. To many, nationalism offers a comforting narrative, a rallying cry for unity and purpose, a defense against the chaos and entropy of the human condition. Yet, in truth, it is a delusion of grandeur, a mask for our basest instincts, and a threat to the very fabric of the global community.

Nationalism, to be clear, is not the benign love of one’s country, the affection for familiar landscapes, shared history, language, and culture. No, nationalism is a virulent mutation of this sentiment. It seeks not to appreciate, but to assert; not to celebrate diversity, but to crush it; not to understand, but to dominate. Nationalism, in its essence, fosters division under the guise of unity, promotes exclusion in the name of identity, and sows discord while preaching harmony.

To understand the insidious nature of nationalism, it is essential to grasp the distinction between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism, as Samuel Johnson famously remarked, is the last refuge of a scoundrel. While this may be a somewhat uncharitable assessment of a sentiment that can inspire acts of genuine altruism and sacrifice, it is also an important reminder that patriotism can be easily manipulated to serve darker ends. By contrast, nationalism is a far more pernicious and dangerous beast. It takes the love of one’s country and transforms it into a virulent, exclusionary force, a blind devotion to the tribe that trumps all other considerations of humanity and reason.

At its core, nationalism is a rejection of the Enlightenment values that have shaped the modern world. It looks askance at the ideals of universalism, human rights, and cosmopolitanism, seeing in them a threat to the cherished myths of national identity and sovereignty. It is a worldview that elevates the nation-state to a quasi-religious status, imbuing it with a divine mission and sanctity that brooks no dissent or criticism. As such, it is an idea that has been the handmaiden of tyranny and oppression, a justification for the worst excesses of state violence and persecution.

The seductive power of nationalism lies in its ability to tap into the deep-seated psychological needs of its adherents. As social animals, humans have an innate desire for belonging, for a sense of community and shared identity. Nationalism provides a ready-made template for this, offering a mythic narrative of common ancestry, culture, and destiny that can bind together millions of disparate individuals. In times of crisis or dislocation, this appeal can be especially potent, as the specter of an external enemy or threat serves to galvanize the collective spirit and paper over the cracks of social and economic discontent.

However, the allure of nationalism comes at a steep price. By defining oneself primarily in terms of one’s national allegiance, one necessarily excludes those who do not belong to the tribe, those who are deemed to be different or inferior. This exclusionary impulse can take many forms, from xenophobia and racism to religious intolerance and chauvinism. In its most extreme manifestations, it can lead to the demonization of entire groups of people, the dehumanization of the ‘other’ that paves the way for atrocities and genocide.

One need only look at the blood-soaked annals of history to see the ruinous consequences of nationalism. The 20th century, in particular, stands as a grim testament to the destructive power of this idea, from the horrors of the Holocaust and the purges of Stalin’s Soviet Union to the genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. In each of these cases, nationalism served as the ideological fuel for acts of unspeakable brutality, a veneer of righteousness that allowed the perpetrators to justify their actions in the name of the nation.

Yet, it would be a mistake to think that the dangers of nationalism are confined to the past or to the darker corners of the globe. The truth is that this delusion continues, and will continue for the foreseeable future.