Nationalism: The Achilles heel of progress?

In view of recent events, this article is neither a critique of leaders across the world nor is it a commentary on the current global political quagmire. Instead, this can be construed as an open ended question being posed to the collective human intelligence with an unconditional admission that even an attempt to answer the question might be a futile endeavour pandering to our vanity as the dominant species on this planet. We shall instead start from an opinion expressed by a newly minted product of our broken educational system who declared in an article posted a couple of years ago that:

“Nationalism is a dangerous, slippery slope, and it’s a problem we have created ourselves in our human, global community.” – Sina Samali in The New Englander on March 28, 2018.

Sina Samali was a senior at New England College (NEC) in Henniker, New Hampshire, USA, pursuing a degree in Communications and a minor in Psychology at the time of publication of this article. He was also the captain of the Men’s Soccer Team.

It is refreshing to see someone as young as Sina taking on a topic as complicated as this even if just for a short op-ed for the college newspaper. Unfortunately, the article is far too short and Sina seems hesitant of saying it out loud that one nation’s terrorists are another nation’s martyrs. It most certainly makes academic sense to be politically correct when you are a Communications major!

We shall however take a more broad sweeping view of how nationalism impacts the world at every level imaginable: hindering progress of the human species itself and threatening the very ability of the planet to sustain life. In that sense the question being posed can be considered as a corollary to the previously published article “Is intelligence an evolutionary mistake?” but unlike intelligence, nationalism seems not to be a product of evolution. It is even distinguished from patriotism with both terms appearing in common literature in the late 18th century. The interested reader is referred to the articles on Nationalism and Patriotism on Wikipedia for the origin stories. To further add to the confusion almost every nation has even engaged in practising jingoism to a degree due to the ever expanding threat of global terrorism. But we shall steer clear of that for the moment.

Let us focus then on nationalism as per the following definition from Wikipedia:

“Nationalism is an ideology and movement that promotes the interests of a particular nation (as in a group of people) especially with the aim of gaining and maintaining the nation’s sovereignty (self-governance) over its homeland. Nationalism holds that each nation should govern itself, free from outside interference (self-determination), that a nation is a natural and ideal basis for a polity, and that the nation is the only rightful source of political power (popular sovereignty). It further aims to build and maintain a single national identity—based on shared social characteristics such as culture, language, religion, politics, and belief in a shared singular history — and to promote national unity or solidarity. Nationalism, therefore, seeks to preserve and foster a nation’s traditional culture, and cultural revivals have been associated with nationalist movements. It also encourages pride in national achievements.”

Anthropologists would argue that the evolutionary forces that enabled us to transcend the biological barriers to co-operation beyond families and progressively form bigger constructs conducive to the progression of the species such as groups of hunter gatherers, tribes, villages, cities, nations, and finally civilisations are what has led us to develop such a strong sense of nationalism. It is rather ironic then that nationalism has lead us down a slippery slope from its peak in the 18th century and that too because we managed to bring about the Industrial Revolution right around the same time. 

While the First Agricultural Revolution also known as the Neolithic Revolution led to Homo Sapiens becoming the dominant species on the planet, the Industrial Revolution led to a glut of supply that far outstripped the demand. The American revolution had also necessitated the need to overcome the moral conundrums being faced by the imperialistic empires formed by annexing sovereign city states through military might over the course of the colonial era. The stage was thus set for the “entrepreneurs” of the colonial era to corrupt the “noble” concept of Nationalism to promote the use of colonialism over imperialism to extend the monopolies over trade that they had enjoyed over the centuries. Thus while the “colonies” rejoiced in succeeding in gaining freedom over the course of the first half of the twentieth century little did they realise that the rapid progress in technology enabled their old colonial masters to enslave them yet again albeit in a new guise.

Nevertheless, all the conflict of the twentieth century cannot undermine the progress that we continued to make as a species. It is not surprising then that Neil Armstrong chose not to say “One small step for man… One giant leap for Americans” as he extended the dominion of our species beyond the heavens. We whole heartedly embraced Globalisation without an inkling as to its impact on our evolved sense of Nationalism.  Unfortunately, history has repeatedly stood a mute witness to the fact the most evil deeds are often the result of good intentions. 

It thus behooves us to swallow the bitter truth that the prevalent notion of Nationalism is a corruption of a fundamental law of Nature that is necessary for the survival of a species through the process of evolution. While the fittest amongst us continue to succeed on a global scale just as we did in the past; the weakest amongst us cling on to a hope to overcome adversity sustained only by the intoxicating fervour resulting from imbibing vast quantities of “Nationalism Kool-Aid” on a daily basis. The situation is far worse for the most unfortunate amongst us who are in turn oppressed in the name of Nationalism. It should be accepted beyond any doubt that the grief felt by every mother who has ever lost a child to a conflict fuelled by a misplaced sense of nationalism or jingoism cannot be alleviated by glorifying the dead as martyrs.

But then there are those who fall in the spectrum in between these extremes who find themselves either on a fence unable to move or being torn to pieces in the ensuing tug of war: the fabled middle class.      

The great institutions of democracy across the globe have figured out the perfect means of leveraging this middle class through yet another construct: Protectionism.  While superficially it is an economic policy that attempts to balance the ugly side of capitalism inherent to the nature of globalisation in its infancy; Protectionism is a cowardly approach to promoting nationalism. Yet it seems that it has helped rally the working class across the globe behind a rather toxic form of nationalism and silence the free thinkers in almost every developed country by labelling them as “anti-nationals”.

Thus we find ourselves at the edge of the proverbial precipice staring in to a chaotic abyss wherein the survival of all sentient life itself and not just of our species is at stake. But then we are just an accidental alignment of stardust insignificant in scale and devoid of any grand design. So it is but natural that we are accelerating our assimilation back in to the cosmos as stardust.

“From ashes to ashes, dust to dust!”