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The Universal Notebook: Nationalism is not patriotism

Opinion

The Universal Notebook: Nationalism is not patriotism

There is an ultraconservative faction in America that believes that the United Nations, and more specifically the Agenda 21 guidelines that came out of the 1992 environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro, represent a threat not only to private property rights (by virtue of promoting sustainable development), but also to our national sovereignty (by virtue of promoting a one-world international governing body).

You’ll occasionally see anti-Agenda 21 signs on the side of the road, graphic expressions of angry white men who listen to too much conservative talk radio. LD 220, "An Act to Ban the United Nations Agenda 21 in Maine," was introduced in the 126th Legislature by one of that ilk, but fortunately reason prevailed and the bill never made it out of committee.

Two things strike me about this misguided concern: that the subtext of the anti-Agenda 21 agenda is nationalism, and that the bill’s sponsors were mostly from northern Maine.

Though it is an accepted and largely unquestioned fact of everyday life, one especially true on national holidays, the idea that people identify so heavily with the little patch of Earth where they were born and where they live is a very peculiar phenomenon. Allowing an accident of birth, arbitrary geopolitical boundaries and a history you had nothing to do with to define your identity seems, well, unwarranted.

Some years ago, I was researching a magazine article about the future of Millinocket and interviewed some students at Stearns High School. In an effort to broaden their students’ horizons, officials at Stearns and at rival Schenck High School in East Millinocket had arranged for a joint bus trip to the University of Maine for prospective college students. I will never forget what one young Stearns man said when I asked him how the bus trip with Schenck kids went.

“They’re a lot like us,” he said, as though it had been a revelation to him.

“They are you!” is what I wanted to say to him, but I politely went along with his naivety and said something like “I’ll bet you’re right.”

The roots of nationalism begin in provincial allegiances such as townie high school rivalries and, unless challenged by education, grow into the kind of pride and prejudice that inspire xenophobic fears and bills such as LD 220.

Contrary to what the anti-Agenda 21 forces believe, we would probably all be a lot better off without towns, cities, states and countries.

In his classic 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism,” George Orwell first defines “nationalism” as “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions and tens of millions of people can be confidently labeled ‘good’ or ‘bad.’” He then distills the essence of “nationalism” as “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”

“Nationalism should not be confused with patriotism,” Orwell warns.

Nationalism is a form of geographic myopia that begets a “My country right or wrong” mindset. Many of those who make a great display of their American patriotism would likely be just as proud of being a Mexican or an Iranian had they been born elsewhere.

Patriotism is a love of country that inspires people to expect and want it to do the right thing always, and to object when it does not. Nationalists try to force their way of life on everyone. Patriots do not.

Earlier this month I read a newspaper column in which a Methodist minister explained why he was uncomfortable singing “God Bless America” at baseball games.

“When we ask for blessings to be bestowed only on ‘us,’” wrote the Rev. James P. Marsh Jr., “we are in danger of seeing ourselves as set apart from the world. Faith is global, and one nation doesn’t get any more or less of God than any other.”

An antidote to “God Bless America” might be Lloyd Stone’s 1934 hymn “This Is My Song.” Sung to the plaintive strains of Sibelius’s "Finlandia," it is one of my favorite hymns, one that expresses an open-minded patriotism that is far more appropriate and palatable than Irving Berlin’s popular little cocktail of religion and nationalism:

“This is my song, O God of all the nations,

A song of peace for lands afar and mine.

This is my home, the country where my heart is;

Here are my hopes, my dreams, my sacred shrine.

But other hearts in other lands are beating,

With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.”

If you can identify with one little patch of Earth, you should be able to identify with all of it.