The Universal Notebook: Nationality, genealogy, astrology and other nonsense

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Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, a pseudo-populist movement with a distasteful subtext of racism and xenophobia, has given rise to an unfortunate wave of white nationalism. Trump’s Make America Great Again message is understood by some to mean Make America White Again. But the majority of Americans won’t hear of it.

Trump has had to jettison several key white nationalists from his administration, among them Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, but he still has Stephen Miller, an anti-immigration operative who, like Trump, rode white rage to power, with him in the White House.

While it is heartbreaking to see such un-American people in positions of power, we can console ourselves with the idea that what we may be seeing in Trump’s incompetent, chaotic reign is the last dying gasps of white male privilege before the old bulls get swept away by the more open and inclusive society they so greatly fear.

Nationalism is an ugly thing, white nationalism even uglier still. Nationalism is not patriotism, as George Orwell explained in his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism.” Orwell defined “patriotism” as “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.”

“Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally,” Orwell wrote. “Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

A patriot is someone who loves his/her country and who wants to improve it and share its advantages with others. A nationalist is someone who blindly embraces “my country right or wrong” and wants to force its values on others. Exporting democracy at the point of a gun has never worked, nor has building high walls to keep foreigners out.

It’s fine to be proud of one’s national and ethnic heritage, but not to the exclusion of any and all others. The blood-and-soil boys seem to believe that birth and borders define what it means to be American, but they are wrong. America is not defined by its borders, it is defined by its ideals, commitments to democracy, liberty, justice and equality that are antithetical to white nationalism.

There is no place for white nationalism in America unless we accept that racism is a legitimate belief, that some people really are better than others by virtue of who their parents were. I am sometimes accused of being intolerant of people I disagree with, but refusing to tolerate intolerance is not itself intolerance.

As philosopher Karl Popper wrote in “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” again in 1945, “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

I was pleased, therefore, to see how swiftly the good people of Jackman acted to get rid of their town manager once they realized he was a neo-Nazi intent on establishing an all-white enclave in northern Maine (as if it weren’t already). I trust the Maine Legislature will just as surely reject Gov. LePage’s anti-Muslim genital cutting bill, a law in search of a problem that does not exist except in the minds of Islamophobes.

The thing that really gets me about white supremacists is that they don’t seem to realize they are walking, talking refutations of the supremacy of the Aryan race. Rarely, if ever, are they well-educated high achievers from loving families making positive contributions to society. If Adolf Hitler is your hero, you’ve got serious psychiatric issues. And if your greatest achievement is being born white, you probably don’t have a lot else going for you.

Being an American is no more of an achievement than being a Caucasian or a Capricorn. They are simply accidents of birth. Genealogy is no more destiny than astrology is. What matters is not the color of your skin, the DNA of your ancestors, the place you were born or the sign you were born under. What matters is how you treat others and what you contribute to the common good of humanity.

We shouldn’t even have to say these things in 2018, but we do so because the election of President Donald J. Trump has emboldened bigots everywhere, and bigotry must not be tolerated.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.