When I was a teenager, I remember reading a book about nationalism. It was mostly about late 19th century nationalism, the sort that led to the pressures that broke up the Austro-Hungarian empire after 1918 and which led Woodrow Wilson to articulate the self-determination of all peoples amongst his famous Fourteen Points. That Wilson’s intervention was important to the former disenfranchised nations can be seen simply by a visit to a permanent exhibition in the galleries of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, and the number of Woodrow Wilson streets, avenues and buildings scattered across Central Europe. This was the nationalism that meant that individual expression of nationalities could have a place in determining their own future, and the result was a glorious inter-war expression of sovereignty, language, theatre, art and music, even though for many (especially the Austrian and Hungarian writers and thinkers) there was a deep mourning at the passing of their extraordinary empire. I have been listening this week to a recording of Mahler’s 9th symphony under Bruno Walter recorded in Vienna just under two months before the Anschluss took place (12.3.1938). Listening to things in their historic context puts a different complexion on what we hear. The music and art that came out of that world, though coloured and sometimes darkened by the rejection of faith concomitant with the experience of the first world war (read Joseph Roth on Berlin, for instance), was a thing of beauty and glory in many ways.
Nationalism is far too complex an entity to discuss here – historical roots, perceived slights, oppression, economic exploitation, linguistic suppression – but simply put, it is the type of nationalism that emerges, and the attendant attitudes, that interests me and that needs to be spoken of in these populist days in which we find ourselves. The book I read as a teenager said that there were broadly two types of nationalism: the one that results in a national pride that is open and invitational, and the darker type, that we perhaps associate more with the word, that sees foreigners as the root of all evil and cannot see the defects and blind spots of our own national character and history. English nationalism, at the moment, is particularly bad at this, but it is not alone. In seeking a separate, populist future, English nationalists are currently looking back to an imagined past, using outdated analytical and historical tools, to inform an unknown future. Apart from anything else, it is intellectually lazy and dishonest. English nationalism could be a strong player in the political marketplace, but not like this. As far as I can see in the current political debate, no-one is articulating a future to inspire us, and until they do that, English nationalism will fall into the danger of all other nationalisms.
The point made by the book I read all those years ago about the two nationalisms is that the positive one (the freedom-seeking, open-hearted, invitational type) soon morphs into the darker one as soon as its project (or its borders) are threatened by events, migration or economic recession – in these cases it is usual to look within ones own borders for the reasons why a nation is not doing as well as it might. Roma and Jews have all suffered (partly) because of this. Zionism is another version of nationalism that shows the morphing of a legitimate desire for statehood into out and out oppression.
But when we see the types of nationalism that emerge today, whether Orban’s strident nationalism in Hungary, its counterpart in Italy, or the purposefully malign provocation of whole crowds by Trump, Putin, Maduro or Bolsanaro, and the way that they couch their arguments, you know straight away that they have simplified them for the purpose of manipulation. Slogans and political simplification are the hall marks of populist leaders trying to instrumentalise their people. And it works: most people cannot be bothered to think hard enough about politics to develop, respond to and act upon more nuanced arguments. This is the real root of populism – that politicians with nationalist ideas can easily find ready minds who are not open to the counter arguments or the nuances present in the central proposition that they are being sold. (See this clip from the West Wing – just the first half – for Aaron Sorkin’s exposition of this). This is supported by the press – particularly the BBC and the populist press – by virtue (!) of trying to compress complex political arguments into a leader or a front page article or headline news story.
So over time, we get used to shorter and shorter arguments – the twittersphere is not responsible for this but does not help – and we get lazy, of mind and of virtue.
We get lazy with our minds, refusing to develop, challenge and test arguments (if you are on the left, like me, then reading Roger Scruton on socialism is a good place to start the challenge). We refuse to amend our ideas because of reasoned arguments and strengthen the efficacy of our ideas in discussion with those like us, bolstered by whether we like the person making the arguments. We easily create an echo chamber, and this is dangerous for democratic process.
It means, in a very real sense, the death of that social-liberal consensus we have had since the war, because it is too hard to understand, and because social democrats (this is the argument of Tony Judt in Ill fares the Land) have not taken the time or effort to explain it carefully for a new generation. Gone completely are the days when, like Stephen Douglas and Abe Lincoln, we would hear public debates where
“in each debate either Douglas or Lincoln would open with an hour address. The other would then speak for an hour and a half. The first then had 30 minutes of rebuttal. In the seven debates, Douglas, as the incumbent, was allowed to go first four times.”
This was all done in the open air, with no amplification. We have indeed become lazy politically.
We are also lazy in our prejudices. With the number of people from other cultures and nations in our country, we are more, not less, prone to making judgments about “all” of a group. This requires the tough work of assessing what we know of another person, and asking whether we would not behave in a similar way if we were in their shoes. Yes, there are national, ethnic and cultural characteristics – that’s what makes modern Britain so exciting to live in – but prejudice is lazy because it nearly always precludes knowledge. I would be considerably wealthier than I am now, if I had a pound for every person I know who has changed their mind about a group on the basis of getting to know one member of that group. But I am obviously fortunate in my friends. Many people do not do that necessary thinking or reflection. We used to love winding up our white house group in a church in Cape Town in the 1980s by asking a black teacher or black political activist to attend our meetings in our house and tell their story. People changed before our eyes, so open to meeting new people were they, and then you could get down to the nub of the intellectual arguments about South Africa’s future without prejudice getting in the way. People did not change their minds politically very much, but it was no longer rooted in prejudice. White students began to see how committed they were to an economic model of capitalism – and they could only do that because they had met a black guy, who they had gotten to know over an evening, who challenged that commitment.
But we are lazy in another way, and that is with regard to our own character and virtue. In his great book “Virtue Reborn”, Tom Wright argues the case that in Christ, as reborn children of God, our path of sanctification is the path of restoring to us our true humanity. And that can only be done with others around us, in mutual submission, in following the spiritual disciplines and by making a genuine effort to de-link ourselves from those cultural forces which diminish us and which work against love (the message of Romans 12, 2 Peter 1 and Matthew 5-7). Part of that sanctification concerns our ability to get out of our own self- or group-narrative and listen hard to others. It means a neighbourly love, and then, once that is mastered (and how pathetically we have generally tried), a love for our enemies. This is impossible for the Christian to bypass. It is central to the teaching of Jesus and if we fall for the wiles of populism, of other-contempt or other-hatred, then we have, to use Miroslav Volf’s terminology, excluded rather than embraced. If we are looking today for a missional Christian distinctive, and goodness knows we need one, I suggest we find it in our invitation and welcome to the stranger and the marginalised. This will help us overcome our own intellectual idleness and our laziness of heart. There are many things in our culture that stop us doing this – growing selfishness, distrust of others, our inability to discern the truth (how underrated a spiritual gift discernment of spirits is!) and a laziness that has made us lean on the state and its provision rather than finding imaginative and costly solutions ourselves.
Nationalism has its place, a place of pride and welcome, of glorious diversity and the opportunity to learn from each other, just until that very point when it diminishes the rights or dignity of the stranger, of the minority, of the immigrant (even the economic migrant!) or the poor on our streets, never mind perceived enemies. Then it becomes crass populism, unworthy of any Christian man or woman. In fact, unworthy of any human made in the image of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And that includes everyone.