I have to assume you wrote this draft, for “Yes, I’m an American Nationalist,” before the attempted shooting of a black church in Kentucky and the massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh by white nationalists. Not to mention the election of a “staunch right-wing nationalist” in Brazil and Trump’s announcement of his intent to end birthright citizenship. Presumably, you would have taken something of a different tone after the fact. Regardless, these incidents suggest you may want to reframe your argument.
It’s not my place to question your emotional life, and it’s entirely possible that you know your way around the Lower East Side of Manhattan just fine, so let’s skip the autobiographical portion. About halfway through, though, you begin to grapple with intellectual history.
The 19th-century French philosopher Ernest Renan argued that “a nation is a soul, a spiritual principle”: “These are the essential conditions of being a people: having common glories in the past and a will to continue them in the present; having made great things together and wishing to make them again. One loves in proportion to the sacrifices that one has committed and the troubles that one has suffered.”
I’m not surprised you cited this 1882 lecture by Renan, which is called “What is a Nation?” I’m sure it comes up when you google that question. But its obviousness doesn’t diminish its relevance. After the French Revolution, societies and their governing bodies were no longer assumed to be ordained by the divine right of kings. Renan’s ideas on the concept of the nation did prove influential—as did his theories of antisemitism and taxonomy of scientific racism.
But there was another aspect to the emerging definition of the nation-state in the 19th century: empire. As Renan spoke to a crowd of learned gentlemen in powdered wigs at the Sorbonne, France was the second largest colonial empire in the world.
One of those colonies was Martinique, which remains under the jurisdiction of the French Republic. The Martinican poet Aimé Césaire chose Renan as a representative of the hypocrisy of French republicanism in his Discourse on Colonialism. Here, Césaire cited a less pleasant passage, from the 1871 text “La Réforme intellectuelle et morale,” than the cheerful ones you’ve chosen:
The regeneration of the inferior or degenerate races by the superior races is part of the providential order of things for humanity. With us, the common man is nearly always a déclassé nobleman, his heavy hand is better suited to handling the sword than the menial tool. Rather than work, he chooses to fight, that is, he returns to, his first estate. Regere imperio populos, [“to rule mankind”] that is our vocation. […] Nature has made a race of workers, the Chinese race, who have wonderful manual dexterity and almost no sense of honor; govern them with justice, levying from them, in return for the blessing of such a government, an ample allowance for the conquering race, and they will be satisfied; a race of tillers of the soil, the Negro; treat him with kindness and humanity, and all will be as it should; a race of masters and soldiers, the European race. […] Let each one do what he is made for, and all will be well.
You certainly don’t have to agree with everything someone wrote in order to cite one thing. But statements as abstract as those you chose require context and elaboration. That might be found in Renan’s work on ethnography, or it might be found in the historical circumstances of the time. Neither presents quite the egalitarian humanism you’re looking for. Back to you.
When I think of the great American nationalists, I think of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, A. Philip Randolph and Walt Whitman, of course, but also the wild mixed-up urge that seizes millions to sacrifice, in sometimes opposite ways, for the common good: Gloria Steinem as much as Phyllis Schlafly, those who stand for the anthem and those who kneel.
In your litany of historical figures, among a series of politicians and political activists, you name one poet. Whitman does occupy a place of significance in the story of the American identity. He is the author of “I Hear America Singing,” a tribute to the “varied carols” of the country’s working class.
But if you’re going to include poetry, why stop there? Another household name is Langston Hughes, who wrote a response to Whitman’s call in 1926: “I, too, sing America.” When the segregated nation hears his song, says Hughes, they’ll be ashamed.
Donald Trump says he is a nationalist, but you can’t be a nationalist if you despise half the nation—any more than you can be a good father if you despise half your children. You can’t be a nationalist if you think that groups in the nation are in a zero-sum conflict with one another—class against class, race against race, tribe against tribe.
Leaving aside the question of whether Donald Trump is what he says he is, must a nationalist include all members of the nation? What qualifies belonging to a nation? This is the question Renan attends to, and he rejects “geography” as a rubric. According to this construction, the inhabitants of the American continent are not all entitled to the President’s approval. If citizenship is required, despising immigrants readily permits the nationalism called for by you, Renan, and Trump.
You may also need to consider that nationalism does not merely describe a structure of feeling. It describes political action, including the American nationalism that led to secession from England—at the expense of the extermination of a population on this continent. There were also less “successful” projects, such as German nationalism in the 1930s, or American Southern secessionist nationalism in the 1860s.
There is also a nationalism from below, like that practiced by the colonial subjects of Haiti, Algeria, and Vietnam, under the brutality of French rule. Even in the United States, the black Communist Harry Haywood advanced a theory of nationalism within the country’s borders. Following Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, he called the area across the American South in which there was a black majority—a region passing from Virginia to Texas—the “Black Belt.” This, he said, was an “internal colony,” a nation under siege. Its citizens had “the right of self-determination,” said Haywood, like any sovereign nation ruled over by a foreign state.
“We have chased metaphysical and theological abstractions from politics. What now remains?” Renan asked. People remain. People with their same old need for belonging. People with their same old need to dedicate their lives to something, but with the great unifying object of love—the nation—taken away.
Renan did indeed argue that “race, language, interests, religious affinity, geography, military necessities” were not sufficient to form a nation. He believed in the project as an expression of spirit, a more mystical notion than the platitude to which you have reduced it. But he went on to caution that nationalism might be a passing phase for the 19th century. “Nations are not eternal,” he said. “They have a beginning and they will have an end.” He anticipated a ”European confederation” replacing them.
In England today, the Brexit memorandum presents an obstruction to this development. This movement towards secession is another contemporary expression of nationalism, one Renan did not anticipate, and which your framework fails to account for.
If you stop the love songs to America, take the celebration of America out of public life, you leave people spiritually bereft, robbed of a great devotion. The results are what you see—loss of connection, a tendency to catastrophize, feelings of anger, isolation and powerlessness. People begin to feel that the injustices in American society are the whole and there is no hope of redemption. They get the urge to burn everything down.
It’s buried under a lot of sturm und drang, but your claim is that it is a lack of nationalist sentiment that has resulted in the violence and destruction taking place in America today. This claim is unsupported, to say the least. Do you suppose it was the absence of nationalism that led the electorate to vote to “Make America Great Again” in November of 2016? Did a lack of nationalist spirit lead hundreds of white men to gather in Charlottesville in 2017 and chant “Jews will not replace us”?
Perhaps you’re under the impression that none of these threats existed until recently, that they were brought on by a of decline of American nationalism over the course of the 20th century. This is a position that can only be taken by those who were never its victims. Those who were attacked by police dogs at water fountains or showered with napalm in their villages never had the luxury.
As it happens, Renan considered the kind of oversight you display a prerequisite for nationalism, in the very speech you have selectively quoted. To foster national pride, he said, it is necessary to forget a nation’s crimes. Renan:
Forgetting, I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation and it is for this reason that the progress of historical studies often poses a threat to nationality. Historical inquiry, in effect, throws light on the violent acts that have taken place at the origin of every political formation, even those that have been the most benevolent in their consequences. Unity is always brutally established.
You are in the business of forgetting, so in the end I have nothing much to offer you. But if you’re at all concerned with informing your readers of the facts, there are things worth remembering; things preserved for good reason in our cultural heritage. You may wish to read another poem by Langston Hughes, from 1936, “Let America Be America Again.”
The most odious political slogan of our day almost recalls it. But Hughes gives no quarter to nationalist triumphalism. He recounts how “America,” as an ideal, a “great strong land of love,” became instead an imperial state, driven by “profit, power, gain.” Even while he calls for a return to its founding principles, of opportunity and equality, he reminds us of the stark reality: “America never was America to me.”
Hughes envisions a land where “Liberty is crowned with no false patriotic wreath.” His vision is not for a nation, but for a people. It is an arc of inclusion for those who never experienced the so-called “same old need for belonging” that you take for granted.
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
Good luck with the next column.
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Shuja Haider, NYT Fact Check