In Greek mythology, Proteus was quite the character. You could get the truth from him, but only if you could catch and hold on to him. Not hard to do, except for the fact that he could morph from one being to another. He might be found looking like a seal, sunning on a rock in the sea, but when you tried to catch him, he could turn into a fish and swim away or into a bird or fly away.
In politics, words are often like that. Get a good grasp on a word and the next thing you know, it changes. Liberal has one meaning today and in the United States, but the word had different meanings in the past or in the European experience. The same goes for conservative. So, is a person who wants to abolish an absolute monarchy and establish a republic the liberal or conservative? Depends on who you read or how you define the terms. Liberal, conservative, democracy, republic, libertarian, legal, illegal, protests, revolutions, reforms, federalism, and other terms demands a context and an explanation. Phrases are the same. “Public servants” is a great term, as is “statesmen,” but “politicians” has negative connotations. In rhetoric classes, we often begin by pointing out the proper and the less accurate ways of defining the term “rhetoric.”
This brings us to the term Nationalism. In the studies of American history, there is a period of time somewhat after the Founding Era and the Federalist Era that is often called the Nationalist Era or Period. It is set in contrast to Sectionalism, which of course hurls the nation onto the fate of civil war and disunion. Like all terms and labels, this moniker is both helpful and a bit of a stretch. Sectionalism can be found in not only our nation’s origins, but in the colonial period. Likewise, nationalism was a concept that goes back at least to the times when Benjamin Franklin and others were calling for colonial unity.
In the study of European history, nationalist periods are those times when the nation-states that came to dominate Europe developed as separate nations, usually under absolute monarchs. Then in time, these “nations” had their own internal nations that were subjected to rule by the larger powers. What we call France and Spain are actually hegemonies of groups within those recognizable boundaries. Germany and Italy are a bit easier to understand because neither existed as nation states until 1870.
Nationalism was often cited as a cause of World War I. Austria-Hungary to a large extent was an empire that corralled several nations under a ruling Hapsburg monarchy. The breakup of that polyglot was one of the results of World War I. Thus a number of new nations emerged in that age of nationalism. In the years that followed, the more positive connotations of nationalism turned dark and bleak as leaders like Hitler, Mussolini, and others incited their nations to a more intense, dangerous, and megalomaniacal versions of the idea.
The handy and ugly term Nazi is simply a short form of the term National Socialist. It is ironic, perhaps, that World War II featured various forms of nationalism that adopted ideologies that involved the suppressing nationalism of their conquered territories.
The story goes on after World War II. Books on the topic abound. Views on the issue are varied. For one just wanting to grasp the history, I would highly recommend Eric Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism Since 1780.
For some contemporary thought on the matter from positive viewpoints, I have found much appeal in the books highlighted above. I have read and am working on a second reading of The Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West by R. R. Reno. This book is published by Regnery Gateway.
That the West is in trouble is beyond debate. That the future of the West is uncertain is for certain. Reno contends that in our quest to be anti- or against this or that ugly ideology of the twentieth century has caused us to also reject some of the forces for cohesion and strength that are necessary for a society to survive.
I am still beginning my long overdue reading of The Virtue of Nationalism by Yoram Hazony. Dr. Hazony is a great thinker, an Israeli scholar, and a gifted writer. I have enjoyed all that I have read from him in the past. This book comes highly recommended by a number of people whose opinions I already respect.
Hopefully, we can return in a future blog to discuss both these books. You are welcome to provide me your own thoughts, reviews, or concerns. Post a comment or send me an email at Veritas@cableone.net.