Nationalism, WEB 72, design: Fabio Divo

Nationalism, WEB 72, design: Fabio Divo

To me, it seems a dreadful indignity to have a soul controlled by geography.
George Santayana

On May 13, 1990 I decided to take a walk in the Park of Maksimir, the biggest and most beautiful public space in Zagreb, today Croatia, close to the apartment where I lived back then. It took me some time to decide whether I should leave the house or not as it was very close to the Maksimir football stadium and on that day “Dinamo” from Zagreb was hosting “Red Star” from Belgrade. I’d heard that some violence between supporters had taken place in the streets, but disregarded this information; is it not often so, in many countries? But the atmosphere was already tense in the town and in the country as a whole. The ones who wanted power had been busy for a long time preparing their troops. I still couldn’t believe how things could get out of control so dramatically, as the following years demonstrated. (When I say “control,” I have in mind control of reason; the ones with national projects and precise agendas in their heads had been in control all right. They just needed a little bit more chaos and pumped-up emotions on their side.)

So my chosen blindness encouraged me and I went out, taking into consideration that the match had already started and not many of the “tough guys” would be outside the stadium. The park was deserted as I never experienced it before. No children on the playgrounds or people walking dogs, no couples holding hands. Just ancient old trees, some forest fog around them and me. And then I heard the sound I never imagined possible in reality. Yes, I’d been in stadiums before, I knew how the voices of the masses can get overwhelmingly strong. But this was something else. This roar of the crowd was as far away from sport as it could be; it was the howl of wilderness, some atavistic force being let loose, headed straight to the battlefield.

Of course, Croatian reports accused Serbian supporters, representatives of their patriots, for starting the violence during that game while Serbian commentators offered an opposite version. Many analysts claim that this event could be seen as the symbolic start of the Yugoslav wars. About the symbols we can discuss, but the war had been in progress through propaganda machineries for a considerably longer time, using all the heavy weaponry available to media. Ghosts from the past have been awakened, old legends about centuries-long hatred between the people of the region reformulated, new myths articulated and decisively offered to the people by warmongering politicians like Milosevic (but many others as well). Though in 1990 we still cannot speak of the official outbreak of armed hostilities, the cloud of war was already heavily present above the entire country.

Anything I thought or wrote afterwards dealing with the masses has been strongly and permanently influenced by that day, this most unwelcome sensation. In the past, I was ready to point to the fine difference between “good” and “bad” nationalists, to accept patriots as flag-waving, basically harmless people. But not anymore…

On patriotism

Diogenes, Socrates, Thomas Paine, anarchists, and many others including myself have decided to say that “the whole world is my country”. Chaim Potok correctly adds another dimension, saying: “Every man who has shown the world the way to beauty, to true culture, has been a rebel, a ‘universal’ without patriotism, without home, who has found his people everywhere.” As a historical minority, these rebels are not in focus here (though I will speak of them, with due respect, later). I am targeting now all the others who, all too happily, proclaim to be patriots. These are the ones who, in other types of analysis, can be marked correctly as a “silent majority”; they are indeed the same omnipresent group of people. But who cannot hear how loud they can be, how distant from silence, when the circumstances and call for the “just cause” are upon them?

So, what is patriotism? Basically, it is defined as a loving devotion to one’s country. Patriots support and defend their country, and show a willingness to sacrifice for it. Some dictionaries stress “vigorous support” (Oxford Dictionary), whereas others tend to accentuate the type of love we are dealing with here; “the feeling of loving your country more than any others and being proud of it” (Cambridge Dictionary). Unavoidable Wikipedia is slightly more obliging: “Patriotism is an emotional attachment to a nation which an individual recognizes as its homeland. This attachment, also known as national feeling or national pride, can be viewed in terms of different features relating to one’s own nation, including ethnic, cultural, political or historical aspects”. The terms which are constant across all definitions are love, emotional attachment, pride, one’s own country, homeland, national loyalty, support, defence and sacrifice. It is thus correct to conclude that patriotism covers three levels – emotional (through love, emotional attachment and pride); geographical (referring to one’s own country, homeland, home) and the level of action which can demonstrate the sincerity of a patriot (where national loyalty, support, defence, and sacrifice come into play).

It goes without saying that all the words listed above can be further fractioned and defined in different ways, could be analysed in this context thoroughly in order to present a more complex and more just image of the phenomena I am describing here. Erich Fromm has something to say about that: “Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. Patriotism is its cult… Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love, love for one’s country which is not part of one’s love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.”

I will offer only two minor examples. What is the meaning of national loyalty? It comes from “loyal” (having or showing complete and constant support for someone or something). When the word “national” is added, the only outcome is a blind attachment to a nation (or a homeland), which can lead directly to a hell of violence, militarism and war, if those that the patriot supports (completely and constantly) decide it should be so. And if this happens, the patriot is also expected to make a personal sacrifice, too. The primary meaning of this notion is “the act of killing (an animal or person) in order to propitiate a deity”. It doesn’t matter whether the wrong gods are propitiated.

Any decent patriot would protest if confronted with such harsh words describing his worldview. He would deny his blindness and readiness to obey commands and wage wars even when they are not strictly defensive, as he perceives them – for example, US military actions in Vietnam and many other places, or the Dutch “defence” in Indonesia. As Herman Goering clearly describes: “Naturally the common people don’t want war… Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders… All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism.” What he has in mind is manipulation on a grand scale and the use of propaganda in the preparation of wars. Two other, considerably nicer, people articulated their opinion about war and patriotism. Bertrand Russell, for instance, sees patriotism as “the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons”. Albert Einstein on the other hand, is more emotional: “Heroism on command, senseless violence, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism – how passionately I hate them!”

The patriot prefers to emphasise other aspects – love for his people, the importance of roots, the beauty of his village, the music of his language (no matter who, how and for what purposes it is being used), the smell of the food his grandmother used to prepare better than anybody else… But sooner or later he will have to come closer to the wrongs of “others”, be it on the football field or at the battlefield. The patriot cannot accept just “belonging” to some place or places, or certain chosen group of people. He has to have a bigger frame, surrounded by borders of different types and people of similar type, in order to feel human and complete.

Let as stay for a moment on the concept of “belonging”, also a complex phenomenon, dealt with in many disciplines. It cannot be covered here thoroughly but, for the sake of the main argument, it may be sufficient to stress that this notion is NOT synonymous with patriotism. Patriotism goes hand in hand with collective identity; belonging respects individual choices and a person as centre of her or his own life, answering one’s needs but avoiding a “drowning” syndrome, unavoidable when one deals with the “big picture” issues (which include even the fastidious neighbour as one of “us”). To be attached to others, to be bound to a space, not to be alone in a challenging world, to have a shelter – all of these can be seen as human needs. But the concept of belonging does not exclude that, in a way, every human is an island. In the same time, he can be a part of an archipelago of his own choice, with which he or she is connected by individually constructed bridges. As long as these islands don’t become submerged in an ocean or merge into a huge, compact continent-like environment, we can be sure that enough of free will is at play, the first necessity when building more specific, colourful and dignified human lives.

More than a century ago Emma Goldman wrote an essay entitled “Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty”, still considered to be one of the best on the subject. She opens the theme with a question about the nature of patriotism, wondering if it may indeed be the love for a particular spot, every inch representing the dear and precious recollections of a happy, joyous and playful childhood. She is not convinced and her explanation is that the phenomenon we are dealing with is basically a superstition, created and maintained through a network of lies. “Conceit, arrogance and egotism are the essentials of patriotism. Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those who have had the fortune of being born on some particular spot consider themselves nobler, better, grander, more intelligent than those living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all the others.”

Goldman does not fail to refer to Leo Tolstoy (whom she calls “the greatest anti-patriot of our times”) and his definition by which patriotism is summarised as a principle that can justify the training of wholesale murderers. (In another place Tolstoy adds: “The greater the state, the more wrong and cruel its patriotism and the greater is the sum of suffering upon which its power is founded.”) But it would be wrong to conclude that only anarchists use such strong words. Highly esteemed public figures, writers, philosophers and scientist have not been more moderate. In the age of information, it is quite easy to find who they were: Arthur Schopenhauer, Aldous Huxley, William Blum, Bernard Shaw, David Starr Jordan, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Johnson, Mark Twain, Gordon W. Allport and many, many others.

If I were a patriot, these opinions would hurt and offend me most profoundly. But fortunately I am not. What hurts me deeply is the impressive number of people who are patriots, wherever I look. I could respect their human right to be whatever pleases them to be if they had any idea what the human rights of others are. They don’t, but they are omnipresent and, as such, represent a huge force in the hands of this or that master of the game. As is crystal clear from the definitions mentioned before as well as from the examples from the history of mankind, the army of patriots is always ready to be used. That makes them dangerous, first of all because they are puppets in the hands of powerful leaders who rarely have the interests of humankind at heart. These masters are not patriots, although they are always ready to use patriotic rhetoric when it can serve their purposes. They are, just like me, cosmopolitans, citizens of the world, but another kind, parallel to mine. Alas, they can interfere with mine in ways I could never even approach theirs. Not even with words. They just do not listen, but then again is it not true that partial, willful deafness inhabits a space much wider than that occupied by the powerful?

The rebels

I want to devote just a little space to the people dearer to my heart and speak about the rebels (not the ones “without a cause”). Who are these always marginalized people? Are they children of a lesser god or heroes from “Star Wars”? (People searching on Google with the intention to discover what these strange groups of humans are all about will first be confronted with numerous entries related to that film.) No, they are not.

Rebels, in general, are resisters to authority, sceptics when it comes to senseless control, ones always ready to demystify tradition, rituals of the old, mummified social canons and established dogmas. More often than not they are “foreigners” also in the country of their origin, not-patriotic offspring of its soil. Patriotic zeal is not the force that moves them. They are a colorful bunch of people: lone wolfs or groups of likeminded individuals coming in all forms and shapes but never as “tamed” ones, never the ones ready to believe that territory can be synonymous with identity. Their creed is that “one has to make oneself”, be free of blind participation (as Richard Sennett wrote), and thus they try to offer a new direction to all the others. What they want to do is actively challenge the slavish, obedient soul of the silent (or less silent) majority. Rebels are searchers after new worlds and often passionate students of flying, though that activity, more appropriate to the birds, can be described as a “dangerous gift” of Icarus. And, yes, some of them are armed and ready to use weapons in pursuit of social revolution. Others are less ambitious, more turned toward themselves. The great number rebel only for a while, challenging their parents and teachers as it is normal to do in the process of growing up. The forms of their actions, engagements, ideals and worldviews are innumerable, but it doesn’t put in doubt what is listed above and tends to describe their position and function (real or potential) in any given society.

As a weapon, rebels most often use words to articulate ideas which, in their opinion, have to be heard and taken into consideration. Armed in this way they are bearers of gifts, promises of “otherness” and liberation of the spirit. Many of their contemporaries do not care or dare to accept them. The majority finds it too difficult to open their eyes and change their lives, well aware that it would mean accepting a slippery and difficult road to a life less protected and secure though, ultimately, more human. It is as easy to be a conformist as it is hard to go against the tide. Most who do will confront their own limits, sooner rather than later.

In the film “Dead Poets Society”, the struggle of the students against the rules of their environment is depicted in a very elegant and transparent way. We encounter a group of young men that are at first deeply impressed by their unorthodox and imaginative teacher, John Keating. They start to worship him, listening to his words as revelation which brings them close to accepting carpe diem as their choice. But, inevitably, they are confronted with the limitations imposed on them by the authority (traditional parents and a strict, conservative headmaster). The students try to rebel but are soon defeated. Strictly speaking, they betray their favorite teacher in order to save themselves, not willing to sacrifice the prospects and security guaranteed to them by the act of conforming. Afterwards, when Keating is fired, they are very, very sorry and a small, spontaneous rebellion takes place in the classroom. While he is leaving and though the headmaster is present, they salute him, standing on their desks, with the words of Walt Whitman, “O Captain! My Captain!”. Whether some of these young men become free individuals, fine young rebels in their own right, is hard to tell. One can only hope.

Returning to the universe dominated by big numbers I would say that patriotism flourishes in (for me) the frightening embrace of the masses. The patriot feels protected, not exposed and not alone, exhilarated and feeling great when succumbed to the rituals of a bigger plan, even when the smell of the crowd that surrounds him is suffocating. At the very moment in which he is losing his unique, individual identity, he believes that he is in fact in the process of obtaining precisely that (plus security which comes with being a member of a herd). What really occurs is that a person becomes a number in a play prepared, initiated and orchestrated by others. And the goals of the play to which one happily gives one’s love, loyalty and support, which one is willing to defend, including personal sacrifice, can be anything.

In a scene from Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret” we witness an idyllic day in the German countryside in the 1930s. But given our hindsight we are aware it is only a prelude to the darker times, a moment before sacrifices will become the order of the day. Nevertheless, all the elements mentioned in this text are clearly visible, for example love for one’s country, pride to be part of the same nation as the others around you, willingness to put on the same uniform and give oneself up to the hypnotising powers of something bigger than life. Out goes the individual, enters the Patriot, decisively and proudly singing (though his eyes, turned to the future, are much less clear than his voice): “Tomorrow belongs to me”. Yes, in this segment of the film we can notice also three people that are not convinced, but two of them are passers-by, the “real” foreigners, and the third one is an old man who saw too much and is obviously too tired to revolt. The others are “in”.

A crowd can often be a terrifying entity, not a simple sum of individuals but an astonishing new creature, masterfully described by Wilhelm Reich in his “Mass Psychology of Fascism”. The result of becoming a part of the mass is partial or total loss of reason, which can persist for a short or long period of time. It is true that one can be revived after such a “death of the individual”, but he or she will be more or less damaged, and in any case changed by the experience. The allure of “drowning in the mass” seems to have the attraction of a “black hole”. Without such an attraction the susceptibility of even strong personalities to lose themselves in such a way would be inexplicable.

The Yugoslav philosopher Milan Kangrga, who was never shy or reluctant to express his opinion, said: “Patriotism is – despite the fact that at a glance it ‘sounds nice’ – a substantially self-centered position. Why? Precisely because in its notion (substantial definition) already lies contempt of man as man, and because of that, like nationalism, it is reduced to a mere biological (not to say “zoological!”) basic and essential orientation… nationalism is a primitive, backward, immature, humanly not-yet-shaped, in itself not-yet-refined, vacant, internally hollow psyche and existence.” Not a lot more can be added to it, from my point of view. His explanation comes closer to answering the question: How can humans behave in such a miserable way?

To me it is obvious that people are, more often than not, damaged, unfinished creatures. In a way, they are clay people, a terracotta army like Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s soldiers, some 8000 of them, dating from the 3rd century BC. But the clay people around us are not static; they are moving around. Inevitably, we notice that something is wrong with their movements. They are obviously not under their own control, although they proudly live in their own country.

In my opinion, the vast majority of humans is willing and ready to say YES to status quo, conformism, authoritarianism, conventions, collective blindness, obedience, cowardice and the mentality of a slave (though we are not dealing here with poor, little, immature or handicapped people). They are really a sort of clay people, deprived (by themselves) of the right of choice.The small minority that does not fit in this description is courageous enough to say NO to all of this, choosing dissent, rebellion, critique, change, eccentricity, vision, imagination and all the hard work involved in that kind of life. These people are friends of Icarus, always in danger of being blinded by the sun above or enticed by the waters below. But they dare to fly.

Trieste, Italy, March 2016

Terracotta army

Pešč, 30.05.2016.