Jonah Goldberg on Nationalism

Jonah Goldberg of National Review has written a response to my post criticizing nationalism. Here is his main point:

Somin admits that he’s being more than a bit unfair to me in his post since, I was praising a “little mystic nationalism is a good and healthy thing because it provides the emotional sinew that helps us hold onto our patriotism.” From this entirely defensible and (in my view) completely correct yet utterly banal observation Somin goes off on a tear about how nationalism has killed lots of people and has led to very bad economic policies and, therefore, nationalism is bad…..

Here’s the point: Taking nationalism and setting it apart from other concepts as uniquely bad because, in its most extreme form, it does terrible things is sort of a debater’s trick. Pretty much all things, including perhaps even love (depending how you define it), can be taken too far if it means losing control over our faculties and reason.

I fully acknowledge (as I did in the original post) that Goldberg is only advocating a small “dose” of “mystic nationalism.” However, Goldberg ignores a crucial point I made that anticipates his response: “doses” of nationalism are hard to calibrate. A government that promotes a little bit of nationalism can easily end up with a lot more than it bargained for. Moreover, few governments are willing to confine themselves to promoting just that little bit in the first place. The relatively moderate nationalism of late 19th century Germany and Italy readily morphed into Nazism and Fascism. The same thing has happened in many other countries, even if not to the same extent. This is true in part because, as Goldberg notes, nationalism is a form of “irrational affection.” Irrational sentiments are difficult to restrict to small doses, and easily taken too far.

It is true, of course, that mass murder is “the extreme form” of nationalism. But that extreme form isn’t all that rare. In the last century alone, at least a dozen or so governments have committed mass murder in large part because of nationalistic motives (Germany, Japan, Rwanda, Uganda, Iraq, and Turkey are among the most important examples). Nationalism doesn’t inevitably lead to mass murder. But it greatly increases the risk.

Furthermore, as noted in my original post even less extreme forms of nationalism still promote repression, discrimination, protectionism, and other evils. It is true, as Goldberg notes, that almost any principle can cause harm if taken too far. But few are taken to an extreme as readily as nationalism is, and few have such devastating consequences when they are.

Goldberg’s other key point is that we need nationalism to motivate our troops and people to defend our freedom. I am not convinced that this is true. Many people have sacrificed for freedom even absent nationalistic motives. Americans made great sacrifices in the Revolutionary War, despite the fact that there was no nationalistic objective involved (18th century white Americans overwhelmingly came from the same ethnic and cultural background as the British they were revolting against). Even if nationalism does help motivate Americans to protect freedom, it also motivates many of our enemies to want to take that freedom away. On net, both sides might be better off if there were no nationalism, or at least if there was less of it.

Goldberg also tries to defend nationalism by arguing that “irrational affection” isn’t always bad, noting, for example, that love is a good thing. I agree that some forms of irrational affection are good. But that doesn’t mean that all are, or that nationalism is in particular. Whether irrational affection is good or not depends on its effects. In the case of nationalism, the good consequences are greatly outweighed by the bad ones.

Finally, Goldberg points out that nationalism was not the only factor motivating Nazi mass murders. I certainly agree that other motives were involved as well. However, nationalism was absolutely central. Hitler and the Nazis clearly believed that their wars and mass murders – including the extermination of the Jews – were needed to promote the nationalistic interests of the German/Aryan people. If 1930s Germans were not nationalistic (or even if their nationalism were greatly diminished, as it was post-WWII), it is inconceivable that they would have supported the Nazis. In trying to diminish the role of nationalism in Nazism, Goldberg claims that “The uniting vision of the National Socialists, the Bolsheviks, the Jacobins, the Maoists, the Khmer Rouge et al was that they invoked nationalistic sentiment in order to wipe the slate clean, to start over at Year Zero.” That may be true of the various other movements that Goldberg lists (though all of them were in fact based on explicitly internationalist ideologies, except perhaps the Khmer Rouge), but it was not true of the Nazis, who constantly claimed to be merely continuing the thousand year tradition of German nationalism, and adapting it to modern circumstances. In any event, our disagreement on this point is relatively minor, since Goldberg concedes that “nationalism was a big part of the equation.”

The bottom line, as I see it, is that nationalism is extremely dangerous. As I put it in my original post, “playing with nationalism is like playing with fire. It’s not inevitable that you will get burned, but the risk is high.” I would add that a small nationalistic flame can often turn into a conflagration that burns down the whole neighborhood.