We all have biases, and for many people nationalism (even the smallest degree of it) is one of them. However, if your goal is to understand the world, nationalist sentiments won’t give you the sturdiest foundation to do so. Nationalism shortcuts our thinking about the world. It awards a disproportionate amount of virtue points to “our” side and attributes an unjustifiable amount of cynicism to “their” side, defaulting our thoughts to give the benefit-of-the-doubt to our states, and creating a never-ending skeptical and critical eye for others. These biases make the burden of proof required to convict our side of a crime much higher than the one required for theirs. Bad deeds by our side are readily categorized as exceptions rather than rules — justified as mistakes that can be explained away by the ineptitude of politicians, institutions that couldn’t get it just right, the very limited activities of a narrow set of bad actors, and so on. Yet, bad deeds from their side are by default considered the results of bad actors or outright malevolence indicative of a whole system or way of thinking.
To be clear, when it comes to collectives and states, a skeptical and critical attitude is a good thing. But, applying it in full force only against our so-called rivals does not give you a principled approach. Skepticism must be applied evenly, and in fact, perhaps even more so to ourselves. It’s easy to point out the bad intentions or acts of those already identified as “the enemies.” The harder task, and the one we’re the most responsible for — since we can more likely affect our own side’s affairs and conduct — is to do our best to avoid nationalist biases and uneven criticism. The alternative is failures of understanding that mis-assess history, current events, and directions of the future.
Nationalist Sentiments Frame History
To have a serious discussion about a country’s affairs, one needs to challenge the underlying assumptions and claims of nobility, good faith, and moral fortitude often used to frame past and present actions, and future intentions.1 Underlying assumptions of this kind tilt discussions on politics and social justice on an incline that creates an uphill battle for clearheaded thinking because they poison analysis from the outset and set up a rigid spectrum of conclusions one is expected to pick from and accept.2
National mythologies inform a nation’s official historical record, couch the way major mainstream media frames stories (especially international affairs), and fuel broader social opinion. Nationalist framing often doesn’t question whether, on net, our country and our history could be judged on the negative, nor does it tolerate analysis of present controversies to start from a neutral point of view in judging our acts and intentions.3
Tales of past deeds, present actions, and future intentions never start with us as “the bad guys,” conducting ourselves in a morally corrupt or self-interested manner at the cost of others. Nor do they stop nearly as much as they should to question our right to action or response to an issue on principle. Indeed, a detached, materialist, or realistic conception of politics, institutions, social norms, and the elites that have power most often seems to be a framework of understanding reserved for the others, but it is not the dominant approach for anyone taking a look at a country they claim to be proud of — whether it’s applied to political history, current situations, or so-called accomplishments on the whole.
This isn’t to say that wrongdoing is never pointed to or highlighted by those taking a look at their side. Quite the contrary; the historical record and national mythology of a country — especially one part of the “free world” — must allow room for wrongdoing to be highlighted and discussed. This is identified as proof that debate and self-criticism are alive and well in a democracy (regardless of the actual quality of either). However, it is crucial to note that in many cases the language used to frame our side’s wrongs (and the underlying assumptions that criticism rests upon) tends to present faults, immorality, or outright evil as simply speed bumps, small wrong turns, and unfortunate blots on timelines of overall good. Additionally, there are certain topics of past brutalities that act as safe zones for self-criticism in our side’s public discourse. If leveraged properly, this style of criticism is often pointed to to defend us against accusations of jingoism, or treating our history in a nationalist way. By recognizing certain discussions as the exception to the rule of nationalism, overarching nationalism is permitted to escape critique and we all avoid actual interrogation of other stances, including more modern ones
Take, for example, my high school Canadian History class, which did briefly cover the American and Canadian failure to allow a ship of Jewish refugees from Europe to dock and find safety from persecution and slaughter at the hands of Nazi Germany — a disgusting episode of history. Of course, how the story was presented is key. It was framed as a grave mistake, a misstep, a tragedy where good people didn’t have a chance to affect good, something that shouldn’t be repeated, and something to be mourned and learned from. However, the moods and frameworks of tragedy and error set up different historical understandings of peoples and governments than the evocative framing devices and keywords that could have been used, but are most often reserved for our enemies — especially if they experienced the same, or similar, events, or committed themselves to the same courses of action.
Indeed, nationalist framing becomes a little more understandable when you consider the natural or taught urge to view a past you’re connected with in the best light possible. For instance, certain areas on the Canadian timeline described and discussed using words and terms such as “inhumane” or “human rights violations,” making charges of guilt that say a government has blood on its hands, or a deeper dive into anti-semitism in Canada — even if well deserved — probably wouldn’t go over well as an ongoing theme in most public schools, media pieces, or at dinner tables. Even if the most truth can be pulled from those threads of conversation, it would mean the Canadian mythology of a largely open and welcoming society (save for only a mistake or two here and there of course) might suffer some second guesses, deeper questioning, and more honest evaluation.
Nationalism Assumes Moral High Ground and Encourages Apologetics
Starting from the perspective that your side (e.g., the government or authority you agree with or live under, or are naturally inclined to sympathize the most with) has the moral high ground on a given issue due to good or benevolent intentions (or perhaps simply being on the “right” side of the issue) means that any bad along the way is reviewed through the lens of this starting point. Even the evilest of deeds can be categorized or explained as a mistake or misstep rather than the result of bad intentions, inexcusable actions, or unmitigated self-interest violently inflicted upon others. Furthermore, it means any critical voices or those completely opposed to your side on principle are considered at least confused and unhelpful, and at worst the enemies of good.
The danger these assumptions pose is they invite apologetics and excuses, however desperate or disingenuous they may become, to be leveraged to defend your side from the outset. This blocks serious thinking on core faults of principle or problems with the intentions and actions of the “good guys” — our side — and encourages gentle-handed treatment and assessment, along with lots to be said for the benefits of the doubt. As for the other side and their intentions and actions, this same nationalist lens works in the inverse to invite everything from overexaggerated assumptions to uncritical acceptance of outright falsehoods to justify an outlook that leads one to believe or conclude that nothing can be used to reason with them — except perhaps military force in certain cases.
Indeed, for conscious nationalists and those that clearly exploit nationalist sentiments, “the beauty of nationalism is that whatever means your state employs, since the leadership always proclaim noble objectives, and a nationalist can swallow these, wickedness is ruled out and stupidity explains all despicable behavior.”4/ Yet, too many think they won’t fall into this trap because it’s so easy to identify and denounce nationalist apologists and jingoists who shamelessly shill for the state, its power, and its abuses. Naturally, those who fancy themselves a little more humane, compassionate, and objective than this crowd will attempt to disassociate from them. However, as mentioned above, nationalist sentiments aren’t always and everywhere consciously bought into and leaned upon. We must still fear the subtle, unknown elements and dead truths that fill our subconscious frameworks of analysis and work as underlying assumptions — they direct and guide our understandings of, and conclusions about, the world.
This is no less true today than when Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman decided to take a look at attitudes and sentiments that existed in mainstream media before and after America’s destructive escapades in Southeast Asia — particularly after most of the country’s endeavors in Vietnam had ended. The two note “it is only for assorted enemies that we look closely at real objectives and apply the more serious observation that means are both important in themselves as measures of evil and are inseparably related to (and interactive with) ends.” Important to recognize is their usage of “we” and how it ties everyone into the problem of nationalist sentiments to some degree — even those who would consider themselves at the very least less-than-nationalist, and at most an outright critic of their government’s actions. Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that more important than the easy task of finding hawkish war attitudes in the American media is considering what the supposed critics are, and aren’t, willing to criticize.
During and after the Vietnam War, Chomsky and Herman observed that there were those writing opinion in mainstream outlets (and as such, representing areas of mainstream opinion) claiming to take a stance against the war, but doing so in such a way that never seriously challenged the noble intent or righteousness behind the U.S.’ support and maintenance of a client state and ongoing violence in South Vietnam. To be clear, many on the so-called “liberal” end of the U.S. ideological media spectrum did offer condemnation of the unprecedented destruction5 seen in Southeast Asia, with at least one Charles Peters going so far as to describe a “campaign of mass slaughter against the Vietnamese.” However, even condemning the extent of military violence — rather than questioning why the events happened to begin with and properly exploring one’s role in the lead up to and perpetuation of them, a crucial distinction — can be presented in the context of mistakes, tragedies, and missteps. This avoids direct critique that calls the use of force itself and your right to it into question, and challenges the moral assumptions that a country is looking out for the interests of the greater good rather than its own gain. For Peters’ part, discussing the “slaughter” in Vietnam couldn’t stand without some obligatory patriotic positioning and moral righteousness. He didn’t let the writing of at least one of his articles on the topic go to print without a healthy dose of whataboutism and false equivalence to remind his reader that the U.S. started its adventures with the right intentions. He makes sure to point out that it “[wasn’t] wrong to try to help the South with supplies and volunteers, any more than the American left was wrong to give help to such Loyalists during the Spanish civil war.” It seems to Peters that everything after was just a comedy of errors and bad judgement.
Indeed, according to many supposedly critiquing the war, the use of military force that indiscriminately exterminated poor rural families and other Vietnamese people (in what was of course presented as a fight against ideological malevolence and a defense of democracy and capitalism), started with what could “be regarded as blundering efforts to do good”6 continued in a way that was “more bumbleheaded than evil,”7 and ultimately became what “was clear to most of the world — and most Americans — [an] intervention [that] had been a disastrous mistake.”8
To me, a “disastrous mistake” describes merging into traffic, forgetting to signal, and causing a pileup. However, it does not describe causing the exact same pileup by intentionally rear-ending a row of cars with a semi-truck — killing many in the process — to prevent a rival trucking company from passing you on the highway.
If being a so-called critic of a war simply means calling attention to the fact that power and force was used in a way that didn’t render the results hoped for and went too far in some places, then that can hardly be considered a serious investigation or criticism of the war itself and the state’s use of force on principle. A discussion of degrees and results of this nature rests on unqualified assumptions of good intentions, and allows one to criticize certain dying trees while disregarding who poisoned the soil of the forest. Apparently, it was unquestionable to many of the critics that the United States was righteously representing the quest to make things right. It didn’t seem to occur to opinion leaders that “Vietnam should be left to the Vietnamese, not to whatever fate is determined for them by the likes of…Henry Kissinger” or other state planners.9
None of this should be taken as proof or implication that those who consider themselves genuine critics of their side are stupid, dishonestly voicing their opinions, holding back their true thoughts due to fear of public outcry, or anything of the sort. They probably are genuinely angry about the topics they address and feel they righteously call out wrongdoings appropriately. Yet, even so, they often cannot bring themselves to question what side of history they and their country were on, because it is obvious to them either way. They are happy to be harsh critics of tactical errors but never harsh critics of their government’s right to decide on tactics. In the case of those speaking out against tactics in Vietnam, in other words, the use of napalm was perhaps a mistake, but the reasons it was being sprayed on children wasn’t.
Of course, openly questioning a government’s moral stance and credibility in the case of war isn’t the only challenging area to do so. Take domestic policy as another example. Here, is an area where it also seems anyone taking a view on authority or an arrangement or act of power that says it’s inherently unjustifiable or morally wrong, is considered extreme or radical to the point of deserving ridicule. They are often dismissed, leaving the rest of the discussion to narrow spectrums that consider more important tactical matters such as whether we should attack a city with boots on the ground, or only bombing from the air.
Facing History Without Nationalist Biases
Although facing the facts and aiming for a deeper historical understanding might get one closer to the truth, short-form history and national mythology is easier to digest and makes for better doctrine. Intentionally or not, the effect of a nation’s education systems (especially those funded publicly), media, and dominant public intellectual opinions are to create versions of history and a framework for understanding systems of power that are non-starters for honest questions, challenges, and critiques of an overall national identity and history being “good” or something to be proud of. This is extremely dangerous for our understanding of the past and present.
These sentiments aren’t limited to those who live in specific nations, and often aren’t even consciously bought into. In many cases, governments and peoples use the past to justify their actions and position today to varying degrees, so it feels natural and almost instinctual to frame history in the best possible terms. Nevertheless, as we can say about many of our instincts, simply because something feels justifiable upon first glance or with limited thought doesn’t make it so, nor does it make it conducive to a healthier culture or way of thinking.
Indeed, if one were to explore the histories of nations and governments honestly as tales of power, hierarchy, ongoing injustices, and flawed human characters (some often to be completely repulsed by) — rather than triumphs of benevolent ideals sometimes blundered by errors in judgement here and there — one might start seeing a different set of consistencies and threads that paint a different overall picture. For instance, one might more easily and correctly make a connection between the Canadian antisemitism that turned around the aforementioned boat of Jewish refugees on the one hand, and the antisemitism of Nazi Germany on the other hand. In doing so, one might realize the same poisoned seeds of prejudice could have easily grown into a similar garden of horrors — “our” side certainly wasn’t (and isn’t) invulnerable to that outcome.
Furthermore, after correctly recognizing that the German people of the 1930s and Nazis were not cartoon villains, but rather real people just as flawed and susceptible to the trappings of nationalism and justification for state atrocities as we could have been (and still are), perhaps one might then go even further to discover that Hitler’s concern with an Aryan master race being tainted by other cultures and bloodlines in the early 20th century is not a sentiment exclusive to aggressive German dictators and goose-stepping fascists. In fact, it was not unlike the first Canadian Prime Minister’s concern in the late 19th century when he spoke in Parliament to preach his belief that Chinese people should be excluded from the right to vote.
Canadian professor and lawyer Benjamin Perrin brings John A Macdonald’s words out of the archives:
“Of course we ought to exclude them,” said Macdonald, “because if they came in great numbers and settled on the Pacific coast they might control the vote of the whole Province, and they would send Chinese representatives to sit here, who would represent Chinese eccentricities, Chinese immorality, Asiatic principles altogether opposite our wishes; and, in the even balance of the parties, they might enforce those Asiatic principles, those immoralities which he speaks of, the eccentricities which are abhorrent to the Aryan race and Aryan principles, upon this House.”10
Of course, us-versus-them moral panic isn’t uncommon in history. Perhaps even the use of “Aryan” can be excused (to some relative degree) as an unfortunate sign and relic of the times. However, at least for one of the Fathers of Confederation, some parliamentary xenophobia wouldn’t be complete without furthering “an astonishingly racist vision for [a] new country based on theories of white supremacy and racial superiority.”11 Macdonald encouraged his peers to take notice of some alleged racial realities:
If you look around the world you will see that the Aryan races will not wholesomely amalgamate with the Africans or the Asiatics. It is not to be desired that they should come; that we should have a mongrel race; that the Aryan character of the future of British America should be destroyed by a cross or crosses of that kind. Let us encourage all the races which are cognate races, which cross and amalgamate naturally, and we shall see that such an amalgamation will produce, as the result, a race, equal, if not superior, to the two races which mingle.12
Indeed, this isn’t the only instance where Canada’s history greys a little more than one might like, and we need not leave conversations related to antisemitism, Nazism, and Aryan races to find more examples. Again, the world is more complicated than good guys and bad guys, and so are the elites who run it. The standard superficial takes on history many internalize (if anything at all) tell those absorbing them that by the time World War II was on the horizon of the end of the 1930s, people were beginning to feel the danger of racism-fueled totalitarianism accompanied with wild fantasies of world domination by a master race. In this narrative, the free world and its allies looked on to Germany with only worry and contempt for the looming threat. If this were the clear-cut case, then it is odd that Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King found himself still somehow “striding into one of the darkest hours in Canadian diplomatic history”13 by getting “far more wrong than right”14 in his visit to Nazi Germany in 1937.
Although the “racist extremism of the Nazis was no secret when King arrived in the Third Reich,” and “public book burnings had been staged as early as 1933 and German Jews were being progressively stripped of their property, employment and rights,”15 King — who incidentally “was troublingly indifferent to the state persecution of Jews and other ‘undesirables’”16 — was seemingly impressed by Nazism and its Führer. During his visit to Germany in 1937, he “opened [his meeting with Hitler] by praising the ‘constructive work’ of Nazi Germany and said he hoped that ‘nothing would be permitted to destroy that work.’”17
Although King was there to influence a lessening of international tensions and find assurance that the fascist country was not entertaining further expansionist dreams, he managed instead to put himself under the delusion that he was a diplomatic wizard in an epic tale. “[B]elieving that he had found the path to Hitler’s heart,” “the prime minister concluded that war was highly unlikely” and “judged his hosts honourable men and reliable international partners with whom he anticipated productive diplomatic relations, even enduring personal friendships.”
Historian Robert Teigrob tells us:
King’s ability to champion Nazism arose from a complex constellation of factors, ranging from his overwhelming fears of leftist revolution and another world war to his support for improved labour conditions, from his love of elites and weakness for flattery to his own anti-Semitism. He was intoxicated by the undeniable gravity of his mission, a gravity amplified ad absurdum by the fantasy that he held the fate of the world in his hands.18
Canadian history is just one area to look at. And all of this is not to say that this portion of Canadian history is somehow equivalent to that of fascism or Nazism, nor is it to pose the idea that this alone should determine how we view all of Canadian history. What it does indicate is spending more time exploring one Prime Minister’s concerns for the “Aryan character,” and another’s “ability to champion Nazism” many decades later might provide a much-needed balance to all the grand talk of Confederation, cross-country railroads, publicly funded healthcare, and other self-flattering tales taught in schools and re-told through media.
Answering the tough questions in any nation’s history that come from diving into these sorts of facts might get us closer to a proper understanding of history unbiased by nationalism, and provide a more realistic framework with which to analyze the politics, the people, and the institutions that surrounded the people of the past, and ourselves today. Without a correct version of history, we miss crucial context to judge the present and decide on the directions we should take into the future.
Where to Go From Here
Upon first glance, these discussions on the domestic and foreign affairs of a nation considered part of the free world, especially as presented in mainstream media and intellectual opinion, seem acceptable to most, who proceed on the assumption that information is being presented to them in a fashion that’s mostly right, save for a bias or slight tilt here and there. However, when one takes a critical look at the way the issues are framed, with special consideration to some of the underlying assumptions that couch stories or analysis, it becomes increasingly clear that a certain view of how the world is ordered (and a certain version of history) is required to fully internalize and take the stories as truth without many questions for morality and wrongdoing, or criticism from principle. These underlying assumptions are largely based on forms of nationalist biases.
Too often, we comfort ourselves that the trappings of these tendencies are reserved for those who don’t pay much attention to politics, some level of political theory, or a deeper understanding of history. However, those who consider themselves learned in the aforementioned areas are possibly even more susceptible to these trappings as their own ambition, personal interests and tastes, and internalized assumptions and values guide their quest for truth. Furthermore, they have an additional layer of responsibility to guard against making the mistake of carrying forward these assumptions if they’re spreading ideas and looked upon as an authority on a subject by others.
As noted, it is especially easy to point out the flaws in others and be overly skeptical of “the bad guys,” but the harder task, and the more important one, is pointing out the wrongdoing on our side and bringing the same (or perhaps an even stronger) sense of skepticism to what we learn about, internalize, assume, and preach about our own cultures, governments, and countries.
The first step in the quest toward a clearheaded, fact-based understanding of our past, present, and future is to accept the fact that biases — especially nationalist ones — will plague your journey, and recognize the responsibility to challenge and guard against them — especially if you’ve told yourself they don’t affect you.
- The inverse is also true. Assumptions about the “evil” of others, accepted for no other reason than it being the established or convenient narrative, need to be looked at carefully.
- Consider the limited range of what is considered accepted, mainstream public opinion that often accompanies discussions on a country’s past or present dealings with armed conflicts. For example, if I were to ask you if you thought the U.S. should deal with a so-called enemy with boots on the ground or just tactical air strikes, I leave no room for further discussion on why the conflict exists to begin with, if there is just cause for violence, etc.
- Some exceptions here would be a nation or a country that has experienced a massive regime change (from external or internal pressure), historical turning point, or section of history that (for various social and political reasons) is preferable and acceptable to distance itself from while building up the new national mythology or identity.
- Chomsky, Noam and Edward S. Herman. After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology (United Kingdom: South End Press, 1979), 15.
- By the time the United States ended its Southeast Asian bombing campaigns, the total tonnage of ordnance dropped approximately tripled the totals for World War II. The Indochinese bombings amounted to 7,662,000 tons of explosives, compared to 2,150,000 tons in the world conflict. (See Wikipedia.)
- Chomsky and Herman, op. cit. (Chomsky and Herman are quoting author Anthony Lewis.)
- Chomsky and Herman, op. cit., p.12. (Chomsky and Herman are quoting author Mitchell S. Ross.)
- Chomsky and Herman, op. cit. (Chomsky and Herman are quoting author Anthony Lewis.)
- Chomsky and Herman, op. cit., p. 13.
- Benjamin Perrin. Overdose: Heartbreak and Hope in Canada’s Opioid Crisis (Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2020), 50.
- Ibid. (Perrin’s own words.)
- Perrin op cit.
- Tristan Hopper. “The prime minister with a man crush for Hitler: The day Mackenzie King met the Fuhrer.” National Post. May 15, 2017. <https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/he-loves-flowers-the-insane-true-story-of-the-day-canadas-prime-minister-met-hitler>
- Robert Teigrob. “Mackenzie King’s forgotten visit to Nazi Germany.” The Canadian Jewish News. June 26, 2019. <https://www.cjnews.com/news/canada/mackenzie-kings-forgotten-visit-to-nazi-germany>
- Hopper op. cit.
- Teigrob op. cit.
- Hopper op. cit.
- Teigrob op. cit.