Is the term ‘Nationalism’ understood differently today?

A former colleague of mine draws a distinction between his admiration for the term ‘patriotism’ and his disdain for that of ‘nationalism’. As I had always seen the terms as synonymous, this used to jar a little on me. His message to me always seemed to echo the frequently repeated phrase, “patriotism ‘good’ and nationalism ‘bad’”. Indeed, he and many modern commentators see nationalism in a pejorative way. Could they be right, and that I am stuck in a 19th century understanding of the term? Or has the term ‘nationalism’ been negatively revamped to suit the current dominant liberal ideology, which has given it its current pejorative connotation?

I accept that the term ‘nationalism’ got a bad press after the Second World War, where the values of ‘nationalism’ were certainly circumvented in a disgraceful manner. Likewise, the rise of the present ‘right-wing’ anti- immigrant movements in Europe also falls outside my purview. I believe that nationalism in its true sense is not incompatible with internationalism and peaceful international cooperation.

The nation state, as we know it, has somewhat declined in popularity among many, particularly among those adhering to a more individualistic and social liberal view of life. What caused this shift has many reasons, but one certainly is the influence that the culture of American multinationals and economic prosperity has brought. By social liberalism, I mean, of course, a liberal egalitarian multicultural message emphasising among other things the value of extreme individualism. This message is clearly reflected in the culture of such companies as Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and a score of other American multinationals.

Returning to our original question, the word ‘patriot’ comes to modern English from the French ‘patriote’, and in the 19th Century it was interchangeable with the term ‘nationalist’. Various writers have defined patriotism as ‘love for or a devotion to one’s country’, and nationalism as ‘loyalty and devotion to a nation’.  Very little difference, you may say. In the 19th century these writers generally extended the term ‘nationalism’ to include an emphasis on the nation’s culture and economic interests. However, the meaning for us today has, perhaps changed, with many millennials (people born after the 1980s) being pushed more to conform to the cultural norms, values and economic interests of Silicon Valley than those of their own nation states. They can be working in one of Dublin’s many American multinational facilities one moment, for example, and the following year be working in their facility in San Francisco or Seattle, and find their cultures, interests and especially their values, completely similar. This sameness ultimately affects the personal values of those whom they mix with. This apparently has created a gulf between those not involved in this multicultural lifestyle and those who are.

Has Silicon Valley become the new colonial master in terms of values and interests in such cities as Dublin? This change in value systems has had a knock on effect on the rest of the population and normal media reporting merely reflects these changes. Amazon International and the other major multinationals contribute financially to many of the open expressions of social liberalism. I understand now that the values of the nation state can come into conflict with those progressive values pronounced by the multinational technological and pharmaceutical industries.

So when I came across a new publication, The Virtues of Nationalism, by the historian, Yaram Hazany, the other day in the bookshop, I got interested. The author defines nationalism as “a principled standpoint that regards the world as governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions, and pursuing their own interests without interference”. At the heart of this definition is the nation state with its positive message of a shared national project as opposed to the present negative connotations that modern writers often give.

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