Gross National Contempt

What do Charles de Gaulle, Pope John Paul II, and Arthur C. Clarke have in common? They all openly knocked nationalism. But their VIP status doesn’t make them right. A quick reality check reveals that they deeply misunderstood the virtues of nationalism.

Charles de Gaulle (French president, general, and writer, 18901970)

Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.

Reality check: De Gaulle is splitting hairs. Nationalism and patriotism are the same thing: a love for ones nation. If nationalism or patriotism turns hateful, it is because it mixes with something else, such as lack of a free press, or a threatened elite. That happened in early 1990s Rwanda, where the ruling party used hate radio to monopolize political discourse and convince Hutus that their national survival required the killing of Tutsis. But de Gaulles thinking blinds us to these dangerous combinations. Instead of assuming good and bad forms of nationalism have totally different DNA, we should consider the possible corrupting factors that could send any nation down a destructive path.

Pope John Paul II (19202005)

Pervading nationalism imposes its dominion on man today in many different forms and with an aggressiveness that spares no one. The challenge that is already with us is the temptation to accept as true freedom what in reality is only a new form of slavery.

Reality check: The late pope dreamed of people liberated from nationalism. But why should a kinship with your fellow citizens, as long as you respect others, be such a bad thing? On the contrary, imagine what a perfectly free society would look likeone filled with individualists who care not about their country, family ties, or global society as a whole. (In fact, these freed people would also eschew organized religion and future holy fathers.) In other words, a completely free society is no society at all. Given the uncertain alternatives, Id rather stay with nations.

Thorstein Veblen (Norwegian-American economist who cofounded the institutional economics movement, 18571929)

Born in iniquity and conceived in sin, the spirit of nationalism has never ceased to bend human institutions to the service of dissension and distress.

Reality check: The bestial origins of nationalism offended Veblens refined mind. And perhaps rightfully so; nationalism doesnt thrive on elegant calculations, but on our animal instincts to form packs. But being primitive does not make something ineffective. Nationalism merely makes us look after our ownespecially when the chips are down and people are tempted to leave others behind. The next time your country faces a grave threat, youd better hope your fellow citizens have nationalism in their hearts.

Arthur C. Clarke (British science fiction writer, 1917)

It is not easy to see how the more extreme forms of nationalism can long survive when men have seen the Earth in its true perspective as a single small globe against the stars.

Reality check: Clarke reflects the naive hope that technology will trump human nature. But it is human nature that guides technology. After all, it was only a great contest between two nationsthe space racethat gave us Sputnik, the Apollo program, and other inspiration for Clarkes novels.

Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi (Libyan leader, 1942)

Nations whose nationalism is destroyed are subject to ruin.

Reality check: Sad but true. Of all the prominent figures in this list, only the dictator of an oil-dependent country understands the value of nationalism. But it wasnt always this way. Before becoming a superpower, the United States was a nation whose leaders appreciated nationalism. For instance, President Theodore Roosevelt famously declared that love of country is an elemental virtue, like love of home. We owe it to ourselves to discard intellectual biases and harness the power of this neglected social resource.

Gustavo de las Casas is a doctoral candidate in international relations at Columbia University.