As an academic specializing in nationalism, I witness some truly eyebrow-raising trends in the field. Nationalism has long been a contentious research area to navigate, for reasons which need no mentioning. But the rise of ideological policing in universities over recent years has taken this to a whole new level, constraining the parameters of the debate in some counterproductive ways.
While recently giving a talk at a specialist workshop, I tentatively introduced some considerations about the relation between conservatism, rationality, and national identity within the context of populism. Right-wing populist voters tend to have socially conservative values, which include national attachments and are generally wary of the rise of technocratic effects on public policy. Since this is often portrayed in the literature as anti-expertise, anti-intellectualism, or anti-elitism, I assumed it was legitimate to dig deeper into the complex and fraught relation between conservatism, rationality, and technocracy.
As soon as I mentioned conservatism, tension ripped through the room to the extent that it resembled a Michelin star restaurant whose lavishly dined customers all suddenly seemed to have accidently sat on their wine corks. In the Q&A, I was met with puckered faces and a barrage of questions that equated conservatism with reactionary irrationalism. “Conservatives will always stamp their feet on the ground,” claimed one colleague, “resisting change at all costs” as if this is somehow equivalent to banging your knife and fork on the table saying, “me want din dins.” This was a political science department where one would expect at least a basic awareness of the main political ideologies.
In terms of nationalism itself, one has to be equally careful where one treads. Any qualified defense of national culture risks accusations of nativism, except when it applies to a group whose oppression is currently salient in the public eye. In which case, appeals to indigeneity in relation to the Palestinian predicament, Australia’s Indigenous Voice referendum, or land acknowledgements suddenly become entirely permissible.
There is a common distinction, notably formulated by Orwell, between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism refers to a benign devotion to a particular place or way of life associated with one’s homeland, while nationalism resembles a culturally chauvinistic and jingoistic equivalent. Although this distinction is analytically useful, it does not straightforwardly correspond to the complexity of opposing attitudes that characterize nationalist sentiments without exception: a point that Orwell himself recognized from the outset. Nonetheless, it continues to frame the popular discourse in misleadingly binary terms: “patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism… By saying ‘our interests first and what do others matter!’ we erase what is most precious to a Nation … its moral values,” as Macron representatively put it in 2018.
In the academy, this distinction is taken up in the form of civic versus ethnic nationalism, where civic nationalism is the only acceptable game in town. It signifies an allegiance to a set of abstract universal values, democratic institutions, and civic participation. Ethnic nationalism, by contrast, is used to refer to any nationalism which draws upon language, culture, history, or religion. In other words: any real example of nationalism.
The makeshift civic nationalism ideologies proposed by academics as acceptable substitutes include civic patriotism, constitutional patriotism, and progressive patriotism. What they all share is the attempt to significantly dilute if not remove the cultural element from national identity altogether. The underlying paranoia is that any version which emphasises culture will inevitably escalate into rampant nativism, as if the unwashed masses and their propagandist demagogues have no sense of nuance or proportion.
This conflation is particularly pronounced in debates about populism. “Why do we even need to mention the ‘p-word?’” shrieked a performatively offended keynote speaker at a recent conference where a political scientist had made the case for one such substitute. Even civic patriotism, it seems, is now on its way out of the Overton window.
To this end, the term ‘ethnic nationalism’ is misleadingly loaded in any case. It conjures up connotations of race or biology, while most instances which warrant scholarly interest are devoid of any such association. Even J.G. Fichte’s nationalism, considered to be a foundational formulation of ethnic nationalism, involves the explicit denial that ethnic purity of the biological kind is a distinguishing characteristic of the German people. Yet this does nothing to stop it from being labelled a precursor to fascism or ‘crypto-ethnic.’
Not only does this ideological treadmill constrain the terms of the debate, it also increases its empirical emptiness, for there is no such thing as a purely civic nationalism. What is the language of administration, for instance? Whose values are reflected in the institutions? Which cultural or religious festivals are state subsidised? Whose history and what interpretation of it is disseminated in the educational system? Best not to question, lest the inconsistencies become too hard to ignore, thereby triggering a domino effect.
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