21. janv., 2021

The scourge of nationalism

"Every society, every ethnic or religious group maintains certain myths, often centered on the very birth of the nation or movement in question. These myths lie unseen beneath the surface, waiting for the moment to arise in a crisis to define and magnify their members or followers. In times of peace, national myths are essentially benign. They are fed by the entertainment industry, by school lessons, by pseudo-historical stories and ballads, by preaching in mosques, or by those absurd historical dramas that always gain popularity in times of war. In normal times, they do not really stand in the way of serious historical studies, or even of a certain tolerance towards others. But as soon as a war breaks out, national myths cause collective amnesia. They give past generations a grandeur and nobility that they never possessed. Almost all groups, let alone nations, have this kind of myth. It is the kind of wood that nationalists use to light the fire of a conflict. (…)

Archaeology, folklore, the search for what is defined as authentic, are the tools that nationalists use to attack others and promote themselves. They may dress these things up as history, but in truth they are myths. Meanwhile, genuine historical investigations, when not destroyed, are corrupted and attacked. Facts become as interchangeable as opinions. Inconvenient facts are rejected or denied. Intoxicated by the newfound national pride and the thrilling prospect of war, blatant inconsistencies are glossed over. (…)

Intellectuals and other critics of society are as vulnerable as the masses to the scourge of nationalism. They often find in it a remedy for their feelings of ostracism. Through the nationalist cause, they may find themselves exalted by a nation that had previously ignored them. They, too, like to be intoxicated. In times of national crisis, there will always be intellectuals ready to line up behind the leaders they once claimed to despise, belying the moral postures adopted in the confines of lecture halls in times of peace. These enthusiastic intellectuals can become dangerous in peacetime. Many of them harbor messianic and absolutist certainties that they have never had to put into practice. All nationalist movements have this kind of pernicious mentor, ready to justify the use of force in the service of a utopian and unrealistic dream. (…)

Those who fully embrace the nationalist myth have their lives transformed. Collective self-celebration allows people to abandon their usual obsession with the trivial concerns of everyday life. The desire to see themselves as actors in a grand historical drama can make them abandon even the concern for their own lives. One accepts this vision even when it means destroying oneself. In wartime, life becomes a theater. Everyone becomes an actor. The leaders stand out against a beautiful military backdrop, in noble and heroic poses.

Translated from French : La guerre est une froce qui nous octroie du sens, p. 71. Chris Hedges, 2002