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Debate: Nationalism

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Is nationalism always a force for bad, or can it sometimes bring benefits?

Background and context

Nationalism’s notoriety has risen in the last decade, as ethnic strife in the Balkans, parts of Africa and elsewhere is described in terms of rival nationalities. As a force, however, nationalism dates back to the beginning of humankind. The current academic view is that national identities are purely a social construction, reinforced through social norms and institutions. That has not stopped billions of people from proclaiming their nationalist sentiment, building states based upon national identity and taking up arms against those who would deny them it. Passing judgement on nationalism requires that one examine what people have been empowered to do through nationalist sentiment.

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Argument #1

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Yes

Nationalism empowers political movements that lead to excess, corruption and violence. Leadership regimes that are politically and economically corrupt, such as the National Salvation Front of Romania, Communist China, Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, and North Korea, exploit existing senses of nationalism to disguise the fact that they mismanage and oppress their countries. They use nationalism as an irrational base of support for irrational policies. The people would do more to change their regimes if their minds were not clouded by emotionally-charged feelings of nationalism.

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No

According to Isaiah Berlin, “The ‘physiognomies’ of cultures are unique: each presents a wonderful exfoliation of human potentialities in its own time and place and environment. We are forbidden to make judgments of comparative value, for that is measuring the incommensurable.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). A plurality of nations, especially in the modern era, can allow for cultural development and cultural exchange that benefits both parties. The human variety offered by national feeling makes the world a better place, through the diversity offered by the cultures that nationalism nurtures and protects.

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Argument #2

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Yes

Nationalism causes ethnic violence through its narrative of racial superiority. This aspect of nationalism has caused numerous genocides, including but not limited to the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, and the atrocities in Rwanda, Japanese violence against the Chinese and the abysmal treatment of the United States’ native American population. This is the inevitable result of nationalism's focus upon definition - "we" are "us" because we are not like "them" - and so encouragement to exclusion and antagonism. This applies to groups both within the state, where "the other" is seen as both inferior and as a threat, and to other states with different ethnic and cultural traditions.

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No

Nationalism is a sense of fellow-feeling between group members. This promotes cooperation and social cohesion within the group. According to Robert Reich, former US Secretary of Labor, that sense of social cooperation makes welfare, social security and medical programs much more likely and stronger. It also may make for a smoother political process when there is a solid basis for consensus. Societies with a healthy sense of nationalism are more likely to provide for each other and avoid the plight of poverty or poor health.

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Argument #3

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Yes

Nationalism reinforces the existence of essentially arbitrary nation-states. Nations form by comparing one group against an ‘other’, which can range from a small ethnic population to the rest of the world. These false divisions of humanity have been the basis for violence, war, instability and trade barriers that increase human misery. Nationalism has perpetuated those divisions and fuels the basis for conflict through continued dehumanising of “other” groups.

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No

Nationalism has been a potent force for self-determination in colonial territories. The profoundly misunderstood Vietnamese independence movement, as well as most African liberation movements of the 1940s and 1950s drew heavily on the idea of nationhood to mobilise their people against a foreign exploitative power. Other examples include India, Indonesia, Guinea, and Guyana. Most often these states, once independence has been achieved, see a fracturing of nationalism that prevents those nationalist impulses from being used to condone violence against minority populations.

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Argument #4

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Yes

Nationalism oppresses women. Inherent in nationalism is the notion of blood descent; a nation's health and security is tied to its birth rate. This leads to pro-"natalist" policies that violate the reproductive and civil rights of women. Romania is a good example of when nationalist thinking tramples the rights of women, leading to forced birthing for most Romanians and horrifying illegal sterilisations for the minority Roma population.

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No

Nationalism can take many benign forms, including that of civic nationalism, where a shared sense of national identity is created and reinforced by institutions, not ethnicity or history. Civic nationalism has taken firmest root in the United States. This is an inclusive kind of nationalism that accepts any individual into its institutions. Nationalism can provide cultural and political glue for strong democratic institutions that can win out over forms of ethnic exclusion or political repression.

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Argument #5

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Yes

Nationalism is a movement of the past, linked the evils of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The future lies in an internationalist approach that stresses our common humanity, rather than emphasising those small differences that have been used by nationalists to divide us. In particular, nationalism stands against the widespread establishment of human rights, as it places absolute national sovereignty above the individual rights of all citizens. This makes it impossible for the international community to protect properly the human rights of those living under oppression and dictatorship. Supranational organisations such as the United Nations and European Union provide a way forward for the different peoples of the world to cooperate towards common goals of peace and prosperity, while still respecting and celebrating diversity.

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No

Nationalism can be misused, but it is an important political fact. Nation states are workable political units. On one hand they are small enough that the people feel a connection to their government and can hold it accountable. On the other hand, they are large enough for those governments to be rich and powerful enough to make a difference (e.g. running a welfare state, transferring wealth from prosperous regions to economically depressed ones, having a meaningful foreign policy). In this way, nationalism, and the nation state to which it aspires, is a force for democracy and good government. International organisations, by contrast, are undemocratic in nature and impossible to hold accountable for incompetence and corruption.

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