Features, Philosophy, Politics

Inverted Nationalism and Orwellian Patriotism

National loyalty is a bit like iodine: poisonous in large quantities yet salubrious in limited amounts. Dangerous nationalism, defined as morally unbalanced national loyalty, is obvious to Western intellectuals. But educated people, keen to give chauvinism the widest possible clearance, may adopt attitudes of indifference, or even contempt, toward their own societies. This goes hand-in-hand with an impulse to glorify foreign cultures. Roger Scruton coined the word “oikophobia” (Greek for “fear of home”) to describe this unhealthy state of mind. I shall call it “inverted nationalism.”

In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argued that virtue is a mean between extremes. Courage, for example, is supposed to be the mean between cowardliness and rashness. One upshot is that moral improvement can itself be a morally perilous enterprise. When groups of people attempt to improve themselves and society, the propensity toward groupthink exacerbates the danger of over-compensation. Hence university students, eager to reject the easily perceived evils of racism and sexism, leave the golden mean in the dust as they stampede toward zealotry and sanctimony. The same purity-seeking mentality is implicated in the rise of inverted nationalism.

Does inverted nationalism really influence the elite? Sadly, yes. Here’s an appeal to anecdotal evidence. Several years ago, I attended a Fulbright Regional Enrichment Seminar in Amman, Jordan. Fulbright grants are highly competitive and are funded by the U.S. State Department to facilitate cultural exchange. Recipients live abroad for a while to engage in research, teaching, or other forms of public service and are encouraged to see themselves as semi-official ambassadors to the U.S. I used mine to study Islamic philosophy and Arabic in Egypt. The “enrichment” seminar was an opportunity for recipients living in the Middle East and North Africa to converge, network, and share their experiences in short presentations.

A young woman who had been working as a teacher in Morocco gave one of these presentations. Surprised to discover that many of her students harbored romanticized views of the United States, she resolved to inculcate a much darker—and, she believed, more accurate—picture, emphasizing racism and anti-Muslim bigotry. This campaign was so dispiriting to the students that her Moroccan fellow teachers pleaded with her to relent; one bluntly told her: “You’re destroying their dreams.” But she doubled down. Even a student’s comment that “Mark Twain was a great American writer” occasioned a rebuttal. From Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, a cranky, satirical travel book, she read a passage that Moroccans would find unflattering. “You see,” she reported telling the class, “Mark Twain hates you.” The one bright spot in American history seemed to be the election of Barack Obama who had, however, ordered drone strikes to “kill people that look like you.”

This grantee acted less like her country’s ambassador than her country’s prosecuting attorney. And she was pleased to report that, by the end of the barrage, her students no longer viewed America the same way. Distressingly, the audience of several dozen Fulbright grantees and administrators, who represent a diverse cross-section of the most educated Americans, failed to express outrage at this betrayal. Perhaps this was from a desire to avoid confrontation, but I think something else was at work. Fulbright applicants tend to be “globally-minded” liberals who are eager to distinguish themselves from the flag-waving rubes. This implies an ability to see your country at a cool distance. Condemning America demonstrates a transcendence of parochial loyalty. Hostility may not be objectivity, but it certainly isn’t slavish devotion, and that’s the main thing.

Of course there is nothing new about sophisticates who are rather enchanted with disenchantment. In Notes on Nationalism (1941), George Orwell wrote: “In societies such as ours, it is unusual for anyone describable as an intellectual to feel a very deep attachment to his own country.” He added that “English left-wing intellectuals did not, of course actually want Japan or Germany to win the war, but many of them could not help getting a certain kick out of seeing their own country humiliated” by various setbacks. Since Orwell’s time, these attitudes seem to have spread beyond academia and deepened within it. Consider the testimonies of three intellectuals.

In 1994 the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, who is certainly left-wing, published an article in the New York Times entitled “The Unpatriotic Academy.” After praising the Left for championing marginalized groups, Rorty, writes:

But there is a problem with this left: it is unpatriotic. In the name of “the politics of difference,” it refuses to rejoice in the country it inhabits. It repudiates the idea of a national identity, and the emotion of national pride. This repudiation is the difference between traditional American pluralism and the new movement called multiculturalism.

Patrick Allitt, an award-winning professor of American history at Emory University, lamented a similar trend in his discipline. In his book on pedagogy, I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student (2007), he writes:

These days, college-level textbooks on recent American history are unremittingly doomy and gloomy. They hammer away at examples of injustice, prejudice, discrimination, and repression, as if designed to induce in the readers a sense of shame and regret. From this you could get the impression that no one in America ever had any enjoyment, any justified sense of purpose, or any pride in their nation, their lives, their accomplishments.

Pascal Bruckner

Finally, we turn to French public intellectual Pascal Bruckner, who was recently subjected to a trial, and ultimately cleared of defamation charges, for claiming that members of certain Muslim groups in France were “ideological collaborators” with violent jihadists. In his 2006 book, The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, Bruckner describes how national self-loathing has become increasingly common among Western societies. He writes:

Europe against itself: anti-Occidentalism, as we know, is a European tradition that stretches from Montaigne to Sartre and instills relativism and doubt in a serene conscience sure that it is in the right. In the time of Las Casas, it took a certain audacity to denounce the barbarity of the conquistadors or the civilizing mission of the great powers during the period of empires. Nowadays all it takes to attack Europe is a bit of conformism.

When I was deployed to Iraq with the U.S. Army more than a decade ago, I knew a soldier who had a reputation for being self-deprecating. One night the military police responded to reports that a violent fight was taking place in his trailer. When they arrived, they found him alone, literally beating himself up. He was swiftly redeployed. Getting into a fight over an insult, say, is wrong. But to assault oneself is wretched. All sin may be ugly, but I find that there’s something especially grotesque about those forms of it that run counter to ordinary human inclination. Collective self-loathing too is like this. One can at least have some sympathy for the quaint jingoist that C.S. Lewis describes in The Four Loves:

I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this [unthoughtful] sort of patriotism, “But, sir, aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?” He replied with total gravity he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar “Yes, but in England it’s true.”

Of course there’s nothing funny or charming about the evils that such attitudes have helped justify and excuse. But keep two mitigating considerations in mind. First, nationalism counteracts some of its own worst manifestations. Orwell begins the essay England, Your England with the arresting sentence: “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead trying to kill me.” They did this, Orwell goes on to say, not because of any personal animosity, but because they were “doing their duty” to their country, Germany. At the same time, however, other highly civilized men, no less motivated by love of country, were fighting to protect British citizens like Orwell. Along with the rest of the Allied Forces, they ultimately succeeded in ridding the world of the Nazis.

Second, the worst manifestations of nationalism are rarely the manifestations of nationalism alone. Some people have the attitude “my country, right or wrong,” but I think very few. As propagandists know, most people will not go to war unless they are persuaded that the national cause converges with some other cause: the true religion, justice, progress. (Though the very extreme nationalist will reduce all of these things to national interest.) Try imagining a president justifying a war to the public by appealing only to considerations of national honor and interest. Rudyard Kipling’s poem, The White Man’s Burden: America and the Philippines, which solicits concern for humanity to promote an imperialistic war, makes for an excellent case study. We should be wary of nationalism, because we should be wary of anything pursued with too much zeal and too little thought.

We have not yet had an opportunity to observe the consequences of widespread inverted nationalism because the phenomenon is too new and aberrant. Nevertheless, there’s reason to think that they won’t be benign. Self-described progressives are fond of pointing out that much of what conservatives now defend as traditional is only possible thanks to earlier progressive agitations. The flipside of that observation is that any progress that a society achieves must be conserved, and this plausibly requires subsequent generations to have a modicum of respect for what they have inherited. Those who are educated into thinking that their only cultural inheritance is guilt and shame can hardly be blamed for seeking out new, and less apologetic, forms of identification.

Consider Michael “Younness” Delefortrie, a Belgian-born former Catholic who joined the so-called Islamic State (a.k.a. ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). Delefortrie, whose childhood was troubled by his mother’s alcoholism and his parents’ divorce, experimented with drugs before converting to Islam in his mid-teens. Thereafter he drifted toward radicalism. A recent CNN report, “ISIS: Behind the Mask,” notes: “Islam offered him the promise of purpose and structure, providing strict rules and moral clarity in a world where the prevailing liberalism favored shades of gray over black and white.” After a stint in Syria as an ISIS fighter, Delefortrie returned to Belgium and served part of a three-year prison sentence that was, for some reason, suspended. Now released, he remains in Belgium living off that country’s welfare state without embracing its culture or values: “I’m not Belgian, I am Muslim,” he told CNN senior correspondent Clarissa Ward.

Delefortrie may be isolated from Western culture, but he does not appear to be an isolated case. One study showed that, by the end of 2015, ISIS had attracted 30,000 foreign fighters into Syria from over 100 countries. Of these, 5,000 came from Western Europe. Many recruits leave behind lucrative careers as engineers, computer programmers, lawyers—and, in at least one case, a male model – in order to help establish the supposed caliphate. Trading such careers in stable Western countries for life in the benighted “caliphate” seems like a devil’s bargain if there ever was one. And yet German journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer, who spent 10 days in ISIS-controlled Syria in 2014, described “an almost ecstatic enthusiasm that I have never encountered in any other warzone.”

Total systems like radical Islam will probably always enjoy certain advantages over competing ideologies and forms of identity. Only they purport to give a single overarching goal capable of providing definite guidance for all aspects of human existence. And because they are unfalsifiable and make no allowances for independent thought, they do so with complete certainty. The true believer in a total system is thus liberated from the ordinary anxieties that are the lot for mortals. That is why such systems will always have appeal, no matter how many lives they destroy. These advantages to totalitarianism are bound to seem more compelling when its competitors ramp up self-criticism to the point of self-repudiation, and personal freedom to the point of modern anomie.

The contrast between the inverted nationalism of the West and the cultural confidence of the abode of Islam is striking. We don’t tend to find, in the Muslim-majority world, universities whose faculty members can be counted on to take the side of Israel, nor doctoral dissertations that attempt to deconstruct the Qur’an to expose patriarchy. University students do engage in impassioned, and sometimes violent, protests. However these tend to be directed at specific policies or regimes, not the deeper civilizational roots of their society. The slogan I most frequently heard chanted in Tahrir Square – the famously volatile center of protest in Cairo—was “The people want to topple the regime!” and not “Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! Islamic civilization’s got to go!”

The recent spate of jihadist terror attacks in France, Germany, Belgium, the U.K., and Sweden has shed light on Europe’s difficulty assimilating its growing Muslim minority. One reason for these woes, I hypothesize, is this: People generally don’t abandon or dilute confident identities in favor of less confident ones. In the West, merely saying “Canadian values” or “Australian values” may provoke accusations of bigotry.

Acknowledging the “xeno” category renders one a xenophobe. Why assimilate to a society that is bashful about its own values and identity? Osama bin Laden said: “When people see a weak horse and a strong horse, by nature, they prefer the strong horse.” He wasn’t wrong about everything. And confidence can easily be mistaken for strength.

What needs to be recovered is what we might call “Orwellian patriotism,” to which George Orwell gives expression in his essays Notes on Nationalism and England Your England. (For once, “Orwellian” is not being used as a pejorative.) We can identify three main positive attributes of the Orwellian patriot. First, he recognizes that his country is unique, and its values that are not universally shared. Second, he identifies with the values of that country, but allows for criticism and dissent. His comfortable with some forms of change, but does not clamor for “total transformation.” Finally, he is willing to defend and protect his country from forces that would subvert and destroy it. He is differentiated from the nationalist of the bad old days by a sense of humility, and the fact that his loyalty is essentially defensive in nature.

National loyalty is not like spite or malice, a vice that we should strive to eliminate to the greatest degree possible. It’s rather more like sexual desire, something that is good when disciplined and civilized, but dangerous when not properly controlled. We should accept that a tendency toward parochial loyalty of some form or another is, for better or worse, probably a permanent feature of human nature. The harder we struggle against its gravity, the more destructive will be our inevitable fall back down to earth.


  1. Jessica says

    Absolutely brilliant. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Cloudbuster says

    “National loyalty is a bit like iodine: poisonous in large quantities yet salubrious in limited amounts. Dangerous nationalism, defined as morally unbalanced national loyalty, is obvious to Western intellectuals.”

    I don’t accept the premise. The obvious example in support is Nazi Germany. That’s a singular example and not amenable to generalization. Please demonstrate trends that show that nations are regularly harmed by an excess of nationalism.

    In history and in current events, I see far more nations die because they no longer had sufficient national cohesion.

    • Andrew says

      Nazi Germany isn’t even a good example because it was based on the Aryan race, not German nationalism. They killed plenty of their own Germans.

      • Carl says

        Vengeful, semi-mystical German imperialism. The Icelanders need to watch out – if they like Iceland too much they will feel compelled to invade Europe. Ooops, we took too much -ism in our porridge!

  3. Kelly says

    This is spot on. Thank you for writing this.

  4. Leon Story says

    “The contrast between the inverted nationalism of the West and the cultural confidence of the abode of Islam is striking. ”

    Nice essay, Spencer, but I can’t agree with the above line. My beloved daughter-in-law is from a Beirut-born Muslim family, all the younger members of which are just as critical of received religious “wisdom” as any well-educated Americans, Aussies, or whatever. The difference isn’t one of “national loyalty”, but of censorship: between authoritarian versus democratic regimes — between having your head chopped off versus having to really thing through your beliefs, since they may be diparaged by beloved elders.

    Some of the greatest political ideas found first expression in America. Many of these (written constitutions, for one) have since been improved elsewhere; yet I honor and support the US one, since it’s still viable, and subject to peaceful change. That’s by no means “nationalism”. I’ll never give my support to political ideas simply because they’re “home-grown”. Peaceful change, yes; preference for national customs for no reason other than their provenance in my culture, hell no!

  5. Leon Story says

    Ouch! thing->think, disparaged->desparaged. Simple mis-typings. Can’t see a way to correct the post.

  6. Carl says

    I don’t mean to be a spoil-sport but if this tepid brand of defensive “nationalism” is the best you can come up with then any old “strong horse” will obliterate your “values” in a few generations.

  7. Peter says

    The quaint definition of “Orwellian patriotism” is really putting lipstick on a pig. Patriotism or nationalism is a psychological delusion – a narrative fallacy about our imaginary connection to strangers across space and time who happen to live within the vast, abritrary jurisdictional confines of “our” country. To claim some kind of connection, loyalty, or pride for millions of unknown strangers or stretches of dirt and rock is simply a collectivist delusion that in any other scenario would lead one straight to a padded room.

    It’s very likely that I have more in common with a latte-drinking hipster in Tehran than I do with a dairy farmer in Wisconsin – and yet, this delusion of a shared identity or pride persists simply because (in my case) “we’re American.” Because of the happenstance of our birth, something over which we had no control, we are supposed to draw a multitude of psychic rewards and the desire to “defend our country” and “its values.” Seriously? A delusion is a delusion no matter how minor or small.

    Also – news flash: nations don’t “have values” – individuals do.

    • Steve says

      Of course you can cherry pick an individual in a foreign country that you have more in common with–but that’s just it–it’s cherry picking. On a population level; there are more people where you live that share your culture. Despite not having any control over the location of your birth, it’s likely that if you stayed in that same location for 20 years you would have a shared experience with those who also did. Just because you don’t have control over the happenstance cirumstance that led to the location of your upbringing doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect your identity.

      I think yours is an interesting comment and it made me think, no doubt. However, arguing that nationalism is a delusion ignores the very real cultural values and geopolitical policies that define nations and people.

      I think it is more likely that treating patriotism and nationalism as a delusion is your own collectivist delusion. It’d be great of John Lennon’s song came to fruition and we could all be just inhabitants of Earth… but I think that is more imaginary than patriotism.

      • C. W. J. Bevington says

        I agree Steve. Humanism is the ideal vehicle for advancing society scientifically and technologically. This is seen in the scientific community and in space travel–both are global pursuits that transcend borders. However, the religious, geopolitical, socioeconomic constraints that define borders today make a global civilization nothing more than a reverie unfortunately.

        All things considered though, I hope we can collectively subscribe to a loose sense of nationalism. Like you say, we have no control over our geographic upbringing. Although individuals have varying values, we should be all united in a common goal of reducing suffering for society. Progress at this end is slow to diffuse, and therefore will first be directed and monitored at a national level before a Lennonist world emerges.

      • Peter says

        Steve, thanks for your reply. In fact, I don’t deny that location affects identity and I don’t doubt that culture and country can coincide. For example, I can be pretty sure that most other Americans my age grew up watching the same Saturday morning cartoons, eating the same breakfast cereal, etc. This is pretty cool, I guess. But what does it matter? This is the key question for me, especially when it comes to claims about loyalty, obligation, etc. Does it matter that you’re from there and I’m from here? Does it matter that we’re from the same “place?” People are certainly free to attribute importance to the happenstance of birth and geography, but I will still contend that it is a delusion (or illusion, if you prefer) to do so.

        To complicate matters, when we consider the scale involved (in my case 300+ million individuals encircled by 20,000+ miles of border) it becomes a matter of magical thinking to think we are a community in any meaningful sense of the term. But let’s consider an even smaller scale: I was subjected to the same public schooling as about 600 other kids in my town over the course of many years. We had an intensely “shared” experience. This was certainly a community (one that I had no say in joining) and I’m sure this little world I inhabited shaped who I am, for better or for worse. But should I necessarily have some kind of special bond or loyalty towards these other 600 individuals? Should I be proud of them and bound to defend them and their “values?” Well, let’s just say I have never been to a high school reunion…! Is this “wrong?” What is my obligation to them?

        In any case, I think these things are really worth thinking about about and unpacking. Glad my comment sparked some interest.

        • Steve says

          Point taken, Peter. I have no doubt that you don’t feel close to the community you grew up in, nor other U.S. citizens at large. And I tend to fall on your side as well. That is, I tend to see the world as a whole and not one of divided nations. If you were to put me in a box, the secular humanist box would be reasonable.

          But to suggest that other people don’t feel patriotism or have a sense of nationalism that is legitimate I think is misguided. If other people feel a sense of fellowship over the shared goals of say, American Imperialism, then that is the definition of community.

          We disagree on whether community can truly exist at large scales. I believe it can and does and it is neither magical thinking nor a delusion.

  8. Luke Reeshus says

    Good essay. As someone who pendulum-swung to the extreme of inverted nationalism in my early 20s (I was big into Noam Chomsky) and eventually swung back, this all rings true.

    A few insights from my experience:

    1) I was not morally serious about making the world a better place by thinking critically about U.S. foreign policy. I just enjoyed feeling superior to my less critical countrymen.

    2) My process of swinging back began when I started thinking about what to be for rather than what to be against. Specifically, I bothered to wonder, after reading something like my 1,000th page of Chomsky, “Well shit, Noam, what do you think the U.S. should have done?” To which his answer would be, “Actually, I don’t think the U.S. should even exist, because nation states are institutions of violence. Anarcho-syndicalism is the way to go.” All right then. (I also grew repulsed by his hand waiving about NATO’s intervention in the Balkans in the 90s. He seems to consider it axiomatic that Western military power is never, and cannot even in principle be, used for humanitarian reasons.)

    3) Which isn’t to say that I didn’t benefit from his work. I’m often reminded of something he said in an interview: that we in America “live in a very introverted society.” I don’t take this to mean that American society promotes individual introversion (it certainly doesn’t), but that American society itself is wrapped up in its own little world (which it certainly is).

    What’s more, this parochialism is shared by both left and right, by inverted nationalists as well as conventional nationalists. Both caricature foreign peoples—the difference is that the former do it positively. An example: inverted nationalists routinely portray foreign Islamists in a sympathetic light, because they are protecting their culture from globalist incursion. What’s always missing in this analysis is a nod to all the liberal Muslims who would rather have more cultural exchange with the West, not less, and who would rather not have their societies dominated by theocrats. Indeed, listening to the typical leftist talk about the Middle East, you think they’d be surprised to learn that liberal Muslims even exist.

    In summation, inverted nationalism is fueled by self-righteousness; it is, at bottom, incoherent, because it is defined by what it is against (nationalism) rather than a real set of principles; and it involves just as much navel gazing as conventional nationalism.

    P.S. A conservative doctoral student in the philosophy department at CU-Boulder? Blow me down…

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