Sunday Sermon: Nationalism Is A Lie

The first poem I learned by heart was Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” (here)

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Kipling was more succinct but less visual:
If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

My father was the person who suggested the poem by Owen; I suspect he was concerned by my interest in military history, and thought perhaps that I was going to turn into a war-lover. I always understood that concern; I played a great deal of war-games, read a lot, and went to see “Seven Samurai” anyplace and any time it showed.* I wasn’t glorifying war, I was fascinated by the balance and trade-offs of strategy and tactics and luck and …   and I was always puzzled why anyone would do such a thing. To fight for one’s county. “Pro Patria Mori” Even to die for one’s country. People have always done it; perhaps people always will. I hope not, though. Because countries are lies.

This makes as much sense as any other flag. Maybe more.

This makes as much sense as any other flag. Maybe more.

Political science, going back to the earliest writtings of philosophy, is about how a people form a state (“polis”) and the interactions between the people and this thing. This imaginary thing, defined by imaginary lines on a map. This thing that people are willing to kill and die for. Constructive political philosophies in the enlightenment moved away from the divine right of kings and toward a model in which the government governed by the consent of the people. It’s odd to me. It seems as though people have had their brains hacked by Martian hackers that have implanted the idea that there is such a thing as a country, which is separate from them, superior to them, to which they grant authority and to which they sacrifice their lives.

National identities are not merely culture; culture is things like “we invented pizza” and “home of The Ramones” – those remain real regardless of the fluctuations of nationality: if I make pizza and move to Sweden, I am still a person who enjoys pizza. I do not need to mourn my loss of identity; more importantly I do not need to make my non-pizza-loving neighbors miserable with my national identity as a pizza fascist. Growing up without religion, and reading too much history,  I couldn’t help but see religion and national identity as parts of the same lie: there is something bigger than you, to which you owe loyalty and life, which controls you and may call upon you to sacrifice your all. Yet, if you look at what religions and nations do, they bear more resemblance to a manipulative cabal of thugs than anything else. Eventually, I realized that the resemblance was real: nations and religions are just hacks to maintain social control.

“Religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool.” – Mark Twain

Twain forgot to mention the con man’s boss, who was the first politician.

Here’s a way of curing yourself of nationalism: heed the words Ted Sorensen, speech-writer**, put in the mouth of John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!”  Rather, “Ask yourself, ‘is this my country’?”

Perhaps you love it, but does it love you?

It's not your fucking country

Get Out! It’s not your fucking country!

There are so many examples of where people seek to be loyal citizens of a nation, only to have the nation turn around and macerate them to a paste between the gears of its politicians’ ambition. Ask the young Britons who died for inches of mud in Flanders fields. Never mind, they can’t answer. The lies pile deeper and deeper. Dulce Et Decorum Est.

The other day I learned of something horrible I hadn’t heard of before: during WWII England, Canada, and Australia conspired to ship their poor citizens to Australia – ostensibly to protect them from the war, but really for racist motives, and motives of convenience. Around 100,000 or more children were taken from “their homeland” and sent away to Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. If you want to cast that in terms of nationalism: “ask not what your country can do for you, it wants to get rid of you.” As usual, when you have vulnerable children being placed into new situations, there was a litany of abuse and molestation. The response of the UK has been to try to run out the clock on the problem – a trick they appear to have learned from the Roman Catholic Church.

Migrants, dispossessed, and displaced – they understand the lie of nationalism all too well. Along with the child migrants of WWII there are stories of other “migrants” relocated to Australia and elsewhere. There was a heart-rending account in BBC’s “Witness” podcast, of the “Kindertransports” – shipments of children from nazi Germany, many of whom arrived in England in search of shelter, only to be stuffed onto a coffin ship headed for Australia. This was far from an isolated event – jews attempting to flee Germany on the St Louis, a liner out of Hamburg, thought they had visas to enter Cuba, but were turned away, then sailed to the US and were turned away (there was a depression on, and the jews were going to steal American’s jobs)(Plus ça change!), so they returned to Europe – Belgium, France, the Netherlands, where the Vichy French government shipped many of them to the death-camps. Nationalism is a pretty obvious lie to migrants: they’re on the wrong side of it, and all they see is the ugliness.

Suddenly, it's not "your country" any more.

Suddenly, it’s not “your country” any more.

Of course it doesn’t stop there: many citizens of a nation – good, contributing, hard-working taxpaying people – find themselves on the wrong side of nationalism. During WWII the US famously interned citizens of Japanese descent: outright racism, apparently predicated on the idea that having descended from Japanese one’s national identity was prone to suddenly flip-flopping during a war. In England, the same thing happened: British italians were interned. British Germans were sent to prison camps. In a terrible irony, some of them were Britons of jewish descent who had fled Germany, only to be swept up by “their” new nation, and sent to an internment camp on the Isle of Man. In Canada, citizens of German descent that had been in the country since a wave of immigration in the 1880s, were still swept up and interned in prisoner of war camps.

 The only possible reasoning that can support such internments is that national identity is genetic: someone is genetically “Japanese” or that Japanese-ness is a heritable trait. We have always known that’s a lie, of course, because human populations immediately begin mixing – whether voluntarily or no. What, did the deranged nationalists of the 1940s think that Japanese-American citizens were like Mendel’s peas: 50/50 they’ll pick our side or theirs? Absurd.

That’s just one of the many charges that can be laid against nationalism: it doesn’t even believe its own lies. There are so many more, it ought to be obvious that nationalism is a con, yet we still see many many people sacrificing on the altar of the god that isn’t.

Friedrich Drumpf, 1869, Kallstadt

Friedrich Drumpf, 1869, Kallstadt

It’s important to remember this, since the US election is coming up. One of the candidates is trumpeting a form of ultra-nationalism based on racialized national identity. One of the candidates*** says to “Round Them Up” – ironically, that candidate is a descendant of the German-Americans who immigrated in 1885 – he would have been one of the German-Americans who was eyed with suspicion by his fellow citizens, upon the outbreak of World War I. Since he was out in the Klondike, a wild part of the country still in the process of being ethnically cleansed of indigenous people, he probably didn’t get much static. By the time World War II happened, most of the German-American immigrants had been literally “grandfathered in” and Japanese-Americans were targeted because, simply, they looked different.


I’ll offer a slightly constructive view of nationalism. Since this is my opinion, I will not salt every sentence with “it appears to me that…” qualifiers, but you should assume that every sentence is adorned with disclaimers.

If government is democratic, it arises from the people – it is an emergent property of the people. As such, there is no such thing as a “nation” there is a region on a map defined by the plurality of opinion of the people that identify themselves as “belonging” in that region. The question of “belonging” is purely cultural: if one individual’s way of identifying as an American is because they like The Ramones, that’s just as valid as if they identify as American because their ancestors have lived in that region for generations. As government is an emergent property of the people, any attempt to disown or deny someone identifying as belonging to that body politic is dangerously fallacious: it is simply one group of members of a club wishing to revoke the membership of others in that club. Per Groucho Marx, “I wouldn’t trust any club that tried to exclude any of its other members” because I might be next; I argue that when a nation (remember: emergent property of the people) tries to exclude part of itself, it is no longer a nation; it no longer exists.

In other words, nationalism is a culture club and nothing more. Would you go to Flanders fields and fight and die for your bowling team?


New York Times: “Apology Opens Wounds of Migrant Program

S.S. Asturias website: “The Lost Children

BBC Witness: “Italian Internees

BBC Witness: “Kindertransports

(* This was back in the days when one did not simply own copies of movies. “Seven Samurai” was the first laserdisc, the first VHS cassette, and the first DVD I purchased.)

(** John Kennedy was another inauthentic political hack. Sorensen assembled a “writer’s room” to put together the great speech. Why do we credit Kennedy, who was just the performer?)

(*** To be fair, I don’t think he means it.)


  1. Jake Harban says

    A nation is a political construct legitimately formed by social contract that serves a legitimate purpose if the terms of that contract are adhered to. No nation actually has, but we’re working on it. Slowly.

    So yes, a legitimate nation is an emergent property of the people. However, you can’t simply define yourself as belonging; each country covers specific geographical areas and its people are defined by those lines. I am not American because I “identify” as American; I am American because I live in America. If I moved to Sweden, then I’d be Swedish. And if Sweden tells me I’m not allowed to move there (or need permission or I’m not “really” Swedish or need a visa or what-have-you) then Sweden has overstepped the authority granted to nations under the social contract and is thus not a legitimate nation.

  2. Lurker #753 says

    It’s a lie, but it’s cheap – you don’t have to know much, or to think much, and too many places and social classes don’t afford the luxury of either. Also, let’s call it by its true name: tribalism. Wealthy tribalism is your bowling team scarf. Poverty line tribalism is race riots. If his social class paid their taxes, Trump would have no political power supply.

    But without a sense of national identity, about what does a nation state cohere when faced with internal or external stresses? You can’t have a “people” if they can opt-in or -out a la carte.

  3. John Morales says

    Philosophically, I’m with you, Marcus.

    Pragmatically, not-so-much. Being stateless in this day and age is not a good thing.

    Jake, I’m Australian because I undertook to acquire citizenship.

    (Back when I did it, I had to swear fealty to the Queen)

    And if Sweden tells me I’m not allowed to move there (or need permission or I’m not “really” Swedish or need a visa or what-have-you) then Sweden has overstepped the authority granted to nations under the social contract and is thus not a legitimate nation.

    Yeah, good luck with that. (!)

  4. sonofrojblake says

    nationalism is a culture club

    And after all that, the mental image I’m left with is that of Boy George. Thanks for that.

  5. Jake Harban says

    Jake, I’m Australian because I undertook to acquire citizenship.

    I never acquired citizenship anywhere. I guess I’m philosophically American but pragmatically stateless?

  6. says

    Jake Harban@#1:
    I’ve got a sort of a problem with what you said – it seems circular. A nation is the sum of its citizens, how do we determine who are citizens: they live within the bounds of the nation. It’s sort of a self-defining entity, in other words, which I do think is the case – which is why I call nations a lie. “We are americans because we live in america, the borders of which we set.” That destroys any idea that a state holds territory legitimately – it’s all fiat.

    You probably have guessed that I reject the idea of the social contract. I’ll probably do a whole posting about that eventually. Short form: as you say, legitimacy depending on a social contract is problematic because there has never existed a state that actually exists by the will of the governed. And, as long as nationalists have any say in it, there never will.

  7. says

    Lurker #753:
    let’s call it by its true name: tribalism


    But without a sense of national identity, about what does a nation state cohere when faced with internal or external stresses? You can’t have a “people” if they can opt-in or -out a la carte.

    That presupposes that we need “people” – rather than cultural artifacts. We, The People Who Brought you The Ramones and Pizza Hut and Lady Gaga and Hip Hip. You don’t like it? Tell it to the marines.

    The point you allude to is very important: nationalism is like street gangs in a depressed city – if you’re not part of a gang, you’re fair game for anyone to abuse. Therefore being a member of a gang has benefit. That, however, does not equate to a social contract with the gang – loyalty is not due to anything that extorts it.

    It seems to me that nations are a self-perpetuating scam by the wealthy and powerful; tribes or street-gangs writ large.

  8. says

    John Morales@#3:
    Being stateless in this day and age is not a good thing.

    Yes, that’s another point against nationalism: they have arranged it so that if you’re not part of the gang, you’re “legitimate target” for abuse by anyone who is in a gang.

    This is realpolitik. They try to make it sound pretty and dress it up with big resounding words. But it’s just crime families/street gangs with nuclear weapons.

  9. says

    Jake Harban@#5:
    I never acquired citizenship anywhere. I guess I’m philosophically American but pragmatically stateless?

    No, you inherit your mastery based on the imaginary lines on the map you’re born in. You’re born a taxpayer, subject to military levee or work force, abuse by police, and surveillance by spies – based on where you’re born.

    Let’s imagine for a second a world in which there were legitimate contractarian states. You’d be born and allowed to live in whatever state you were in or wanted to be in, until you were of an age of responsibility (I’d say 21, but 18 or even 16 is good enough to be given a gun and told to go kill for the state) at which point you’d decide what nation you wanted to grant your allegiance to, and which nation’s laws you wanted to live under. That would be an interesting world, as everyone tried to go where the economies and food were good and the leaders weren’t assholes. Soon, people in those countries would be yelling “build a waaaaal!”

  10. sonofrojblake says

    everyone tried to go where the economies and food were good

    Screw the economy and food, give me the country where there’s no conscription and a good national health service. Short-termist optimists might well flock to a country where it’s great to be rich (e.g. the USA today). Pragmatically, though, unless you have inherited wealth or highly marketable qualifications and skills, you’re better off aiming for somewhere where it’s at least tolerable to be poor – because that’s what most people are, comparatively. Until relatively recently, I’d have said the UK was a place where it’s tolerable to be poor. It’s demonstrably better here than, say, France, which is why you have the phenomenon of huge numbers of “refugees” sitting in a perfectly safe, modern democracy, camped out in tents in a shanty town on the border trying to sneak into the back of a truck so they can get OUT into a place where they perceive conditions are better for those with nothing.

  11. John Morales says

    sonofrojblake, poverty in developed economies is a relative thing. The UK is a developed economy.

  12. brucegee1962 says

    I’ve posted in this space before about my worldview, which is heavily influenced by meme theory. I go by the supposition that, if you see a meme that has showed up, independently, in practically every successful culture in existence on the globe, then you should start with the assumption that the meme at some point bestowed a benefit upon its host culture. (Not just the elites, as you say, but the entire culture.) I think that’s true of religion, and patriarchy, and it’s definitely true of nationalism. Before you ask “Is this meme worthwhile?” you should first ask “What benefits did this meme formerly bestow?” and second, “Do the conditions that once caused those benefits still exist?”

    For about 99% of human history, if you asked any human “What is your greatest fear?” their answer (at least in the top five) would surely have been “Those people who live over there (probably just a few days’ journey away) could show up at my village and kill or enslave me and my family.” Constant warfare drove cultural evolution the way predation drives biological evolution: cultures had to adapt and come up with memes they could use to defend themselves, or else become extinct, killed or enslaved or just absorbed by other cultures with better memes. And if being wiped out by invaders is a constant fear, then nationalism is a fantastic defensive meme: if invaders from a different culture show up, then all of our Ramones-loving villages will band together in a big army to fend them off, instead of allowing ourselves to be picked off one at a time. In a world where (as you say in the comments above) everyone is in a street gang, you want to encourage your fellow gang members to be a winning street gang rather than a losing one.

    If you’d tried your anti-nationalism arguments back then, they would have locked you up – for good reason. If you talk people out of being loyal to their country, then another country that is more nationalistic will come along and swallow up everyone – rich and poor alike. Look at Babylon, or all the neighbors of the Aztecs, or Poland. Sure, the rich have more to lose, but the poor don’t want to have their Ramones or pizza taken away either.

    It’s only during the last 1% of human history (I’d date it from the founding of the UN, more or less) that the threat of invasions has stopped being such an incredible driver of cultural evolution. I don’t think most of us have really thought about what a huge revolution that represents, but I think it probably accounts for many of the profound cultural shifts we’ve seen in the last few decades. If a functional community of nations can actually remove the invasion-threat threat from most of humanity, then we can finally ditch some of the defensive memes we’ve been dragging around with us for centuries. (And like you, I’d put religion in the same category.)

    The thing is, when a meme takes root in a culture, it generates all kinds of defense mechanisms to protect itself (for instance, nationalism and religion developing a symbiotic relationship to protect one another). And those defense mechanisms can keep a meme alive long after it’s stopped serving any useful function. I tend to believe that many of the worst evils today are memes that used to be beneficial, but whose defense mechanisms cause them to still propagate long after the culture has evolved to the point where they’re harmful.

    So, to wind up, I think you’re right to rail against nationalism, but you’re doing so for the wrong reasons. Recognize that it was once a good thing; it’s only now, by the grace of cultural evolution, that we’ve finally arrived at a place where its drawbacks (which you enumerate) outweigh the advantages it once gave us in a more bellicose environment.

    Short version: Nationalism doesn’t cause wars, any more than claws cause predation. What causes predation is hunger; what causes wars is the fact that many or most humans are greedy bastards who will, given the opportunity, be happy to kill other humans and take their stuff. Because animals are hungry, they kill and eat each other; because humans constantly trying to get a greater share of limited resources, war has been a constant for the species at least since it began to practice agriculture. Cultural evolution gave us nationalism for the same reason that biological evolution gave animals claws: because cultures that had it were likely to conquer or absorb cultures that didn’t. But maybe, just maybe, we’ve evolved beyond the need for that now.

  13. Dunc says

    It’s demonstrably better here than, say, France, which is why you have the phenomenon of huge numbers of “refugees” sitting in a perfectly safe, modern democracy, camped out in tents in a shanty town on the border trying to sneak into the back of a truck so they can get OUT into a place where they perceive conditions are better for those with nothing.

    No, that’s tabloid rubbish. This is a question which has been studied in detail, and all of the available evidence indicates that the vast majority of refugees have basically no knowledge of either asylum or welfare policies in their destination countries. The main reason why people want to come to the UK in particular is that we are widely perceived as tolerant and democratic country which respects human rights. A lot of people also want to come here because they already have family and friends here, they have cultural ties to the UK (such as coming from countries we previously colonised), and / or they already speak English.

    There’s probably also a significant “greener grass” element: they know how shitty things are wherever they currently are.