"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, October 29, 2018

Blood Is Thicker Than Water - The Legitimacy Of Nationalism

Patriotism is an expression of communality, community, and collective pride.  Nationalism is an expression of unreasonable and unfounded belief in the a priori rightness and historical destiny of country, nation, and the principles which underlie them,

Or so post-modern wisdom suggests.  There is nothing wrong with love of country as long as it does not overstep its boundar8es, straying into beliefs of ethnic or racial superiority.  In fact since such love of country is always and invariably expressed not so much as love of one’s place but hatred and suspicion of another’s, it might be better to drop the idea entirely.  Let countries morph and evolve as they will, subject to immigration and the introduction of new ideas without any help – a natural Darwinian process of social and cultural evolution no different from that of the finch or the spotted owl.

If progressives are right, there is no America, no permanent, essential socio-cultural place; only an ever-changing, perpetually indistinct place, still more white than black but soon the reverse; still heterosexual and Christian but within a generation gender-unspecific and a New Age amalgam of the best of all religions.   There may be a conservative vs progressive America, but for that too it is only a matter of time before the ineluctable and ultimate goodness of human nature and society is realized.

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Hardly.  ‘Blood is thicker than water’, said Aunt Leona to anyone who would listen over Easter dinner, reflecting on a family squabble caused by the engagement of Cousin Angie to Bruce Bernstein, son of one of New Brighton’s most distinguished surgeons, but a Jew, not far removed from the Holocaust, the pogroms, and the shtetl.  As nice and talented as Bruce was, it never paid, said Aunt Leona, to marry outside the community.  While there was nothing wrong with Jews per se, nor with their chosen professions – tailors, money-lenders, pharmacists, and furriers – marrying them was another issue altogether.  The introduction  - incursion – of an outsider into a perfectly happy, familiar, and well-adjusted community made no sense.  Why bother?  Why have to parse and interpret foreign signals and intent.  When uncertainty figured in the equation, there could be no confident answer.  Moreover, why shouldn’t such cultural interlopers return to form – Jews go back to Jews, Italians back to Italians.  in simpler terms, who could you trust?

Image result for images mixed marriage italian jewish

The American Mafia had learned this lesson well.  Unless you could trace your lineage back at least three generations to Sicily or Naples, you could be blackmailed, extorted, and used.  More importantly if you defected, informed, or turned traitor La Cosa Nostra knew where to find you – and if not you, your Italian family.  Family, omertà, blood allegiance meant something in the old days.  It meant belonging and ‘We can find you’ – an allegiance based on proximity, duty, and honor; and if that was not enough, then accountability.

Patriotism meant nothing to the Italians of the early part of the century – only faith and belief in family, neighborhood, and community,  The United States meant nothing to the new immigrants who relied on friends from the Old Country, relatives, and especially La Cosa Nostra to protect, defend, and adjudicate.  It was a closed system and a good one.  You looked after your own because no one else would, and history was the witness.  European history was nothing more than a melodrama of deceit, manipulation, and extortion. Neither princes, nor governors, nor politicians could be trusted to do the right thing.

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The Chief of a United Nations mission to a West African country, discouraged and defeated by nepotism, corruption, indifference, and manipulation, confronted the Minister of the Interior at a gala held in the UN’s honor.  Don’t you realize, said the Chief, that no good can be done here because of your insular, tribal culture?

The Minister drew himself to his full height, tall and elegant in his blue Sahelian formal dress, handsome, and confident and said in an impeccable, unaccented, and correct French, “Mr. _____ you don’t seem to understand.  Why am I here before you?  Firstly thanks to my family, then to my community, then to my tribe and my ethnic region, and finally to my country.  And, Mr. ____ I will repay them in that order.”  The conclusion had been pronounced.  There was no point for foreigners, ultimate outsiders, to understand let alone meddle with the function of tribal nationalism.

Blood is thicker than water, the Minister said in so many words.  Nationalism is not only an important, culturally relevant concept.,  It is the most important.

Nationalism today, however, has gotten a bad name.  Instead of being respected as the most central factor in culture, it is disparaged and declaimed as an evil impulse – one which by nature excludes rather than includes; and which attacks, demeans, and denounces any principles other than those espoused by the majority. 

Presidents who are called nationalists are ipso facto assumed to be racist, homophobic, and sexist.  An ex posteriori guilt must be assumed.  Anyone proclaiming the validity if not currency of traditional, conservative ideas originally expressed generations earlier; generations which were far from evolved and politically sensitive, must be antediluvian and retrograde in their thinking.

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Those who gather in the name of traditionalism must be irremediable sinners; and worse, those who gather in the name of collective respect for the past must be as racist….etc….as those who articulate the notion.

Nothing  of the sort of course.  Likeminded, politically conscious people tend to band together especially if they are in the minority.  Theirs is an emergent nationalism – a belief that the wisdom of their particular group can and should be adopted as the canon for a large community if not the nation.

In Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, the Broadway 50s musical based on Romeo and Juliet, a boy and girl from two opposing gangs, one white and the other Puerto Rican, fall in love. Anita, a friend of Maria, warns her against getting involved with someone from a different community.  She sings:

A boy like that
Who'd kill your brother
Forget that boy
And find another
One of your own kind
Stick to your own kind
A boy like that
Will give you sorrow
You'll meet another boy tomorrow
One of your own kind
Stick to your own kind

“Stick to your own kind” is her refrain. If you don’t, you’re asking for trouble.  Of course Maria does not listen, bad turns to worse, and the final scene is a melodramatic replay of the end of the star-crossed lovers.

Although the message of the musical is brotherhood – the same fateful brotherhood which doomed Romeo and Juliet, Capulet and Montague – the underlying message is clear and undeniable.  Nationalism – sticking to one’s own kind, defending their families, community, and principles – is fare more essential.

West Side Story is a play about political philosophy – despite the essential, immutable, and survival instincts expressed by human nature (conservatism), one must always search out love, togetherness, and mutual understanding (progressive).

Nationalism is borne out of instinctual impulses for survival.  No group ever survived intact by welcoming all comers, considering that there was nothing to protect or defend; and concluding that one community was just as good as any other.  Nationalism is only the outspoken allegiance to what is.

The new Brazilian President, a nationalist, has been branded, not surprisingly, a racist homophobe whose only interest is in rolling back decades of socio-cultural progress and returning the country to its formerly fascist, military rule.  Nothing of the sort, say his supporters.  We are only here to preserve the fundamental, historical integrity of the Brazilian people – an integrity based on democracy, enterprise, and peaceful accommodation; and to reject socialist excess, tolerance of crime and antisocial behavior, and regressive political thinking. This ‘essentiality’ is beyond temporal justice, supposed civil rights, and equality for all.  it must be preserved, protected, and promoted at any cost.

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Nationalism is political fundamentalism the same in Brazil as in America, Poland, Hungary, Russia, China, or the Philippines.  It cannot be ignored.

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