Event Summary: Nationalism

Kristin Sippl • April 1, 2019 • Boston, Event Summary

By Andrea Perrault

On Wednesday, March 13, Civic Series of Boston (@CivicSeries) presented Jed Willard, Director of Global Engagement at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation at Harvard University in a timely and compelling presentation on nationalism. After his talk, concerned attendees questioned his guarded optimism about the future which did influence Willard to reconsider his attitude. Of course, since the event occurred, people around the world have been shocked and horrified by the killing by white nationalists of 50 innocent victims at two mosques in New Zealand. Clearly, governments and the public must be more concerned about and work to combat nationalism that results in terroristic behavior. Given today’s realities, Jed Willard’s talk was a most important presentation.

Willard addressed his audience at the Boston Athenaeum by taking a historical perspective on nationalism in the West (Europe). He emphasized that nationalism

…was invented relatively recently

… has evolved over time, and continues to evolve today

… has sometimes been used for good, but has more often used for evil (from a liberal point of view.

Willard’s slide presentation cited the Encyclopedia Britannica on “liberalism” as:

“Political doctrine that takes protecting and enhancing the freedom of the individual to be the central problem of politics.

“Liberals typically believe that government is necessary to protect individuals from being harmed by others, but they recognize that government itself can pose a threat to liberty.”

Louis XIV of France, symbol of tyrannical aristocratic rulers said “L’etat, c’est moi.” The Enlightenment rejected the medieval world view dominated by guilds, the rich, and the church. This change was reflected in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) cited that nations don’t exist. The Enlightenment celebrated individuals, not groups. The French Revolution was its culmination, with its (shocking) killing of the monarch (state). (Across the ocean, in 1776, on July 4, the United States celebrated the United States as an “empire of liberty” as stated by Thomas Jefferson.)

In Europe, France was the center of this thought revolution as centralization was evident; weights and measures were standardized; “citizens”, not subjects were celebrated; and the Rights of Man were declared inviolable. These ideas spread across Europe as a gospel of revolution. After the Napoleonic Wars ended, revolutions continued in Eastern Europe with its transnational empires and mixed ethnicities (including Poland, Sicily, Prussia). These revolutions were anti-monarchy, aristocracy, and the clergy; such views were replaced with the forces of liberalism – UNITY and FREEDOM – with the goal to free Europe from tyrants!

Willard also cited the influence of Romanticism that saw modernity as scary, and celebrated the agrarian past and sought new communities linked to the land. Romanticism produced Great Art, but was bad for politics.

There was an effort in Germany and Italy to unite German and Italian speakers.

Willard promoted the words of philosopher John Stuart Mill to describe the world situation:

“… no one has seen with deeper regret, not to say disgust, than ourselves, the evidence which recent events have afforded, that in the backward parts of Europe, and even (where better things might have been expected) in Germany, the sentiment of nationality so far outweighs the love of liberty, that the people are willing to abet their rulers in crushing the liberty and independence of any people not of their race or language.”

By 1848, the causes of unity and freedom were clear as revolutions abounded. Monarchy, dukes, and royalty were out. However, the revolutionaries did not like each other. Intellectual elites were scared of revolutionaries as they wanted to keep their properties. Mill saw liberalism and nationalism become an unholy alliance with very different ways of imagining communities.

By the 19th century, nationalism was adopted by conservatives, especially in Germany (i.e. Prussian militarists). Bismarck sought to “exalt his self-esteem toward foreigners and the Prussian forgets whatever bothers him about conditions at home.” Trends that flourished: anti-minorities and foreigners, Social Darwinism, only the strong survive, militarism, xenophobia.

World War I was fought. There were 40M casualties in WWI – 6,000 dead per day! After the war, there was some revolt against nationalism, but fascism arose, then Nazism. World War II was waged with 85M casualties.   (Also during this time, Ernest Shackleton left with a crew to go to Antarctica. The voyage ended in historic heroism after the ship was stranded, and Shackleton guided the entire crew through a harrowing return that took years. Many of his crew after surviving the ordeal upon their return enlisted in the War only to die.)

After World War I, there was some revolt against nationalism, but devolution of the ideals set in. Fascism, then Nazism gained ground. World War II saw 85M casualties. At its end, non-national communities (the United Kingdom, France, Portugal, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium, and the United States) hoped to avoid more wars.

Has old-fashioned nationalism been forgotten? No, from 1938-1945, evil men conquered the world. Keep Calm and Blame Others might be a suitable motto for nationalists.

The OTHERS then: Jews, Heretics, Landless Migrants, Homosexuals, Prostitutes, Lepers.

The OTHERS now: George Soros, Atheists, Asylum Seekers, Homosexuals, Independent Women, Hipsters.

Social and economic changes and/or real world challenges can lead to Fear and Social Divisions which can lead to Populism. Authentic leadership is needed to counter this. Today, there is a failure of leadership. In the Middle Ages (11-14th centuries), social challenges like the Black Plagues brought change and fear. This can lead to scapegoating as listed above, but that is NOT the real problem.

Today, we face real social issues and change: Asia on the rise, women and minorities on the rise, Growing inequality, climate change, artificial intelligence. This leads to fear and social divisions and populist leaders.

In the past, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill provided Authentic Leadership; they could thread the needle to face and defeat fascism and communism. Today, we must seek our own Authentic Leaders to address our challenges. Jed Willard cited guarded optimism in his hope for the future. The audience members were not so sure!


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