National loyalty is a bit like iodine

Wednesday, May 31st, 2017

National loyalty is a bit like iodine, Spencer Case argues — 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.


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.


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. Ed M. says:

    In today’s England, Orwell would be a right-wing nazi.

  2. Graham says:

    Orwell’s patriotism long seemed like the default mode of the English-speaking world.

    The English could get very jingoistic, but always made room for doubt, even fear, of their own hubris. In Rudyard Kipling, these tendencies manifested throughout the life and work of the same man.

    Early America could produce a “my country right or wrong” mentality, but it was always bound to a particular vision of the republic.

    They differed- The English had a rooted, ethnically influenced patriotism, which made room for recognizing the Englishness of eccentric Marxist academics. [too much, when hiring them for government work]. The US, by the 20th century far too much up its own backside redefining its nationhood in terms of state ideology, was less able to do this. I take from this the virtues of remembering an ethnic and cultural identity over a values-based one.

    We’re having this in Canada now. Having long defined our identity in purely values terms and dismissed all others, even eliminated their possibility, the left now turns on values based patriotism as well and redefines it as right wing.

    We are now a “post-national state”. True story.

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