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The Communist and the Catholic are not saying the same thing, in a sense they are even saying opposite things, and each would gladly boil the other in oil if circumstances permitted; but from the point of view of an outsider they are very much alike.
I was sitting on the terrasse at Ras Hotel in Addis Ababa, thinking about nationalism. There was something about it, I simply couldn’t figure out.
Nationalism! Your country is so lovely, and the tradition – ah! was it not higher and deeper than anything else? And our cuisine, and our countryside! How rich, how genuine! How saturated with life.. So it went, on and on until your ears fell off..
And yet, I felt I had spotted something else, something different and yet similar ..like some distant mirror. What about the left-liberal establishment? What did they say? Of course, they said the opposite things, didn’t they? They did not bother much about their own cooking, in fact they made fun of it. Brown sauce and mashed potatoes? Are you serious! The countryside was too flat and “uneventful”, our traditions “silly”, and our newspapers filled with “boring” political discussions.
But they were equally obsessed by their own culture nevertheless, and as emotional and one-sided about it. So wasn’t there a parallel here? Couldn’t you frame it as a “negative” type of nationalism where everything was reiterated with a minus in front of it?
I tried my luck – googled “Negative nationalism”, and whoosch! ..there it was. Negative Nationalism – a old-style subtitle in an essay called Notes on Nationalism. The author was George Orwell.
Here it was, everything I had been vaguely pondering about, laid out in shining detail by one of the greats. To illustrate this upturned nationalist, Orwell brings up the English left-wing intellectuals during WWII. Of course, he maintains, they did not actually “want the Germans or Japanese to win the war, but many of them could not help getting a certain kick out of seeing their own country humiliated, and wanted to feel that the final victory would be due to Russia, or perhaps America, and not to Britain.”
It was all there, the same obsession with your own country, but this time not as a beacon of virtue but as something to be mocked and certainly not to be proud of. “You own country”, Orwell continues, “must be in the wrong”.
Worth adding, those English left-wing academics got “a kick” out of seeing British troops humiliated. They were entertained and amused when their own country was smeared in public. It made them feel good, and you never feel good when your self-hatred is based on real shortcomings. If your country is truly plagued by famine or civil war, you are disinclined to boast about it. The fact that these high-brow Brits were aroused by harassing their own country proved it was all fictitious – a past-time activity among a certain class of Europeans who were somehow ashamed that they were privileged and fortunate.
But there was more to it. What about those academics, journalists, and politicians – chiefly on the left – who not only had little respect for their own culture, but also became violently emotional regarding any distant culture – Syria or South-Africa for instance? Swedish traditions – who cares? But the traditions of the Afghan people, how deep and authentic!
Didn’t we merely witness another eerie parallel here – whereby that cursed nationalism was only exported to a far-off culture – a kind of safe haven for a flaming nationalist who knew that he or she could not – even at gunpoint – express any nationalist sentiments at home, but on behalf of a culture sufficiently alien and impenetrable, the same stormy nationalism was perfectly ok or even recommended, because it was not seen as such, but rather as a caring attitude towards the victims of Western imperialism?
Yes, we did indeed witness another disconcerting parallel, said Orwell, it was the same old-school nationalism only over there. A negative replica, a mirror image, and Orwell had a name for it – Transferred Nationalism. Save for that tiny geographical detail, the turf of veneration into which these nationalists in reverse replay had sunk their personality, it was simply indistinguishable from any trivial nationalism since time eternal.
But there were also differences. They did not cherish nationalism as troubled members of a community where they were born and raised, but as aloof, distant patrons and well-wishers who knew next to nothing about the subject of their wet-eyed identification.
Indeed, while classic nationalism rested on an emotionally charged knowledge about your own culture, transferred nationalism was fueled by lack of knowledge of cultures overseas, and is case their knowledge happened to increase, their idealization would slowly lose steam. “I know enough of the working-class, said Orwell, not to idealize it.”
Then, if you combine negative nationalism with exotic, transferred nationalism – and add that peculiar pleasure in pain Orwell talks about, what do you get? You get, I thought, a kind of masochism writ large – a Masochistic Nationalism, i.e. a voluntary collective, political submission – a self-hatred infused with a sense of excitement of even superiority.
So who, then, would be a masochistic nationalist in practice? If we turn to the area of feminism, that would be someone who’d say – with a scent of awkward self-satisfaction – that the situation for women in the West is certainly not good, and clearly not better than abroad.
Caught in a discussion with the Australian writer Pamela Bone in Melbourne in 2007 about rape victims in Darfur, the Australian writer Germaine Greer is said to have declared: “It’s very tricky. I am constantly being asked to go to Darfur to interview rape victims. I can talk to rape victims here. Why should I go to Darfur to talk to rape victims?”
When Bone answered: “Because it’s so much worse there,” Greer asked: “Who says it is?” and added “We let down victims of rape here. We haven’t got it right in our own courts.” Why go to Darfur? Why try to help others when we have our own misfortune to care about?
Here it was. An Australian, privileged middle-class academic who may never have visited Darfur, and as a result of her ignorance she managed – as a true masochistic nationalist – to compare Australia unfavourably to something approaching hell on earth for women. Her ungratefulness to her country of birth was astounding. Instead of Greer’s colonial indifference to non-Western women, one could study World Economic Forum’s 2020 “Global Gender Gap Report” where Sudan is at the bottom end of the charts. What more does she need?
Greer was eager not to give the impression of being culturally self-righteous. Like any public left-winger, she was worried about her own anti-colonial reputation, and this was more important, it seemed, then raped and killed young women in Darfur. On the surface, of course, Greer was miles apart from a classic nationalist, but from the point of view of principle, they had very much in common.
While classic nationalists ignore others because they feel superior, Greer ignores them because she feels inferior. Every now and then, humbleness stumbles on its own elitist premises. The difference between Darfur and Melbourne is not superficial but real. The difference between a classic nationalist and a masochistic nationalist is not real but superficial. Under the cloak, they are only two paths towards the same goal: moral self-importance and a chilling indifference.
Above, members of the left-liberal self-harassing establishment deplored their own domestic politics and called it “boring”. Well, maybe it is boring because it works?
Author of Masochistic Nationalism – Multicultural Self-hatred and the Infatuation with the Exotic (Routledge, 2021)