At the height of the Irish economic crisis we listened to one Budget after another where the Minister for Finance would stand up in the Dáil and ramble through a litany of savage cuts, designed to make the poor pay for the folly of the rich, followed by a brief but loudly delivered few words in Irish. Very few people in modern Ireland have a command of the national language. It is true that most are vaguely familiar with Irish, but few are able to speak it with any degree of fluency. So when one Minister after another shouted out his mystical, magical, and alien words no one had a clue what they were saying. To cap off the pain he had just inflicted he could have commented on how stupid we all were for all we knew. Yet those words were always a potent enchantment; they brought enough Irish patriots from outrage to a snort, and that’s all that was needed. Such a powerful national symbol – even one as poorly understood as another language – is enough to convince a sufficient number of people in the modern nation state that the one casting the spell is really ‘one of us.’
When Samuel Johnson declared in the late eighteenth century that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” he accurately foresaw the sort of political rhetoric that would dominate for the next two centuries: whoever could present himself as the most loyal watchdog of national property would become the uncrowned king of modern democracy.
– Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Land of Israel
Nationalism, or the democratised sense of pride in national ownership and belonging, I am convinced, is not in itself an evil. Since the end of the Middle Ages this growing awareness of national identity has helped to free the vast majority of the world’s population from monarchy and other forms of despotism. It has been the backbone of the modern democratic system – which has its merits. Yet considering that over half the population of any given country is below the average intelligence of that country, and that the instruments of mass media remain in the hands of the powerful and wealthy, the appeal to national pride has been used routinely by the ruling classes to convince swathes of the population of the essential morality of obedience to the state. Such a mechanism of social control has had devastating consequences in the past, and its continued use promises more of the same in the future. Evil here is not so much in the ideology as it is in people in power who have not embraced a true sense of collective national pride, but utilise the power of the sentiment to keep themselves in power, and preserve the status quo. Any wholesome Nationalism must always seek to disempower these people, who are – by definition – traitors.