Why Nationalism

Narrated by: Juliet Stevenson
Length: 6 hrs and 30 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (11 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Why nationalism is a permanent political force - and how it can be harnessed once again for liberal ends

Around the world today, nationalism is back - and it’s often deeply troubling. Populist politicians exploit nationalism for authoritarian, chauvinistic, racist, and xenophobic purposes, reinforcing the view that it is fundamentally reactionary and antidemocratic. But Yael (Yuli) Tamir makes a passionate argument for a very different kind of nationalism - one that revives its participatory, creative, and egalitarian virtues, answers many of the problems caused by neoliberalism and hyperglobalism, and is essential to democracy at its best. In Why Nationalism, she explains why it is more important than ever for the Left to recognize these qualities of nationalism, to reclaim it from right-wing extremists, and to redirect its power to progressive ends.

Far from being an evil force, nationalism’s power lies in its ability to empower individuals and answer basic human needs. Using it to reproduce cross-class coalitions will ensure that all citizens share essential cultural, political, and economic goods. Shifting emphasis from the global to the national and putting one’s nation first is not a way of advocating national supremacy but of redistributing responsibilities and sharing benefits in a more democratic and just way. In making the case for a liberal and democratic nationalism, Tamir also provides a compelling original account of the ways in which neoliberalism and hyperglobalism have allowed today’s Right to co-opt nationalism for its own purposes.

Provocative and hopeful, Why Nationalism is a timely and essential rethinking of a defining feature of our politics.

©2019 Yael Tamir (P)2019 Princeton University Press
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Fails to Address Countless Counter-Arguments

Why Nationalism sets out to craft a philosophy of liberal nationalism. The idea is that the nation state has been the primary protector of disadvantaged people, but elites have abandoned their nations in favor of a rootless globalism, whose allegiance is to no one and everyone at the same time. According to Tamir, the disadvantaged have turned to whatever populist leader might promise them inclusion in the wake of their abandonment, but there is a healthier sort of nationalism that can strengthen the capacity of the state to protect them from the vicissitudes of an increasingly globalized and unequal economy.

A sense of national identity has long been seen as essential to forging strong states capable of meeting the needs of their citizens. So, what she is saying is not new, and it is especially applicable to newly built nations, whose plight she does not address. However, nationalism came to be looked down upon in the later half of the twentieth century, because it so often led to racism, militarism, fascism, and genocide. And it could not address an ever growing list of global challenges like climate change and nuclear proliferation that now threaten civilization per se. 

So, one would have expected any revised philosophy of nationalism to touch on at least some of these issues. Unfortunately, the author ignores them outright, substantially weakening the robustness of her thesis and hinting at a more nefarious nationalism animating her arguments.

Tamir is a former legislator and minister in the government of Israel, one of the world’s most nationalistic states, where nationalism has gone hand in hand with militarism and racism. So, one might have expected her to deal with some of the criticisms of her own country, but on this as well she is strikingly remiss. And yet, most of the major problems with nationalism can be illustrated through looking right in her own backyard.

The most obvious problem with Israeli nationalism is that while about half the people living in territories under its control are Palestinian, you are not considered Israeli unless you are Jewish. Hence, when the state was founded, the minority Jewish population ethnically cleansed 700,000 of the majority Palestinians so as to make themselves the majority. Tamir does not mention this ethnic cleansing, but she should have, because nationalism inspires so many ethnic cleanings, most particularly across Eastern and Central Europe, where nationalism is so strong today.

Nor does she touch upon the fate of the 20 percent of Palestinian Israelis living in Israel proper, as second class citizens, under 60 distinct discriminatory laws. But she should have, because such discrimination is common in nation's like Israel and Russia, where nationalism is strong. Nationalism is commonly tied to a sense of racial or ethnic superiority. The in-group pumps itself up with nationalism, telling itself it is better than the out-group, comprised of either immigrants or some native minority. And the result is often an intergenerational racism within the nation. But sometimes it is dealt with through genocide, which Tamir also fails to touch upon, oddly given that her own people suffered perhaps the most vicious.

Neither does she deal with the territorial designs of nationalistic states, which is just as odd, given that her own is one of the few, along with Saddam’s Iraq and Putin’s Russia, to engage in territorial land grabs in recent generations. There is no mention of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, no mention of the Golan Heights or the buffer zone Israel stole from Lebanon, which led to the rise of Hezbollah. Nationalism played a major role in inspiring these land grabs, and the land grabs themselves were the impetus to much nationalistic self-gratulation, which currently inspires the settlement movement, which is now the greatest barrier to a two-state solution in the Middle East. So, even if Tamir were not Israeli, one might have expected her to deal with these issues; but given that they are happening in her own backyard, the omission is simply inexcusable.

And there is no mention of the way a sense of nationalistic pride leads many Israeli soldiers to commit massive human rights abuses. These have been well documented by all of the major human rights organizations, whose existence is one of the fruits of globalization. Perhaps she is opposed to these abuses. But she does not deal with them as a counter-argument to her supposedly more benign nationalism. Nor does she deal with what might happen to such human rights and other global civil society groups, along with the issues that concern them most, if we all turn within to our own nations instead.

Tamir's thoughts seem to be elsewhere, focusing instead on the need to include the disadvantaged, who have been abandoned by cosmopolitan elites, who have supported neoliberal economic policies that have fostered vast disparities in wealth. This is where the true humanity of the book lies. And yet, she repeats here a common mistake of many of the early studies of fascism, assuming the lower middle classes are for nationalism and against globalism and will therefore flock to leaders like Trump if no other alternative promises them inclusion. But supporters of fascism, like those of Trump, tended to come from all classes, and the average annual income of Trump voters, far from lower-middle class, was more like $70K a year. 

Moreover, ethnic minorities like African-Americans and Mexican-Americans are often some of the poorest and most marginalized members of society, and she fails to touch on the contentious question of whether they might feel included under a progressive economic nationalism.



Nor are the cosmopolitan elites so opposed to the kind of economic policies that the poor need most. The Democratic Party in the U.S. is the party of the poor, and a substantial wing of it is devoted to their well being, after all. Tamir fails to mention that the reason so many cosmopolitan elites initially supported economic globalization is that it promised to bring the growth needed to lift hundreds of millions from absolute poverty, nor the fact that many of these same elites are now turning away from economic globalization as it brings rampant inequality instead. 



More concerning are the poor who have abandoned their own interests in favor of rightwing nationalists and fascists, who they continue to support long after these leaders have demonstrated they do not care a wit for their economic interests - but she does not deal with this issue either, perhaps the strongest and most obvious counter-argument to the notion that Trump supporters want to stick it to the global corporate and financial elites, who he just gave a trillion dollar tax break to.

Tamir fails to deal with a single global environmental challenge, failing to mention how nationalism might help us deal with climate change or overpopulation, for instance. And she fails to inquire into how nationalism might help us deal with a growing list of global challenges from nuclear proliferation to human trafficking, the drug trade to terrorism. But these are some of the greatest challenges of the twenty-first century, and a renewed nationalism, spread wide across the world, promises to make them worse. This is precisely why so many on the far left turned from nationalistic socialism in the later quarter of the twentieth century to environmental and anti-nuclear activism instead. And yet, here again, her philosophy fails to even recognize the challenge.



Perhaps the greatest problem with her book, as a work of political philosophy, is that she does not even try to demonstrate whether her ideas might be universalizable. She does not touch on whether they might be applied to desperately poor states, where her strongest case may actually lie. And she does not deal with whether it relies on treating some people as more worthy of moral consideration than others, the classic case against nationalism. 

It sometimes seems she just wants to pretend these problems do not exist. But whatever her reasons, they are clearly not on her radar, as if she is trying to take us back three quarters of a century, ignoring everything we have learned since that time.

All of this is quite odd, as if what we are witnessing is a monumental failure of self-reflection. But these failures are actually quite common among nationalists, who try to make their own groups an exception, and who believe it excusable to ignore the humanity of other groups. She portrays her philosophy as that of a realist, but everywhere it seems more that of the disembodied idealist, flitting above the real world, whose all too real problems Tamir all too often ignores.
And it is all the more strange, given that she is an adjunct professor at Oxford, where countless colleagues might have pointed out these obvious blunders if only she had sought their advice. 



However, we should not invest too much stock in her credentials, as she may have been sought for the position not because of her academic credentials but more because of her time in high office. Similarly, the reader may wish to take note of how most of the reviews of this book are simply descriptive, commenting on the book’s ambitious aims, while saying little to say about the quality of its contents, as if her positions in government and at Oxford were enough to win her the reviews but not the support of the reviewers.

And this is where nationalism really starts to look nasty. Because Israel is a highly nationalistic country, which commands intense allegiance among many of its supporters, it possesses strong lobbies in both the U.S. and the U.K., each with its own massive network of supporters, who readily seek to support their fellow compatriots. So, unlike the education minister of, say, Denmark or Austria, when the Israeli education minister goes looking for academic work, they will have a network of powerful supporters ready to lend them a hand. And it is here where the nationalism of the twenty-first century begins to look like the tribalism of ages past. For nationalistic groups tend to support their own when they are abroad.



But in a world of multi-ethnic societies, with each group supporting its own, the end result is all too often triablism within the nation, precisely what Tamir seeks to avoid. And for cosmopolitan Jews like myself, or cosmopolitan Indians like Amartya Sen, the result is often a cultural regression that simply feels suffocating. In this sense, nationalism is simply contradictory. One of the primary reasons thinking people have rejected it is precisely because it cannot begin to grapple with the challenges of multi-ethnic societies. But sadly, yet again, Tamir fails to deal with this central challenge to nationalism, as she fails to deal with so much else.



All of this is rather unfortunate, because, the book remains, in spite of its countless failings, an otherwise well written work of flawed political theory, from which the student of political philosophy might derive a healthy challenge. I would say more on this point, but as an author, who has written on some of these themes, I fear her publisher will use my own faint praise for promotional purposes, as they have so many of the other lukewarm reviews listed above. But no doubt, other reviewers will lay out some of its stronger suits, which again, should present a strong pole in the dialectic between nationalism and globalism.

All in all, I give it five plus stars for the quality of writing, two-to-three stars for its humanity, which fails to include so many ethnic minorities but is good to the poor, two stars for its viability as a philosophy, and one star for its failure to take its challengers seriously.

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