It’s a good feeling, the idea that we belong to this unique group of individuals, united under a symbol. It touches similar emotions as our love for our favorite sports team, only much more profound. It convinces us that the blood running through our veins is of unique properties, unlike that of those on the other side of the river, the mountains, the ocean, or the imaginary border. And there are always stories of triumph, revisionist history, and tales of greatness.
Nationalism has had its benefits throughout human history. That’s undeniable. In the past it was necessary to unite complete strangers. To echo the logic of prominent historian and author Yuval Noah Harari, nationalism relies on the creation of stories, some true, some not so true, to forge cooperation among hundreds, thousands, and millions of strangers.
But today, the nationalistic mind frame has quite a few issues, some minute, others catastrophic. Many Americans, for example, are literally fed the belief that those who don’t eat meat aren’t “real Americans,” even though it’s among the leading contributors to the chronic problems they face, obesity, heart disease, colon cancer and diabetes.
In Spain, where I live now, the consumption of pork is a proudly boasted sign of Spanish pride. Ironically, those who hold this belief also scorn certain Asian societies for eating dogs, yet consider those who don’t eat pigs -among the most intelligent of all domestic animals- as not “real Spaniards.”
This view usually stems from the belief that local traditions have existed from the very beginning, and that there’s some kind of mystical logic to them.
In reality, traditions and languages change over time, and are often imitations and mutations from distant cultures. The first pig eaters were actually Chinese. Americans cherish their 4th of July BBQ’s and fireworks as something uniquely American, even though the term BBQ is originally from the Taino natives of the Caribbean islands (barbacoa), and fireworks also originated in China.
But the problem goes beyond the habits and beliefs of “real” Americans or Spaniards. The irrational idolization of one’s collective identity can lead to xenophobia and, as history has shown, genocide of those perceived as “outsiders.”
Today, nationalism is the main reason for our lack of cooperation in the face of global, not national, crises. Some of these crises are already here, while others are like a jumbo jet on the horizon, running out of fuel and ready to make a crash landing in our backyard.
In recent years nationalist leaders have galvanized their followers, and ordinary citizens, to act upon their deep rooted tribal instincts. Parts of Europe, the UK, Brazil, and of course, the US, are taking enormous strides into what they perceive as some glorious past. And the timing could not be worse, when the world needs to come together to confront a microscopic monster that couldn’t care less what “real” patriots do.
Covid-19 has no respect for borders or trade agreements, and it’s not intimidated by people waving their flags around.
But instead of acknowledging the real problem, nationalist movements are emboldened by it. Numerous world leaders are too busy pointing fingers and stirring xenophobic emotions to confront the reality of the crisis, which has infected millions and killed hundreds of thousands while crippling economies.
But there’s a more insidious issue looming on the horizon, the previously mentioned jumbo jet. Only it’s not a jet. It’s human induced climate change. There’s no need to get into the dynamics of why the burning of fossil fuels is warming the earth, along with animal agriculture to provide meat for those “real” Americans and Spaniards. We just need to accept that this is a global threat, not a national one.
Building walls and banning outsiders will do nothing to stem the tide of what’s coming our way. The worship of amendments written hundreds of years ago (back when the idea of sending messages across the globe within seconds was the trade of witches and sorcerers) will do nothing to prevent the collapse of this global civilization, especially when temperatures pass a certain threshold, all because we kept our heads in the sand and continued business as usual.
Nationalist movements deny this because it requires all nations to come together and agree on a strategy, which undermines their belief in their uniquely wonderful and proudly independent nation.
Unfortunately for them, the only way to save ourselves from another pandemic or a shift into a new climactic era, that may be unsuitable for human life, is a global effort, something only “real” earthlings will be able to pull off.
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