If you haven’t read Orwell’s “Notes on Nationalism,” it is a classic and a chief example of why he is a writer of the first class.
The title is unfortunate, which he admits in the opening.
There is a habit of mind which is now so widespread that it affects our thinking on nearly every subject, but which has not yet been given a name. As the nearest existing equivalent I have chosen the word ‘nationalism’, but it will be seen that I am not using it in the ordinary sense, if only because the emotion I am speaking about does not always attach itself to what is called a nation. It can attach itself to a church or a class, or it may work in a merely negative sense, against something or other and without the need for any positive object of loyalty.
Obviously, such thinking has not declined since he wrote the essay 75 years ago. That is important. In fact, the essay’s age may be more important than its contents. We are told that so much of what is wrong with the world is unique to our era, and while that will always be true in part, it is never true in the main for the simple reason that the people at all times in history have been human.
I would like to take you briefly through the essay to prove it.
To start, almost all of what you read in newspapers and all but the most accidental comment on cable news will be incorrect, despite seeming true, because it was written to appeal below the level of reason. Orwell explains:
Which of the three great allies, the U.S.S.R., Britain and the U.S.A., has contributed most to the defeat of Germany? In theory it should be possible to give a reasoned and perhaps even a conclusive answer to this question. In practice, however, the necessary calculations cannot be made, because anyone likely to bother his head about such a question would start by deciding in favour of Russia, Britain or America as the case might be, and only after this would begin searching for arguments that seemed to support his case… Hence, partly, the remarkable failure in our time of political and military prediction. It is curious to reflect that out of all the ‘experts’ of all the schools, there was not a single one who was able to foresee so likely an event as the Russo-German Pact of 1939. And when news of the Pact broke, the most wildly divergent explanations were of it were given, and predictions were made which were falsified almost immediately, being based in nearly every case not on a study of probabilities but on a desire to make the U.S.S.R. seem good or bad, strong or weak. Political or military commentators, like astrologers, can survive almost any mistake, because their more devoted followers do not look to them for an appraisal of the facts but for the stimulation of nationalistic loyalties.
Thus, the same people who assured us that Benghazi was the crime of the decade, or that the president was unelectable, have never lost their jobs, despite being repeatedly, demonstrably wrong, for the very simple reason that they are listened to, not because they speak truth, but because they speak what we want to be true.
And it isn’t that the people who read those articles and watch those programs don’t know this. Quite the contrary. It’s because they know it that they tell themselves it’s safe to keep watching.
You might think, given its prevalence, that this kind of thinking is hard to recognize in the self, but it is not. Orwell identifies several clear markers:
Obsession. As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own unit. The smallest slur upon his own unit, or any implied praise of a rival organization, fills him with uneasiness which he can only relieve by making some retort… Nomenclature plays a very important part in nationalist thought. All nationalists consider it a duty to spread their own language to the detriment of rival languages.
One immediately thinks of the various specialty jargons: the Left’s strange insistence that everyone memorize a litany of pronouns or the Right’s odd redefinition of liberty to include the desire to discriminate. Orwell continues:
Instability. The intensity with which they are held does not prevent nationalist loyalties from being transferable. A country or other unit which has been worshipped for years may suddenly become detestable, and some other object of affection may take its place with almost no interval.
Contemporary examples of this are legion. The FBI was the paragon of law and order when it was urging civil rights leaders to commit suicide or wiretapping socialists. Comparisons to the KGB, such as by the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, were laughed off as anti-American. Of course, once its perceived allegiance shifted, almost overnight it became the pointy end of the villainous Deep State. If the FBI were to seriously crack down on the protests in Seattle, it would just as quickly become a darling again.
The same was true of the NYPD. In 2001, the Times and others couldn’t praise them enough for their heroism in the face of national tragedy. By 2005, they were again the minority-killing villains they had been since the 60s.
Indifference to Reality. All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage – torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians – which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side. In 1927 Chiang Kai-Shek boiled hundreds of Communists alive, and yet within ten years he had become one of the heroes of the Left. The re-alignment of world politics had brought him into the anti-Fascist camp, and so it was felt that the boiling of the Communists ‘didn’t count.’
When President Trump separated immigrant children from their parents — or did the Obama administration do it first? — it was decried as a crime against humanity. And yet, in his final year in office, President Obama dropped a precision-guided smart bomb roughly once every 30 minutes. The army was expressly told not even to attempt a tally of the number of civilians killed, especially children. The bombing, as well as the whitewash, was considered an unfortunate necessity — by everyone.
Those now rolling their eyes at how the president is blamed for everything, right down to the weather, forget that just a few years ago, they were so utterly guilty of the same that it became a meme. (Gee, thanks, Obama…)
Orwell even covered fake news, long before it was in vogue:
Indifference to objective truth is encouraged by the sealing-off of one part of the world from another, which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening. There can often be a genuine doubt about the most enormous events. The calamities that are constantly being reported – battles, massacres, famines, revolutions – tend to inspire in the average person a feeling of unreality. One has no way of verifying the facts, one is not even fully certain that they have happened, and one is always presented with totally different interpretations from different sources. The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied.
We might axiomatize this as: For every QAnon, there’s a Russiagate.
You might think that, although this form of thinking is perpetually common, surely the content must be new. Alas.
Almost any English intellectual would be scandalized by the claim that the white races are superior to the coloured, whereas the opposite claim would seem to him unexceptionable even if he disagreed with it.
I continue to suspect the major reason why so many people enjoin you to vote is not because it actually matters in any real sense. In America, only a handful of states are remotely competitive. Demanding the rest go vote is demanding they participate in a pageant. And that is the real reason. Non-participants must be evil. If they had a point — even a misinterpreted one — then the fourth wall would break, the sham would be revealed, and so all efforts have to be spent demonizing the drop-outs as worse than the enemy. After 2016, we were told the reason Donald Trump was elected was not because certain people voted for him, which is how elections work, but because certain other people didn’t vote at all.
When one has admitted that there are still people whose judgements are not at the mercy of their desires, the fact does remain that the pressing problems – India, Palestine, the Moscow trials, the American Negroes or what have you – cannot be, or at least never are, discussed upon a reasonable level.
Orwell concludes with a very important point. Despite what you may think of them, or how I have seemed to characterize them here, most people do, at some point, ask themselves if they are fools. The answer is always no.
It isn’t that they aren’t fools. It’s that they aren’t fools all the time.
This kind of thinking is not a result of stupidity. It is a result of intelligence. Whenever I spend time with children, I am reminded they can make the most incisive observations, not because they’re sophisticated or wise beyond their years but because they lack the capacity for self-deception. They haven’t yet learned they’re not supposed to say the emperor has no clothes, certainly not out loud.
One has no right to assume that everyone, or even every intellectual, is infected by nationalism. Nationalism can be intermittent and limited. An intelligent man may half-succumb to a belief which attracts him but which he knows to be absurd, reverting to it in moments of anger or sentimentality. A nationalistic creed may be adopted in good faith from non-nationalistic motives. Several kinds of nationalism, even kinds that cancel out, can co-exist in the same person.
That person can be you. One always takes that threat seriously. One rarely acts on it. It is enough to believe that it is taken seriously. As Orwell concludes, this kind of thinking is not something that can be got round. But it can be struggled against, and that struggle is primarily a moral one. It takes far more wisdom to see one’s own mistakes, and far more courage to admit them, than it does to call out someone else’s.
You can read the full essay for free on The Orwell Foundation website.