The “New” Ism

When I was chasing my PhD in the 1950s, I chose nationalism as an area of concentration. In those days we were little concerned with the totalitarian nationalism of the 20s and 30s, thinking primarily of nationalism that was affecting the Third World. The next year after I completed my Ph.D. I wrote a small section of the book by Zbigniew Brezezinski on the subject of nationalism. After the defeat of communism, or the seeming defeat of all those states that identified themselves as communist ideologically, I often reflected that in the next few years we would see a new ism arise that would fill the void that had been left by the demise of both fascism and communism. Strangely, it did not occur to me that the new ism would be my old friend, nationalism.

If we consider the powerful states or peoples that offer the greatest challenge to the democratic order that the United States and its allies has been promoting, we find that they are the most highly nationalistic states in the current world. China and Russia are powerful new states that have turned to nationalism while rejecting their recent intellectual past and accepting the capitalist, money-centric culture of the modern world. A different kind of nationalism is suggested by the rise of Islamic extremism. While we may call it religious, the jihadists are actually a nationalist movement with roots in a pre-nationalist view of the world. I once wrote a paper on Kurdish nationalism in the 19th century. One of the main findings was that the nationalist leaders at that time were religious leaders. This should not seem so strange when we recall that in the early books of the Old Testament the Jews and their God were essentially seen as a nationalist movement struggling against the nationalisms that surrounded them.

Iran is a special case. It is torn by contradictions both within and without. The majority of its educated class is fundamentally pro-Western. Its rulers are a class of disputatious religious leaders. But many in both groups consider Iran to have at last arrived back on the world stage. They may or may not want nuclear weapons, but they surely think that the country deserves nuclear weapons, and see obtaining them is a way to emphasize its arrival. So the religious leaders are able to use widespread Iranian aspirations for their place under the sun as a means of strengthening clerical rule over a society that is more secularized and westernized than most of the region.

But let us return to the two great nations, Russia and China, that are trying to deny Fukuyama’s end of history. It is startling to read in a recent New York Times report that the respected Pew Center has found that the people most pleased with the direction in which their country is going are the Chinese, with 86% supporting country’s direction, and the Russians, in third place at 54%. Most of the democracies, including the United States, were struggling along with positive ratings in the 20s.

What this means in the first instance is that controls over communications, whether it be electronic or print, can work fairly well. Peoples who see little more than cheering sections in their media are likely to think that things are going pretty well. In the case of China, it also means that people are inclined to tell pollsters what they think their government wants them to say. But I think it also means that there is a good deal of satisfaction in these countries. People like to see the advances that are occurring in their level of existence and growing national reputation. A large segment of the population of both of these countries are living better than they ever have.

But something else is also going on. The Times describes a new generation of educated Chinese whose blogs are virulently nationalistic and anti-foreign. They deeply resent those of the outside world concerned about the repression of the Tibetan people or the independence of Taiwan. They seem quite unconcerned with the controls the government exerts every day over the media, as well as the imprisonment of anyone who speaks out against government repression, even if this be in defense of the rights of the poor or the displaced. In both countries, people seem to want to forget their repressive pasts and the heroes who struggled so courageously to open up their societies.

China right now is trying hard to bask in its Olympic games. The cost of thousands of people that have been uprooted and the stricter controls have been placed on everyone, including foreigners, are swept under the rug. To most Chinese, even those we thought to be the most modernized and Western influenced, the important thing is the glory of China and the success of China rather than the persistent failure of the country to respect human rights either at home or abroad.

The attitude in Russia is less extreme, but comparable. Putin is seen as the marvelous ruler that has brought Russia back from the post-communist period of disgrace, in spite of the fact that the growth is largely attributable to its gas and oil reserves, and has been accompanied by the destruction of many of the gains for freedom and democracy that had been achieved in the 1990s.

So nationalism is a new ideology that threatens to reverse the movement toward higher levels of democracy and human rights within advanced and developing countries. It is not an ideological nationalism, but rather an authoritarian nationalism that emphasizes control and economic well-being and competitive laurels on a variety of world stages. Whether this will be transformed into more ideological forms such as characterized fascist countries in the recent past is unclear. But my judgment is that the trend is dangerous already, and certainly a block to human progress.

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