It’s July, the same month that our nation declared independence from the British Empire centuries ago, an event we now celebrate as Independence Day. With such a nationalistic holiday, however, some BC students may be concerned that non-citizen students attending our school may feel alienated in the festivities. This is a well-meaning but ultimately unnecessary concern: the very foundation of American identity is its inclusiveness.
The concerns over nationalism itself, however, run far deeper. In history classes, we are often presented with the idea of nationalism as an outdated, destructive political policy that inevitably leads to war and violence. Nationalism is presented as the belief that one must hold his nation above all others, a belief that drives a country to expand its empire and overpower other nations militarily and economically. The negative connotation surrounding the term ‘nationalism’ dates back possibly as far as World War II, when the Nazi party of Germany, a political party claiming nationalism as a major policy, devastated all of Europe, plunged the globe into war, and committed genocide on a massive scale. The association of nationalism with Nazism is unfortunate, as nationalism itself is not inherently harmful, and may even unite people rather than divide them. It is the suppression of nationalism, not nationalism itself, which leads to conflict. One of the many problems with the modern perception of nationalism is confusion on what exactly nationalism is. The concept as it is understood today began to emerge in the 18th and 19th centuries, when many Western countries were consolidating their power though industry and empire. As borders became more defined and political interactions grew more globalized, people began to view the nation as a protector and a provider and through this a sense of unity developed. These nations jostled for control over territory in the New World, and wars were fought over these ‘unclaimed’ lands. This competition and the view that one nation is superior to another, however, is not the definition of nationalism, but of ethnic or national supremacy. In a political context, the definition of nationalism is the ideology that a group of people with shared ethnic, cultural, religious, or political ties (that is, a nation) has a right to sovereignty and self-rule. Ironically, imperialism and the conquering of other peoples is the very antithesis of nationalism, as it denies these people the right to represent or govern themselves independently if they so choose.
The unity in nationhood need not come from a shared language or ethnic background, however. Ideas, be they moral, religious, or political, can unite people in much the same way. The United States of America developed from a remote colonial outpost to become the world’s preeminent superpower was founded on principles of personal liberty, freedom of speech and expression, and government for the people,
Only on a national scale can these groups ensure that their customs and cultures are kept alive and given a voice on the world stage. The unifying force of nationalism will prove critical if humanity is to remain as colorful and diverse as it has been in the past and is now.