The Last Refuge of the (Happy) Scoundrel

A recent study found that nationalism “brings happiness.

METHODOLOGY: Tim Reeskens, a sociologist from Catholic University in Belgium, and Matthew Wright, a political scientist at American University, categorized national pride into “ethnic nationalism,” which is tied to ancestry and religious beliefs, and “civic nationalism,” which prioritizes respect for a country’s institutions and laws.

They analyzed the responses of 40,677 people from 31 countries to questions that related to happiness and national pride in the 2008 wave of the European Values Study, and controlled for various demographic variables, including gender, work status, and per capita GDP.

RESULTS: Though national pride correlates with personal well-being, civic nationalists were generally the happiest. The joy of even the proudest ethnic nationalists barely surpassed that of people with the least civic pride.

CONCLUSION: Nationalism makes people feel good…

What a crock. Did it not occur to the researchers to delve into what else nationalism brings? Nationalism is the force that causes vast majorities in America to rally around the flag and fist pump to America’s endless warfare. It causes people to engage in systematic confirmation bias in the domain of international affairs, hawkishly harping on the crimes of other states, while habitually and religiously ignoring the comparatively larger crimes of their own. Nationalism turns tragic terrorist attacks into annual holidays of state worship. Nationalism is the source of so much delusion in contemporary politics – and especially war – that it has virtually no rival.

As I noted about in my article on nationalism back in July, political scientist Paul T. McCartney wrote that “enduring nationalist themes provided the basic structure in which Americans organized their comprehension of and reaction to the terrorist attacks” and that America’s “insular preoccupation with its own lofty distinctiveness” galvanized “a sense of mission, which sometimes emerges as a crusading mentality.” It was “productive of little,” he explained, “but superstition and bloodshed.”

In announcing a violent military surge in Afghanistan in 2009, Obama told Americans that our values “are a creed that calls us together … behind a common purpose.” Doctrines of exceptionalism were the rallying cry of his speech on the intervention in Libya. “America is different,” he said, and it is “our common humanity” and “values” that have impelled us to war. In announcing the eventual withdrawal of surge troops and the continuing commitment to warfare in Afghanistan this summer, Obama said we must be steadfast in “extending the promise of America.” To say that mass murder of civilians via a drone war in Pakistan is for “national security” simply garners obedient nods and support for the policy.

George Orwell wrote that “the abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.” Political scientist Benedict Anderson famously called this unit an “imagined community” made up mostly of strangers held together by pretenses about their countrymen, rather than actual connections to most or even any of them. “Ultimately,” Anderson wrote, “it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.”

It may make people attest to their own happiness, but evolutionary psychology tells us that this isn’t because the actual nationalism makes them happy. Rather, being part of the group has been an essential ingredient for survival and well-being going back to our most primitive ancestors. Dissenting from the self-congratulatory whims about living in the greatest country on Earth tends to earn you disdain and exclusion. And now, in both primitive and modern societies, fear of punishment or social ostracism is an imperative tool in reinforcing nationalism. Being a part of that group and ganging up on “the other” – Iraqis, Iranians, Afghans, other Americans, whomever – has a way of fortifying this fraternity and war fever.

As Orwell put it:

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 labor, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral color when it is committed by “our” side.

Does it make people happy? Eh, perhaps in a way. Is it a force for good? Absolutely not.

5 thoughts on “The Last Refuge of the (Happy) Scoundrel”

  1. I believe that H.G. wells once said that "A world full of patriots often creates a world full of strife." Is it so difficult for nationalists to extend their love of country to other nations? All to often, nationalism means deification of one's own nation and hatred of someone else's. I remember the other week when the Russian mars probe failed, there was a since of euphoria in the MSM media articles over this failure. I found it tacky and tasteless, especially when you consider that the US has certainly had its share of setbacks in its own space exploration. A nationalism that wishes everyone else "ill-will" is something we can all do without.

    The above study is a crock.

    1. "A world full of patriots often creates a world full of strife." Quite so. Everybody thinks their country is the best Goddamn place on earth. Needless to say, this jingoistic bullshit inevitably leads to war between nations.

      Mind you, there's nothing wrong with thinking well of your country–if it deserves to be well thought of. Now, about the United States: The U.S. Government is off the rails. It's corrupt and depraved.

      Keep nullification and secession in mind. . . .

  2. Wait. "Civic pride" is mentioned. This is not the same as "civic nationalism." You can have a great deal of civic pride based on your real joint accomplishments in collaboration with your neighbors. This is good and would make us happy. Nationalism removes 1) the accomplishment part and 2) the neighbors part. It's meaningless. So was the question fudged?

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