Orwell, Nationalism, and the Death of Intellectual Honesty
American politics is becoming increasingly polarized. Liberals and conservatives are getting their news from different channels, placing their trust in different institutions, and associating more and more with those who hold similar political beliefs. As Lee Drutman of the New York Times observes, “Rather than being one two-party nation, we are becoming two one-party nations.” It all amounts to an ugly form of tribalism in which individuals are driven to act primarily by loyalty to their party. This tribalism occurs within the intelligentsia as well as among the masses; the only difference is that the tribalism of intellectuals is usually ideological rather than partisan.
In 1945, George Orwell diagnosed the matter of ideological tribalism in his essay, “Notes on Nationalism.” His thoughts have proved incredibly prescient. Orwell defined nationalism not as “patriotism,” or the love of one’s country, but as “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”
Orwell argued that there are three identifying characteristics of nationalists, and these are reproduced in his words below:
1) Obsession: “As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power 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 sharp retort.”
2) Instability: “The intensity with which they are held does not prevent nationalist loyalties from being transferable.” Orwell here provides some examples, such as the case of “bigoted Communists” turning into “equally bigoted Trotskyists.”
3) Indifference to reality: “All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts… Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits but according to who does them, and there almost no kind of outrage… which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.”
Orwell wrote in the 1940s, but the nationalist tendencies that he described persist today, particularly, then as now, in the minds of the intelligentsia. In this article, I aim to highlight the current permutations of nationalism and to show how they preclude honest thinking. I will focus only on nationalism in the left, simply because leftist nationalism is pervasive in universities and in the news media. Nationalism occurs on the right as well, but there are few conservatives in elite intellectual circles.
I quote from Orwell to make a second point: “I am trying to isolate and identify tendencies which exist in all our minds and pervert our thinking, without necessarily occurring in a pure state or operating continuously” (emphasis mine). No intellectual will readily admit something such as, “I am now going to make arguments which I know are dishonest.” Nationalism rarely manifests itself in obvious terms. Instead, it appears in subtle forms, and it can only be teased out through critical analysis. When I describe today’s iterations of nationalism, I provide relevant quotations and examples, but the point is not to show that any particular person is inconsistent; the point is rather to demonstrate how nationalist patterns of thought manifest themselves in current political discourse.
Anti-Racist nationalism: Orwell devoted a section of his essay to what he called “colour feeling.” He wrote, “Among the intelligentsia, colour feeling only occurs in the… belief in the innate superiority of the coloured races… 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 unexceptional even if he disagreed with it.”
Before proceeding, I want to acknowledge that a defensive attitude towards minority populations in the United States is at least partly justified: it has only been sixty years since America abolished its shameful system of apartheid, and the nation is still struggling to overcome this legacy. Anti-racist nationalism, however, extends itself past a justifiable defensiveness about the status of minorities.
Especially since the birth of Black Lives Matter, there has been a tendency to allow essentially anything to be written about white people and to defend minorities at all costs. Double standards when writing about race are openly permitted in a way reminiscent of Orwell’s “colour feeling.” The New York Times has been a pioneer in publishing the sort of anti-white content that would not be tolerated if the objects of the attacks were members of any other ethnic or racial group. For example, in December of 2015, George Yancy wrote an open letter to “white America,” in which he charged every white person with being racist. No data buttressed Yancy’s argument; in his opinion, white skin implies inherent racism because white skin implies privilege. More recently, the New York Times published a piece by Ekow Yankah, a law professor at Yeshiva University, in which Yankah argued that black children could not, and should not, be friends with white children.
Anti-racist nationalism lends itself to some unreasonable conclusions, such as the notion that blacks or other minorities cannot be racist because they do not wield power. Advancing this argument ignores elementary definitions—namely, that racism is about attitudinal prejudices, not power structures. That racism can manifest itself through institutions of power does not negate this definition. Any person can hold conscious or unconscious biases against members of different ethnic groups, regardless of power dynamics. Suggesting that minorities cannot be racially insensitive is a belief that is itself prejudiced and can only be justified through the lens of anti-racist nationalism.
To justify many of their beliefs, anti-racist nationalists blame disparities between whites and minorities, in employment rates, income, wealth, or placement in positions of power, on the real or purported misdeeds of whites. Ta-Nehisi Coates is today’s most eloquent proponent of this view. Discrimination is immediately assumed to be the cause of any disparity between whites and minorities. Even suggesting that internal factors rather than discrimination can cause disparities raises eyebrows, to put it mildly. Polite opinion, informed by anti-racist nationalism, refuses even to entertain such explanations.
As I mentioned in the introduction, Orwell highlighted the nationalist temptation to put certain groups or ideas beyond good and evil. Anti-racism has reached that stage. As long as a statement or action can be interpreted as improving the condition of minorities or blaming whites for their misfortunes, it will be permitted and encouraged, regardless of whether the claim or action is true, morally justifiable, or intellectually honest. Anti-racist nationalists think with their skins and want others to feel and act similarly.
Islamic Nationalism: Anti-racist nationalism often extends to other groups perceived as victims, such as Muslims. The primary task of Islamic nationalists is to protect Islam and Muslims—two different things which are often conflated. Any criticism of Islam, a religion with flaws like all others, is taken as an offense against Muslim people.
As a result, Islamic nationalists will deflect criticism of Islam, such as “the Iranian regime murders women for adultery using Islamic injunctions” or “Saudi Arabia uses religious laws and traditions to justify its policy of state-sponsored decapitations,” with the misleading retort that “one cannot criticize a religion of 1.5 billion people.” The clear implication is that, in criticizing Islam, one is acting in a derogatory way toward all Muslims. They argue that Islam is a complex religion with many different interpretations and that it is too frequently the target of unfair criticism. But the fact that Islam is a complex religion does not mean that Islam stands for nothing, nor does it shield the faith from criticism or imply that illiberal interpretations of Islam are “not really Islamic.”
Most tellingly, those who rush to the aid of Islam hardly flinch when Christianity is rhetorically assaulted. Indeed, the Islamic nationalist will mention the Ku Klux Klan and Christianity in the same breath, even as he muddles the relationship between Islam and the Taliban or Islam and repressive Sharia regimes.
A particularly egregious example of Islamic nationalism arose after the video of a debate in Australia, in which Muslim activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied argued that Islam is “the most feminist religion,” made the rounds on social media some months ago. Abdel-Magied was engaged in the debate with a populist of a Trumpian bent, who responded only with rallying cries such as “No Sharia in Australia!” and “If you live in Australia, you must follow the laws of this country!” Abdel-Magied responded that, under Islam, “women got equal rights well before the Europeans” and that “we [women] don’t take our husbands’ last names because we ain’t their property.”
Aside from various factual inaccuracies in her statement, the larger point Abdel-Magied misses is that her framing Islam as the epitome of feminist achievement fails to consider the plight that women suffer in much of the Muslim world largely because of the texts and traditions of the Islamic faith.
An even more extreme episode of Islamic nationalism could be witnessed in June 2017 in the Congress of the United States. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Asra Q. Nomani were invited to testify before a congressional committee about the dangers of Islamism, specifically its treatment of women. At the hearing, Democratic senators Kamala Harris and Heidi Heitkamp declined to ask Ali and Nomani a single question; they preferred to skirt any potential link between Islam and misogynist violence.
Senator Harris is normally an advocate of women’s causes in America. But when she had before her a black, African immigrant who was a victim of female genital mutilation and who lives under the perennial threat of murder, her unwillingness to speak out against Islamism seemed to outweigh her desire to act as a proponent of women’s rights. Ali was ignored because she ventured unwelcome thoughts about Islam, which rendered whatever else she had to say about the outrages committed against Muslim women irrelevant in the eyes of Harris and her colleagues. Such are the contradictions of Islamic nationalism.
Anti-war nationalism: Orwell wrote of a “pacifist nationalism” that “usually boils down to saying one side is as bad as the other.” There is no better example of an intellectual making such equivocations than Noam Chomsky, a scholar whose colossal erudition does not prevent him from uttering the occasional absurdity. Shortly after the atrocities of 9/11, Chomsky said that the attacks did not much differ from Bill Clinton’s destruction of a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, three years earlier. In other words: 9/11 was bad but no worse than what the United States has done. In terms of scale, this was patently wrong; one person was killed by Clinton’s bombs, while thousands were murdered by Osama bin Laden’s associates. But even if the bombing of Khartoum was worse than 9/11, we know that two wrongs do not make a right, and that the annihilation of the World Trade Center could not be blamed on or compared to the past misdeeds of Clintonian statecraft.
I use Chomsky, whose brilliant and incisive scholarship should garner more attention in mainstream discourse, only to highlight a broader tendency. Anti-war nationalists are often the same people who decry Israeli incursions into Gaza while remaining conspicuously silent about Hezbollah and Hamas (see: U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn), or who denounce the American invasion of Iraq but obfuscate Saddam’s genocidal campaigns against Kuwait, Iran, the Shi’a, and the Kurds, or who blame American imperialism for Latin America’s conflicts but are indifferent to Cuban support for terrorists or Venezuela’s relationship with the FARC. Anti-war nationalists represent a perfect example of Orwell’s comment that nationalists are indifferent to reality and unable to recognize similar sets of facts.
In Orwell’s time, “pacifist nationalists did not condemn violence as such… but only violence used in defense of the Western democracies.” Anti-war nationalists do not condemn war as such, only wars waged by Western powers.
Finally, anti-war nationalism frequently breeds a sort of anti-imperialist nationalism, which blames all problems facing the developing world on the real or imagined crimes of past empires. For the anti-imperialist nationalist, whatever evils occur in developing countries are the fault of either colonialism, American meddling, or the negative influence of international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. Domestic leaders and policies are expunged from any responsibility for the appalling state of their economies and societies. Anti-imperialist nationalism refuses to consider the notion that Bashar al-Assad must bear some responsibility for the obliteration of Syria, or Robert Mugabe for that of Zimbabwe, or Hugo Chavez for that of Venezuela, to name a few examples.
And responsibility they must bear: for the past six years, Assad has been engaged in a murderous campaign to bomb his opposition into submission. The result is that Syria has been destroyed as a political entity. Reuters reports that corruption costs Zimbabwe $1 billion annually in a country with an annual GDP of only $16 billion. In 2016, Reuters also reported that two Chavez-era cabinet members launched an investigation into the $300 billion that has vanished from Venezuela’s oil revenues. Corruption on this scale exacts catastrophic consequences upon societies, and, counter to the claims of anti-imperialist nationalists, such graft cannot be blamed on American imperialism or on the structural adjustment programs of the IMF.
Marxist-socialist nationalism: Marxist nationalism today manifests itself primarily in two beliefs: the refusal to admit that capitalism has improved the lives of billions and the excuse, deflection, or “contextualization” of the atrocities of Communist governments.
The word “Marxism” encompasses many different theoretical systems, some of which contradict each other; it is therefore difficult to generalize about the beliefs of Marxists. Nonetheless, Marxists all believe that capitalism is a brutally exploitative economic system that needs to be abolished. The force of this belief easily morphs into nationalism because anyone calling for the abolition of a system has a warped perspective towards that system and faces severe challenges judging it in an intellectually honest way. The resulting Marxist nationalism has an extremely difficult time facing the plain fact that billions of people have escaped poverty within and because of capitalism.
The escape from destitution has only occurred with engagement in the global capitalist system of commerce and exchange. World Bank statistics indicate that global GDP per capita has increased from $450 to $10,000 since World War II, and people’s standards of living have skyrocketed and are continuing to do so. Because these figures are incompatible with the premises of Marxist nationalism, they must either be disregarded or glossed over through theories about class oppression and bourgeois power.
The Marxist nationalist also holds some glaring double standards when considering tyrants supported by the United States as opposed to those who came about throughout Communist revolutions or Soviet maneuvering. Ask a Marxist-nationalist about Augusto Pinochet or Hosni Mubarak, and out will come impassioned criticisms about the obliterations of Chilean democracy and of human right violations in Egypt. But what about the violence of Vladimir Lenin, or that of Chairman Mao, or the genocide in Cambodia, or the dictatorship in Cuba?
To the Marxist nationalists, those are different. Lenin was faced with a proto-fascist white insurgency, they insist, which justifies or explains away the hundreds of thousands who fell prey to his secret police. The same is true of Mao and all other Communist dictators who, faced with internal, “reactionary” opposition, succumbed to mass murder that was nevertheless not as reprehensible as that of General Pinochet. When this argument fails, Marxist nationalists blame the United States or imperialism for the slaughters, as Noam Chomsky did with the Khmer Rouge.
Tariq Ali, a rockstar of the British left, provided a classic example of Marxist nationalism during a debate with Peter Hitchens. Evan Davis of the BBC was interviewing the two about the legacy of recently deceased Fidel Castro. Davis challenged Ali’s record in relation to Castro: in 2005, Ali had signed an open letter opposing the US embargo of Cuba. The letter stated that in Cuba “there has not been a single case of disappearance, torture or extra-judicial execution since 1959… [in Cuba] there are levels of health, education and culture that are internationally recognised.” When challenged on his outrageous ignorance of Cuban history, Ali made the bland admission that “mistakes [in Cuba] were made” and that “of course [Cuba] is not flawless.” The interviewer continued to press him, asking Ali why he detested Pinochet but equivocated in condemning Castro. Ali responded: “Pinochet wiped out 30,000 people; how can you compare Pinochet to Castro?” Though many thousands were interned or tortured during his reign, the accepted figure of people killed by Pinochet is 3,000.
Davis’ comparison between Castro and Pinochet was apt. The two differed only in ideology and in their choice of superpower patron; otherwise, Pinochet and Castro inflicted the same atrocities of theft and mass murder upon the populations of their countries. Only a nationalist can condemn one but excuse the other.
Orwell noticed how nationalists change their moral judgments on the basis of who is committing the action. Because Ali considers Pinochet to be a stooge of American capitalists and imperialists, he is a monster, a mass murderer. Ali is not wrong to make such a judgment; Pinochet’s butchery is well-documented. However, Castro’s atrocities — his political assassinations, his abuse of prisoners — are also well known. But because Castro paints himself, like Ali, as an opponent of imperialism, his atrocities are judged differently from those of Pinochet.
How is this mental dislocation possible in the mind of a brilliant author? Well, as Orwell wrote, “Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty.” Pointing this out does not mean that Ali always speaks and writes dishonestly, merely that he is capable of thinking dishonestly, especially when nationalist passions are triggered. “One prod to the nerve of nationalism,” noted Orwell, “and the intellectual decencies can vanish, the past can be altered, and the plainest facts can be denied.”
The critiques above do not suggest that all anti-racists, pacifists, and socialists are nationalists whose work is thereby worthless. I am only highlighting the nationalist temptations that lurk within those traditions and warning against cultish devotion to any set of ideas.
Orwell’s essay was a much-needed polemic against dogmatism and orthodoxy. As he wrote, “As for the nationalistic loves and hatreds that I have spoken of, they are part of the make-up of most of us… Whether it is possible to get rid of them I do not know, but I do believe that it is possible to struggle against them, and that this is essentially a moral effort… The emotional urges which are inescapable… should be able to exist side by side with an acceptance of reality.”
The struggle against nationalism is a moral effort, especially because nationalism occurs in all of us, but the struggle is about much more than that. It is a struggle over the importance of intellectual honesty and over the desirability of reaching objective truths, both of which are impossible to attain when our thoughts are corrupted. It is, in the end, a struggle that should command the support of anyone who holds the principles of truth and honesty in the highest regard and who vigorously opposes any attempt to overthrow them.