Nationalism, the way of life and death
Why some people find meaning in what seems like a complete nonsense
What is nationalism?
At first glance, nationalism is just synonymous with patriotism. In the 19th century, when nationalism first appeared on the ideological stage, the words were used interchangeably. In the 21st century my Western intellectual friends lump them together into the same “20th century weirdo ideology” camp. They think both are anachronistic, having no place in the contemporary world. Au contraire, mes chers amis. Patriotism may be out in all but its most benign forms, but nationalism is still very much alive.
What's the difference? For one thing, a nation may or may not have its own country. Kurds, Catalans or Palestinians don't, that's why they are fighting for it. But the most important part is that “patriotism” largely means something good, while "nationalism" is almost always used pejoratively. Why is that?
Nationalism is exclusionary and adversarial, it implies that one nation is superior to another. If patriotism is love for one's country, nationalism is mostly hatred for others: Jews, immigrants, the degenerate Western civilisation or inhabitants of neighbouring countries with a slightly different language or religious affiliations. Nationalism implies that nations have interests which run contrary to other nation's interests and thus are in dire need of defending. The best defence, as we all know, is a good offence.
Arguably, not all nationalism is bad. There’s a softer version of nationalism called liberal nationalism, which simply claims that one’s moral obligations are to the nation first, humanity second. That probably works fine for a while, but if tensions between countries mount it will inevitably morph into full Nazism. If you choose your nation over humanity at every turn, there is simply no other place you can ultimately end up. To be a benign nationalist, therefore, you have to be at least 50% cosmopolitan, choosing humanity over nation, at least half of the time.
If nationalism is so bad, why do people become nationalistic?
Humans have psychological vulnerabilities that nationalism exploits. Not only are we tribalistic (which would explain patriotism) but we also are also wired to pay exceptional attention to out-group threats. We know from studies in behavioural economics, social and cognitive psychology that negatively charged events have vastly more influence over people. The proper term is “negativity bias”. We evolved to survive first, flourish second. Those who did not pay that enough attention to threats did not live to pass their genes.
Nationalism thrives on external threats and as such, has a capacity to give people an immense amount of meaning in their lives. The role of the guardian, the warrior, the protector of the realm, is chock-full of meaning. Let's take one Japanese nationalist, Kimitaki Hiraoka, born in 1925 in Tokyo. Hiraoka was a follower of the Kokutai ideology and an avid scholar of Kokugaku, a study of “Japanese Heart”. He lived a life full of meaning. When he died, his last words were “Long live the Emperor”.
Key points of Kokutai, which, ironically, is a loan word from Chinese, boil down to:
1. Unquestionable loyalty to the Emperor, who represents the oldest unbroken line of rulers on Earth and, therefore, logically, should rule the Earth
2. Maintaining the inner societal “harmony”, which essentially means maintaining the status quo rule
3. Pining for the Golden era, which is variously understood as ether the peaceful Edo period (1600–1868), or the classical Heian period (794–1185)
Please, please forgive my gross oversimplification. I am definitely not an expert on Japan. Perhaps I am too tempted to see similarities between Kokutai and virtually any other nationalistic ideology I encounter.
Consider Nazi Germany, the key ally of Imperial Japan in the Second Great War, with their Führerprinzip: the Führer is always right. Notice the glorification of the Kaiser Germany and the Holy Roman Empire, the Second and the First Reich, respectively.
Harmony seems to stand apart on the Kokutai list. It looks like a uniquely Confucian value, which has no parallel in Europe. It is the same Harmony that was adopted as one of the core guiding principles by the Chinese Communist Party to the point when the word "to harmonise" is exceedingly understood as “to censor”. But if you look at it closely, it is just a culturally convenient placeholder for social conservatism. In contemporary Russia its rough equivalent is “stability”. That’s another human vulnerability nationalism preys upon, the status quo bias.
Why do people find life meaning in, well, nonsense?
Any nationalistic ideology would look completely nonsensical in retrospect. There's really no reason why the Führer is always right, why we should maintain stability at a massive expense of human life and dignity or why the distant past is better than the present, despite being objectively worse on every imaginable metric. Justifications that nationalists provide are laughable at best. Have a look at the quote from Aizawa Seishisai, a 19th century scholar, who contributed to Kokutai:
Our Divine Land is where the sun rises and where the primordial energy originates. The heirs of the Great Sun have occupied the Imperial Throne from generation to generation without change from time immemorial. Japan's position at the vertex of the earth makes it the standard for the nations of the world. Indeed, it casts its light over the world, and the distance which the resplendent imperial influence reaches knows no limit. Today, the alien barbarians of the West, the lowly organs of the legs and feet of the world, are dashing about across the seas, trampling other countries underfoot, and daring, with their squinting eyes and limping feet, to override the noble nations.
The anger towards the barbarians is understandable, but logic is... well, lacking. Primordial energy? The heirs of the Great Sun? What is this, an early New Age mumbo-jumbo a la Madame Blavatsky? More importantly, if Japan is such a perfect standard and its influence knows no limits, how come the barbarians managed to undermine its power? How come the great Japanese engineers didn't come up with steam-powered ships and cannons that fire explosive shells? Oh, wait, there were no engineers to begin with. It's a bit of a miscalculation, don't you think?
Kokutai is not an exception, every nationalistic ideology is irrational. Nations, after all, are not real, bona fide objects. A rational national ideology is simply impossible, it has no solid foundation. Ideologues will always have to invent or appropriate metaphysical concepts beyond the reach of human senses, like the Spirit Wind or Ultima Thule. People might believe in them because, like, everybody believes in them, but in 50-years time they typically seem bonkers. How can anyone believe that a person named Adolf Hitler embodies the German Spirit? What is the German spirit, anyway?
Rational national ideology is impossible just like national science is impossible. Physics and chemistry don't care about nations. Since both trade and wars exceedingly become a question of physics, chemistry and computer science, the internationals will always be winning on the technological front. In the long-term, social conservatism is a losing proposition simply because in science whoever gets better at error-correcting wins. Conservatives don't error-correct. They are too attached to the way things are.
I do think a dash of irrationality in one’s life is perfectly fine. I think it might be even essential—as long as you’re not trying to base public policy on that. Our friend Hiraoka understood this like nobody. In August 1945, after his divine Emperor's surrender to the Western barbarians, he wrote in his diary “Only by preserving Japanese irrationality will we be able to contribute to world culture 100 years from now”. Next year the Emperor publicly rejected his divinity, wounding Hiraoka even deeper but not swaying him off his course. The Emperor who rejects his divinity can be still considered divine.
The meaning of life as heroic death
Meaning is always defined from above. Sic nos non nobis, which is Latin for “We don't work for ourselves”. This is one of the deepest human truths. Having a divine Emperor is super convenient. It’s a real, embodied god. Unlike other gods, you don’t even have to guess his will. It’s revealed via scheduled radio broadcasts. The Emperor's divinity provides one with an ultimate cause for work, life and death.
The meaning of life, according to nationalism, is to die for the embodiment of nation, the Supreme Leader, screaming Banzai! into eternity. In fact, this is what Hagakure, an 18th century Samurai code of honour, explicitly teaches. The only meaning of life for the warrior is to die for the cause, for the country, for the Emperor. Thus, death is a good thing. Hence the obsession with black uniforms and skull insignia, I guess.
Killing is no longer taboo, in fact, the exact reverse is true. By killing your enemy in battle you’re doing them a great service, providing them with an opportunity to realise their life’s meaning. Heroic death is worshipped. Succumbing to old age or a disease is dishonourable and is frowned upon.
Death becomes the ultimate arbiter. “In case of doubt, always choose death” — how's that for an approach to decision-making under uncertainty? That was an approach promoted by our friend Hiraoka. It's a gutsy method (forgive the pun), so there probably is something to admire. On a side-note, having a rule for what to do in a situation of uncertainty is important, what's yours? Mine is “exercise non-action”, which is a Taoist/Hindu idea.
I think I can now safely reveal that the pen name of Hiraoka was Yukio Mishima, a name you might have heard. He was one of the most important Japanese writers of the 20th century. At some point he was even considered for a Nobel prize in literature, but his less nationalistic friend Kawabata ultimately got the award.
In one of Hiraoka's short stories, aptly called Patriotism (well, he couldn't have called it Nationalism) the main character is torn between the love for his bride, love and loyalty to his army comrades and loyalty to the Emperor. In theory, the latter should trump it all, but in practice the main character finds it difficult to reconcile. He resolves the tension using a traditional if cliché Samurai approach, by cutting his abdomen with a sharp metallic object. His bride followed suit.
Here's the beginning of the suicide scene from the eponymous 1966 film, where Hiraoka himself played the lead. Yes, I do find it hilariously funny, but I also find it magnificent and mesmerising, like Nazi ceremonies in Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia, perhaps. They do have cool uniforms, those Nazi bastards.
Now, can you believe this guy was actually considered for the Nobel prize? But he was. I really, really, encourage you to watch this 5-minute excerpt from his interview.
Here's the gist of it in one sentence: “Men evolved to fight and there's not enough fighting taking place”. Some men are ok with that, finding other sources of meaning like worshipping gods, farming, trade or crafts. But some people are born warriors. They are genetically predisposed to resolve conflicts with violence, rather than with compromise or a search for win-win solutions. These men want war.
Nationalism naturally attracts warriors
This warrior caste has no place in the post-war world and they are angry. Sports don't cut it for them. It's a game, it's not serious for all but a few elite athletes. Military service during peacetime lacks the killing aspect, which seems crucial. The society told them that their job now is to be breadwinners and providers for their families, but they increasingly see their workplaces taken by women, immigrants and robots. When they try to start their own business, they inevitably find themselves outshined and bullied by cosmopolitan multinational companies, which are run by financiers and programmers. There's nothing worse for a warrior than to be humiliated by a bespectacled nerd.
Not to be sexist, the same goes for women. For evolutionary reasons quite a few women find it meaningful to be full-time mothers, but contemporary society shuns this. You're supposed to have a career now. Being a housewife lost whatever little prestige it had. The housewives are not happy. They are not happy with feminists telling them what to do and how to feel, with LGBTQ+ people parading their alternative sexualities and, generally, with the world where working for a global corporation or being an activist on Twitter is pretty much the best one can do in their life. They are not happy and they want revenge.
This perhaps is the main reason for the emergence of neo-nationalism as a global phenomenon. The loss of meaning in what used to be decent, respectable blue collar and low-level white collar jobs was not addressed. These people have nowhere to go in their life. Democracy does provide them with an outlet, a ballot box. So they vote for whoever communicates the nationalistic warrior ethos. They vote for Trump in the US, the Fidesz party in Hungary, for Narendra Modi in India, for Muslim nationalists in Indonesia and the far-right Nippon Kaigi in Japan.
Hiraoka lived a life full of meaning and died with the name of the beloved Emperor on his lips. After publishing a few novels, stories and plays, including the one called My Friend Hitler in which he sort of denounced Hitler, he died exactly like he wanted to die by cutting his abdomen with a sharp metallic object. He was 45 at the time.
Ok, that's not the whole story. He tried to organise a pro-Emperor coup by making a speech at a military base in Tokyo, but his oratorical skills were not up for the job. His words drowned in helicopter noise, he was heckled and ignored, so he did what a Samurai had to do, which is to commit suicide. His friend, Morita, followed suit. Nobody would say they died in a vain. Except for me, maybe. Yeah, I'd say that. I'm sorry, Hiraoka, but it was a stupid way to die. Personally, I find absolutely no meaning in that.