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Why Nationalism, Yael Tamir,

Why Nationalism, by Yael Tamir, Princeton University Press, 205 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0691190105

Nationalism, a force of which she tends to approve and which she wishes to rehabilitate or at least respectabilise, comes in two main forms, according to Yael Tamir in her introduction to this book. There is separatist nationalism, in which a territory inside an existing state wishes to assert that it does not really belong and has a right to become an independent nation. Sometimes, she writes, this can be motivated by “the desire of the more affluent regions to be freed from the desire to share their wealth with members of poorer regions”. Catalonia and Flanders might well fit into this category, but scarcely Scotland (and a few others we could mention in history), so something else must be at work there. Then there is “the nationalism of the less well-off, those left defenseless by the process of hyperglobalization”. In this case “the vulnerable revoke [sic] national feelings in order to convince the elites to come back from their global voyage and put their nation first”. The less well-off in this case must obviously be Donald Trump (and apparently he is indeed less well-off now than when he first got that big bag of cash from his much savvier father), since it was Trump and his Breitbart backers who excoriated unpatriotic “elites” and sought to reawaken and magnify “national feelings”, aka resentment and hostility, at every opportunity, a message to which some but by no means most of the less well-off in the Republic responded: African Americans for example, very many of whom still belong to the US’s worst-off, remained for some reason almost entirely aloof to Trump’s blandishments.

But why should there be just two forms of nationalism? I can think of quite a few more. Let us start to count: there is Trump’s “America First”, a snake-oil cure which is very unlikely to be seen at the end of four years to have fulfilled many of the promises its ebullient salesman made for it; there is Viktor Orbán’s quite dour Hungarian nationalism (or national conservatism) which is based on a deep sense of historical national difference and a stubborn hostility to influence from outside the nation (or indeed any “racial contaminant” inside it); there is French nationalism, which is arguably based on a notion of cultural and intellectual superiority; there is Irish nationalism, which historically was based on a response or reaction to the repeated denial of the clearly expressed desire to rule oneself, even if, in the view of some, it may later have overreached itself in wishing to also rule others; there is Scottish nationalism, based, in a complex and hybrid territory of urban and rural, close and remote communities, on a certain idea of cultural difference, recently much amplified by alarm at the prospect of being dragged down by the ill-advised choices of a neighbour; and there is English nationalism, which, like the French, also seems to be based on a sense of superiority, not in this case superior culture but perhaps superior enterprise, native wit and “pluck”. And one could go on. There may not be as many nationalisms as there are nations but there are certainly many variants and it is even likely that the same word is being used to denote phenomena which are in fact quite different, as indeed is also the case with the word “populism”.

Tamir states that her book “aims to enumerate the assets that nationalism brings to the political discourse and examine a variety of national claims without falling into the ad hominem trap of rebutting the ideas by attacking the people making the argument or those associated with them”. At one level this indicates that the political claims of what we might call the national interest will be given a fair hearing. This could be seen as necessary and welcome. There is certainly a dogmatism present in some forms of internationalist or cosmopolitan liberalism which is inclined to sneer at all forms of nationalism, past and present, and belittle the nation state (think Guy Verhofstadt and Daniel Cohn-Bendit). It may be true, or largely true, as Cohn-Bendit argues, that most of the serious problems the world currently faces cannot be solved nationally but only (if they can be solved at all) internationally. Still, the nation, or the plain fact of having nationality, is for most citizens in most places simply the air we breathe and a political current which dismisses or disdains this fact is likely to cede ground to those forces which, often with malign intent, seek to ramp up assertive and malign forms of nationalism.

One feels, however, that Tamir’s attempt to defend “liberal nationalism” as a positive principle without too much consideration of flesh-and-blood nationalists, their parties and the contexts in which they operate is a shaky enterprise, but perhaps it was an unavoidable one for her since she seems to lack a grip on the detail of people or policy, being more at home with political/sociological generalities. Thus we have in her book, as nationalist players, Le-Pan and Hider (Le Pen, probably Jean-Marie in this case, and Haider, Jörg) and as theatres of separatist politics Catalan (that is Catalonia) and Vento (that is Veneto). A final curious point: Yael Tamir was, to her credit, a founder of the Israeli peace movement Peace Now; and also a member of the Labor Party and an apparently progressive minister in the government of Ehud Barak. Her belief in nationalism as a force to bind together a people diverse in background and social class (and perhaps also to delineate the boundaries of who belongs and who doesn’t) would seem to have a particularly strong application to her own nation. Yet Israel is not mentioned in the index.