What’s Wrong With Nationalism?

Pope Francis, along with many other commentators on current affairs, has condemned nationalism. I might join these commentators, if I knew just what they were talking about. What is a nation?

When I was backpacking through Italy in 1985, I found myself having dinner with another young fellow in Assisi, and we got to talking about Italians and their loyalty to the paese, the village or town or, to stretch things a little, the general region where they were born. You are a paesano not if you speak Italian, and not if you are a friendly sort, but if you come from the same place. He was a Florentine, and I, of course, was and remain an American.

You will notice an imbalance in that last sentence. Florence is a city, 2,000 years old—Florentia, in Latin. It is not a whole country. The United States is a whole country. But in terms of age, by comparison, the United States is still wearing short pants and playing in the sandbox. That’s if you go by years. If you go by youth, maturity, or senescence, I don’t know how to answer. For when the newly independent Americans were debating in public about the wisdom of the proposed Constitution, many a broadside was published to be read by farmers and their wives, by craftsmen and merchants, by clergymen and schoolteachers, which would now be hard slogging for college graduates. Nor do I think that Publius, Junius, and the Pennsylvania Farmer have anything to fear, when it comes to subtle thought, the organization of an argument, and a broad and penetrating reading of history, from our current Supreme Court. Intellectually, we may be hunched over, leaning on a cane, with hands a-tremble.

In any case, I asked my Florentine friend why he did not consider himself first as an Italian, and only second as a Florentine. I did know that the unification of the Italian states occurred by fits and starts in the 19th century, with much bloodshed, and that as late as World War II, people in southern Italy resented their far richer countrymen in the north. I also knew that not everybody in Italy could speak the standard language, derived from the Tuscan dialect. My great-aunt Concetta, who lived her whole life in a mountaintop village in Calabria, could not. Still, I wanted to hear his reply.

He told me not only that his allegiance lay with Florence, but that as a good Florentine he was obliged to hate other towns in Tuscany. “We hate the Sienese,” he said, complacently, “the Sienese hate us, and both of us hate the Pisans.” That was hard for me to understand. I was a Pennsylvania boy, and though it was incumbent on me to poke fun at people from New Jersey, I never took it seriously. Then again, Pennsylvania has never been at war with New Jersey, as Florence often was with Pisa. Michelangelo’s David itself commemorates a victory over Florence’s long-established rival.

Yet there is also, among the Italians, a kind of national pride that extends beyond the paese, though it has almost nothing to do with any national governmental structure. When I asked a close friend of mine at Princeton, who was at that time a nonobservant Jew, what he considered to be a sacred text, he replied, “The Constitution.” It stunned me. A set of by-laws, sacred? 

I hold the Constitution in honor, but it does not replace the Bible. As for the Italians, I doubt you could find anyone from the Dolomites to the slopes of Mount Aetna who holds the Italian Constitution as anything but makeshift, apt to produce governments that are inefficient and easy to topple. That may be a good thing, too, as the Italians retain their liberties by habit and by a blithe refusal to truckle to Rome. I was once in a cab in Rome, and the driver asked me to buckle my seat belt because the carabinieri were out in force, stopping cars and handing out fines. “When they get enough money from it,” he said with a laugh, “they’ll stop, and we’ll just go back to doing what we did before.”

If Italian pride has nothing to do with the government in Rome, or with politics, or with wealth (much of Italy is rather poor), far less with Italian fortunes at war in the last 100 years, what can it have to do with? That is what an American would ask. I got a fair answer, I think, when I was with my family in Florence in 1998, and we were having lunch on the grounds outside of Santa Maria Novella. I was talking to a young Italian visitor to Florence, and we must have gotten into a conversation about my job, which involved, in part, teaching young Americans about the art and architecture of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. That included the glorious cathedrals in France.

“The French!” he cried. “The French are all thieves! We’re the ones who produce the greatest art, and the French come and steal it.” He was wrong about that, at least as regards the medieval cathedrals. For the Italians never went in for the stained-glass windows that grace the cathedrals at Chartres and Rouen and so many other cities in France; nor for such architectural innovations as made those great windows possible, such as the flying buttress. But I wasn’t going to argue the point.

It is a mark of piety to love the place of your birth, to prefer it above other places, to want it to be itself and not just like everywhere else. Globalism is not simply the enemy of nationalism. It is the enemy of the distinctness of human cultures, and of the local loyalties that bind us to place, kinship, stories, forms of art and music and poetry, even the particularities of language and dialect that give us characteristic ways of looking at the world. 

If nationalism means that you must believe that your nation is the best of all, and that it should spread its ways worldwide, then nationalism is a sort of globalism with a flag, and sometimes with guns. If opposition to nationalism means that you roll a bulldozer over nations and their ways, especially if it means that, in the name of human rights, you infect everyone with the ultimate venereal disease, namely the abrogation of sexual mores that has characterized the West for 60 to 100 years, then it seems to me that you have the soul of a National Socialist, perhaps without the cruelty, but certainly without the patriotism.

If I love the United States as my nation, my country, without making a god of it, and without seeking to make the whole world like a strip mall outside of a newly sprouted non-city in Arizona, I will be glad to see other nations continue to be nations in reality, and not just political machines or geographical fictions.

What, then, explains the allergic reaction to Hungarians who want to be Hungarians, and Poles who want to be Poles? Is it that their national identities are bound up with religious faith? Is that it? 

To what extent you can have a nation without a common or dominant religious faith is an anthropological question that Pope Francis, as far as I can gather, has not specifically asked, nor have Americans asked it in my lifetime. Some would gladly do away with both nationhood and religious faith, at one stroke, thinking to bring peace thereby. That would be a blank peace, in which no one fights because no one believes in anything anymore, or loves anything enough to fight for it; the peace of spiritual and cultural death. No true friend of man can desire it.

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About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). He is a Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

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