David Brooks writes:
And yet I have to say my strongest attachment is to the nation, to the United States. You could take New York out of my identity and I’d be sort of the same. If you took America out of my identity I’d be unrecognizable to myself.
What does this national attachment feel like? It feels a bit like any other kind of love — a romantic love, or a love between friends. It is not one thing that you love but the confluence of a hundred things. Yes, it is the beauty of the Rockies, but it is not just the land. It is the Declaration of Independence, but not just the creed. It’s winning World War II and Silicon Valley, but it is not just the accomplishments. It is the craziness, the diversity, our particular brand of madness.
In the soul of a nationalist, Yoram Hazony writes in his book “The Virtue of Nationalism,” there is a gratifying tension between a person’s intense loyalty to her inherited traditions and an awareness that there are many other traditions, similarly beautiful, but that don’t happen to be her own.
In a family you can feel when love is stretched and broken. And you can feel the same thing in the nation. Today, when bombs are sent and vitriol follows, our common American nationalism, our mutual loyalty, is under strain.
It’s threatened by extreme individualism — people who put the needs of the individual above the needs of the community. It’s threatened by globalists — people whose hearts have been bleached of the particular love of place. The greatest threats come from those who claim to be nationalists but who are the opposite.
There is a globalist tendency among western elites (perhaps borne out of international vacations, foreign exchanges, and the diversity within top universities) towards the universal moral worth of humans. This is a good tendency–borders and birth are arbitrary, and too many tragedies have been performed in the name of country.
At the same time, this globalist tendency often goes a step further–arguing that because borders and birth are arbitrary, we should have no pride in the nation in which we were born. This has always struck me as surprising. First, our circumstances, however arbitrary, still shape who we are–they become an integral part of our identity, as Brooks notes in his piece. Second, we are more than willing to be proud of a number of other “arbitrary” communities with equally integral implications for our identity: our family (birth context is just as arbitrary as place), our friend group, our university (likely selected through either state of residence or the whims of a selective admissions officer), and even our sports teams (which are generally based on your place of birth, your favorite color, or the place of birth of your middle-school crush).
And perhaps this is a good thing. Having an in-group to which you are loyal can cause perverse implications for outsiders, but it does not have to. Having special love, loyalties, and even obligations to groups, even those that are arbitrarily formed, may simply be part of who we are as humans.
Of course, this matters even more if you are religious (at least, some sort of theist), because you then believe that the groups of which you are a part are not, at least completely, arbitrary. If God put you in a group, then your obligation to that group is derivative of your obligation to God–and perhaps explains our intuition towards seemingly arbitrary groups.