Shazia Rahman is an associate professor of English at the University of Dayton.. Her new book, Place and Postcolonial Ecofeminism: Pakistani Women’s Literary and Cinematic Fictions, is available now.
Recent events in Charlottesville and elsewhere around the world have shown us the ugly face of nationalism. But we still hold on to it. It’s not just “America First” that has such a powerful hold on Americans as well as others around the world who want to put their own compatriots first, it’s also the idea of “God and Country,” or religious nationalism, “Support our troops,” or militaristic nationalism and, of course, white supremacy or ethnic nationalism.
Whether it’s called nationalism or patriotism, the idea is the same although I have heard apologists attempt to differentiate. What’s interesting to me is how hard they try, how badly they want to hold on to that feeling they get when the national anthem plays, or their country wins at sports. Why insist on holding onto something that can only be exclusivist? As long as you believe in defending the integrity of national territorial boundaries, you have to be suspicious of climate refugees and migrants. What nationalism teaches is that there are insiders and outsiders, patriots and traitors.
And who is a traitor, exactly? Someone who does not put the needs of the nation above the needs of the world, someone who thinks all lives matter not only American lives. Someone like Chelsea Manning has to be seen as a traitor according to this definition.
Some say that if you do right by the people in your country it will be good for everyone. Will it? Don’t countries disagree all the time because each is trying to do what is right for them and only them? At this point, it is clear that the “pursuit of happiness” in the U.S. has meant the pursuit of the American dream of profit. The cumulative carbon emissions that have resulted from this pursuit by the U.S. and other wealthy nations has meant more global warming for the entire planet. And the poorest parts of the world, those with the least power, LGBTQIA people, women, people with disabilities, non-white people, animals, children, etc. feel the worst consequences of this behavior which is regularly justified by nationalism. But isn’t the pursuit of superpower status just a kind of toxic masculinity causing all the rest of us to suffer?
Many defend nationalism by insisting that it is something that everyone can understand and feel and it brings people together as a community. Does it? What if children, from the moment they went to school, didn’t have to pledge allegiance to the flag every day? What if they pledged allegiance to the planet, its oceans, the forests, wild life, humans and nonhumans everywhere on earth? Why not just define community differently? What would happen if instead of critiquing only one specific type of extreme right-wing, white supremacist ethno-nationalism, we actually took it a step further to critique all types of nationalism and nation itself?
I know that what I’m saying is hard to hear. I know the power of nationalism. I feel it. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to live this way. Chelsea Manning doesn’t need to be called a traitor. Children do not need to be caged for arriving at a national border. We can think differently about what is right and in the interest of all. We can act differently, before it is too late.