12 October 2004

Sobran on patriotism and nationalism

Joseph Sobran has been around for a long time, at one point writing regularly for The National Review. Although he offers much to disagree with (I won't get into that here and now), his three-year-old reflection on the difference between patriotism and nationalism, written in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, strikes me as being largely right. In language that could have been used of more recent developments, Sobran writes:

When it comes to war, the patriot realizes that the rest of the world can’t be turned into America, because his America is something specific and particular — the memories and traditions that can no more be transplanted than the mountains and the prairies. He seeks only contentment at home, and he is quick to compromise with an enemy. He wants his country to be just strong enough to defend itself.

But the nationalist, who identifies America with abstractions like freedom and democracy, may think it’s precisely America’s mission to spread those abstractions around the world — to impose them by force, if necessary. In his mind, those abstractions are universal ideals, and they can never be truly “safe” until they exist, unchallenged, everywhere; the world must be made “safe for democracy” by “a war to end all wars.” We still hear versions of these Wilsonian themes. Any country that refuses to Americanize is “anti-American” — or a “rogue nation.” For the nationalist, war is a welcome opportunity to change the world. This is a recipe for endless war.

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