How Imprecise Language Empowers Nationalists

Nationalism seems to follow predictable cycles.

  1. A culture becomes infatuated with its nation-state and that state’s dominance in the world.
  2. The nation-state does something really horrible and/or gets humbled.
  3. The nation-state’s surrounding culture withdraws approval from the state, and the state becomes humbled.
  4. A culture of skepticism about the nation-state emerges in a new generation in the same culture, while the nation-state becomes less dominant compared to other nation-states.
  5. A new generation becomes resentful of other nation-states and attributes “declining” culture to skepticism and decline of the nature state.
  6. The culture becomes infatuated with its nation-state and that state’s dominance in the world.

This appears to be happening in Europe, the United States, and even Japan, which all experienced unparalleled nationalism about two generations ago in the 30s and 40s. That nationalism ended in destruction and death for Europe, defeat for Japan, and unprecedented authoritarianism in the US by the end of the second world war.

The generations which intervened – particularly the “hippie” generation in the US – carried a new wave of skepticism of nation-states which was reflected elsewhere in the world. Japan demilitarized, and Germany rooted out doctrines of racial-national superiority. Today, many cultures are returning to stage 5, reacting to social problems by blaming the skeptics of nationalism for declines in their nation-states’ global power.

One of the most common and successful ways in which nationalists pass on this blame is  to conflate skepticism of your government (here used interchangeably with “state”) with a hatred of of your own culture. French right-winger Marine Le Pen is a great example of someone who tries to make this appeal. She said the following when confronted on a dark part of French history:

“France has been mired in people’s minds for years. In reality, our children are taught that they have every reason to criticize her, to see only the darkest historical aspects.”

There’s something seductive about this line of argument. No one wants to be fundamentally ashamed of the stock they come from. Thinking that your culture is bad is worse than thinking your parents are bad, and harder to get rid of.

Well, let’s talk about it.

I’d be willing to bet that the dark elements of French history in question are not baguettes and medieval architecture and Impressionist art and medical research. The dark parts include all the willing provocations to war, the Dreyfuss affair, brutal colonialism, and collaboration with fascists. In fact, the particular context of the Le Pen quote above was the French government’s culpability for deporting Jews in the second world war. That’s a pretty damn good reason to criticize the French nation-state.*

Here’s where an important distinction comes in.

The prior group – the baguttes, Impressionist art, medical research, and medieval architecture– are products of the  interactions which happen absent of power structures. We can call this culture. 

The latter group – the Dreyfuss affair, the colonial brutalities, the betrayal and deportation of Jews to the Nazis – these are products of the interactions which are predicated on coercive political power. We can call these the state, as they’re typically only things which individuals in power structures can get away with at scale.

Both culture and state are abstractions, true. Both inform each other – also true. But at their root they describe two very different, very real sets of consequences which arise when people act in either peaceful (cultural) or violent (statist) ways.

Le Pen – and nationalists like her – glibly speak of both state and culture together as the abstract France (or insert country here). With this dishonest sleight of hand, Le Pen convinces her followers and other potential nationalists that to criticize the actions of the state she wishes to rule is to criticize the cultural products and history of 66 million people living on 248,000 square miles of dirt that we call “France.”

What’s worse is that people have every reason to fall for it. Historians, the media, even Le Pen’s opponents all buy into the conjunction of state and culture as well, albeit usually for their own ends. You’ll rarely hear a politician or a commentator or even an astute academic differentiate the actions of the group of people calling themselves the government from the much, much larger group of people who live in that government’s occupied territory.

This is how you get other such atrocities of speech such as the frequent use of “we” in politics:

  • “We should/shouldn’t have bombed Iraq.”
  • “We should/shouldn’t have detained people without trial.”
  • “We should/shouldn’t have deported people who needed our help.”

Consider the following, too:

  • “America is in debt to China.”
  • “America is trying to build an empire.”
  • “America is oppressing the poor with its policies.”

Regardless of how you feel about the actions, if you did not participate in or support the government’s execution of an action (like bombing a place or creating a policy), you should not be speaking in terms of “we” or “America.” You do not share in the moral responsibility or moral blameworthiness of a government merely by living in its supposed territory. To use the words “we” or “America” in these cases is to cede your moral autonomy as an individual. Those words also have the effect of blurring the important distinction between the state you are not a part of and the culture you participate in.

That blurred distinction, caused by imprecise language, is a powerful tool for nationalists. They prey on a people’s understandable and even appropriate affection for culture and cultural history, turning it into loyalty to the nation-state. We can stop this if we choose a different way to speak of society and state.

You see, you can have a critical but grateful appraisal of your culture alongside a deeply skeptical appraisal of nation-states. In fact, I think that holding those two views together will be essential to end the cycle of nationalism.

For me, that means learning to celebrate the beautiful diversity and dynamism and personal autonomy that is celebrated in American culture. It means celebrating the cars, the music, the land, and the food that makes up my life and my history in “America.”

It also means despising the taxes, the restrictions, the bombs, the jails, the armies, and the ambitions of the nation-state which also calls itself “America.”

If you can learn this distinction, you’ll be much less likely to become a foot soldier for the next nationalist dictatorship.


*In all fairness, she did assign moral culpability for the deportations to the French Vichy government in the following quote: “I think that in general, more generally, if there were those responsible, it was those who were in power at the time. This is not France.” In this line, she actually managed to make a distinction between French state and culture.

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James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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