Jingoism, nationalism, and goons

January 17, 2023 10:13
Russian President Vladimir Putin  (Photo: Reuters)

A nation that trumpets its own success, that heralds its ostensibly inevitable trajectory towards greatness, and that frames its relations with competitors and rivals as one defined by a moral hierarchy, is a nation that is unlikely to ever rise to true greatness.

A nation whose people subscribe, with undying ardour and unquestioning fervour, to the posdtulate that it is indeed the best, the greatest, and the most deserving of all countries – is also one that is most prone to being driven by ultranationalistic, jingoistic sentiments. Such sentiments would in turn give rise to catastrophic wars, conflicts, and unbridled strife.

I do not write the following with the hope of convincing hard-lined, unrepentant nationalists that their zealous subscription to monolithic narratives about their nations’ ascent, their own greatness qua ‘unique’ people, and their manifest destiny – could in fact be wrong. You can lead an ox to the river, but you can never force it to drink water; or so, the Chinese saying goes.

I am instead writing to note that if there is a behemoth we must learn to rein in, a Leviathan that must be shackled, a temptation or urge within our society that we must fundamentally expunge, it would be the naïve, foolhardy undercurrents of jingoistic nationalism. Such a form of nationalism is irridentist – it asserts an ever-expansionary set of territorial claims and sovereignty entitlements, positing that the territories of the individual nation-state have been unduly seized upon by rival and competing states; it is triumphant – it takes only the positives of the nation and spins them into dubious claims about the nation’s unrivalled greatness, dismissing any and all criticism as ostensibly traitorous. Indeed, it is fundamentally revanchist – seeking to rewrite and rewire history to suit the purposes of those who govern, who seek to shepherd their people to serve the end objectives of the powers that be.

I am speaking here, of course, of Russia – an imperialist, invasive power that has long sought to impose its inability to understand national and territorial integrity on its neighbouring state, Ukraine. More precisely, it is not parts of the Russian people, or the Russian private sector I am speaking of here – their moderately nationalistic sentiments are not only tolerable but understandable – it is instead the unflinching, Machiavellian (now doomed and failed) ultranationalism of the ruling elite who are inimical to global political stability and order.

A year ago, I wrote that Putin’s prosecution of war against the Ukrainian people was a deeply costly moral blunder – not only for the millions displaced by and suffering under his ill-fated campaign in Ukraine, but also for many amongst the Russian public who must now bear the price of long arms and sanctions under an unforgiving alliance of Russia’s enemies, reunited under the pretense of fighting for ‘justice’ whilst throwing under the bus medium powers and peoples caught in between.

The Russian story offers us invaluable lessons. It highlights the dangers of unrelenting hubris, misinformation and partial deception by subordinates towards their superiors in a system where sycophancy is rewarded, and the perils of allowing the egos and personalities of individual leaders dominate and steer decision-making.

Yet it also reveals the hefty toll of unbridled jingoism – stirred and stoked by the press, often state-controlled, often riddled with falsities, that render large swathes of the public convinced that war is not that bad an idea; that war could be worth fighting for; that violence could, in theory, be justified in name of a higher end-goal and purpose. Who fabricates these end-goals? Who narrates these stories? Who decides – and who should get to decide – if lives can be squandered for the vanity projects of a few, and for the fundamentally futile visions of the many? These are questions that only the leader himself, or herself, could answer.

It is high time that we woke up to the fundamental, bare political fact: that nationalism and jingoism, as much as they might be rooted in primordial and prior cultural preferences and patterns, are often little more than tools and weapons by conniving politicians to detract and deflect public scrutiny away from raging problems. From the economic downturn inflicted by the pandemic and public health policies in Brazil, to the endless identification and castigation of ‘threats to democracies’ by America, we have seen time and time again how politicians construct and assign seeming responsibilities to their nations – with the intentions of preserving and strengthening their domestic rule.

We can do better than that. We must do better than that. It is high time to call a spade a spade – and recognise, for all the merits of having a nation, having a community to belong to, fighting meaningless wars and making undue enemies on the world stage do not count amongst them.

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Assistant Professor, HKU