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US nationalism – The elephant in the room by Mark Ashwill

Published on: April 15, 2016

Filed Under: Current Events: The Beat Goes On, Featured

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“Patriotism is proud of a country’s virtues and eager to correct its deficiencies; it also acknowledges the legitimate patriotism of other countries, with their own specific virtues. The pride of nationalism, however, trumpets its country’s virtues and denies its deficiencies, while it is contemptuous toward the virtues of other countries. It wants to be, and proclaims itself to be, ‘the greatest’, but greatness is not required of a country; only goodness is.”– Sydney J Harris, US journalist.

There’s a lot of talk these days about internationalisation and the value of international competence. To this I would add another essential yet neglected element: a mindset that transcends competencies and skill sets, that is able to overcome nationalism and develop a global competence, allowing people to becomeglobal citizens.

Proud to be an American?

I once taught a general education course to undergraduates at a large US state university. I began one class by projecting an image of a popular US bumper sticker, ‘Proud to be an American’, on the screen as an introduction to one of the course’s main themes, ‘America’s role in the world’.

After giving the students a moment to reflect, I asked if they were proud; and if they answered yes, what they were proud of and why. Many of the responses, the vast majority of which were positive, included references to being the “best of the best”, “the greatest country in the world”, “America’s superpower status” and “endless opportunity”.

The answers, which were rooted in a cultural mythology infused with a deep-seated sense of cultural superiority, a dictionary definition of nationalism, were offered up as unchallengeable and commonsensical assumptions – in effect, eternal truths.

As the recent US presidential primary campaign has made abundantly clear, the dominant view of the United States as a nation that enjoys God’s favour and has a solemn obligation to spread its political and economic ideals far and wide, that is, as a globalised form of Manifest Destiny, has become ingrained in the country’s political DNA.

Nationalists come in all shapes and sizes, including colleagues who identify themselves as international educators. It is an exclusionary state of mind that transcends gender, race, social class and political affiliation. Nationalism is, one could argue, the psychic glue that unites US Americans from many different and disparate walks of life.

Patriotism vs nationalism: implications for the development of global citizens

The distinction between patriotism and nationalism has profound implications for the development of global citizens. Patriotism is defined simply as “love for or devotion to one’s country”. In contrast, nationalism is defined as loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.

It is the second italicised part that distinguishes nationalism from its less strident and bellicose semantic cousin, patriotism.

Implicit in the exaltation of one nation over all others is the belief that ‘others’ wish to be like us and, by extension, the desire to mould them in our image, by force, if need be.

This brand of missionary nationalism is one of the pillars of American exceptionalism, described by Andrew Bacevich in The Limits of Power: The end of American exceptionalism in this way: “The enemy of humility is sanctimony, which gives rise to the conviction that American values and beliefs are universal and that the nation itself serves providentially assigned purposes. This conviction finds expression in a determination to remake the world in what we imagine to be America’s image.”

In America Right or Wrong, Anatol Lieven highlights the need for US Americans to examine their own nationalism, which he describes as “an ability to step outside American national myths and look at the nation with detachment, not as an exceptional city on a hill” and not at themselves as “the peculiar, chosen people – the Israel of our time”, in the words of the author Herman Melville, “but as a mortal nation among other nations”.

To put it bluntly, passive nationalists simply believe in the cultural superiority of the US while missionary nationalists wish to act on that belief and carry that potent message beyond the borders of their country so that others will come to “see the light”, “become like us” and enjoy the many benefits that accrue from Americanisation and an Americentric world view. They will attempt to achieve this goal through military means, if necessary.

Patriots possess “a patriotism that puts country ahead of self; a patriotism which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime”, as Adlai Stevenson once observed.

From national(ism) to global citizenship

Global citizenship universalises the classical notion of citizenship, which entails certain rights and responsibilities and allegiance to a sovereign state. Rather than pledging allegiance to one nation-state, the global citizen’s intellectual landscape, moral compass and sense of connectedness and belonging extend to all of humanity.

Loyalty and devotion to one’s country are not mutually exclusive with global citizens’ rights and responsibilities as members of the global community. In this new reality, “national interests” are not paramount but rather subjugated to and measured against the interests of fellow human beings in other countries.

The task of creating global citizens cannot be accomplished without first debunking certain cultural myths, proving the ‘commonsensical’ to be nonsensical and revealing ostensibly ‘eternal truths’ to be falsehoods.

How you feel about your country is not merely a matter of the mind but also of the heart and soul. Therefore, any form of global citizenship education must be approached with caution since it challenges heartfelt beliefs and long-held assumptions. Since the aim is to mould global citizens out of national citizens, to give learners the knowledge, experiences and analytical tools to expand their consciousness and their intellectual repertoire, students’ world view must be reoriented and refined.

The purpose of global citizenship education, as I envision it, is two-fold:

  • To help people liberate themselves from the emotional and intellectual shackles of nationalism and find freedom in becoming global citizens whose values and actions demonstrate humility, openness, tolerance and empathy, and who take great joy in living in harmony with others and with nature; or
  • To prevent them from becoming inmates in this psychic prison built on sand. To paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg, only those who move, notice their chains.

Of Orwell, nationalism and things not spoken of in ‘polite company’

What I’ve discovered over the years is that most US higher education colleagues refuse to engage in a discussion about nationalism; silence is their answer, thus confirming this prescient quote from George Orwell’s draft preface to the first edition ofAnimal Farm: “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. …At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question.

“It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady.

“Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.”

US nationalism is such an orthodoxy, falsely understood and mislabelled by many US Americans as patriotism. To speak of it is to be perceived as an outsider, an outlier, the other. To draw attention to it in ‘polite company’, that is, even among self-proclaimed intellectuals, is to risk being branded un-American, an opponent or even a traitor.

Being silenced comes in many shapes and forms but the end result is always the same – important issues worth discussing remain invisible and cloaked in darkness except to a small circle of concerned individuals.

Nationalism and the international education profession in the US

Until we address the issue of nationalism and take a close and critical look at what young US Americans are taught about their country and its place in the world (for instance, we’re No 1, we’re the best, we’re the greatest nation on earth, “what we say goes” in the words of George HW Bush; “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality”, in the words of Karl Rove, etc), what role international education might play in reshaping their world view and what it really means to be global citizens, we are abdicating our responsibilities as educators and international educators.

As the adage goes, the first step in solving a problem is recognising there is one, and then to devise creative and effective ways to counteract and combat nationalism. This debate is not academic; for many people in the US and around the world it is literally a matter of life and death, or at least quality of life.

Unless we possess the courage to begin to find ways to open the minds of young US Americans, citizens of “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world”, in the words of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, true then as now, sadly, and citizens of a country that the international community views as the greatest threat to world peace, I’m afraid we will continue to miss the forest for the trees.

It is the mindset of nationalism, in part, that creates the policy conditions for the destabilisation, invasion and occupation of a long and growing list of countries – by proxy or directly – including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.

Lost in the endless rationales and justifications for international education linked to US economic competitiveness, US national security, and US citizen diplomacy, is the notion that students (and others) should be taught and challenged to become global citizens. This, it seems to me, is the rather large ‘elephant in the room’ of our profession: so painfully obvious, so demanding of our attention, yet so utterly neglected.

Global citizenship education, if carried to its logical conclusion, would transform the theory and practice of international education, especially in the United States, and contribute in some small way to a more peaceful, just and equitable world.

Dr Mark Ashwill is managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. For a more detailed exploration of the topics discussed in this essay in cross-cultural context, check out the book chapter entitled “Developing Globally Competent Citizens: The contrasting cases of the United States and Vietnam”, co-authored by Mark Ashwill and Duong Thi Hoang Oanh, which appeared in The SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence, edited by Darla K Deardorff (2009). Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Vietnam.

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