You would be hard-pressed to find a nation without a creation myth. Such myths are the fountainhead of justifications for most belligerent acts by one group of people against another.
But let me back up, because words are important, and the misuse of words is often the cause of belligerence that leads to misery and death.
In this commentary, the word “nation” refers to a large body of people who are united by common descent or a history, traditions, cultures and often language. In today’s world, nations often are understood to be nation-states – those geo-political entities displayed in multicolored patchwork fashion on global maps in elementary schools across the country. In many instances, those colorful patches are shaped by one group of people imposing their will upon another.
Despite current geopolitical realities, the word “nation” traces its roots back to the Latin, nationem, which was used to voice the concepts of “birth, origin; breed, stock, kind, species, race of people or tribe.” And even though race is a social construct, it weighs most heavily when defining the concept of a nation.
The complex tapestry of human history has created a mishmash of concepts such as “race” and “nation.” The distinguished Irish author Seumas MacManus wrote a celebrated book titled “The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland.”
The Irish inhabit the island of Ireland, which sits in the north Atlantic Ocean to the northwest of the landmass many refer to as “Europe.” MacManus considered the Irish to be a homogeneous and distinct race of people separate from northern Europeans or the English. But apart from their cultural characteristics, the Irish are indistinguishable from northern Europeans and the English. To complicate matters further, the Irish are divided politically into two separate nations. Those who live in the north of the island are a part of the United Kingdom and those who live in the south are citizens of the Republic of Ireland. How the Irish came to be considered a separate and distinct race unto themselves, while at the same time divided into two nations, is illustrative of the complexities of the concepts of race and nation.
How the Irish became a separate and distinct race can be explained by what Germans call volksgeist. It is a German word that expresses the unique spirit and character of a particular people. Volksgeist encapsulates their perceived characteristics that distinguish their nation and way of life from all others. These characteristics are believed to have continued to the present from prehistoric times and are as indigenous to the land as the forests and mountains. Inherent in this concept is a sense of intergenerational continuity of thought. And this continuity of thought often is said to lead to conservative nationalism.
Conservative nationalists apply the principle of organic society to nations, believing nations emerge naturally through a volksgeist among those who want to live with others who are similar to them. And in this kernel of an idea lies a great plague of human misery. Volksgeist speaks of the spirit of the people, but it does not define “people,” because it is understood to mean “people like us.” These individuals seek meaning and security through patriotism related to people like them and the national community. This need for meaning and security leads to a desire to maintain national unity by encouraging national pride in people like them. This also justifies a resistance to change or expanding inclusion by conservative nationalists.
Conservative nationalists are fearful of – and see as their enemies – liberal nationalists who believe the principles of balance and natural harmony apply to individuals as well as nations. Balance and harmony imply shared wealth. And shared wealth is anathema to colonialists who exploit the resources and labor of other nations.
And this brings us to ethnonationalism.
Ethnonationalism is a socio-cultural political ideology that connects a particular ethnic or cultural group and a specific territory. It asserts that the interests, rights and identity of a particular group should be preserved and protected.
These people also seek to strengthen the bonds between them by acts that they claim preserve their cultural heritage, such as flying the Confederate flag to honor the valiant South. But in countries like the United States and other former colonial and post-colonial powers, ethnonationalism often leads to exclusionary and divisive tendencies, resulting in hostility toward those who belong to other ethnic or cultural groups. In multicultural nations, this xenophobia results in injustice and violence against those the ethnonationalists consider to be “the other.”
Ethnonationalism marginalizes minority communities by creating a hierarchical society that excludes individuals based on ethnicity or culture. It is exacerbated when it intersects with authoritarianism and conservative political ideologies. Politicians such as Donald Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene have put this type of cultural toxicity on full display. Through the use of their hate-filled and nonsensical rhetoric, these despicable individuals use ethnonationalism to stir up a frightful brew of grievance politics, notions of white superiority and general discontent as a means of gaining political power.
Ethnonationalism erodes democratic institutions and suppresses the voices of the oppressed. It is poison to pluralism and democratic values. The banning of books dealing with race and non-binary individuals is a result of ethnonationalism. The attack on the ability of women to have control over their own reproductive choices is a result of ethnonationalism. The mistreatment and exclusion of migrants arriving at our southern border is a result of ethnonationalism. The decimation of the voting rights laws established during the last half century is a result of ethnonationalism.
There are among our neighbors, co-workers and even relatives’ individuals who are ethnonationalists. And while we must love our neighbors, co-workers, and relatives, we must not allow them to poison the land where we live.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia. His earlier commentaries may be found at https://oblayton1.medium.com/