Nationalists and Monomaniacs

One of the perils of real life, and of journalism, is the zeal of monomaniacs. The media is a wonderful forum for debate, except when it is hijacked as a lopsided platform for nuttiness. As a reporter, we have to know the difference between a colorful, yet informed opinion, and a barmy obsession.

It is rare to find a monomaniac who is dedicated to, say, ending world hunger or achieving social equality. Generally, their passion is directed negatively at some entity or group of people – be they Jews or Muslims or the U.S. Government or immigrants or ‘the liberal media’ or Wall Street. Fear manifests itself as hate. Hate becomes, somehow, a heroic mission-for-good. 

If only the truth about 9/11 or Zionists or the Liberal Media were recognized by we docile  ‘sheeple’, the world would be a better place, they claim.

That is not say that 9/11 or Wall Street or the FBI or ‘the Chinese’ [government] ought not be investigated. Only that they be investigated fairly and on the basis of provable facts. Nor is it to suggest that these things ARE being investigated fairly and properly.

But this is not what monomaniacs care about. They have all the answers already. You must surely come around, entirely, to their point of view. Haven’t you read this book/ seen this video / shared that Facebook anecdote? 

It is a form of narcissism and any attempt to bridge their view with, say, facts or ‘what-ifs’ or ‘let’s look at it from another view’ , are shot down as cowardice or stupidity or the alleged extremism of moderation. The monomania is a manifestation of self, and the self is an immovable object of worship.

Nationalists are a particularly irksome bunch, and I came into their orbit this past week. I wrote a story in which some pretty smart people in the former Soviet Bloc critiqued a WW2 game called Company of Heroes 2, arguing that it did poor service to the real history of the Great Patriotic War. 

An historian said they had some good points, but also some not-so-good points. The game’s maker put forward a strong defense of their approach. It was a story that gave us all a chance to think about issues like cultural hegemony, entertainment-as-history and the feelings of people who do not feel rightly represented in a work of art. You could, I hope, take your own view.

The story, and the game’s Metacritic page, have been the focus of some spirited and intelligent debate. But also, alas, of hate, by people in Russia who swing wildly to the defensive and responded with unpleasantness. Relic were accused of ignorance and of being Nazi stooges, both of which are offensive and untrue. This accusation was also aimed at those who sought a more reasonable line of debate.

Nationalists in all countries frame their mania as that of ‘love’. “I love my country,” they will yell, but there lingers the deep suspicion that what they mean is that they do not love other countries, or they do not love their fellow-countryfolk who fail to share their particular zeal. 

It’s funny how nationalists, who ‘love’ their country, are usually the same people most scornful of their fellow countryfolk, and most afraid of their government’s capacity to pervert their approved course of the nation’s destiny.

Although there are some very smart people who fall prey to this delusion, generally, it is rare to find a well-travelled person who will insist that their home nation is “the best” or a well educated person who harps endlessly on the absolute rightness of their country’s history / political systems / culture.

I love England, where I was born, and Ireland, where my family originate, and America, where I have chosen to live. But I do not harbor any illusions that these countries are perfect, or that they represent an ideal of perfection, least of all according to the criteria of the morons who beat their patriotic chests, tattoo themselves with flags or icons, claim that their writers or sporting heroes or philosophers are advantaged over those of other countries, by dint of their nationality. 

If it were not so common, the point would barely be worth making. Yet, through culture and government propaganda, piss-poor education systems, imperialist hangovers and cynical media, such views are widespread and applauded. 

Patriotism is a curious thing, I live in Santa Cruz, CA, one of the most lefty, hippyish towns you could possibly imagine. Many of my neighbors are thoroughly American. They fly their flag. They go to town hall meetings to have their say. They like to debate Constitutional points. I dare say they get a lump in their throat at Saving Private Ryan or when the national anthem plays at a baseball stadium, or at the glorious vistas of our beautiful country. They are patriots, in the sense that they love America. But they are not asshats about it. 

They would not deny the wrongs of the past. They get angry about the flaws in our systems. They argue, usually without resort to fisticuffs, about the wars we ought to have fought, and the ones we ought not to have fought.  The laws we should pass, and the one we should not. Beyond the normal conventions, they do not go around spouting bravado about their nationality, or wrapping themselves in red, white and blue to make some point about their own value within the community. They do not dismiss other people’s right to love and celebrate their own countries.

It seems to me to be entirely reasonable to love that which is good and familiar, to feel some sense of the power of the greater community of shared values. But to confuse Nation with Values, to see one’s country as the embodiment of, say, freedom or courage or honor, is dangerous.

Many of the commenters on my story simply did not want to believe that the Soviet Union had done some terrible, unjustifiable things in the War (as did all participating countries, as well as a few of those that opted out). They were angry, not merely that these things may have been exaggerated in the game, but that they were mentioned at all. They took it as a personal affront to their dignity.

This response is not exclusively Russian. We see it from all nationalities, who react with fury when treasured myths are challenged. (I know people in England who believe that the British Empire was the height of international benevolence.)

When I was a boy, it was generally understood, by many of the people around me, that Englishmen were naturally stout-hearted, good-humored and fair and that, by extension, those of other countries were less so, some to a greater degree than others.

It was OK to suggest that these generalizations were ridiculous, even to laugh at their stupidity, and yet they remained, and do so still today. They are powerful. They go deep. If I can convince myself that I have left this behind intellectually, I must also recognize that there remain some faint remnants within me, assumptions that rise to the surface from time to time, ugly things that give me pause for shame. And shame is not a good feeling.

It’s clear that these calumnies against other nations were clumsy attempts to make us feel better about ourselves, our individual and collective shortcomings. Monomaniacs of all stripes, nationalists included, are basically all about brown-nosing their own posteriors, adhering to beliefs that make themselves feel better, even while they pour ignorance, fear and hate into the world.