What is a National-(g)ist?

When I was a student, people often implicitly treated war as a result of an excess of nationalism. Putting two and two together, people sometimes made associations between themes like Baden Powell’s formation of boy scouts and a later military carnage, as if war begins in an individual soldier’s psyche. In examinations of the causes of the First World War, the rivalry between states to either attain or maintain pole position in the world of commerce is rarely mentioned because that is a competition that happens “all the time”. But realistically speaking: how else can be a war be either started or funded? An economy has to be prepared and mobilised for that purpose or goal. Wars do not happen by accident. They are “declared” by states but, even so, they need to have a military-industrial complex behind them. It is not just a mental choice. To this day, it is said, NATO is still first and foremost a nuclear alliance, but how many consider how that affects the performance or the stance of the states that we inhabit from day to day? Hmm…

I remember a few years ago experiencing the usual confusion that I experience whenever a presidential election is being held on the other side of the world and I hear locals speaking as if it were a matter that concerns them. The same underlying assumption is evident in conversations as it was when I was a child: if a Ronald Reagan type is elected, the world is heading for a “Dr. Strangelove” scenario or catastrophe because those American-style patriots naively do not understand like we do how dangerous nationalisms are. If Karl Marx professed to have seen Britain as the best hope for a particular type of revolution, he also tended to see nationalisms in all other countries as a problem. Many still abide by that thought and students used to (and perhaps still do) look back at writings by Ernest Renan or British historians like Eric Hobsbawm and Hugh Trevor Roper in order to dissect the nationalist imagination of others. Is Wikipedia correct that Benedict Anderson was an Irish citizen? Yes, apparently it is. How true it is, for me, that one learns a new thing every day.

All this probably reads as if I am about to offer a theory of nationalism myself but, in fact, the thought has returned to me passively today simply as a result of having watched a youtube video, of unknown origin, about Ireland’s neutrality in World War Two, which was uploaded around the same time as my latest book was published (literally days before the pandemic broke out, unfortunately), and witnessing a particular mindset in the comments section. The mindset was less “nationalist” than “national-gist”, which is a word that I’m making up right now to denote the idea of a “gist” of a nation’s history. In Ireland’s history, supposedly, the “gist” behind all understanding is the civil war of 1922-23; a way of looking that, to my mind, is the most depressing of mind-sets. If an administration forcefully imposed a political settlement in Ireland at that time, it actually served to remove both of the supposedly opposing camps in a civil war from any kind of commanding influence, so the essential question was the nature of that administration itself and the degree to which it was subsequently reformed, but that idea is perhaps too boring to excite the popular imagination. I came across a quote recently in a book, which supposedly came from a 1950s document in the US State Department, which stated that so long as civil war politics existed in Ireland, the Irish state could enjoy no international relations. Is it sad to think that, seventy years later, a similar question or answer can possibly dawn upon the mind? “Look around” and one might feel hopelessly out of touch, not from an awareness of nationalists but from a sense of being unable to abide by a national-gist. An attraction to the arts rather than a body politic has perhaps never been difficult to understand.