On national feeling

I spent time at the National Gallery of Art this afternoon, where I took this photo of Augustus Saint-Gaudens‘s Amor Caritas:

“Amor Caritas” represents the perfection of Saint-Gaudens’s vision of the ethereal female, a subject that he modeled repeatedly, beginning in 1880. The elegant figure in a frontal pose with free-flowing draperies and downcast eyes also appears in the caryatids for the Vanderbilt mantelpiece (25.234) and in several funerary works. Here, Saint-Gaudens made subtle changes in the drapery and added upward-curving wings, a tablet, and a belt and crown of passionflowers. He considered several titles with universal themes, including To Know Is to Forgive, Peace on Earth, God Is Love, and Good Will towards Men, before settling on Amor Caritas [Love (and) Charity].

I read about Saint Gaudens last autumn in David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, and thought this went well with something I read this week.

Michael Brendan Dougherty writes on nationalism and the notion that filial piety—respect and love for one’s forebears—that lends nationalism its potency are simply myths to be discarded, or that national spirit and interest are purely arbitrary and consequently disposable:

‘National identity is made up.” Thus saith the explainer journalist. But what exactly is explained by this gnomic pronouncement? The New York Times says that its new column “The Interpreter,” whose authors recently produced a four-minute video defending this thesis, “explores the ideas behind major world events. They use political and social science to explain topics from authoritarianism to arms control.”

“Use” is an apt verb. From the evidence at hand, I can see that political and social science were deployed for a purpose. A thief uses tools for his purposes too. And it could be said that a propagandist also explores ideas. …

Nationalism as a political movement was also what made democracy possible; it helped to overthrow ancient monarchies that routinely bequeathed nations with foreign rulers who just happened to inherit the chair. Further, national identity helped to create the social trust necessary to institute massive social-welfare systems. We might also note that while the Nazis made use of national loyalty, so too did the Poles, the French, the British, and the Americans who resisted and defeated the Nazi regime. And they could not have defeated the Nazis without that loyalty. …

Because national identity assumes into itself facts that derive from social interaction and history, the explainer concludes that it is a myth. It isn’t real. It’s just made up. Of course, lots of things that you can study have these properties: languages are “made up” in this way. They change over time. Their uses vary in history and social context. English shows evidence of assimilating Latin, French, and Greek vocabulary over its life. It is conditioned by history. But it would be stupid to say that English is somehow unreal. N’est-ce pas?

It indeed would be dumb to base your identity “just based on borders,” but in fact the relationship is the other way around. The identity is based on a shared homeland, or territory, along with shared law. National loyalty makes possible the kind of self-sacrifice that is necessary for living in peace with strangers. And in fact, the notable thing about national loyalty isn’t the times when, aggravated, it motivates us in war. War was very common before modern nationalism. Much more notable is the everyday peace and neighborliness that national loyalty fosters between people who may not share a tribe or a religious creed. Without nationality, we may still be trying to settle the wars of religion. With it, we were able to contribute to common treasuries whereby we provide for one other regardless of our ethnic background and religion. The border is just what you draw around this home. …

The anti-nationalist says that he wants fellow-feeling with all men, but … [t]he posited freedom to serve any man comes by dissolving his duty to his neighbors. His tragedy is that once he succeeds in deconstructing national loyalties, he will find that loyalties based on blood or creed come roaring back.

When you stop saying “nationalism”, which frightens some, and start saying something like “national feeling”, you start to get close to the heart of the thing that some claim to want to reject. Are we forgetting that national feeling does not mean either reactive jingoism or lack of charity and graciousness abroad? Are we really, broadly speaking, interested in disposing of a distinctly American national feeling? I doubt it.

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