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Nationalism is a Terribly Defined, Misconstrued Term – and It’s Causing Problems

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Why white supremacy and white nationalism are different.

Author’s note: I would like to begin this piece by clarifying that I am not a white supremacist. I am a Sefardic Jew whose family was decimated by white supremacists but three generations ago. I believe steadfastly in the liberty, equality, and natural rights of all humankind.

If you have ever befriended a person of Jewish heritage and upbringing, it is likely that in their identity they find a certain sense of comfort, of belonging. It may well be a sense of pride; pride derived from the comprehensive and tumultuous history of the Jewish people—our  perseverance despite the unspeakably abhorrent slaughter of our ancestors. In any case, it is fair to say that such a friend might be of the opinion  that Jews worldwide are more than simply a religion—they are a nation; a people, linked through millennia by shared history, culture, ethics, morals and beliefs – a uniqueness to be cherished and recognized. Your friend, then, is a Jewish nationalist: one who recognizes the shared cultural identity of the Jewish people. After all, there’s a rather well-justified reason behind the inclusion of people.

This is no phenomenon. Indeed, Japanese nationalism, Catalan nationalism and Bosnian nationalism are well-established and respected movements of unification among their respective peoples, all of which serve to promote the same goals.

Nationalism in the United States, however, is a far more complicated and controversial topic, particularly in the mainstream political atmosphere. If I asked an everyday American to describe the first thought materialized in their head upon the mention of “nationalism,” they might respond with graphic images of Nazism’s full-fledged implementation at the hands of the NSDAP, or more commonly, a joyously patriotic incantation of Francis Scott Key’s magnum opus. This incredible duality has given rise to public speculation as to the true nature of nationalism. Anything so closely associated with government coercion is bound to develop a subsequent divergence in meaning within the American public, almost in a frighteningly Pavlovian manner.

History teaches us the evils of so-called “nationalism” through despots and genocidal maniacs and does little to no justice in addressing the fallacious depiction they command students to imbibe. It is through the anger and deception of evil, long-dead men that we reach nationalism’s unjust portrayal: brutish, heartless and supremacist by nature. I write this to challenge such a poorly conjectured notion.

It must be noted that none of the aforementioned nationalist movements espouse the heinous belief of their nation’s inherent superiority. Not even white nationalism – if we redefine what it means to truly be a nationalist. We must unearth its long-interred ideological veracity and examine the finer details to salvage this near-sunken ship. This is not a facile feat.

Before I’m dragged from my office chair and crucified outside the nearest ACLU regional headquarters, we must recall the correct definition of nationalism. In our dealings – which are solely that of an ethno-nationalist variety, the following is applicable:

Where “nation” is defined in terms of ethnicity –

“Nationalism is a philosophy which, at its core, advocates for the cultural unity of a nation.”

“But, Jonah –,” you might gasp, clutching to your pounding heart your signed copy of Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, “what of white nationalism! White nationalists want to lynch minorities and use the state’s monopoly on force to socioeconomically repress them!” As you can see, this is an ever-so-jolly topic of discussion. Interestingly, white nationalism finds its historical purpose in demeaning and oppressing whites of lower ethnic status than its original Anglo-Saxon proponents in early colonial America. Amongst an ever-diversifying spread of white-skinned ethnicities, Anglo-Saxon aristocrats and landowners laid the foundations for future white nationalism to unite European nations against what they considered “inferior peoples,” while still ensuring their own domestic dominance through political and social manipulation. White nationalism stripped the identities of Spaniards, Germans and a plethora of assorted European for the sake of ease in quashing slave revolts.

Thus, the questions surface: If nationalism is a positive force for cultural accord, why is white nationalism such a prominent racist presence in historical and contemporary America? Is violence simply inherent to white nationalism?

I am of the belief that white nationalism and white supremacy are, by definition, inherently different, and that all, not the majority, of the racial hatred espoused in recent times is a direct result of white supremacists, who are, by definition, white nationalists. To believe in the superiority of one’s nation, one must first recognize the existence of one’s people as being so unified. The violence prevails not because neo-Nazis, alt-righters and Klansmen believe in the unity of white people, but in their inherent superiority, in their seemingly divine right to persecute those below them from putrid and archaic perspectives. Today, white nationalism is tarnished as a political platform by extremists without the courage to correctly identify themselves as white supremacists. Why would an extremist not want to lessen the severity of their views’ perception by associating with a more fundamentally tempered ideology? Such public deception has been seen countless times throughout the decades: How often does one hear of communists self-identifying as democratic socialists, or neoconservatives championing principles of “limited government” before voting to expand the surveillance state and the drug war?

The problem arises not because all white supremacists are white nationalists, but rather, because the inverse is false, and that those non-supremacist nationalists fail to recognize the reality of their beliefs. Advocating for or even preferring the cultural unity of European-descended Americans makes one a white nationalist, regardless of one’s individual interpretation. This is, as I have  stated earlier, not detrimental to society in the least.

It is true that beyond the borders of the United States, white nationalism is essentially non-existent (see: the ethnic diversity of Europe). However, with an individual European ethnicity failing to form a majority of the white American population, it is reasonable to assume that whites, much like blacks, share a common culture within the context of the progression of American history on a racial basis. And, as black nationalism currently serves as a nonviolent tool of cultural unification in America, it is therefore necessary to accordingly redefine white nationalism to fit within the bounds established by its worldwide sister groups as peaceful tools of cultural unity. White nationalism should be (and technically is) about recognizing and promoting the cultural unity of European descendants within the context of American history—at no detriment to the natural rights of other nations. Anything beyond this interpretation is blatant supremacy.

However, to achieve such a shift in opinion, the unequivocal condemnation of white supremacists must be at the forefront of true nationalism. Failure to do so will perpetuate the misguided hate towards actual nationalists and the principles for which they advocate.

This is not to say that all definitions of white nationalism are uniform. Indeed, The New York Times reported in November of 2016 on precisely such a question, and defined it as:

“[…] the belief that national identity should be built around white ethnicity, and that white people should therefore maintain both a demographic majority and dominance of [America’s] culture and public life […] white nationalism is about maintaining political and economic dominance, not just a numerical majority or cultural hegemony.”

Mainstream America largely accepts such definitions. They are also undeniably debatable—such is the declared purpose of this piece. Never before has anyone insisted that Catalan nationalism seeks to economically elevate the Catalonians over Andalusians, or that French nationalism seeks to do the same against the Dutch and Flemish. The pursuit of state action to limit the economic livelihood of any ethnicity, race, or nation, occurs only because of preceding belief in the superiority of the former, and their “morally righteous purpose” in the subjugation of “lesser people.” Accordingly, I would categorize the definition provided by the New York Times as textbook white supremacy, and decry it as equally reprehensible as any other previously cited example.

As society continues to struggle with racial tension, we come to a junction at which we must decide for equality’s sake: Is it acceptable to be proud of white heritage, ancestry, culture and identity, given that other nationalist movements find international support and recognition? If in our deliberation we arrive at the conclusion that it is not, then in no way is it socially acceptable to find pride in any shared cultural identity. Any citizen of the world is inclined to believe that this implication is detrimental and undesirable to a culturally diverse globe.

The reality is that is it not the nationalist ideology which incites the violence seen in America today, but rather, the belief in the supremacy of one’s own people—that detestable constant which has plagued society for generations through slavery and genocide. This drive to enslave, to conquer, is only espoused by supremacists—evil  men with evil hearts and evil minds inconceivably detached from the reality of human existence.

The saddest part is that through their undeniably repugnant behavior, they threaten the very ability of normal, respectable people to seek unity with their cultural and historical brethren.

I would prefer to be proud of those who circumvented the utter annihilation of the Jewish people and find comfort in our continuing prosperity. If we are to have the social freedom to do so, we must unite to erase this despicable supremacist tendency from our world. We must redefine what it means to be nationalist—not one who seeks rigid separatist caste systems and state-sponsored socioeconomic oppression—but one who seeks to be culturally unified with their history, who seeks to connect with their ancestors, traditions and way of life, while adhering to the principles of non-aggression which are at the core of civility, peace and prosperity.

Jonah Hasson is a student at Brandeis University. 

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