Nationalism is often associated with exclusion. People emphasize their nation or people at the expense of other. The best example of this is probably Nazi Germany. Imperial Japan was another one. A more recent example would be Trump’s America first.
I will however argue that both positive and negative nationalism exists. Context is important. It is very different when an inhabitant of a powerful country, known for dominating and suppressing others say they are proud to be of that nationality, compared to one claiming the same from a country with a long history of being suppressed and where there has been attempts at eradicating their culture, traditions and language.
It is actually quite a universal concept often misunderstood. If I stepped up to a podium and announced to a crowd that I was proud to be a white straight male, it would be very different from me announcing I was proud of being a black homosexual woman. This first announcement would signal supremacy and exclusion. The latter is something entirely different, despite he words being essentially the same. Context and history is important, just as with nationalism. If I say I am proud to be gay, what it really means isn’t that I think being gay is an achievement or that I am better than those who are not gay. What I am really saying is that I am not ashamed of who I am. That implication can only be understood when you know that there is a history of making gays ashamed of who they are.
That is why stating I am proud to be straight means something different. There is no implication from historical context that this is something I should be ashamed of. Hence the implication becomes that I am claiming supremacy over those who are not straight.
We see this confusion often repeated in response to BLM (black lives matter). Many whites respond that the slogan is wrong and that it should be “All Lives Matter!” What it means is that they failed to grasp context. For BLM there is an implied fourth word in the slogan: “Black Lives Matter Too.”
If you emphasize with the struggle people face, that ought to have been obvious, but it is clear from the media, that to many it is not. The same goes for Nationalism.
I am writing this the day after we celebrate constitution day in Norway on the 17th of May. It is a day we Norwegians are very fond and proud of. We put on our finest clothes, put on our historically traditional outfits, wave the Norwegian flag and the school children march down the streets singing songs and waving flags. Afterwards there is ice-cream and hotdogs.
For Norwegian writer and political activist Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson it was important that the celebration did not focus military might or similar displays of power as found in many other national days. He wanted it to be a day for the children.
Some think such a celebration waving national flags around is inherently exclusive. There has been those, perhaps tongue in cheek, describing the whole thing as kind of Fascist, as if flag waving kids is some sort of Hitler Youth. Such claims however seem to frequently come from people who use the context of their own country’s history and experience as a prism, knowing little or noting about the Norwegian historical context.
Unlike Nazi nationalism, this Norwegian nationalism had roots in a left wing nationalism. The people who promoted it were political liberals who were not preaching of some sort of Norway über alles. For many years people were eagerly waving all Scandinavian flags as there was a strong sense of brotherhoods among the Scandinavian countries. Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson agitated strongly for aiding Denmark when they were attacked by Germany. Earlier left wing nationalist such as Henrik Wergeland worked tirelessly to remove the original Jew clause in the Norwegian constitution which prevented Jews from entering the country. Bjørnson championed the rights of Slovakian children of learning to read and write in their mothers tongue.
For these liberal nationalists, the plight of all suppressed small nations was a concern, not just Norway. Old Norwegian customs and language was considered backwards and antiquated by the city elite. They read and wrote in Danish, while speaking a sort of hybrid language. 400 years of Danish rule had eradicated a lot of Norwegian identity. It had to be recreated. Asbjørnsen and Moe traveled around the country recording Norwegian fairy tales such as the Three Billy Goats Gruff. Ivar Aasen traveled around the country to record how people actually spoke and try to construct a written form of Norwegian, since the only way people knew how to write was in Danish.
To me the origins of the 17th of May celebration has more in common with a minority saying their are proud of who they are, than some person of the majority saying it. Norway was a poor European backwater who did not have much to show for: No glorious conquests, great scientific discoveries, prestige or anything. It was not easy to feel proud of Norway. 17th of May was about saying we are not ashamed of who we are, and we want to celebrate that we are once again a free nation. Or to correct that, semi free. Norway never got full freedom when the constitution got signed. What we got was some level of autonomy and a parliament. The head of the state was still the Swedish King. But having our own constitution and making our on laws still felt like a great achievement to people.
Even celebrating this day was a hard fought right. For many years it was illegal to celebrate it as it offended the Swedish king. Likewise under Germany occupation it was illegal.
The German occupation illustrates the difference between right wing nationalism and left wing nationalism. Under the occupation the nationalism that was emphasized was that of our violent Viking past. All sorts of Nazi inspired organizations used Viking terminology.
It emphasized our “Aryan blood”. There was Nazi programs in Norway like the Lebensborn to breed the master race. Norway was a country where these efforts were more pronounced than elsewhere.
This is why I find it somewhat insulting when people suggest nationalism is just all the same. There was two different kinds of nationalism clashing in occupied Norway. The exclusive evil one, that suggest somebody is better than others and the inclusive one, which is about letting all people celebrating and preserving their traditions and culture.
I do believe the Norwegian constitution day is inclusive. On that day I see people originating from all sorts of different countries putting on a traditional costume from their country. E.g. I see Scots in their kilts. But I also see Norwegians of African, Middle Eastern or Asian origin putting on the traditional Norwegian national costume, the Bunad.
That is judging by what I’ve read of statistics and personal accounts not an accident. It is in fact people from non-western countries who are most likely to be the subject of prejudice who actually cherish constitution day the most. Other western immigrants in particular from countries where nationalism has a bad history like Germany are the most negative to this celebration. But most westerners never really have to commit to the country they chose to make their home. They can in principle leave whenever they want to.
For non-westerners from poor countries, there is no choice. They need to make Norway their home and for them being accepted as Norwegian is important. Constitution day is one of those days were many of them say they feel they belong.
I don’t think that is odd or that there is a reason to view that as negative. We all want to belong to groups, whether that is our class, neighborhood, family, town or country.
Being part of a community isn’t bad as long as you are not promoting your community as better and superior to somebody else’s community.