Patriotism will always trump nationalism

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Published: April 12, 2019 1:22:01 AM

In the end, nationalism will always fail both because it is antithetical to the human spirit and also because, being inward-looking and exclusive, it leads to poor—and, sometimes, disastrous—economic outcomes.

The sooner we transition from the economically inefficient and wasteful world of demagogic nationalism to a softer, stronger patriotic ethos the better.

I have an 86-year old aunt—one of the most wonderful people I have ever met—who, nearly 60 years ago, married an American and moved to the US. She was the only daughter in a large family and so had led a much pampered life. Nonetheless, as soon as she moved there, she told her mother (my grandmother) not to come visit for at least two years, and she herself didn’t come back to visit for about that long. Her thinking was that she needed to assimilate into her new environment and she needed to very quickly stop missing her homeland.

Today, I call her Mrs America. She loves America, wears red, white and blue every day (no joke) and is the very embodiment of American patriotism.

George Orwell defined patriotism as devotion to a particular place, native or adopted—my aunt, for instance. Nationalism is another animal altogether. Patriotism is about your country; nationalism is about the currently prevailing government and its policies. Patriotism will always mean the same thing, even at different times or in different places; nationalism will be different depending on the where, the when and the whom.

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Thus, Americans who protested against the Vietnam War in the 1970s were patriots but not nationalists; the journalists who have been imprisoned in Erdogan’s Turkey are the same; as are the writers, stage actors, musicians and just plain people who protest against Modi’s attempts to constrain Indian-ness into a narrow-minded saffron coloured box.

Nationalism can sustain for sometimes shockingly long periods—you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, but you can fool a large number for a long, long time. However, in the end, nationalism will always fail both because it is antithetical to the human spirit and also because, being inward-looking and exclusive, it leads to poor—and, sometimes, disastrous—economic outcomes. Ask the Germans.

In the current world environment, we already see Turkey in an economic tailspin, the UK struggling with its Brexit-inspired self-goal, and even India, the fastest growing large economy in the world, fumbling, as, amongst much other nationalist foolishness, cow politics pressures an already weak agriculture.

Only the US appears to be holding firm, with the latest employment statistics confirming continuing strong employment growth and still excellent (as compared to recent years) wage growth. Of course, the inversion of the yield curve, Trump’s pressure on the Fed to cut rates, rising oil prices and the fact that the US expansion is now running longer than any expansion ever before all suggest that some sort of nasty surprise may not be far away.

To be sure, this denouement will have multiple fathers going back to the 2008-09 crisis and even earlier. But it is Trump’s populist/nationalist approach that will ensure that the trauma will be severe and, likely, long-lived. The hopeful news is that there appears to be some sane Democratic politicians who have sprung up who would need to wield a magical healing touch post-2020. The difficulty will be in reversing some of the institutional problems created by Trump (as by his nationalist brothers in other countries).

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Complicating all this will be the fact that the developed economies, suffering as they are from demographic challenges to growth and fiscal pressure with more and more people in country after country “mad as hell and not willing to take it [meaning austerity, stagnating incomes] anymore”, will have to live with slower growth than they would be happy with, and, in some cases, have gotten accustomed to.

For us in India (and, indeed, other emerging economies), the reflection of global growth travails will exacerbate our already weak macros, and the sooner we transition from the economically inefficient and wasteful world of demagogic nationalism to a softer, stronger patriotic ethos the better.

To remind each of us who we really are as Indians:

I wish I was a Parsi
so that one day
I could be a 65 year-old Parsi
and eat dhansak
at the Ripon Club for lunch
and then sleep
on those chairs
with a newspaper across my face
I wish I was a Sikh
so I could wear brightly colored turbans
and shimmer
on bright sunshiny days
I wish I was a Catholic
so then Goa would really be my home
I wish I was a Muslim
so then I could eat with greater gusto
on Mohamedali Road
after sunset
during Ramzan
I wish I was a Hindu
so then Ganesh
would ever dwell in my heart
I am a patriotic Indian
Aajaon maidan mein!

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