Excess of Nationalism

6 October 2004

An Excess of Nationalism

By Gwynne Dyer

 “This is the true frontier of transportation,” said Marion Blakely, head of the US Federal Aviation Administration, when SpaceShipOne, designed, built and flown by American private citizens, flew into space for the second time in two weeks and won the $10 million Ansari-X prize. Then Richard Branson of Virgin enterprises made a deal with Mojave Aerospace Venture, the team headed by Burt Rutan and funded by Paul Allen, billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, to develop a fleet of larger spacecraft based on Rutan’s design and start commercial space flights in 2007-8.

It took us all back to the romantic early years of aviation, when thrusting entrepreneurs teamed up with iconoclastic engineers and bold pilots to create whole new technologies in a weather-beaten hangar. There we were once again, at the airstrip out in the desert, watching mavericks mould our future. It was a great achievement, redolent of the 1930s and yet relevant to the future — and then Brian Binnie had to go and ruin it.

Mr Binnie, a 51-year-old former US Navy test pilot who flew SpaceShipOne on its second trip to the edge of space, celebrated his feat by climbing on top of the vehicle, holding up an American flag twice as big as he was, and intoning: “Let me say that I thank God that I live in a country where this is possible.” Suddenly it wasn’t the romantic, sepia-toned past any more. We were yanked back to the crude nationalist bombast of the present, and it didn’t feel good at all.

Let us imagine for a moment that it had been a Japanese team, not an American one, who were the first to get their space vehicle up twice in a fortnight and win the Ansari-X prize. And suppose that the successful pilot had then climbed up on his vehicle, unfurled a huge Rising Sun flag, and thanked his ancestral gods that he lived in a country where such a thing was possible. You might not have said anything out loud, but what would you have thought in private?

Well, that’s what most people elsewhere think when Americans do it, too. When Mr Binnie thanks God that he lives in “a country where this is possible,” does he think that God has changed His nationality since 1957 (when He chose the Soviet Union to be the first country into space)? And by the way, how did He get a Green Card?

The problem with even commenting on this sort of stuff is that you soon start sounding as petty as those you criticise, and churlish to boot. Why not let Mr Binnie — who is only a test-pilot after all, not a statesman — have his little moment of nationalist self-glorification? After all, there are plenty of nationalists in the back-woods of China, Russia and India who are just as convinced that God, Destiny or some other Cosmic Authority has chosen their nation as His chief instrument.

Americans are hardly unique in their fervent nationalism, though they do register very high on the scale for a developed country. When the World Values Survey asked the citizens of fourteen countries if they were “very proud” of their nationality in 1999-2000, no European countries except ultra-nationalist Ireland and Poland reached the fifty per cent mark. Americans ended up at 72 per cent, between the Indians and the Vietnamese.

Yet most Americans do not even recognize that they are nationalists like everybody else, living in a country with a highly nationalistic foreign policy. They believe that their “patriotism,” since it is not tied to some specific ethnic group, is somehow different from other peoples’ nationalism. In fact, it is very like the nationalism of other multi-ethnic countries like Canada, Brazil, South Africa and India, being based mostly on shared ideals and at least some elements of a shared history.

The problem is not the fact of American nationalism — a huge surge of nationalist sentiment was inevitable in the United States after the appalling events of 9/11 — but the in-your-face coarseness with which it is increasingly being expressed. A psychologist might wonder how much this is driven by the need to deny the inevitable relative decline in America’s power over the coming two or three decades, as first the Chinese economy and then the Indian grow to rival the US economy in size. In any event, triumphalism has become a normal mode of expression right across the US political and media spectrum in the past few years.

Brian Binnie crowed about how his God had put his country ahead of all the rest because that is the example he has been shown by his leaders and his media. A generation ago, even ordinary American spacemen knew better than to behave like that. Neil Armstrong didn’t say “This proves that America is best” when he became the first human being to set foot on the Moon. He said “That’s one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.”

Nationalism is a normal phenomenon, generally unattractive to people who do not share the nationality in question but useful as social glue in holding large numbers of people together. But it has gone beyond that now in the United States. Much of the public space is taken up by ritualistic self-congratulation of the crudest kind, and Brian Binnie was just going with the flow. Legitimate pride in real accomplishments is one thing; arrogance and hubris are something else.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Well, that’s…instrument”)