You've probably noticed that "immigration reform" [btw, have you noticed how reform has morphed to mean unconditional improvement?] comes to a boil every now and then as we drift around trying to get ourselves on some constructive course of governance. And the key line in every politician's media book is "we are a nation of immigrants." Well, yes, except for those few remaining people who were here when a few Europeans decided that this land mass ought to reflect something vaguely Eurocentric and not at all aboriginal.
That means something highly radical: We as a nation of immigrants are an anthropological oddity. We are a people without embedded ethnicity, and that means were are a people with virtually no ethnic memory. We are occasionally patriotic, of course, which means merely that we celebrate the United States of America (even though most of us have no idea what that means beyond words like "freedom," "liberty" and "democracy"), a concept that is mostly an ideation, actually more like a phantasm, clearly out there compared to what we really care about—money and things.
So we have a kind of murky notion of what patriotism is supposed to be—love of country, wave the flag, tie a ribbon on something, pledge allegiance as a formality, slap on a bumper sticker, and gorge and shop on patriotic holidays.
But for all those reasons, unfortunately, we do not understand nationalism. In fact, I would wager that most Americans consider the word "nationalism" to be at least negative and probably threatening. I had stopped thinking about this distinction after giving up trying to explain it to Americans who didn't
care. But now this Ukraine/Russia thing pops up and media people and politicians deride Putin and praise the "freedom seekers" who are mostly in Kiev. The freedom seekers seem to think they want to be aligned with the West, especially with the EU, assuming that they will meld neatly into that mash up of modernity and go on to prosperity just as all migrants to the West do.
Ahem, well, maybe they ought to discuss that notion with the chastened Muslims who thought the EU would provide them with a comforting sanctuary from the horrors wrought by their more radical, medievalist brethren in Central Asia. One of the reasons Angela Merkel proceeds so cautiously in her approach to resolving this Ukraine/Russia kerfuffle is that she is keenly aware of the push-pull of nationalism between and among the nations of the Continent and Asia and just so sees that much of it derives from very long histories—compared to immature America—and not merely political expediency. In fact, based on some recent stirrings in Germany, I'd say that most Germans are very much concerned about even the whiff of radical nationalism. And it's in this concept that I think American decision makers and especially the information media ilk are misreading Putin's understanding of the affairs of state in Russia, the EU and especially Ukraine.
Putin's mind represents the strong nationalism of Russia; that is, he knows how the people identify with the integrity of the Russian soul, the individual's association with the land. We Americans have difficulty conceiving of this, because we don't have it. We have patriotism. We honor American exceptionalism (without knowing what it is), we honor its opportunity, and we honor its rewards for exploitation. But we don't honor its soul because we don't know what it is, we don't recognize our relation to the land. I can't help thinking of the beat poets and novelists who traveled America, East to West seeking America, and when they got to the Pacific they felt that America had eluded them.
Putin apparently understands this distinction between nationalism and patriotism. Moreover, he is using it to motivate the Russian people, whatever country they might reside in. And he is using it to toy with the thinking of American politicians and pundits.
Maybe the most honest thought that George Bush offered throughout his eight years was his utterance as he stood on the World Trade Center's pile of rubble, amid the throes of pain, sorrow and panic that rippled through America—his sincere advice was that America should go shopping. Is it fair to say that in that moment at that site he was appealing to American's understanding of their nationalism? This is not a cynical conjecture. Try an experiment with your American friends and family. Ask them what the soul of America is.