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Nationalism and Beyond

Nenad Miscevic

Part Two. Identity, Culture, And Tradition

Chapter eleven. The general value of culture

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1Culture is often regarded as something valuable in itself, in addition to being valuable as a means for other ends. The nationalist exploits this fact by ascribing a high value to, above all national, culture. He or she puts forward an argument that centers around the value of the national community, especially its culture and traditions. Let us call thinkers who believe that traditions should be piously preserved ‘traditionalists’. There are several lines of thought in the traditionalist defense of nationalism, and they are rarely presented one by one, in isolation. I think it is worthwhile setting them apart and considering each in itself. In this chapter, we shall discuss the most general line centered upon the value of national traditions as such, not as means for some ulterior end. We shall also consider the related point, namely, that belonging to a national culture creates ties of proximity which are morally, and therefore also politically, relevant. (Other uses of the appeal to culture will be discussed in succeeding chapters. This disentangling will also give us the opportunity to introduce the fundamental notions one by one, and so avoid overcrowding.) Culture is often plausibly seen as the totality of traditions or practices sustained by a larger group.

2We need some terminological explication. A practice is any kind of organized and sustained activity having internal rules and standards. The examples of a practice given in the literature are football and chess playing, scientific inquiry in various domains, painting and music, religious ceremonies; all these practices can become traditional and most often are. What does it mean that an action of a given type (say, eating with a knife and fork) is done traditionally in a given group (a very large group in our example) under given circumstances (say, at set meals)? At the minimum, that the members of the group have been doing this kind of thing for some time in the given circumstances; they do it now partly for the reason that they, or other individuals, have been doing the same thing (our parents ate with a knife and fork) in similar circumstances before; some members at least (in the example, our children) are enjoined to do the same for that reason (see Armstrong [1981] for an extended analysis). Tradition is thus a practice in which the authority of the past and common knowledge that the action was performed earlier under similar circumstances plays at least some role; minimally in the practitioner’s beliefs about his own reasons for performance. Most authors writing about the topic, from Armstrong through Maclntyre to Ruth Millikan, stress imitation and copying of patterns. The traditionalists often add that practices and traditions essentially involve “standards of excellence and obedience to rules” (Maclntyre, 1981, 177), so that to enter a practice involves accepting these standards and rules.

3Similarly, a tradition of belief involves a succession of people each of whom believes something on the authority of his or her predecessor. The traditionalist, in respect of beliefs, claims that such traditions cannot, need not, and should not be put to an independent test. Michael Walzer offers an apt and dramatic example of such a traditionalist stance, from a Talmudic story. A group of sages is disputing a question: Rabbi Eliezer alone appeals for divine help, and indeed, the miracles he asks for do happen, and even a voice from heaven confirms his view. Rabbi Joshua, the speaker for the majority, rejects the appeal to miracles: the common tradition of the sages counts for more than even the immediate evidence. Walzer agrees: “There is a tradition, a body of moral knowledge; and there is this group of sages, arguing. There isn’t anything else” (Walzer, 1985, 29). In general, the traditionalist starts from the obvious point that many traditions transmit valuable contents: linguistic traditions transmit meanings, moral traditions transmit moral rules and values, artistic traditions transmit aesthetically valuable qualities. Finally, the more global traditions concerning ways of life preserve various paradigms of the ‘good life’. The traditionalist goes on to claim that all such contents are due to particular traditions that create and preserve it, and cannot survive outside its original niche.

4Traditions of action are important in one particular respect. In a cooperative activity one often encounters a division of labor that assigns a role to a participant. Roles are primarily tied to what one is capable of doing: for example, only a priest can perform a church wedding. Furthermore, they carry with themselves a package of expectations, norms, and values: a priest is expected to perform weddings should the occasion arise. Roles habitually assigned to participants in a tradition are traditional roles. MacIntyre stresses the importance of such roles:

We enter human society, that is, with one or more imputed characters—roles into which we have been drafted—and we have to learn what they are in order to be able to understand how others respond to us and how our responses to them are apt to be construed. (Maclntyre, 1981, 177)

5Note that all sorts of activities can become traditional. Some traditions are morally neutral, as for instance artistic ones; some are morally recommendable, like raising children to obey the rule of truthfulness. The contemporary traditionalist avoids mentioning traditions that are obviously morally despicable, such as witch-, Jew-, and ‘nigger’-hunting, violence at football matches, or ritual cannibalism.

6Traditionalists in general insist upon initial, non-voluntary belonging to given traditions. They are more impressed by the fact that people are usually ‘born into’ certain traditions—the way, say, a child is ‘born into’ a religion without choosing it—than by free choice of a tradition to pledge allegiance to. We may now proceed to the nationalist use of the idea of tradition. The nationalist simply adds to the general traditionalist view the Nation-as-Basic-Unit Assumption. Older nationalist appeals to tradition sound poetic and quite strange nowadays, for example:

The thought of our distant ancestors always exercises a strange and strong pull on our lives. The people of fairies and genies that lived in waters and forests has disappeared, but in dying it has bequeathed to the places it once animated the right to be venerated and has conserved the links of friendship or fear with our race. (Barres, 1996, 122)

7Contemporary nationalists are more rational. Let me then give the floor to our nationalist. His speech summarizes the general line of argument common to many sources. (My principal source has been MacIntyre [1981; 1994], but I am here disentangling the line of traditionalism in general from the more particular line on moral tradition, to be discussed in chapter thirteen.)

Think of all the treasures a national culture offers its members! Start with language, the most precious of all. One’s mother tongue is the most important depository of concepts, knowledge, social and cultural significance. All these are embedded in the language, and do not exist without it. Such an indispensable thing certainly demands an active and vigilant effort at preservation in as pure a state as possible. Languages are essentially national, and so is the literature written in the given language, from lullabies to the most sophisticated avant-garde novels.
This brings us to culture in general. Think of the enormous achievements in each of the great traditions of our culture. Notice that all these achievements are possible only thanks to the willingness of thousands of people to subordinate themselves to the norms and standards of excellence inherent in each of the traditions mentioned. A mere ‘touristy’ interest in a tradition is not sufficient for excellence.
One might be tempted by cosmopolitan proposals to take one component or aspect of a tradition and add it to a patchwork of elements from other traditions. Here is why one cannot do this, on pain of producing an absurd mixture. Actions and roles typical of a practice or tradition—say, scoring a goal in a football match—only make sense within the practice or tradition. Let me quote a succinct statement:

The difference, however, between, say, an event that is part of a practice (for example, striking out in the practice of baseball) and an event that is not part of a practice (for example, a tree falling on an uninhabited island) is that the former event gains its identity, not as an event, but as the event it is (gains, that is, its meaning, significance, and characterization) in virtue of its being part of and informed by its practice. All the constituents of a practice—its events, objects, actions, and so on—are what I call ‘practice informed’. That is, their identity—their meaning, significance, and characterization—is a function of their practice. (Vadas [reinterpreting MacIntyre], 1987, 493-494)

  • 1 I am putting together claims culled from various sources. For instance, the line on the national c (...)
  • 2 The origins of the idea can be traced back to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, VIII, 1, (see Baertc (...)

The holistic nature of tradition requires that traditions have been handed down in an unadulterated form. The guarantee that traditions will be upheld is that people accept them without, so to speak, neurotically questioning them on every occasion. The deepest acceptance is usually due to those traditions one grows into naturally, preferably by being born into them. Voluntary belonging to a tradition is secondary in comparison to non-voluntary belonging; the latter grows spontaneously into a more reflective acceptance, without ever snapping the link to the roots that give reflection its vigor and penetration.
Let me now pass to the issue of the proper format of the tradition. Note that the ethnic or national framework is the best and most natural one which cultural traditions can take, since it is tied to language, most conspicuously in the case of literature. Other fine arts are also best developed within an ethnic-national framework. Let me remind you of conspicuous and famous instances in which the origin and flourishing of a style have both clearly been linked to a recognizable ethnic-like unit, including the Italian and Flemish Renaissance (assuming that Renaissance Italy and Holland are ethno-nations), and German Romanticism. Even in philosophy one encounters clearly national traditions, each marked by strong ties to a language, by the continuity of a tradition and deep originality. Take the birth of philosophy in ancient Greece, or its modern peaks, such as British empiricism, German idealism, French existentialism and post-modernism, as well as contemporary analytic philosophy, which is basically Anglo-American (although keen to deny this belonging). Let me finally mention the remarkable unity and depth of the Jewish cultural traditions that have enabled the survival of this remarkable people across several millennia, in spite of the greatest hardships, a clearly ethno-national tradition which has found expression in religion, literature, music, and philosophy, as well as in folklore and popular arts.1
The goal I am proposing therefore is the preservation of this central, national cultural framework. Of course, I don’t mean just historical preservation in a museum, in which given items are indeed available but most commonly not presented as integrated into the ongoing concerns of a cultural life (the way dead languages—say Latin—are preserved as part of specialized knowledge). I mean preservation-in-life combined with further transmission. Such preservation demands that the culture be transmitted in a recognizable form; very often this requires a certain degree of purity that might be unacceptable to some members of the culture (the young will wish to use expressions from their favorite foreign pop songs, scholars will thoughtlessly borrow foreign expressions, and so on). Still, the recognizable shape of a national culture is so important that it justifies and even demands certain sacrifices.
The importance of culture also has a moral side to it, captured by the old saying: Out of sight, out of mind. Members of a culture are culturally closer to each other than to outsiders. This cultural proximity is morally relevant, and consequently one has stronger and richer obligations to those close at hand than to strangers (MacIntyre, 1994; Oldenquist, 1982). Let me quote Tamir: “Living in a community where members share an ‘imagined’ sense of togetherness engenders mutual responsibilities” (Tamir, 1993, 85). In short, distance—and in particular, cultural distance—has a moral significance.2
The moral consideration one owes to other people decreases in proportion to their distance from one. Call this rule the Distance Principle. People especially close to each other have special mutual responsibilities. People belonging to the same ethnic community are closer to one another than to any other people. The closeness of the ties makes the mere aggregate of persons into a specific ethnic group. Ethnic closeness justifies strong ethno-national partiality towards the group. Therefore, ethno-culturally close people may (or even should) form a political community in which partiality will be exercised by all its members. The link between proximity in space and in time with the continuity of tradition is nicely captured in M. Walzer’s metaphor: “Community rests most deeply on a contract, Burkean in character, among the ‘living, the dead, and those who are yet to be born’” (Walzer, 1985, 219).

  • 3 Some authors appeal to some variant of the Distance Principle to justify partiality in general (Hu (...)

8Before moving on to our criticism of the views presented, a word of apology. It goes to those very moderate pro-nationalist authors, above all to Yael Tamir and David Miller, whose ideas I have used in the reconstruction: Tamir is so moderate that I can hardly agree with her overall self-description as a nationalist, while Miller’s nationalism is clearly not of an ethnic variety. Still, I hope that I have not misrepresented the thrust of their thought, that there is a recognizable core of a sympathetic attitude to nationalism that they all share, and this attitude becomes clearer and easier to discuss as soon as one uncovers the abstract structure of the argumentation most often left implicit and in many respects indeterminate in their work.3



9It is not difficult to agree with the nationalist-minded philosopher that culture and the traditions it encompasses are often valuable. The moot point is the Nation-as-Basic-Unit Assumption: is there really something so special about the national culture and the national framework for traditions that it has to be given special protection, rather than, say, micro-regional or macro-regional traditions, or traditions that cut across national boundaries, such as the transnational tradition of solidarity between workers or women? We have already argued that this is not supported by the facts. Here I want to discuss two points: one concerns the unity of traditions, the second appeals to proximity. The two reinforce each other, since participation in a unitary and close tradition makes participants particularly close to each other. I shall address each point separately.

  • 4 Most concepts philosophers tend to care about have been transmitted to us—in the English-speaking (...)

10Let me start the debate with the crucially important domain of language. The nationally minded philosopher stresses the importance of language for all cultures, and some languages are tied exclusively to one ethnic community. Given that one’s mother tongue is one’s first and perhaps most important window on the realm of concepts, knowledge, social and cultural significance, and so on, the nationally minded philosopher argues that culture exists only in and through language. Therefore, language should be preserved in a pure state, and the culture as well. But what he has forgotten to add is that the same individual might have acquired almost exactly the same, and certainly no less useful, concepts, knowledge, signification, and identifications in other linguistic media. First, in almost any other dialect or language spoken around the place; secondly, in an ‘impure’, suitably mixed dialect of the same language; and thirdly, counterfactually, in any of the less pure successors of the ‘pure’ language, which will be spoken in the same place if no one interferes, in, say, fifty years. In short, one has to acquire a culture in some language, but not necessarily in this particular language.4 Once we realize this situation of indifference between options, we shall be less ready to draw preservationist political consequences from the facts of language acquisition. If we generalize from language to culture in general we shall be more ready to agree with the following view of A. Buchanan:

[The right to cultural preservation] cannot be a right to cultural stasis—a right to preserve a culture just as it is at present. The basis of the alleged right is the good that cultural membership achieves for individuals, and this good does not require an unchanging culture. For the same reason, an appreciation of the value of cultural membership cannot by itself even support a right to the continued existence of any particular culture. What is important is that an individual be able to belong to a culture, some culture or other, not that he be able to belong, definitely, to any particular culture. (Buchanan, 1995, 357)

11What about the purity of traditions? We shall address this issue briefly in chapter fifteen on ethno-diversity. For a quick reminder, take language again: bilingualism is not a defect, but a very useful and enriching achievement. Again, biculturalism is a revealing phenomenon, not a mere curiosity. Also, we should not underestimate the flexibility of traditions and practices, and their capacity to beget new and different practices.

12Let me pass to a more abstract, theoretical issue. Our nationalist defends the integrity of traditions by entering the holistic claim, according to which the very identity of particular actions and roles within a tradition and practice depend upon the whole: that is, they are constituted by the practice or tradition.

  • 5 For an even more radical line against holism see Millikan (1998a).

13Is this holistic assumption tenable? I don’t think so. For a simple example, consider simple practices/traditions, such as eating with a knife and fork. The particular kind of action (cutting the food with a knife, impaling a piece of it on a fork and bringing it to the mouth) is available antecedently to the tradition. Conversely, our Western traditions of eating with a knife and fork depend upon there being such independent kinds of action. Indeed, as Armstrong has pointed out, complex activities seem to derive from simpler ones (Armstrong, 1981, 103n).5 But what about such examples as the following? The action of scoring a goal ‘makes sense’, that is, has an identity, only within a game of football; outside the game just kicking the ball between the two posts simply does not count as scoring a goal. In order to answer this point we should distinguish between an ongoing practice (together with the tradition of doing something), and mere activity. Imagine a mythical first game of football: suppose people sat together to modify some existing game and introduced the idea of scoring a goal, and then agreed to play by the rules established. They play, and someone kicks the ball between the two posts. Now this is a bona fide goal. It has received its identity from the rules just established, not from any repetition of some pre-existing football playing. In short, putting the letter A for a kind of action involved, an A-game precedes, temporally and conceptually, the practice of playing the A-game, the A-practice.

14Put more generally, the identity of an action is independent of its history, or of some assumed repetition within a practice or tradition. An action indeed receives its identity from its role in a wider pattern of activity, but it might happen independently of whether the pattern has been already instantiated. There is always a first time, as the saying goes. The importance of the point is that it suggests the following view. We can picture the scoring of the goal as an ‘atom’ within a wider ‘molecule’ that is the football game, which then enters a larger whole of football practice or tradition. Call this view of tradition ‘molecularism’. The holist would claim that only the larger whole is real, endowed with an independent identity, while the atomist would claim about moves in a game that scoring itself has an independent identity, outside the game. The ‘molecularist’ occupies the middle ground: he admits that scoring counts as such only within a game, but declines to accept that the game requires tradition for its identity. He claims that the holist has confused the atemporal dependence of the action on its larger activity framework with the alleged but non-existent dependence of the action on a temporally extended series of repetitions. The vagueness of the term ‘practice’ may have contributed to the confusion: it is sometimes taken to mean mere activity, sometimes the habitual repetition of an activity pattern over time.

15The nationalist-traditionalist might object that such independent identification of actions is possible only if the actions are of a simple and banal kind. Let me therefore illustrate my anti-holistic claim using an example from high culture which will recur throughout this part of the book. Painting a Crucifixion is a tradition that stems from the late Middle Ages. Romanic art is inimical to Crucifixions, deemed to be too demeaning to the divine Christ. At a given point in history the authorities of the Catholic Church started to search for topics for sacral art that would speak more directly to the hearts of the common churchgoers, that is to say, to a wide, non-aristocratic public. I assume that painting Christ on the cross was a well-defined action type before the tradition started. One can imagine church officials debating whether to condone it; a debate hardly understandable if the action had no identity, as it would not have on the holist assumption. This brings us to analogous events today. The molecularist view explains an important phenomenon: the relatively easy birth of new traditions. Many small local traditions have been started by our parents’ generation or even by our contemporaries. Sports, music, cuisine, all abound in examples. On the holist view it is hard to see where the components of the tradition come from: if a component has identity only within a tradition how did the tradition ever start? How did its various aspects come together, devoid of significant identity as they were, on the holistic picture? The traditionalist holist is wrong.

16This is not to say that preservation of a tradition, including the ethno-national aspects of it, is not valuable. Of course, the freely chosen and flexible preservation and transmission of ethno-national cultural elements is prima facie justified and good. (The prima facie proviso is meant to exclude, for example, the keeping alive and transmission of extremely intolerant or offensive elements of the culture, the interference of some of the elements with otherwise legitimate pursuits.) The members of each ethno-national group should be permitted to indulge in preservation, if they wish. The sponsoring of efforts towards flexible preservation is a good thing, if it is not discriminatory: a state should sponsor them either for all or for none of the ethnic groups it contains, but not necessarily in equal measure; some provision should be made for considerations of cost, and the extent and quality of the benefits.

17Where the nationalist errs is in reducing a culture to the recognizably ethno-national elements of it, and in making the preservation alive of such a reduced skeleton the foremost duty of all concerned. The falsity of the Nation-as-Basic-Unit Assumption, especially in combination with this duty-oriented approach, has considerable practical importance. Following the assumption, the nationalist often recommends policies that are inadequate and can be harmful in various ways. Let me start with the least spectacular inadequacy, concerning education.

18Cultural history is often taught in schools in ways that distort the student’s view of it: the work of artists and thinkers belonging—sometimes by birth only—to a given ethno-national group is presented as isolated and encapsulated from the larger currents, outside which they cannot be understood. This kind of ‘patriotic’ cultural history educates for parochialism, and very often for narrow-mindedness. The ‘patriotic’ cultural project induces a strong temptation to falsify history in various ways.

19Education finds its natural continuation in general cultural policies. Nationalist parochialism prompts closed cultural production, centered upon rather conservative values. Very often projects are financed simply because a certain line of research or creation is presented as having to do with ‘national traditions’ (say, a project on pragmatism presented as ‘the American national philosophy’); much worse, others are rejected simply because they are more broadly based. Such policies sap experimentation and innovation. These options are endemic to nationalism. They follow directly from the assumption that culture is primarily ethno-national.

20An even worse situation arises when nationalists go overboard, as is actually happening in southeast Europe. In many countries national(istic) myths are taught as history, with all the nasty bits untrimmed. It is the extreme consequence of the view that the more ‘national’ a content is, the more central a place it must occupy in education and culture. Equally, such historical/national contents are being forced upon painters, musicians, and writers, resulting in ‘kitsch’; valuable contemporary art is being rejected as worthless since it does not speak to particularly ‘national’ interests.

21Finally, attempts are sometimes made to ‘cleanse’ culture of foreign elements: either cosmopolitan or, more often, those belonging to the closest neighbors. Here is an example from Croatia: a Croatian member of the government recently promised subsidies to schools to ‘cleanse’ school libraries of books in ‘Serbian’ and to replace them with books in ‘Croatian’ (these are linguistically two dialects of the same language, as close as British English and American English; the equivalent would be to ‘cleanse’ British libraries of American books).

22It is good to keep in mind both the first, moderately bad group of consequences that proceed directly from the nationalist assumption as such, and the second, completely catastrophic one that proceeds from a particularly nasty interpretation of it. Let me now try to show that the nasty interpretation is actually the one to be expected given the political realities. I also want to add a new twist to the criticism of the Nation-as-Basic-Unit Assumption and the related assumptions about proximity.


23We shall start with the issue of proximity. In order to introduce more realism into the debate, I wish to deploy a truism about ethno-nationalist tensions which seems to have been forgotten in contemporary debate. Its validity is particularly obvious in the Balkans and Central and Eastern Europe, Northern Ireland, and the Basque country, as has been pointed out by historians and sociologists. I suspect that it is universally valid, but I shall illustrate it briefly with local examples. The truism is that ethno-nationalist conflicts usually involve very close neighbors. Consequently, ethno-nationalists—politicians, writers, ideologists— do not react primarily against distant foreign cultures, but against their close neighbors. Ethno-nationalist animosity follows the rule of hate-thy-neighbor. Let me give a name to it and call it the Hated Neighbor Truism. I shall present and defend it briefly in the section that follows. The truism has, in spite of its simplicity and obviousness, some far-reaching consequences. It presents a serious threat to the relevance of the nationalist argument in most cases. It also points out some promising avenues open to the anti-nationalist politician and intellectual that usually remain hidden from view. One can immediately guess that the abstract appeal to closeness as against distance will not help the nationalist, if in practice nationalism turns against close neighbors. This is precisely what I want to argue. But let me sound a note of caution. The claims I shall put forward are limited in several ways. Here is an obvious limitation: they are valid only insofar as the Hated Neighbor Truism is so, and its validity is contingent. There might be ethno-national conflicts which involve no mutually similar, close, or related peoples, no ‘neighbors’ in our half-literal, half-metaphorical sense. Such conflicts would then remind one of the history of colonization in which two disparate worlds seem to interact dramatically. There might also exist isolated ethno-cultural islands not interacting with their geographic neighbors to which the truism does not apply. Let me now first state and defend the truism.

24In order to specify who counts as a neighbor, let me propose a list of traits that are usually taken to be relevant to how close communities are to each other. Two ethnic groups A and B may be close:

  • geographically, living in immediate vicinity to one another or sharing the same territory, or being distributed in the mixed, ‘Russian doll’ style (an A majority encompassing a B minority encompassing another A minority, itself having some B individuals on its territory);
  • demographically, having a lot of mixed families and members of mixed descent;
  • politically, belonging to the same state;
  • by cooperative interaction, having a lot of global or local projects and dealings in common, economic, technical or otherwise;
  • historically, by sharing large segments of common history (alliances in wars and in peace, having belonged to the same state, having shared or sharing the same ruling family);
  • culturally, having large segments of culture in common (either on an equal footing or through the dependence of A on B), for instance:
    • shared or similar language(s),
    • shared or similar customs,
    • shared or very similar forms of ‘high’ culture (literature, arts, scholarship), created through common or interrelated efforts,
    • shared religious denomination,
    • shared history of influences (from some third source),
    • shared basic values (or shared hierarchy of values).

25Here, then, is a truism about actual ethno-nationalist conflicts:

Hated Neighbor Truism: Ethno-nationalist claims are usually directed to neighboring peoples with which the claimant people has close ties and interacts quite intensely.

26Let me explain. The nationalist claims are meant to affirm the claimant’s rights against neighboring peoples. At the least, they are geared to making those people respect the rights claimed; at worst, they are openly aggressive.

27The nationalist usually worries about external neighbors and internal minorities. His or her world is what geo-politicians call a ‘macro-region’: the Balkans, or the Middle East, or the Iberian Peninsula, not the world at large. The term ‘neighbor’ will be used for both external neighbors and the compact internal minorities of a given people. It is fair to say that neighbors (internal or external) sharing most of the traits listed above are very close neighbors, and that neighbors sharing roughly about half of the traits listed are moderately close neighbors. (One could develop a detailed taxonomy of traits, such as those used by archeologists in the study of commonalties in artifacts.) Let me put forward a non-controversial thesis: Many peoples in the world (and most peoples that one hears about in the newspapers) live surrounded—from without and often from within—by at least moderately close neighbors.

28In order to get a rough picture of the validity of the Hated Neighbor Truism for the recent most dramatic ethnic conflicts, consider the former Yugoslavia. We have already mentioned Serbs and Croats, and the very close cultural similarities and ties between them. A similar degree of closeness existed between Bosnian Croats and Muslims: many Muslims thought of themselves as being of Croat descent and Muslim faith only (again, in a strongly atheistic society). They shared a language, many customs, a large part of common—pre- and post-Ottoman— history, common high and pop cultures, not to speak of closely interwoven demographic and interaction-derived ties. Again, any relevant civic community would include members of both ethnic groups. The same holds for many contrasted groups: Czechs and Slovaks, Poles and Ukrainians, Ukrainians and Russians, Macedonians and Bulgarians, Ulster Catholics and Protestants. Some of them share a religious denomination but differ in language (where they are still mutually understandable), others the other way around. Another historically prominent example until the Holocaust was the Jews, everybody’s internal minority, intensely interacting with the majority, speaking its language, contributing to its culture, business, and politics.

29There are many (difficult) pairs of moderately close neighbors. Turks and Bulgarians, as well as Turks and Greeks differ in language and confession, but have a history of intense interaction, with a lot of citizens of mixed descent in certain regions. A particularly worrisome example of almost everybody’s close internal minority are the Roma, or Gypsies, again at least moderately close to the corresponding social strata of their host society, again the long-standing target of ethno-nationalist animosity.

30The main point to be retained is that typically nationalist claims are at least implicitly (and often explicitly) oriented towards very often close, sometimes very close, neighbors. Further, the internal ‘neighbors’ addressed by such claims are normally those who belong to the same civic community as the claimant. This distinguishes classical nationalism from anti-colonialism, whose target is often a distant people or culture with links of violent interaction marked by massive inequality and unfairness. To illustrate the main point, Croatian nationalists have nothing against Placido Domingo singing Spanish music in Zagreb: what they do not want is Serbian singers from Serbia, and above all Serbian singers from Croatia itself. As already mentioned, the Croatian Parliament voted a constitutional amendment prohibiting any future alliances with any Balkan country. Finally, remember a related truism: The enemies of my enemies are my friends. For a nationalist tactician this suggests cooperating with moderately distant entities (groups, states) against immediate neighbors often perceived as being at best ‘close strangers’, at worst as posing a direct threat.

31This goes some way towards explaining why abstract nationalist principles so often receive a particularly nasty interpretation in politics. If national culture were to be defended against a genuinely foreign one (as it was in colonial conflicts, pitting, for instance, Arab Islamic culture against French lay or Catholic culture) the good to be defended would be easily recognizable, relatively isolated, and could be affirmed without much ado. But when it comes to a close neighbor, the conflict must be heartbreaking: too many crucial ties have to be severed, too many close alliances have to be broken, too many promises made void, and all at the same time. An enormous amount of aggressivity is necessary to start and sustain such conflicts. It is to be expected that under such circumstances—that are rather frequent in typical national conflicts—only the most radical interpretation and application of nationalistic abstract principles has any bite.

32Let us now link the Hated Neighbor Truism to the issue of the moral status of proximity and distance and to the Distance Principle. It states that nationalist claims are directed towards neighbors, often close ones. But then, the Distance Principle simply does not apply to most cases for which the nationalist argument from distance is assumed to hold. Indeed, even when it does hold, it is valid only to a certain extent, not absolutely. To revert to our examples, the nationalist argument from distance starts from the appealing idea that, say, a Serbian has fewer and weaker obligations towards Eskimos than towards fellow Serbs, and proceeds by a series of steps to justify demands for secession and for favoritism in respect of Serbian culture. But the argument relies on the moral power of distance: whereas very distant peoples are (permissibly) morally indifferent to one, very close ones should not be. On the contrary, the closer they are the more concern they should command. Now, the demands of Serbian nationalists obviously do not concern Eskimos; they emphatically concern the closest neighbors, Croats, Albanians, and Muslims, and to a lesser extent the Slovenes, who were part of the same federal state. The demands of the Ulster Protestants concern their closest neighbors only. So, even if the Distance Principle holds in the strongest, literal and absolute sense, it dictates a conclusion contrary to the nationalistic one.

33The argument from distance proposed towards the end of the nationalist’s speech in the first section of this chapter thus certainly fails in many important, dramatic cases. It seems to me that it even fails typically and for most situations, but this stronger point should be argued on a case-by-case basis, which I cannot possibly do. So I rest my rejection upon the former claim: the actual, interesting cases of nationalism cannot be covered by the argument from distance, since they all concern the closest neighbors who should, by any version of the Distance Principle, be the object of very high concern and solicitude.

34We can, however, go even farther than the mere non-support of the argument from distance for ethno-nationalism when we consider its positive morality. If the principle holds, the unit of one’s moral concern in politics is, first, the community of individuals close to one, according to criteria listed at the outset: territory, demography, history, language, culture, cooperative interaction. Most often, the first relevant unit will be the territorial civic community, regardless of its ethnic composition. It will include the majority ethnic group, together with internal minorities. The second winner is the macro-region comprising neighboring and similar peoples. Some of them are almost as close to one as one’s own people, others are friends’ friends. To clinch the issue, consider the duties one owes to visitors from more distant countries: consider what you owe to a visiting Indian or Japanese (assuming you are yourself a European). Whatever they are, the Distance Principle admonishes you that you do not owe less to your closest neighbors of different ethnic origin. The Distance Principle dictates first of all that one make peace with those closest at hand.

35Let me reiterate at the end that I am myself agnostic about the Distance Principle, more skeptical about it than not. My point is a more modest one: even if the principle holds, it suggests the exact opposite of what it is taken to suggest by pro-nationalist writers. It enjoins us to reserve our special care and attention precisely for those from whom the nationalist wants us to distance ourselves the most.

36It is useful to keep in mind the simple realities of actual nationalist conflicts in their actual political context. The real targets of nationalist distrust are not distant foreign cultures, but close neighbors. Conversely, the critique of nationalism should focus upon the relationship of the given ethnic group with groups and peoples in its immediate vicinity. To use the geo-politician’s parlance, it is the macro-region that counts morally, not only the world at large. With this contrast-class in mind one can arrive at a more realistic judgment about the (limited) value of nationalistic claims.


1 I am putting together claims culled from various sources. For instance, the line on the national character of philosophy is a commonplace with intellectuals in small nations, such as Croatia, Slovenia, Finland, or Slovakia.

2 The origins of the idea can be traced back to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, VIII, 1, (see Baertchi [forthcoming]).

3 Some authors appeal to some variant of the Distance Principle to justify partiality in general (Hurka, 1997; Baertchi, forthcoming), without committing themselves to concrete political claims (the best in my opinion is Miller [1995, chapter 3]).

4 Most concepts philosophers tend to care about have been transmitted to us—in the English-speaking tradition—in an impure, Latinate linguistic garb, through the meanderings of various Romance and later English transformations of Scholastic Latin, for which any Roman communitarian would have had nothing but disgust. The lingo we, philosophers, identify with is the highly abstract idiom of a highly cosmopolitan quasi-community, and it serves us much better than any historically pure, community-bound—in the communitarian sense of a community—idiom could do.

5 For an even more radical line against holism see Millikan (1998a).

© Central European University Press, 2001

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