Nationalism has been a relatively popular position throughout most of the modern era. Indeed, much of what passes for modernity can be closely associated with the pursuit of nationalist aspirations, nationalist goals, or nationalist principles. And what is nationalism?
- Every miserable fool who has nothing at all of which he can be proud, adopts as a last resource pride in the nation to which he belongs; he is ready and happy to defend all its faults and follies tooth and nail, thus reimbursing himself for his own inferiority.
- Arthur Schopenhauer, Aphorisms
Although it can be used in a variety of ways, all senses of the term include the aspect described by Schopenhauer: some sort of pride a person feels in connection to the nation they happen to live in. I say "happen" because it is rare that a person chooses their nation, even rarer than a person choosing their religion. Instead, a person's nation is almost always a consequence of whatever geographic region they happen to have been born in and they society in which they were raised.
Nationalism is, then, at its most basic a sense of pride in one's nation, but in what way is such pride actually justified? Pride makes sense when it is attached to one's own accomplishments, but not to the accomplishments of others at least not when a person has had little or not impact upon those accomplishments. Pride in a local sports team, to cite one example, is normally a false pride that serves as a substitute for pride in real achievements.
This is how Schopenhauer seems to conceive of patriotism indeed, he seems to regard it as the last refuge for people who have no prospects at being able to take any genuine pride in anything else in their lives. Bereft of the ability to have real accomplishments they are reduced to vicarious pride in an abstract concept grounded in a geographical region and often defined by ethnic and linguistic characteristics.
Even if we grant an acceptability to some sort of "nationalism," we quickly find that political demagogues will blur the distinction between it and the other senses of the term, allowing them to lead us down the road to the horrors which have been made possible by nationalist extremism. Ultimately, nationalism becomes a process of propping up an artificial construct called a "nation," walling it off to separate insiders from outsiders, and then declaring that everything on the inside is good, pure, and righteous while everything on the outside represents corruption and decay against which we must fight in order to protect our way of life. This is the sort of thing I think Schopenhauer had in mind when he criticizes a nationalist's readiness to defend a nation's "faults and follies" no matter what.
Devotion to proper ideals and goals does not require devotion to one's nation; it does, however, require a devotion to holding one's nation accountable to the standards created by those ideals. If people manage to do that, then perhaps some pride in their nation might be warranted and Schopenhauer's critiques won't ring quite so true and strong.