Which principles should be followed, those of nationalism or those of universal human rights?
This sometimes difficult question is at the root of many of the world’s most important problems today, from permanent wars of choice, to state imprisonment and repression of innocent people, to the extremely dangerous lack of agreement on what to do about climate change.
Nationalism is a belief that one's group, however defined, is special and unique. Nationalism teaches that some random group of people, based on subjectively chosen common identity factors such as citizenship, geography, culture, ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, generation, religion, etc, is more deserving of basic human rights and/or economic and social privileges than another random group of people. Not all nationalisms are necessarily harmful—family/communities can proudly stick together and at the same time help their neighbors/other communities—but large-group nationalisms usually limit empathy to the point of inhumanity. Each nationalism self-defines how to distinguish group members from all others and how to deal with the question of extending empathy, or not, to other humans outside the group.
Very large groups of people can be, and regularly are, indoctrinated with nationalist ideologies by relatively small but powerful subgroupings and social institutions. These elite subgroups, such as states and the corporations they support, can usually fulfill their own interests by putting strict limits on empathy, and therefore they have every reason to attempt to unite "nations" using emotion-laden images and other propaganda. Since American entrepreneurs began to exploit Freudian theory in its invention of mass marketing in the 1920s, this process of mass indoctrination has become relatively easy.
Nationalism, from its liberal (e.g. brilliant comedian/intellectual Jon Stewart) to more extreme (e.g. the Republican party) forms, also usually includes behavioral double standards. These distill roughly into “We may not be perfect but our intentions must, by definition, be good.” As a result, evidence for the human rights violations of one’s own group are very often ignored, rationalized, or hidden. According to Noam Chomsky, even when evidence is available that one's own group is responsible for injustice, it's still uncomfortable to look oneself in the mirror and ask the really difficult questions about responsibility, and much easier to keep focus on the violations of others.
The world community agreed upon a definition of “human rights” in a Universal Declaration just after experiencing the horrors and mass inhumanity of WWII. Improvements in a global working definition of human rights continue to be made, including very recently.
Some Current Battles Between Nationalism and Human Rights
Wars of Choice
When Americans and Europeans continue to support, if only passively, killing innocent people in the poor and devastated countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan in order to reduce the exaggerated threat of Al Qaeda against the homeland, it is a support based in irrationality.
Political Repression and Abuse
When Americans, French, Chinese, Iranians and citizens of many other countries continue to support, if only passively, the state imprisonment, repression, and mistreatment of “subversive” individuals without due process, it is a support based in irrationality.
Proposed Israeli Loyalty Oath
Forcing potential non-Jewish citizens to say (and think) that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state is like forcing people to say (and think) that 2 + 2 = 5. “Jewish” and “democratic” are mutually exclusive in this context; Israel cannot rationally be both. This is because describing a country as "Jewish" implies that anyone of another ethnicity/religion is a second-class citizen with lesser rights, while describing a country as “democratic” means that equal rights are afforded to all citizens. So besides being a threat to eventual peace in the region and offensive to anyone who holds freedom of thought as a non-negotiable principle of human rights, such a pledge is simple nonsense.
Avoiding Catastrophic Climate Change
The rational mind says that, based on available evidence, human beings must drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately or otherwise face irreversible and catastrophic changes to our global ecosystem. No less than the survival of our species is at stake.
However, even as species survival hangs in the balance, irrational nationalism continues to trump rational action.
The two most powerful—and in terms of overall carbon emissions, the two most responsible— players in the battle to prevent ecosystem collapse are the elite groups who run the Chinese and American governments. Like selfish children, each state blames the other for not moving forward with an international treaty to prevent climate catastrophe, and each promotes nationalist thinking in its citizens in order to further its own interests.
If the species is to survive climate change, the current generation of humans needs to extend its empathy to generations who have yet to be born. Agreement on new, sustainable economic models not based on infinite "growth" needs to happen immediately, both in the US Senate and on the world stage. Some climate scientists claim we’re already past the “tipping point” of an irreversible process, while others say we have up to 10 years to instill drastic changes in global industrial behavior before catastrophic climate change becomes locked in.
If there’s something in human nature that allows people to so easily be indoctrinated with irrational, nationalistic thinking, there’s also something in human nature that allows people to think critically about what they are told, to make up their own minds about what is humane, about which acts of inhumanity are being perpetrated in their name, and about how to organize themselves to influence social decision-making in the interests of universality.