Thoughts on Kai Weiss’ Reflections on “What Lord Acton Can Teach Us About Nationalism”

This comment is in response to the analysis and essay by Kai Weiss on “What Lord Acton Can Teach Us about Nationalism,” published October 14, 2019, in the online journal of Law and Liberty and shared as a link in a private email. 

I am not surprised to read about the historical differences in “nationalism” expressed and imposed by the English and French. If the remnants and current consequences of African post-colonialism are an indicator, English is better, leaving aside, for the moment, the general questions of the occupation of one state by another.

Humans are an aggressive species. Aggression can be a sign or “symptom” of intelligence and a constructive rather than destructive force. The higher goal has always been to channel this aggression constructively, as in the Olympics; or by creating “disruptive” technologies that thrust humanity forward, even if causing the pain of transition in the present; or by creating a shared reality enacted by a few, but to which most people identify, feel pleasure, and take pride, such as the moonwalks and advances by NASA in space.

We have never espoused a bullies/liars/deceivers-are-the-good-guys philosophy… until now. In today’s mores, the Winner is the good guy, regardless of the parameters of the “win”.

I have always been leery of people who live in houses where the American flag flies daily. I am afraid. And, I consider myself a patriot. When I have worked for the government, I always worked on behalf of the people I served, and everyone I worked with did the same. We were systems-smart and HELPFUL. This was the definition of our jobs. It was humanitarian. The goal was never “How can we screw them the most? How can we make them suffer, so we get our way?” We looked for solutions. In those days, I never knew or heard of anyone who behaved or acted like today’s ICE.

On the other hand, I hope that we never come to a time in this country when I would flee toward the flag. That, also, is a pretty scary proposition.

The hope is for a society and world that are better than either of those suppositions imply.

To make the contrast between the feelings aroused by political or nation-state and national group identity markers: I might avoid places and people who are flag-wavers and, without fear, run toward a house flying a Rainbow or Black-Lives-Matter flag, though, I would run toward the Rainbow flags first, since, in times that I would be “running” at all, I might not be trusted or I might instill fear in those flying the Black-Lives-Matter flag, since I am white and white denotes prospective violence or betrayal for many who are not white. Still, both flags are associated with a greater humanity while Nation-state flags generally are not, although, many immigrants to the U.S. might disagree. (I do not know which – the U.S. flag or the Statue of Liberty – holds more reverence or positive symbolic value, if any, for immigrants as a group, or how today they generally view the “American” flag, at all. I am not sure whether we continue to live in what used to be perceived as an “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy” country.)

When it comes to nationalism and fascism and tyrannies, fascism arises in the ruse of “intelligence,” but is seated or rooted in the emotion not particularly informed by intelligence or humanitarian values. This makes it extremely unwieldy and compromised because it is so sorely focused, exclusive in its intent, and unmoved by or disdainful of alternate objectives, discourse, and realities, even if the goals remain the same. Weiss’ recitation of Lord Acton’s position emphasizes this point in her discussion of the “glorious” vision descending into centralized, exclusive perspective and power. It also forms the basis for the argument that nationalism, foremostly, needs to be grounded in a humanitarian philosophy or ethic of inclusive diversity. This has to include views that are anathema but cannot tolerate expansionism unless agreed by the nation’s citizens, whether as recipients or perpetrators.

Nationalism, in Trump’s view, is one-dimensional. Today, we withdraw troops from Syria without consideration of the consequences, particularly of who it hurts and whether it furthers our purported goals. We block indigents fleeing for their lives without pre-consideration of the root causes for these massive migrations and, as a world “leader,” which solutions we should support and advance. “Bully” pulpit never held such meaning as it does today.

What we have become is First Lady Melania Trump whining “I could say I am the most bullied person in the world” juxtaposed with photos of very young Kurdish children, post-bombing, sitting on remnants of stone walls, alone, bleeding and crying and in total, isolated shock and betrayal of the universal belief in protection of children, whether ours or other’s.

And, the Republicans, the dominant party, who, since they do not obstruct or voice opposition or offer alternative visions, effectively support these views and actions and this president.

Tangentially, with respect to tyrannies, it would be wonderful to hear what Prof. Lani Guinier – author of Tyranny of the Majority (1994) – thinks about the right-wing and radical-right minority rule in this country today, which is not principally or justly historically “conservative”.

I thought it particularly inane for a President to declare, “My County First!” What a stupid sandbox mentality for a (former) World leader (the U.S.) in such a small world.

Even more frightening is how believable the right-wing/far-right voice is, if one is not following all of the trackers-of-truth, such as PolitiFACT and The List: Experts in Authoritarianism advise you to keep a list of things subtly changing around you, so you’ll remember.

Because I have the time, I am able to keep up with what is happening in the world and country, on a daily basis. I started reading the Republican news and commentary websites, to see what is actually being said. Frightening was the fact that their arguments and beliefs seemed so real and realistic. Had I not been apprised of content, as provided by the fact-checking and history fact-checking sites and media (not limited exclusively to the two, above) and fairly broadly read, I would have been very persuaded by the Right-wing rhetoric and agenda. In isolation, they are very believable – horrifyingly believable. I was dumbfounded.

What is an “educated citizenry” to do?

How can one educate oneself sufficiently and have the time to follow and engage in all that is happening nationally and in the World?

This is why purity and transparency – though seemingly “juvenile” or “unsophisticated,” perhaps puerile, in their institution and approach – are vital. We must ultimately TRUST our elected officials – especially at the HIGHEST levels – to operate within a philosophical framework that safeguards our (purported) true values from exclusively partisan or in-the-moment national self-interest and small-minded political pressuring and deal-making. If everything becomes a quid pro quo, we may and can lose our higher values, our centered selves. With and under Trump, we have lost both adult intelligence AND basic human trust, and purported historical American values have become murky, almost antithetical. Think of the minds of our children being bathed for the past three years in the ethos of our time. How about our first- through third-graders, who are being taught history and civics against the televised backdrop of outrage and the allegations of serious moral failings of “You’re a grand ole flag…” and “My country ’tis of thee…”  How are they supposed to integrate knowledge of our apartheid and genocidal history in the overheard, unconscious awareness of today’s reported inhumanity and corruption at ALL LEVELS of those who represent us? We haven’t changed! Neither has our “history.” Today, only the subjects/objects of our actions have changed.

I agree with V. Bradley Lewis (cited in Acton’s treatise about Nationalism): “National identity is a healthy component of political life so long as it does not make of itself an obstacle to our ultimate destiny.”

Making civil, military, and humanitarian aid to another nation-state dependent on acquiescence or submission is not only extortion; it is a form of occupation. Is this something that we still believe in or is it a force that we oppose?

If we have the ability to think bigger, to look on and observe Earth from a Universal Intelligence perspective, then we would have to admit that, though there are many pinpoints of human good, generally, the human species is stuck at a third- to fifth-grade level, in terms of the war-like mentality, selfishness, and general (lack of) understanding and caring expressed through the various national political systems. I say this cautiously because I do not want to malign our young people and this statement is reflective of the context of my own upbringing and times, which may not reflect young people’s experience of today. But, certainly, the juxtaposition of the history with today’s realities and how that consciousness impacts on our young should be a paramount concern.

Nationalism is not only an identity that we claim ourselves. Nationalism is also an identity given to us. The meanings of those two identities do not currently converge.

At this point, I agree with Lord Acton that national and governmental emphasis on the “higher-calling” ethical and philosophical needs to supercede the importance of individual and party political interests/gains, nationally AND Internationally. This is not to say that we would without intervention countenance aggression by one nation-state toward another, but we have to live up to our own espoused and historical values to be effective leaders in this world. This “leadership” cannot include strong-arming other nations and selling “America’s” soul unless, in real-time on Earth, we wish to continue to inhabit and languish in the “purgatory” of our (unconscious) choice and own making.

A good real-life step would be to support the 17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. This, at least, is a good start. The U.S. is far from supporting and reaching these goals, which focus will put our feelings and thoughts about “nationalism” in a broader, more positively-effecting context. We can also stay apprised of our standing in the Corruption Perception Index published for the past 14 years by International Transparency. Knowing and being actively engaged against measurable goals and standards might help us to jump to the next level of evolution and human consciousness. If we don’t keep these topics and concerns constantly at the top of our public discourse and thinking, humans, and life on Earth, will never change.


  1. Garbage in, garbage out.

    Here we see so many premises that are untrue! No wonder we also see so many conclusions that are not only untrue, but when advanced become life diminishing, life destroying.

    Most significantly, this article portrays our history as if it were something worthy of shame. This reveals a total ignorance of this Country’s very unique excellence. That is, it was designed to give each person under its jurisdiction an optimum degree of liberty, a liberty controlled only by laws that they voted for. Our founders understood Kingly dangers, and against these powers they fought. Our central government was intentionally limited in duties in order to avoid the corruptions of monopolistic power. Lord Acton, a title subject of this article, pointed out: “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Our central government was to be a referee, not a prone-to-extreme-corruption, powerful competitor. The Bill of Rights clarified important central government restrictions. States and local communities were allowed wide ranges of liberty to create those laws that worked best within their diverse social and geographic contexts, and thus they experimented, often differing from others. We were free to make mistakes, learn and grow. We now see many instances where those who embrace some of today’s moralities judge the learning-process tragedies of the past to mean that such liberty itself is evil. Apparently, if transported to the 18th century, those with these righteous mindsets would have denied to all the benefits of liberty and would have in Kingly fashion forced its citizens to conform to their arrogantly conceived “high values”, values they deem to be caused by proper “humanitarian” motivations. How bizarre it is to hear them label the freedom-oriented originalists “authoritarian”, when its they, who from their desired power-perch in the Central Government would be the exact definition of despots, controlling, redistributing, forcing all to conform to their “superior humanitarian morality”.

    By our Constitution each citizen was given a REAL DIGNITY of possessing a liberty, and a responsibility, to guide one’s own life corresponding to his or her personal path to happiness. This includes a liberty to hold diverse beliefs, a right to like and dislike for any reason. Holding it together, it was commonly said: “I will fight to the death to protect another person’s right to disagree with me.”

    It is true that humans flock to those of like mind. Under the original Constitution we have that liberty. It is also true that this liberty will allow groups to be formed with social differences, different outcomes, and conflicts of many sorts. The greater truth is that because of these diverse motivations, free-to-learn differences, the original liberties of our Constitution have generated a superb overall productivity. It provides the kind of resource abundancies that allow individuals of all groups and races to find more life-enhancing opportunities than ever before possible.

    “Nationalism” would be good if the values defining that nation writ large would also benefit all in the world. Unique as regards the degree that the founders’ original intent inspired individuals to be more productive of resources, resources needed by all to survive and thrive, this place and mostly the original idea called “America” deserves deep respect.

    If the methods espoused by the 17 U.N Sustainable Goals would embrace the lessons of liberty and life-saving productivity that our Country has demonstrated, it would make sense to honor that expansion.

    1. Do you mean that there is not a new thought contained therein and that they are so obviously true and kindergarten in nature that they are simply utilitarian? Or, do you mean that they are simply a rehash of what today, for the more liberal parties, is simply politically correct? What does your comment mean?

      1. It means that these are issues that transcend time and political manipulation but are instead related to the source of satisfaction for us as humans.Locke ,Weber,,Mills ,Rousseau are in the line of utilitarianism but political ideologists see only Marx and Engels. If you use the dissemination of happiness as your yardstick you would disqualify De Sade,Hitler etc..Trump’s input into Art of the Deal is sufficient to disqualify him even though modified by more of a thinker..

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