By Gene Lyons
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Perhaps you recall the last time a French politician angered a certain kind of hairy-chested American nationalist. In February 2003, Dominique de Villepin, France’s conservative minister of foreign affairs, cautioned the U.N. General Assembly about the sheer folly of invading Iraq.
“We all share the same priority: fighting terrorism mercilessly,” de Villepin said. “This fight requires total determination.” He added that “(n)ot one of us feels the least indulgence towards Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime.”
De Villepin nevertheless warned that having conquered Iraq, the United States would then face “incalculable consequences for the stability of this scarred and fragile region.” He urged that U.N. arms inspectors searching for Saddam’s (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction be allowed to finish their job. Because he knew his audience, he also stressed his country’s eternal gratitude toward the United States:
“This message comes to you today from an old country, France,” he said, “... that has known war, occupation and barbarity. It is an old country that does not forget and is very aware of all it owes to freedom fighters who came from America and elsewhere.”
Even so, belligerent followers of George W. Bush erupted against “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” Furious nationalists dumped French wine into gutters. French fries became freedom fries. After I joked about “freedom ticklers,” a reader sent me a photo of a vending machine in an Arkansas truck stop actually selling the fool things.
Today, hardly any serious observer doubts that the French were right. Bush’s Iraq adventure proved catastrophic: costing hundreds of thousands of lives, countless billions of dollars, inspiring ISIS terrorists, and spreading deadly ethnic and religious strife across the Middle East. Even President Donald Trump now claims that he opposed the war, although like his apocryphal tale about Arabs celebrating 9/11 on New Jersey rooftops, it’s sheer make-believe.
If Trump had his doubts in 2003, he kept them to himself.
So now comes French President Emmanuel Macron, who delivered a forceful speech marking the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending World War I by warning against a rising tide of nationalism worldwide and “old demons” coming back to wreak “chaos and death.”
“Patriotism,” Macron insisted, “is exactly the opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism.”
Nationalism is treason against France’s governing ideals of liberte, egalite and fraternite (liberty, equality and brotherhood), he implied. (Macron spoke in French.) Putting race and ethnicity above citizenship is a cardinal sin in today’s Europe.
Because Trump was sitting there sulking like a child, American commentators assumed it was all about him. Because everything is all about Trump, in his mind.
But Macron was also clearly referring to Vladimir Putin’s aggression, and to growing ethnic tensions elsewhere in Europe: Poland, Hungary, Italy, even in Great Britain. He was referring, in short, to the kinds of ideological and racial hatreds that led to the terrible cataclysm of “the war to end all wars” and the exponentially worse World War II that followed it. He was defending the international organizations devoted to avoiding a repeat: the United Nations, NATO and the European Union. Imperfect, all, but maintaining peace and prosperity across Europe, the U.S. and Canada for 70 years.
The distinction between patriotism and nationalism was perhaps most persuasively made by George Orwell. Writing in the shadow of World War II, he insisted that “(b)y ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally.”
Nationalism, on the other hand, Orwell defined as “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labeled ‘good’ or ‘bad,’” but also “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”
“A nationalist,” Orwell continued, “is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige ... his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade.
“Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception.”
Sound like anybody you know?
In Paris, the American Achilles went AWOL, skipping a solemn ceremony commemorating the dead of Belleau Wood for fear of getting his hair wet. Nicholas Soames, a conservative British MP and the grandson of Winston Churchill, tweeted, “They died with their face to the foe and that pathetic inadequate @realDonaldTrump couldn’t even defy the weather to pay his respects to The Fallen.”
As a patriot, I am embarrassed for my country.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.”