The National Fetish

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5:19 PM HKT, Thu July 5, 2018 3 mins read

It’s a great week to wave that flag.

In the United States this week, it was the Fourth of July holiday. Americans celebrated their independence with time-honored institutions of warm beer, crowded beaches, swatting wasps away from plates of barbecued meat, and lighting fireworks while also embracing newer holiday traditions like the US President spinning bizarre unsourced conspiracy theories about his own government and feeling the need to demonstrate a basic command of written English.

It is also, unless you’re an American or an Italian, a month to watch the World Cup. Nothing brings out patriotic vim and vigor like staring at a screen as 22 semi-grown men chase a ball around a field for 90-120 minutes before settling the whole affair with a series of one-on-one penalty shots.

For a time, the real sport was racking up winning bets based on nothing more than the food preferences of a cat residing in Beijing’s Forbidden City. At least until the cat suddenly died. I’m not entirely ruling out the possibility that the cat wasn’t whacked on orders from The Guys Who Get Things Done in places like Macao, Moscow, and assorted dens of vice and iniquity along the Cambodian coast.


The Communist Party of China also celebrates its anniversary every July 1st even though the First Party Congress took place in the last week of July in 1921.* This year, Party organizers tried to drown out the annual static coming out of Hong Kong with mass choirs and trains painted in bright colors such as “Communist Red” and “Shameless Sycophancy.” Not for nothing, but somebody might want to take the folks in charge of CCP optics aside and tell them that everybody knows you never go Full Pyongyang.**

What these events have in common is that they all idealize the nation-state as the highest possible form of social and political organization. Americans rarely need an excuse to wrap themselves in the flag, but every July 4th even Massachusetts liberals come out in droves to watch the army blow shit up to patriotic (albeit, Russian patriotic) music. And the World Cup always brings out an unbridled love of country and flag in nations famous for their ebullient and uninhibited emotions such as Sweden and the Swiss.***

Even the CPC anniversary, which in strictly ideological terms might be a celebration of world revolution, is all about an obsession with state building. Despite a lot of very public lip service to Marxist theory, the CPC and Xi Jinping fully embrace the concept of the nation-state. No other Western ideological import can possibly compete with the extent to which the nation-state is fetishized by China’s leaders. I mean a serious fetish. The kind of fetish where, if the nation-state were an actual physical entity, the CPC Standing Committee might swaddle it in full-body saran wrap and take turns running train on the nation-state while wearing rubber gloves and an assortment of Peng Liyuan’s unmentionables. It’s that sort of obsession.

The problem is that idealizing the nation-state often leads to suspicions about folks who think globally. There has long existed a tension between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, especially in China. During May Fourth/New Culture Era (roughly from 1915-1919) the eclecticism and iconoclastic tendencies of students and scholars eventually gave way, following the debacle of the Paris Peace Conference and the May Fourth demonstrations of 1919, to nationalism. The Patriotic Education Curriculum, which began in earnest in the mid-1990s, was intended not only to bolster an appreciation for the Party and the state but also to refocus students’ attention away from international ideas and the possibility that some values might transcend the nation.

The recent tribalist responses to immigration, global trade, and protecting the “purity of the nation” in the United States, the UK, Europe, Australia, China, and even South Korea of late suggests that the tension between nationalism and cosmopolitanism still excites partisan passions around the world.


It’s not a bad thing to honor a country, whether it’s supporting sports or in celebration of major historical events (however misdated) but it is also worth considering the cost when leaders glorify the nation-state to such an extent that it inspires contempt (or worse) for those from diverse national or religious backgrounds or to stop seeking international solutions to global problems.

In an age of tribalism, it might be time to rebalance our patriotism with our responsibilities to the world.

*For what it’s worth, not much happened on July 4, 1776, either. The Declaration of Independence had been completed two days earlier. As John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail:

“July 2nd will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

Whoops. Although the final vote to declare independence and ratify the document did happen on July 4. The delegates then sent the declaration out to the printers, adjourned for lunch and went home to wait for the British to invade Pennsylvania and politely hang them.


**Has it only been a decade since Tropic Thunder was made? That movie came out in 2008 but viewing it again a decade later is only slightly less cringy than watching somebody stick their junk into a bucket of half-starved Madagascar Land Leeches. It’s hard to pick which part of this movie has aged worse: The original discussion centered around a term that is no longer considered a good “out-loud word,” that it co-starred Robert Downey, Jr. in blackface, or this entire scene in which Tom Cruise channels his inner Harvey Weinstein.


***Although not so much the Swiss this week.

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