The self-aggrandising stories that all nations tell themselves are critical to maintaining a national sense of identity. The great paradox of exceptionalism is that it is not unique to any one particular populace. The need for our families, tribes, football teams or nations to be the best is hard-wired into the species; it is in our nature to place ourselves at the centre of events. Doing so creates a commonality and sense of purpose in times of crisis.
We see this in the rhetoric employed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy when addressing his people, demonstrating himself to be adept at weaving a narrative even as his country is under invasion. Three weeks into the war he addressed the nation, telling them:
“Thanks to our military, the National Guard, the border guards, the police, the Territorial Defense Forces and everyone who joined the defense of the state, we did not become slaves. And we never will,” he said. “Because this is our spirit, this is our destiny.”
These words are not so different to those uttered by Churchill in 1940 or by French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau in 1918. At the outbreak of war between nations, a narrative of common history and endeavour makes sense.
But the narrative goes both ways. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is, after all, the end game of a series of beguiling stories that Putin and the Kremlin have spun for the last 20 years. These stories were deployed so effectively that many commentators, far beyond the country’s borders, take it for granted that Russia is a great, historic power, with the right to defend its interests even if that means imposing its tyranny on others. This extraordinary state of affairs leads many to tolerate and even propagate the Russian narrative that it has the divine right to be ‘concerned about its borders’ and its ‘historic spheres of influence’ even if they go against the democratic rights and values of other people.
Patriotism, meaning ‘appreciating the place you are from’, is not necessarily a bad thing. A shared narrative is the glue that binds societies together. The problem comes when these narratives morph into that branch of nationalism that we shall call ‘the conceit of we’. It goes like this: ‘we’ have a unique sense of humour; ‘we’ are the only people in the world who queue properly; ‘we’ are the only ones who drink proper tea; and ‘we’ invented football, cricket, jam tarts, America and rock and roll. At its worst, the conceit of we can morph into toxic nationalism and the belief that ‘our’ country can do no wrong. Nationalism would have us believe that ‘our Empire’ was beneficent and benign, that ‘our Nation’ is the best and that to challenge either assertion is to betray the national group.