Dialogue on the Threshold

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Thursday, 6 November 2014

The venom of our age (2)

Nationalism is the venom of modern history. Nothing is more bestially absurd than the readiness of human beings to incinerate or slaughter one another in the name of nationhood and under the infantile spell of a flag. Citizenship is a bilateral arrangement that is, that ought always to be subject to critical examination and, if need be, abrogation. The death of Socrates outweighs the survival of Athens. Nothing dignifies French history more surely than the willingness of Frenchmen to go to the brink of communal collapse, to weaken the bonds of nationhood drastically (as they in fact did) over the Dreyfus case. (...) Dr Johnson (...) defined patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel. It seems to me doubtful whether the human animal will manage to survive if it does not learn to do without frontiers and passports, if it cannot grasp that we are all guests of each other, as we are of this scarred and poisoned earth. 

George Steiner, "The Cleric of Treason," The New Yorker, 8 December 1980; George Steiner: A Reader, Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1984, pp. 195-96.