To Change the Present

To stop our modern tribalization, we must learn what nationalism and historicism are. To teach us, we have two books.  

Student Commentary 

By Jacopo Menichincheri  / Contributor 

“Our generation is the best one ever.”

I would agree. Our mass participation in human rights and environmental movements demonstrate how much we care about our planet and the wellbeing of others. Yet, we often forget that we are the generation with the biggest responsibilities ever lying on our shoulders. We could probably say: “from great powers derives great responsibilities.”

As a matter of fact, our parents and grandparents avoided problems that are now gargantuan; some still do so. Therefore, we must face them now. But how? How can we convince two generations to hear us and let us change the world for the better? Also, how can we do that without generating further problems and disparities? If we fail today, our children and their children will have no choices. They will live in a world whose society will be unfair and unchangeable, and whose environment will inevitably be distorted. We need someone to teach us.

As an Italian kid born in 2001, I saw my country fall more and more into dangerous habits every year. First, our politicians behave as if there is a constant electoral campaign; they are more worried about their popularity than they are with actively making changes. Second, our newspapers seem to replace factual headlines with more spectacular and sometimes wrong ones, creating a discrepancy between facts and information. Third, and what frightens me most: we believe that discussion and argument are the same.

Today, most of us do not listen to others because we might learn something—we do it only to argue back. These tendencies of closing our minds to others, lead us to create close groups (or tribes as McLuhan would say), with only our ideas inside. Unfortunately, these habits are spreading worldwide. If we want to be able to fix our problems (climate change and inequality) we need to stop the spread.

Fortunately, two books could help us to halt this “tribalization” by showing us how it works. To be honest, there are dozens of authors that could help us, but I would suggest starting with these books I recommend, and in the given order:

The first one is “Notes on Nationalism” (1945) by George Orwell.

I do not think that Orwell needs any introduction, yet I still want to suggest this book to anyone with an interest in journalism; it is a must read. “Notes on Nationalism” describes and synthetizes what a nationalist really is and how they behave. The second book is “The Open Society and Its Enemies” (1945) by Karl R. Popper.

Popper was an epistemologist known for his introduction of the empirical falsification in the scientific method and for his defenses of democracy against any totalitarian attack. Inside the two volumes of this book there is a deep analysis of the reasons and methods that lead historicists to attack every democratic improvement.

Overall, Orwell and Popper use two different words to identify the “enemies” of democracy: nationalists and historicists. Eventually, you will realize how these two words are different faces of the same coin. We could say that “nationalist” is used for politics; “historicist” is used for philosophy.

“Who really are these nationalists or historicists? How can I recognize them?”

To better explain myself, and make a bell ring in your mind, I need Orwell’s aid. Nationalism is an emotion, not always attached to a nation but always to a unit of some kind. Orwell defines nationalism as:

“…The habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’.” [II] “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.” (page 2)

Furthermore, Orwell suggests a nationalist can be identified by three characteristics:

[1] “obsession” (page 9)

[2] “instability” (page 11)

[3] “indifference to reality” (page 13)

First, obsession is quite straightforward: the mind of the nationalist is focused only on the superiority of their unit. Second, instability refers to the capacity of nationalists to shift their loyalty towards a unit that lets them be even more nationalistic. Moreover, even if that would result in, from an external point of view, a betrayal of their previous beloved unit, for them it is not. Third, the indifference to reality refers to how nationalists choose not to see facts.

Orwell writes:

“Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits but according to who does them, and there is no kind of outrages- torture, the use of hostages, forced labor, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians -which does not change its moral color when it is committed by ‘our’ side.”

(page 13)

In “Philosophie Gegen Falsche Propheten” (Philosophy Against False Prophets), a 1974 documentary by Klaus Podak and Kurt Zimmermann on Popper’s ideas, he says:

“It so called The Open Society and Its Enemies. The enemies were mainly the fascists, the Nazis, but also the communist dictatorship, although at that time they were allied with us. And what I meant by ‘Open Society’ was a society in which, let’s say, one can breathe freely, think freely, in which every human being has value and in which society doesn’t exert any superfluous constrain on people.”

We spoke about the “enemies” before. Now I want to remind everybody what we aim for. After Popper spoke about the growing power of parties, parliaments, and party leaders in Western democracy, he reminds us a fundamental thing:

“But the basic idea of all democracy is to limit power, to control it. Not too much power; that’s the basic idea of democracy. Power must be distributed so that there isn’t too much in one hand. And this can probably be done by relatively simple things, though relatively simple constitutional changes.”

Please, try to remember it.

Now that you can recognize nationalistic habits, you may notice that they are used from those who fear your freedom, your ability to adapt, and your acceptance of reality. These people should change after generations of stasis, and now their bubbles make them blind and deaf. I ask you to consciously pursue change. I ask you to breath freely, think freely, and give value to every human being.

Remember: be kind to those who still listen sometimes; let them know you are there if they want to learn. Be strong against the attacks of those who are no longer able to listen, because they will never give up or change. Read, research, and most importantly listen. As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Mandela writes:

“I learned to have the patience to listen when people put forward their views, even if I think those views are wrong. You can’t reach a just decision in a dispute unless you listen to both sides.”

So, for our children, their children, and all the generations after them, the best thing to do is spend some time dealing with the present to leave them a better future. As the common saying goes: Leave the world better than you found it.

Jacopo Menichincheri is first-year student from Rome majoring in Economics and Finance. You can contact him at