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Notes on nationalism: The WBC, fandom, and The Joy of Sects

Sometimes, it’s OK to lose yourself

World Baseball Classic Pool C: Canada v United States
MY president.
Norm Hall/Getty Images

I’m a sucker for U.S. World Cup cheering montages; I love seeing that tense anticipation in a crowd of thousands turn into spasms of shared joy, flags waving and water flying through the air and the crowd chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” whenever the women’s or men’s team does something amazing. It feels extremely patriotic and extremely unifying, a rare occasion in these grim and seismic times.

The U.S. doesn’t compete in many big international events, which is why the World Cup always feels big. There’s too damn much going on in the Olympics and we don’t do Eurovision, due to a tragic lack of upper-echelon camp professionals. That’s part of why the World Baseball Classic is such a delight; while Mookie and Mike Trout and TA might play together in an All-Star Game, no one gives a fig who wins or loses. Here we see our best players suiting up for a team that grabs our loyalties automatically.

Tim Anderson in the 2023 World Baseball Classic Pool C: Game 6 Team Canada v. Team USA
Apple pie, fireworks, and TA.
Daniel Shirey/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Above I said that was patriotism. But that — like cheering for our White Sox players — isn’t exactly patriotism, by some definitions. It’s nationalism.

And, weirdly, it’s the kind of nationalism I can get behind.

In his classic essay “Notes on Nationalism,” George Orwell, who as a young man played shortstop for the Indian Imperial Police force’s Burmese squad (Ed. note: This is a damn lie, ignore), defined the difference between patriotism and nationalism thusly:

Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

Patriotism is, as he explained, the calm confidence that your way of life is best, but not wishing to impose it upon others. I guess, like, I can think that Chicago style hot dogs are great, but I don’t think that the bizarre mashed-potato-laden Swedish hot dog should be outlawed or eliminated by force. They are allowed to be weird in their own delightful ways. I still dig ’em.

A Swedish hot dog, it’s got mashed potatoes, it’s weird
OK, I guess I can get behind these.

On a sports level, this makes sense. I love the White Sox and don’t think other people should be forced to be a Sox fan. I know some fan bases in other parts of the country or perhaps other parts of the city of Chicago get chuffed because their collective is more Borgish than ours, and while that’s annoying, it is ultimately fine. Fan how you want.

But on another level, being a fan of a team isn’t entirely defensive. And that’s where it gets interesting. Let’s let Orwell, who in the 1930s was the beat writer for the Phillies before heading off to Spain (Ed. note: This is a wild lie in an attempt to make this article about baseball), continue:

(T)he nature of what I mean by nationalism becomes a good deal clearer. A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist – that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating – but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.

That … that sounds more like sports to me. Whereas there are a lot of mild and positive aspects of fandom I enjoy, I want to win. I seethe about losses and feel the sting of defeat. I hate that the Astros think we’re chumps. Winning is so much better than losing, and anyone who says differently is trying to be a saint — and we all know what Orwell said about saints!

The WBC is ultimately nationalism. I want the U.S. to win. When our boys put up a 9-spot on that Canadian teenager, I didn’t think, well, the kid gave it a shot, I yelled, “Yeah, go back to Saskatchewan you Mountie reject!”, and I love Canada, it’s home to poutine and The Kids in the Hall and my other unearthly delights. But when we were playing them, I wanted them to lose almost as much as I wanted to win.

Bratt gets shelled, World Baseball Classic Pool C: Canada v United States
Zap Rowsdower would be ashamed.
Norm Hall/Getty Images

Weirdly, nationalism can go beyond the nation. Our boys are playing for a number of teams, perhaps most notably Cuba, where Yoán Moncada and Luis Robert Jr. are showing their stuff. It’s not that I am rooting for Cuba, per se, but I am rooting for the White Sox players representing Cuba to get some wins because it makes the Sox look better, and therefore it makes me look better.

Obviously I don’t actually look better because Moncada snagged a hot liner. That’s stupid. But I feel better. I’ve subsumed part of my identity to this weird collective that is White Sox fandom, and when that feels good, I feel good.

Fandom can show itself in a lot of ugly ways, and turn into ugly nationalism, all chest-thumping swagger and violent defense of an arbitrary entity, wagon-circled defense of the indefensible. That’s the negative side of becoming part of something bigger than yourself.

But can there be good? Yeah, I think there can. There can be voices raised not as one, not some kind of soul-erasing chant, but as a cacophony of individuals swirling their happiness, sounding like an orchestra during warmups, a million sounds that clash into something formless and lovely.

Orwell wants you to recognize irrational feelings and keep them from “contaminating your mental processes.” That’s true in most areas of life. But in sports? It’s OK to be irrational. It’s OK to be sectarian. It’s OK to take joy in the madness of the crowd. Arguably, that’s the whole point.