Two recent instances have struck me forcefully as intellectually alarming and discordant with the heritage and values of Western civilization. They both come from discourse on what we might call the “right,” in the sense that the voices are not from either the lockstep progressive left or the mushy “center,” where irreconcilable positions on politics tend to coexist in an uneasy stasis – mainly through incurious neglect.
At least one author might not agree with being placed on the right, and I’ll get to that in a moment. (Given where he was published, and the nature of his topic, he may prefer “libertarian.”)
First, however, the first of the two instances. National Review, long the keeper among popular media of the conservative intellectual flame, has been having an extended editorial back-and-forth on the subject of “nationalism.” I don’t want to make this a longer, eye-blearing post by going into all the ins and outs of the topic, although it’s a fascinating and highly relevant one. The debate is lively, and there is much to recommend in it.
My concern is how the touchstone of the debate seems to be that the ideal outlines of nationalism (the noumena, if you will) are exemplified mainly in the ideological excesses of Nazi Germany – e.g., racial volk-ism, collectivist/statist enthusiasms – and that letting the nose of the nationalist camel under the tent will inevitably lead to some variety of goose-stepping in the streets.
To say that this rings false to my mind is an understatement. To begin with, it is not how I heard the concept of “nationalism” routinely discussed in the public square until at most about fifteen years ago, or perhaps even less. This is not, trust me, because I haven’t been engaged in discussing nationalism. Given my interests and education, I’ve been discussing the -isms of human organization regularly for the last 40 years.
It is only very recently that I can recall so many people, including those on the card-carrying, standard-toting right, speaking as if nationalism is a dirty word, associated mainly with excessive statism, race-baiting, and Adolf Hitler.
And the tendency is very disquieting, for two intertwined reasons. One is that associating anything with Hitler puts that thing beyond the pale. It becomes a taboo that cannot be discussed except in ritual phrases of affirmation or denunciation. To even parse its elements objectively is considered a moral atrocity, something the young conservative activist Candace Owens found out when she tried (inelegantly) to make the point that Hitler had his drawbacks as a “nationalist” because what he really acted like was an ideological imperialist, seeking to conquer and subject peoples well beyond the recognized borders of Germany.
We ought to be able to make points like that – points that separate “nationalism” from what Hitler did – without our auditors hearing it as an endorsement of Hitler and Nazism. A key reason I say that with confidence is that we used to be able to do exactly that. And we were decades closer in time to the era of actual Hitler-led Nazism when we were able to do it. All the wounds were fresher, the people who had endured them still very much part of our common life.
Perhaps that was why we could see clearly the distinction between the characteristic Western understanding of nationalism – a healthy and useful view of human organization, indeed the basis for fighting back against Nazi Germany – and the sickness of “National Socialism.”
But the term itself, National Socialism, is the key to the second reason I speak of. The trend toward vilifying nationalism courses through the prism of an essentially Marxist concept of all human life. And the “logic” of it puts us exactly where predatory international socialism would have had us: railing furiously (or at least in uneasy anguish) against nationalism.
It does something more specific even than that. It puts us where Josef Stalin and his propagandists wanted us: hating all “bourgeois nationalism,” largely because of Hitler.
Hitler and Stalin were very much the same. They were both figures of colossal brutality and evil, and both for the same reason: they sought to impose an ideology of collectivism by blood-soaked force.
Stalin’s project was to own the “socialism” as his – as the U.S.S.R.’s – and demonize the most important organized resistance to it, which was the preexisting Western nation-state, complete with traditional politics and long-held, non-Marxist political ideas. He didn’t care about Hitler, except as a powerful armed foe. His real problems were Britain, France, the United States. He wanted to demonize the ideas of nationhood and political value that helped immunize millions of people in the prosperous West against the resentful demagoguery of socialism.
It was always a great lie to hard-sell any important moral or philosophical distinction between Hitler’s National Socialism and Stalin’s International Socialism (inherited and ultimately modified, but nevertheless identifiably internationalist in vision and practice). There was no distinction that mattered. But Stalin appears increasingly to have won the argument over time, with his propagandistic view of a malignant nationalism being accepted today as the basis of Western discourse.
I’m not sure people in 2019 understand that they are parroting the propaganda themes of the Stalin era when they associate nationalism with Nazi Germany, and fear to acknowledge the important benefits of nationhood and national sovereignty because they think doing so has something particular to do with Hitler’s version of statism. This is not a triumph for anyone or anything except Josef Stalin. I don’t know if even he would have imagined that the West, left to its own devices long enough, would talk itself into singing his song.
The great danger of this false touchstone that inspires only fear – this antipathy toward nationalism – is that it increasingly prevents us from talking rationally about nationalism, to include pointing out its benefits. We need a way of talking about nationhood, one that doesn’t simply assume nationhood as an inevitable phenomenon. It isn’t one, and it is under active intellectual assault today, as well as practical assault in the form of attacks on sovereignty. Nationhood and its benefits require systematic justification, of the kind that gives us an -ismic shorthand to refer to.
Nations are what save us from empires, something tribes and city-states cannot do. Nations make ordered liberty possible. Nations formalize war, making it more politically freighted, and thus more difficult, to resort to it than if all armed force were either an imperial police action or a gruesome tribal raid. Nations give us identity anchors to transcend race and tribal ethnicity. They form a basis for common interaction in an environment of trust and shared expectations, across demographic lines. That this is often a matter of balancing tensions within a nation has tended to be an argument for nationhood, over time, rather than against it.
The United States, between 1787 and 1789, was founded consciously as a nation, with an idea of nationhood as its living core. To have an “ick” feeling about nationalism – which in my mind is about favoring the form of the nation-state because of its decisive utility for beneficial politics – is to repudiate the very essence of the American project. The same can be said, I believe, of the modern nation of Israel. To a unique extent, both nations were founded, consciously as nations, with a national idea and vision.
To me it seems like a form of dementia to organize corporate hate sessions against nationalism, as if nationalism is somehow better exemplified by Hitler – objectively an ideological imperialist – than by the U.S., or Israel, or one of the many modern nations that has come to its current borders and population through a long history of war, compromise, and nationally characteristic enterprise.
It is at least a useful exercise to ponder whether we really want to carry Stalin’s water for him now that he’s been dead, and the world better for it, for nearly 70 years.
A similar question arises with the second instance. I suspect the author at Reason’s Volokh Conspiracy blog, David E. Bernstein, would prefer to be thought of outside the retail-politics confines of “right” and “left,” and it isn’t my intention to either pigeonhole him or single him out unfairly.
But he posted an article on 2 April under the original headline “Republican Senators are Skating Awfully Close to White Christian Identity Politics on Judicial Nominations,” and I naturally found that eyebrow-raising and troubling. He apparently got some blowback throughout the day (see his updates at the link), and has changed the headline to refer merely to “Identity Politics.”
His proposition is that Republican senators may be scrutinizing nominees for positions in the judiciary and Justice Department more closely, and with greater skepticism, because of the ethnicity of the nominees (in the two cases he cites, federal bench nominee Neomi Rao and associate attorney general nominee Jessie Liu).
The issue for which the senators have been concerned is abortion. Their specific concern is that Rao, although a jurist with an excellent record, might tend to rule too much in the tradition of judicial activism on the matter of abortion. With Liu, likewise, the concern is that she might favor activist positions on abortion over zeal for the Constitution in arguing on the federal government’s behalf in court.
Bernstein’s concern, in turn, is that the senators are more inclined to harbor such suspicions because of the ethnic backgrounds of the nominees. While I may not agree that he’s assessing the situation correctly, there’s certainly nothing wrong with voicing his opinion of it, and discussing it in temperate terms, as he manages to.
What jarred me (and obviously a number of other readers) was the allusion to “white Christian identity politics,” which strikes me as extremely out of place. It would have been possible, and far preferable, to make the same points without that reductionist bumper sticker phrase.
In fact, even the solution he ended up with misses the mark. “Identity politics” is not an accurate label for what Bernstein is talking about. Identity politics is about expressly framing all political – indeed, all social – interaction in terms of where on the identity matrix people locate themselves. It ends up being mostly about throwing shade on other people because of their assumed identity attributes.
Indeed, if anyone is engaging in identity politics here (and I’m not saying anyone is), it would be Bernstein, who seemingly can only imagine an invidious “identity” reason for GOP senators to be concerned about nominees to appointed positions.
Without saying I agree with the senators who were skeptical of Rao and Liu, I can see another reason very clearly. The whole atmosphere of politics has changed in the last two decades, and the stakes for picking the wrong nominees are significantly higher than they used to be. The bulwark of longstanding assumptions about non-politicization of certain executive and judicial roles has all but collapsed. Little restrains federal officials now in the execution of their office – little other than their own character and intentions. Senators see that very clearly today, and what they’re going to single out are not people with non-European ethnic backgrounds, but people with histories of political activism or strong political tendencies. Both Rao and Liu can legitimately be said to have such histories on the issue of abortion.
How much that would factor into their performance is another question. It is a matter that can be debated soberly and without undue prejudice.
Unless, that is, prejudice is assumed into it by the rhetoric used to identify what’s going on; e.g., “white Christian identity politics.” That’s what troubles me. And that’s what brings us back to Stalin and his style of propaganda. In Stalin’s Soviet Union, there was no such thing as well-intentioned people debating issues with legitimate concerns on either side. There were only – let’s just be blunt with the analogy – good progressives who were inclusive and welcoming about race, and bad white Christians who were always trying to oppress and marginalize others by waging identity politics.
That is a propaganda caricature of human life. It’s not reality. In the U.S.S.R., referring to good proletarians and bad, counterrevolutionary enemies of the people, it was a political tool for coercive collectivism. Its purpose was demonization – building accusations into the naming conventions – and it wasn’t about accuracy at all. It was about political power.
I emphatically do not accuse Mr. Bernstein of having Stalin’s political goals in view. But we can’t afford to ignore the extent to which our public dialogue now takes place in Stalinist, demonizing terms. Those terms will destroy us if we keep accepting them as the currency of our discourse. Built-in accusation creates communication that is doomed from the start.
Stalin had to slaughter and incarcerate millions of people to enforce his brand of public discourse. We in the West have begun enforcing that same brand on ourselves without being under mortal threat, apparently through long decades of conditioning. Unless we are happy to face a fate worse than death, we’ve got to stop it in its tracks.
It was only 40 years ago that hardly anyone in America would have wanted to talk like this, as if straying from a dialogue conducted in insane caricatures meant going over the cliff at the end of the world. It’s worth pondering that this is the outcome of “political correctness.” What gets enforced is not moderation and reason but insanity.
I submit that both conservatives and libertarians of 40 or 50 years ago would have seen clearly that it was necessary to be able to talk about nationhood and nationalism, and about abortion activism and its ramifications for federal office-holders, without thoughts on these subjects being branded in totemic terms. Those pundits would have vigorously defended openly airing ideas, rather than throwing in epistemic closers in the forms of politically correct caricature.
Yet now we have conservatives and libertarians seemingly comfortable with the branding, or perhaps wary of talking outside of it. That’s a problem.