Notes on Nationalism

Here’s the link to my piece at Taki’s Magazine on nationalism and patriotism. There’s quite a bit of back-and-forth in the comments section.

In a nutshell, I say that patriotism has been taken to excess, particularly by conservatives, and nationalism (which is not simply excessive patriotism, but a distinct idea) is actually something that the United States could use a little more of. At least one commenter thinks my goal is to rehabilitate the word “nationalist,” but that’s not the case: I don’t like the word, and as I say in the piece, I’m not a nationalist. But nationalism, of the sort I describe and of the sort advocated by Samuel Huntington and Pat Buchanan, is much to be preferred over democratic imperialism (which is what patriotic sentiment has lately been annexed to) and anti-Western multiculturalism.

Most of all, though, I’m agitated by what I think is a dishonest use of language — the idea that patriotism can never be in error and that nationalism must always be a great evil. It seems to me that some truly nice, patriotic people can be driven by their patriotism to support folly. The Iraq War was not made possible just by the deceits of a handful of neocons. It was made possible because ordinary Americans thought that America could do no wrong from noble motives.

Was the Conservative Movement Made in the 1970s?

That’s what Bruce Schulman and Julian Zelizer argue, not entirely persuasively, in this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. This bit, though, gets it just about right:

A number of scholars emphasize the emergence in the 70s of a conservative “movement” that turned the nascent New Right from an extremist ideology and a fledgling faction into a powerful electoral force. While modern American conservatism took shape in the 50s and 60s, it never cohered as a full-scale political movement.

The shift to the right, however, was anything but inevitable, even if previous accounts suggested that it was. After 1970, the New Right found its secret to success; it constructed its organizational infrastructure — the political-action committees, the volunteer operations, the radio talk shows, the think tanks, and the direct-mail network. The movement developed a post-Vietnam foreign-policy agenda that would define America’s position through the end of the cold war and establish the foundation for the war against terrorism. The agenda revolved around increasing the defense budget, using heated rhetoric against the Soviet Union, refraining from arms or territorial negotiation, and embarking on limited military interventions abroad. Ronald Reagan invigorated support for that agenda within the Republican Party when he challenged and almost upset President Gerald Ford, a Republican, for the nomination in 1976. Neoconservatives like Richard Perle and Jeane Kirkpatrick similarly popularized those ideas. Mobilizing previously quiescent evangelical Christians, the conservative movement also framed a new domestic agenda around cultural issues that would attract millions of voters into a reconstructed Republican Party. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson became known for shows that reached millions of Americans, calling on them to challenge the legality of abortion and to pressure broadcasters into refusing sexual material. The conservative movement of the 70s would become the motive force driving American politics for the next three decades.

There’s a stronger case to be made from all this than Schulman and Zelizer press, though maybe their book, Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, argues more forcefully. The conventional story of the Right is that before 1945, almost all was darkness and old night. Then several intellectuals, like F.A. Hayek and Richard Weaver, published important conservative books, and before long National Review appeared. That led to Goldwater, who led to Reagan, who led to Gingrich and Bush. (And the conservative movement thinks that’s a happy ending!) There’s a lot of truth to this narrative, but it’s basically a progressive “Whig history” of the American Right. The story can be told in other ways — stressing, for example, the quite vibrant political movement around Robert Taft in the 1940s and 1950s and the continuing strength of the Old Right up through the launch of National Review.

What neither the movement nor most of the movement’s critics talk much about are the continuities between the Old Right and the Cold War Right — while most Old Right thinkers were anti-statists and anti-interventionsists (think of Albert Jay Nock or Felix Morley), some of them were proto-Cold Warrriors or turned into actual Cold Warriors (Paul Palmer and John Chamberlain are two examples). The title of Murray Rothbard’s book is correct: the Old Right was betrayed. But that’s not the full story. Even the Goldwater movement, which can be seen as Cold War conservatism par excellence, had roots in the Old Right: Clarence Manion, who commissioned Brent Bozell to ghostwrite The Conscience of a Conservative and drafted Goldwater for his 1960 presidential run, was an Old Rightist, after all.

Just as there are continuities as well as discontinuities between the Old Right and the postwar Right, there are also discontinuities as well as continuities between the early Cold War Right of the Goldwater movement and the later Cold War Right of the 1970s and 1980s, with the rise of the populist New Right and social conservatism. The discontinuities are rarely stressed, though, even when they’re acknowledged. There’s a case to be made — and perhaps Zelizer and Schulman make it in their book — that the Right that emerged out of the 1970s was as different from the 1950s and 1960s Right as the 1950s and 1960s Right was from the Old Right.

Certainly ever since the end of Vietnam, the American Right has continued to refight the Vietnam War on the homefront, continually campaigning against McGovern Democrats (whether real or imagined) and the archetype of the hippie radical. I touched on some of these themes a few years back in a piece I titled “The Authoritarian Movement.” This is a topic I’ll have to revisit sometime soon.

The Chickenhawks’ Candidate

Gee, guess who it is?

Then again, all of the top-tier Republicans are neocon favorites, as Bill Kristol says:

“I would say, as a card-carrying member of the neoconservative conspiracy,” said William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, “that I think Giuliani, McCain and Thompson are all getting really good advice — and Romney.” Mr. Kristol said that none of the leading Republican candidates “buy any of these fundamental criticisms that Bush took us on a radically wrong path, and we have to go to a pre-9/11 foreign policy.”

President Alden Pyle

Greg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher comments on George W. Bush’s rather surprising invocation of Graham Greene in his speech earlier this month to the VFW in Kansas City:

Greene’s novel, in any case, pits the cynical, apolitical newspaperman (who has a Vietnamese girlfriend and an opium habit) against the Pyle character, who seems to be a U.S. aid official linked to the CIA (and purportedly based on the legendary Edward Lansdale). Pyle is attempting to find a “third force, ” a democratic alternative to the French-backed puppet government and the Communist insurgents. With brilliant writing, biting humor and keen insight on local politics and customs (based on Greene’s research there), the novel perfectly anticipates the massive U.S. urge to intervene deeply and then escalate. 

… Pyle ultimately assists an urban bombing to be blamed on Viet Minh insurgents, and many civilians die. Greene observes that “a woman sat on the ground with what was left of her baby in her lap; with a kind of modesty she had covered it with her straw peasant hat.” Fowler asks Pyle how many such deaths he would accept in “building a national democratic front.” Pyle responds: “Anyway, they died in the right cause. … They died for democracy.” 

Bush would never say something like that but plenty of Greene’s comments about Pyle would apply to him. (Philip Noyce, director of the recent film based on the book, has said “Bush is the ultimate Alden Pyle.”) Greene’s description of the character even sounds like the young Bush, with a crew cut and a “wide campus gaze.” If only he was merely “reading the Sunday supplements at home and following the baseball” instead of mucking around in foreign lands. 

Night of the Living Dead Ideologies

Brian Doherty argues that neoliberalism and (neo)conservatism aren’t nearly as dead as they ought to be.

Neoliberals by that name may be dead; neoliberalism reigns. Conservatism (especially minus libertarianism) may be out of ideas, but still commands enormous armies of dedicated voters—more than any other self-identified ideology.

To put it another way, the Soviet Union (to say nothing of Cuba and Red China) hung around long beyond Communism’s expiration date. The inertia of institutional power is nigh overwhelming in the short run.

I am encouraged for the future by the largley non-ideological bent of some of the brighter young people I know.  There doesn’t seem to be much appetite among them for grand projects to reconstruct society or the world. On the other hand, I sometimes detect among them a hint of indifferentism and a certain naivete about the hardened political doctrines that still rule the day — I know one or two promising, post-ideological young conservatives or libertarians who seem to think that everybody likes them because, hey, what’s not to like? The answer to that is: just wait until you’re in a position where your words or actions matter to the establishment.  You’ll find out very quickly why libertarians and paleoconservatives are so fractious and sometimes bitter.  The establishment can tolerate plenty of dissent when it doesn’t matter; as soon as it does, the knives come out.

On a tangential note, the situation in universities seems to be gradually improving as well, not just with the continuing decline of political correctness (any is still too much, but this isn’t the late ’80s / early ’90s: speech codes, for example, are fewer and fewer) but more importantly with the regeneration of several worthy fields of scholarship.  Classics is booming at several universities: when I was a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis at the beginning of this decade, there seemed to be about three times as much interest in classics among undergrads as there had been just a couple of years earlier, when I was an undergrad myself. I’ve heard of similar upswings at other campuses.  In economics, not only has Keynesianism fallen to a low ebb, but Austrian and at any rate “post-neoclassical” scholarship appears to be flourishing, even if Samuelsonian neoclassical economics still rules the day.  Whether these developments are just blips or a real turnaround, time will tell; but I’m cautiously optimistic.

Worsthorne on Liberalism

From a year or so back, but I missed it the first time: the text, courtesy of the Guardian, of Peregrine Worsthorne’s talk on liberalism at the Athenaeum club. A snippet:

Today, however, liberalism is the only ism in a position not only to dream of world hegemony but to try to make that dream come true – a case of absolute power tending to corrupt absolutely, if ever there was one. Onward liberal soldiers marching as to war. Not so much Pax Americana as Bellum Americanum.

In other words, the Iraq war is only the first move in a liberal jihad aimed at spreading to all mankind a secular and materialist religion, the central tenet of which – free thought – can be relied upon to dissolve people’s faith in any transcendental religion far more certainly than could communist repression. So it is no wonder that Islamic fundamentalists are reacting so fiercely. They have seen what liberalism has done for Christianity in the western world and quite understandably don’t want the Muslim faith to suffer the same fate.

Nor is this new overweening form of liberalism to be found only in foreign affairs. It is also pretty rampant on the domestic front, at least in Britain, where the two restraining isms of socialism and high Toryism have been ground into the dust by the Thatcherite revolution. Politicians of all parties, including the Conservatives, are liberal now. But theirs is a novel and almost unbelievably power-dependent form of liberalism. It starts from the assumption that, with the old dragons of despotic kingship, religious intolerance, patrician insolence and, finally, totalitarianism successfully dispatched, another window of opportunity has opened for liberalism to declare war on human, and even eventually animal, pain and suffering – regardless of the fact that this limitlessly ambitious new war must assuredly involve a vast extension of governmental power to enforce political correctness.

Worsthorne is still writing a short column for The First Post, a UK webzine, where he continues to say things that aren’t often heard on this side of the Atlantic:

In an ideal world, all the young, poor as well as rich, should be equally free to sow their wild oats – to drug, drink and fornicate, break up the furniture, etc – to their hearts’ content.

The trouble, however, is that whereas rich parents can afford to save their children from the consequences of youthful irresponsibility – by repaying debts, taking care of illegitimate children, subsidising single mothers and rehabilitating addicts – the parents of the poor can’t.

Darwinian Conservatism

Larry Arnhart’s blog is worth a link.

I’m probably not exactly a Darwinian conservative myself — my secret wish is to rehabilitate Lamarck — but plainly the assault on Darwin lately is ideological rather than scientific and must be resisted.

Addendum: Actually there’s quite a lot wrong with Arnhart’s specific ideas about Darwinian conservatism, including this, “Darwinian conservatives will agree with President Bush that there is a natural desire for liberty.” What evidence is there for this claim? Most people throughout most of the world for most of history have been quite unfree and don’t seem to have chafed a great deal at their condition. Clearly enough, whatever natural drive there may be for freedom is easly satisfied or else overpowered by other impulses.

My naive impression is that a taste for freedom is both biologically and culturally uncommon. But then, a tend toward a pessimistic, Cram-like view of these things.

Addendum II: Following a link from Steve Sailer, I see the War Nerd has addressed the myth that people want democracy (not the same thing as freedom, of course, but these day people tend to mistake one for the other).

Success Has Many Fathers — Iraq Doesn’t

Neo Culpa, coming up next month in Vanity Fair. Here’s a bit of Richard Perle from the preview:

Richard Perle: “Huge mistakes were made, and I want to be very clear on this: They were not made by neoconservatives, who had almost no voice in what happened, and certainly almost no voice in what happened after the downfall of the regime in Baghdad. I’m getting damn tired of being described as an architect of the war. I was in favor of bringing down Saddam. Nobody said, ‘Go design the campaign to do that.’ I had no responsibility for that.”

Wilsonianism, Then and Now

The fatal flaw of Wilsonianism, with its endemic and epidemic political righteousness, its insistence upon trying all governments and other institutions by the hopeless criteria of Fourteen Points or Four Freedoms, or some equally Jacobinist nonsense, is that it can only erode, weaken, or destroy existing structures. It cannot, by its nature, build new ones–not durable ones, at least; only pseudo-structures like the League of Nations (which would have been no better had Wilson had his way with Henry Cabot Lodge) or the United Nations. The real work of building or rebuilding is invariably left to those who detest freedom and who do not shrink from the uses of force, repression, persecution, and terror. Could one find a better illustration of that right now than either Cambodia or South Vietnam?

That’s Robert Nisbet, from a 1975 Commentary symposium, “America Now: A Failure of Nerve?

Strauss the Skeptic

There’s an excellent, thought-provoking essay on Leo Strauss and Straussians in the new (Sumer 2006) issue of Modern Age by Richard Sherlock of Utah State University. He’s sympathetic to Strauss in some respects and particularly values Strauss’s close readings of ancient texts. But ultimately he finds the project of Strauss and the Straussians sterile:

At bottom Strauss appears to be a skeptic on the most fundamental question of all: Can either philosophy or theology ground either wisdom or virtue? It is not that Strauss did not do all he could have done. It is rather that, on his own terms, such a grounding of natural right seems not to be possible. This is why in his masterwork [Natural Right and History — D.M.] the language of natural right is so fervent and pervasive while the pay-off is so meager. On the question at hand the project appears as rhetorical, not philosophic. In Natural Right and History Strauss argues that classical natural right is superior to modern natural rights, but he nowhere shows how classic natural right is anything more than rhetoric.

Nowhere does Strauss provide solutions to, or show how Plato or Aristotle provided solutions to, fundamental epistemological problems found in Plato’s own work. Nowhere does he engage Aristotle’s metaphysics or biology in search of natural right, in the way that Aristotle himself might have done. Nowhere does he seriosuly engage the nature of the physical cosmos. On his own view, philosophy must aspire to and thus assume a comprehensive account of the whole. But to invoke the whole–a cosmos–immediately raises the question of the grounds on which we can assume that whole to be intelligible. Such a move, of course, leads to classic natural theology, which Strauss studiously ignores.

… One strenuous critic of Strauss [Myles Burnyeat — D.M.] has attacked him as being a “sphinx without a secret.” I think that this is a limited and unsatisfactory response to Strauss and to Straussianism. In general, the secret of Strauss’s teaching is that there is no philosophic answer to the fundamental problems of human existence: What is the good? How shall I know it? How shall I live in its sight?

… [O]ne searches Strauss’s corpus and that of leading Straussians in vain for any serious encounter with Christian theologians, or for that matter with the real theologians of Islam like al-Ghazali. Straussians express their partiality for the ancients over the moderns as a preference for the high over the low. When confronted with the very highest, however–the claims of Christianity–they turn back on the road to Athens without any serious argument to justify their turn.

Of course, as Sherlock himself argues earlier, even that “road to Athens” is only followed as a rhetorical strategy.

There are several pro-Strauss books by Straussians out recently, by the way, including Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought and Intellectual Legacy by Thomas Pangle and Catherine and Michael Zuckert’s The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy. The latter appears to cover Strauss’s leading students and proponents particularly well. I’m looking forward to reading both one of these days when I have a bit of time on my hands. In the fullness of time, I’ll write up something at length about them and about Strauss generally.