May 04, 2008
Although I am second to none in my respect for Dan Larison as a political commentator, his remarks about nationalism and nation states are for the most part historically inaccurate. The Serb blogger who noted that a Serb national consciousness had existed for centuries before a Serb nation state came into existence is absolutely correct about Serbia and about European nation states in general. The Protestant Reformation, the nineteenth-century wars of national unification and national liberation in Europe, and the ominous confrontation precipitating World War One all reflected the force of already existing national sentiments. Without those sentiments and the friend/enemy distinctions they generated, many of the great political turning points in modern European history would have been possible.
What Dan should have said is that state architects from Elizabeth I, Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu down to Cavour and Bismarck used already existing national feelings, which was particularly concentrated in the rising bourgeoisie, to achieve their political ends. This is a different from trying to conjure up new collective identities on the basis of “abstract” concepts, which no major European state-builder in previous centuries tried to do. At most they worked to strengthen national bonds that were already present, e.g., by promoting a national literature or by standardizing a national language. And sometimes they encountered insuperable obstacles to their project, e. g., when they came up against a regional culture that would not yield to a national one, as in the cases of the Catalans and Basques who refused to become Castilian Spaniards or of the Welsh who persist in speaking their own Celtic tongue. But for the most part nation states worked to the extent they could build on an already entrenched national consciousness.
Neither Bush nor his neocon puppet-masters are “nationalists” of any kind. And the only “patriotism” his neocon advisors show is for the East Coast fleshpots where they reside and build their pleasure domes—with the donations of multinational corporations. As many have observed, these “nationalists” are Israeli patriots, and Israel is indeed a nation state. But Bush’s advisors don”t live there and their hysterical views about launching preemptive wars for democracy don”t seem to enjoy among Israelis anything like the unanimity they do at FOX and among the editors of National Review.
What Bush represents is neither traditional nationalism nor patriotism but something that has been called “propositional nationhood.” This is a variation on what Germany’s conquerors imposed on its prostrate population after World War Two in the form of “constitutional patriotism,” albeit in Germany’s case the postwar constitution we bestowed on it was not nationally specific but was introduced by a statement about the constitution’s signatories being first and foremost committed to the “dignity of humanity.” Although the Germans were left too humiliated and afterwards too steeped in national masochism to ever again be a threat to anyone but themselves, propositional nationhood in the American context is an expansionist ideology. It requires our government to meddle in everyone’s interest in the name of our presumed highest values; and it treats the rest of the world as a target for conversion to whatever is the latest distillation of our “propositional” character. And since we have no ethnic-cultural identity that is worth preserving except for our commitment to fight for “human rights” intergalactically, we let everyone and his cousins come into this country, providing they eventually find jobs and mouth the appropriate phrases about equality. This creates further disunity, but since we are now a nation by virtue of a proposition and a continuing military mission, it makes no difference how much diversity we permit and even subsidize within our porous borders.