April 15, 2008
Our view of what kind of nation we are is related to the question of “nationalism.” Are we a normal nation? A “creedal” nation? An “exceptional” nation? For many on the left and the neoconservative right, America is only authentic and just when it uses its immense power in a selfless ideological struggle on behalf of the powerless. This view of the West is a major influence on the neoconservatives, whose historical memory finds an especially important turn in 1939. For them, this is the year when the West, and America in particular, became morally suspect by failing to help European Jews by putting down the dreaded old nationalist forces that the neconservatives’ parents had recently fled.
A surefire way to get American politicians to take notice of some problem in the world is to be told it’s a Second Holocaust. Americans and Europeans meekly accept the charge from the Nazi’s Jewish victims that this episode was as much a moral failing of “bystanders” as it was the responsibility of the perpetrators themselves, and that therefore the whole world should stand united in the future when such events occur. We are told that a surplus of nationalism leads to selfishness and indifference and that ultimately such feelings lead to the greatest symbol of evil in the Western World. Post-national states must intervene, militarily if need be, so that such an atrocity would happen “never again.” Neoconservatism’s twists and turns may best be explained as follows: their views of American national identity and foreign policy must always yield an interventionist and open borders response to the events of 1939; all other views must be rejected as inadequate.
They’ve made some headway with this critique, because the Holocaust is the chief agreed-upon symbol of evil in the moral imagination of the Western World. And this symbol is sometimes used, particularly by the far left, to show the fundamental moral failings of the Western World (as opposed to showing the failings only of some of its members). For them, the Holocaust is the Evil Western World’s apotheosis, the culmination of the crusades, witch burnings, slavery, pogroms, mistreatment of indigenous peoples, etc. Of course, we all agree that this evil event should not happen to this group again.
But much more is required.
Equality and nondiscrimination demand that one puts the citizenship of one’s countrymen on an equal plane with that of strangers. The measure of our worth will not be the advancement of something so parochial as our national security and commonwealth, but, rather, will consist only in the elimination of any distinction between ourselves and the other. This distinction is supposedly the root of all discrimination, all racism, all ethnocentrism, and, by implication, is the root of the Holocaust itself. The neoconservative and idealist agenda is as much a test of our own moral integrity and commitment, as it is a formula for political and foreign policy.
For the neoconservatives’ conservatism is not about conserving anything tangible and historical. It is, instead, about the march of abstractions: Free Markets, Democracy, Color Blindness, Tolerance. America can be defined as a few slogans. Under this grandiose philosophy, a government’s role is not to advance the parochial and particular good of America, even when its interest is as basic as self-defence. It’s instead to support the triumph of these universal values. We all are being asked to take one for the team. And the team is not our country. The team is the whole human race, which would supposedly recoil in horror if we behaved like a normal, self-interested society.
Why else have we not done more to deport illegals after 9/11? Why else hasn”t Bush spoken out forcefully about the Muslim overreaction to a few cartoons in an obscure Danish paper? Why else do people in other nations (such as Nigerian Christians) react so differently and more predictably compared to Westerners when they”re harassed by Muslim minorities? Why else do we help Muslims in Kosovo and Iraq, when it’s so obvious these people are hostile to us, our religion (or what’s left of it), and our way of life?
Like so much else in liberalism, our objective decline and endangerment is described as the march of universal justice. Our meek defenses are recast as offensive “attacks.” This is why James Burnham called liberalism an “ideology of western suicide.” It functions to redefine our destruction as a good thing that we should welcome. This decline serves another function, a spiritual function. We can take solace in our decline as atonement for our participation in a crime that is widely reputed to be the worst in human history, the moral dagger at the heart of the Western World’s pretensions of morality.
Let’s consider reality, though. Gallantry, heroism, and expensive support for strangers are simply too much to ask from the general lot of nations. It’s an unrealistic demand that misdiagnoses the roots of the Holocaust—revolutionary ideology and disregard for Christian limits on state action—while it also misunderstands the real costs that such a “do gooder” ideology imposes not only on one’s own citizens but on foreigners too.
Because when “nations” stop wars and genocides, they do not do so collectively. It is their soldiers, whose interests are a public trust. When “nations” take on refugees, it is not the nation, but individuals and communities that are affected. It is Newark and Wausau and Minneapolis who must absorb the Central American, Hmong, and Somali refugees respectively. Acts of generosity and heroism are noble sentiments that should be praised and encouraged and remembered among communities and individuals. Yet they are rare. They should not be imposed from a faction on a nation’s soldiers and small towns without some proportionate benefit to the nation. And the more common absence of these qualities in nations and individuals should not be an occasion for condemnation by “armchair Oscar Schindlers.”
I also question the ultimate moral calculus of these moralizers. The idea that America or other large nations should “do something” when evil is afoot is the chief reason petty border squabbles in the Balkans can metastasize into something like World War I. In the name of creating world unity against aggression, the interventionists instead create a formula for perpetual and ever larger wars fought by enormous coalitions of people with no direct stake in the conflict. This is madness. Yet this is the fundamental premise of the United Nations, the “New World Order,” and the neoconservatives’ “idealist” foreign policy.
Rejecting this reasoning is only possible when one is a nationalist with a sense of greater responsibility, loyalty, and love to one’s own than to foreigners. This is a perfectly natural love and is immediately tangible when one travels overseas. It’s more than mere patriotism. It requires not just love of one’s own, but rejection of an alluring suitor: the siren song of “universal human brotherhood.” Today, the alternative to nationalism is not localism so much as it two bad alternatives: a descent into primitive tribalism at home with no sense of common interest between different ethnic groups and social classes, or a sentimental globalism that devalues national pride and glorifies run-away materialism. It’s a pincer movement with Spike Lee on one side and Benetton on the other. Healthy nationalism is an antidote to both of these unsustainable extremes.
If we accept this view, we must revisit the solemn invocation: “never again.” Because if “never again” means we must always go to war to protect the weak from the strong—because Americans, Britons, Eastern European Jews, or Bosniaks must never be valued differently by Americans in this moral calculus—then we”ll always be at war everywhere. Our people will suffer. And we may find ourselves victimized in turn for having created new enemies. Worse, we may be unwittingly strengthening future victimizers posing as victims in far flung locales involving people we know almost nothing about. Consider Iraq as an example of a “humanitarian war” gone awry: who are the good guys again? Is it the Shiites? The Sunnis? Or was that last week?
Most saliently, we should look to how a real ethnostate behaves. Israel, the chief cheerleader for “never again” politics, turned away Sudanese refugees in spite of the atrocities they are fleeing in 2007. If Israel expends its resources so parsimoniously on behalf of strangers in need, how persuasive is the claim from its supporters that we must do the same for strangers the globe over? In light of this shabby treatment of the Sudanese, how persuasive is the associated claim that America owes Israel substantial military and financial support to atone for our “earlier failing” to intervene more quickly during the Holocaust?
It’s all a bunch of double standards. No one can follow them. So the principles should be revisited. And we should wisen up so that Americans and the West do not get brow-beaten into doing things that no sane nation, not least the Israelis, would ever do with its immigration and foreign policies. The start of this critique must be some sense of nationhood, which is to say, some distinct sense of self that prioritizes ourselves, our loyalties, and our proper group concerns above those of every other nation and above those of every imploring claimant.
When we look at wars like Iraq and Kosovo, we should indeed say “never again”: Never again will America be guilt-tripped into doing something so stupid with with the flawed “blank check” slogan: “Never Again.”