Tag: Nationalism

Service to the American People or to the American State?

One of the most persistent utopian visions over the last century and more is national service. By “national service” proponents never mean service to Americans. The United States long has been famous for the willingness of its people to organize to help one another and respond to social problems. Alexis de Tocqueville cited this activism as one of the hallmarks of the early American republic.

Rather, advocates of “national service” mean service to the state. To be sure, they believe the American people would benefit. But informal, decentralized, private service doesn’t count.

The latest proponent is columnist Michael Gerson, one-time speechwriter for “compassionate conservative” George W. Bush. Wrote Gerson:

How then does a democracy cultivate civic responsibility and shared identity? Taxation allows us to fund common purposes, but it does not provide common experiences. A rite of passage in which young people — rich and poor, liberal and conservative, of every racial background — work side by side to address public problems would create, at least, a vivid, lifelong memory of shared national purpose.

To Gerson’s credit, he does not advocate a mandatory program, where people would go to jail if they didn’t desire to share the national purpose exalted by their betters. But many people, from Margaret Mead to Senator Ted Kennedy, did want a civilian draft. Indeed, a number of noted liberals who campaigned against military conscription were only too happy to force the young into civilian “service.” 

The GOP’s Insipid American Exceptionalism

I’ve had it with “American exceptionalism.” Enough already.

The phrase has garnered a considerable amount of attention lately, namely because Republicans are saying it over and over again. The Atlantic points out that the term itself was coined by Joseph Stalin, lamenting America’s inability to go communist (cf. Louis Hartz). Of course, the concept that America was different than Europe goes back at least to Tocqueville, but is it too much to ask that we recall Tocqueville was writing nearly 200 years ago? Might we not pause, at least momentarily, to reconsider the argument from authority and subject it to a bit of scrutiny?

I complained about the pervasive theme at the Republican convention in my podcast yesterday, and Alex Massie holds forth against the exceptionally exceptionalistic speechifying at Foreign Policy today. Republicans—and the rest of us—ought to just shut up about exceptionalism already. As it stands now, a few word substitutions could make Herder or Fichte feel right at home at a GOP convention. We ought not to like this.

Encouraging citizens to reify, then flutter with excitement at the uniqueness of their own “imagined community” lubricates both the administrative capacity of and enthusiasm for the Great American Welfare/Warfare State that is presently bankrupting our unborn children. Those of us who would like a bit more federalism, veering toward sectionalism even, do so realizing that this would create downward pressure on the centralization of our lives in the body of the national government. (“Who is this fellow 2,000 miles away from me and why should I subsidize his career and pay his flood insurance and pension?”) That the disgrace of slavery accompanied the last era of sectionalism in this country is no reason to throw out the concept itself.

Bizarrely, the GOP married this nationalistic theme with an ostensible concern for how America is viewed across the world. Might we not consider that the world finds this constant self-congratulation unseemly and perhaps even dangerous? Imagine your coworker, or neighbor, or spouse, constantly parading about, preening and pronouncing that he is the greatest person ever to have been made and marveling at how lucky are those subject to his ministrations. Any impartial observer would forgive you for nudging him off a pier, and all the more so if he were, in fact, great.

This is perhaps the saddest part of the whole garish spectacle. The United States is a great country. Take a look around you. Saying it over and over again doesn’t make it any more so; in fact it makes it less. All the bleating about our exceptionalism from our leaders is enough to make you think that they don’t really believe it. The party doth protest too much, methinks.

The next time your would-be ruler holds forth about exceptionalism, remind yourself what Mencken said:

Democratic man, as I have remarked, is quite unable to think of himself as a free individual; he must belong to a group, or shake with fear and loneliness—and the group, of course, must have its leaders. It would be hard to find a country in which such brummagem serene highnesses are revered with more passionate devotion than they get in the United States. The distinction that goes with mere office runs far ahead of the distinction that goes with actual achievement.

That’s what this is all about: If we allow the other party or candidate to insert its peculiar and grotesque proboscides into our homes, wallets, and lives—well, we’ll be just that much less exceptional.

Much more in the podcast:

Finns Begin a Quixotic Quest for Prevention

In the aftermath of the Oslo terror attack, Finnish police—yes, Finnish—plan to increase their surveillance of the Internet:

Deputy police commissioner Robin Lardot said his forces will play closer attention to fragmented pieces of information—known as ‘weak signals’—in case they connect to a credible terrorist threat.

That is not the way forward. As I explored in a series of posts and a podcast after the Fort Hood shooting here in the United States, random violence (terrorist or otherwise) is not predictable and not “findable” in advance—not if a free society is to remain free, anyway. That’s bad news, but it’s important to understand.

In the days since the attack, many commentators have poured a lot of energy into interpretation of Oslo and U.S. media treatment of it while the assumption of an al Qaeda link melted before evidence that it was a nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic “cultural conservative.” Such commentary and interpretation is riveting to people who are looking to vindicate or decimate one ideology or another, but it doesn’t matter much in terms of security against future terrorism.

As former FBI agent (and current ACLU policy counsel) Mike German advises, any ideology can become a target of the government if the national security bureaucracy comes to use political opinion or activism as a proxy or precursor for crime and terrorism. Rather than blending crime control with mind control, the only thing to do is to watch ever-searchingly for genuine criminal planning and violence, and remember the Oslo dead as Lt. General Cone did Fort Hood’s: “The … community shares your sorrow as we move forward together in a spirit of resiliency.”

Two Cheers for Iraqi Nationalism

What Does This Mean? (Reuters/Ceerwan Aziz)

Today’s New York Times has a piece on the running discussion in Iraq about the prospect of U.S. military withdrawal from their country. As the article highlights, the discussion itself “reflects a nation still struggling with issues of sectarian identity, national pride, and how to secure its future.”

One of the few things former President Bush said about Iraq that I agreed with was his claim on Al Arabiya in 2005 that “the future of Iraq depends on Iraqi nationalism and the Iraq character—the character of Iraq and Iraqi people emerging.”

In general, I am not very fond of nationalism, but if you want to hold together a country of 25 million people, especially when they have been riven by decades of sectarian strife, a living-memory civil war, a variety of identity politics divides, and disputes over the rents from natural resources, you could probably use some. (Maybe we could find a way that a very diverse coalition of Iraqis could chase us out.)

As the article indicates, there are a range of views about the prospect of American withdrawal. One Iraqi remarks hopefully that “I prefer that the U.S. forces leave Iraq because then extremists wouldn’t have an excuse to carry guns.” A follower of Muqtada al-Sadr remarks that “Whatever [Sadr] says, we will do. We will keep on resisting until the last days of our lives.” An intellectual remarks that if American military forces leave, “the sectarian conflict between Iran and the rest of the Arab countries will seep into Iraq because the Iranians will try and make the Shiites more powerful and the Arab countries will support the Sunnis. This will lead to a sectarian war.”

Several of the Iraqis interviewed were profoundly cynical about American intentions, believing that the United States would try to stick around for various selfish reasons. At a time when political leaders like Sen. Lindsey Graham, Rep. John Boehner, and others are suggesting that we need to find a way to stay in their country, can you really blame the Iraqis for feeling a bit cynical?

Regardless, the future of Iraq will ultimately turn on whether Iraqis decide that there is such a thing as Iraq, and if so, whether they should identify strongly with it and be loyal to it. The fact that the jury is still out on those questions more than eight years after we changed the regime speaks volumes about the folly of the war in the first place.

This Month at Cato Unbound: Neoconservatism Unmasked

This month, Cato Unbound examines neoconservatism – perhaps the most puzzling of current ideologies. The lead essay is from Professor C. Bradley Thompson, author of Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea.

So what is it? Some say there’s no there there – neoconservatism is a disposition or a mood, no more and no less, and it’s got little or no enduring philosophical content. Thompson, however, argues that neoconservatism is a coherent political philosophy, one blending Machiavellian pragmatism with Platonic idealism. Philosophers may apprehend eternal truths, but these truths aren’t fit for ordinary folk, and still less are they a good basis for politics. In these realms, we need national unity, national greatness, national strength – in a word, nationalism.

Is this an accurate portrayal? Some will certainly disagree, and we’ve invited three distinguished panelists to engage Thompson’s thesis – Patrick J. Deneen of Georgetown University, Damon Linker of The New Republic, and Douglas B. Rasmussen of St. John’s University. Be sure to come back throughout the month, or subscribe to our RSS feed to see the conversation as it develops.

Problems with Nationalism?

I try to avoid Sunday morning talk shows like the plague, but somehow I happened to catch five minutes of Fareed Zakaria’s “GPS” show on CNN International.  Elliott Abrams and Peter Beinart were arguing about the Gaza flotilla and Beinart’s New York Review of Books article about liberal Zionism.

What I found interesting about the segment was the exchange between the two men about the argument Beinart made in the article: that many young Jews saw the choice before them not as being between liberal Zionism and conservative Zionism, but rather between conservative Zionism and no Zionism.  Beinart spelled out the argument, and this is what followed:

ZAKARIA: Elliott, you can briefly respond to this, and then we’ve got to go.

ABRAMS: OK. I think it’s quite historical.

What Peter is forgetting, that Jewish liberals have never supported Israel. They didn’t support the founding of the state of Israel. The reform movement was anti-Zionist for decades and decades.

Jewish liberals have a problem with particularism, nationalism, Zionism, and they always have. And it isn’t due to anything that is going on in Israel, it’s due to things that are going on inside their heads. They need to grow up and realize that Israel has a right to defend itself. (emphasis mine)

I’ve included his whole response for context, but I’m only really interested in the italicized part of the argument.  Aren’t all Americans supposed to have problems with nationalism?  Not our own nationalism, of course, which we have re-labeled “exceptionalism.”  But foreign nationalism?  Isn’t that supposed to be pernicious?

The way in which Abrams presented the argument struck me as being a normative claim, not positive.  That is, “particularism, nationalism, and Zionism” were not just things that Jewish liberals have problems with, but rather they were things that Jewish liberals have problems with but should not.

Abrams’ inclusion of Zionism alongside nationalism ought perhaps to caution him about Zionism’s susceptibility to the perils that have plagued other nationalisms through history.

GM’s Nationalization and China’s Capitalists

GM’s restructuring under Chapter 11 includes plans to sell off the Hummer, Saab, and Saturn brands. Well, just one day after GM’s bankruptcy filing, a Chinese firm has come forward with a $500 million offer to purchase Hummer. The prospective buyer is Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Co Ltd, a manufacturing company in western China, which hopes to become an automaker.

Not only is the Hummer offer the first bid for a GM asset in bankruptcy, but the bidder is foreign. Not only is the bidder foreign, but Chinese. And not only is the bidder Chinese, but the Hummer was first developed by the U.S. military. Thus, this is certain to be characterized as a national security matter, and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) will have to review the proposal. There should be little doubt that the economic nationalists will be out in full force, warning CFIUS against transferring sensitive technologies to Red China.

Let me offer two quick points, as the bulging veins in my temples pulsate with disdain for official Washington.

First, if this deal is rejected (even if the bidder is scared away by detractors), any remaining credibility to the proposition that the United States will once again become that beacon on a hill, exemplifying for the world the virtues of free markets and limited government, will vanish into the ether. There has been too much U.S. hypocrisy on free trade and cross-border investment and too much double talk about the impropriety of government subsidizing national champions, that another indiscretion in a high profile case will blow open the already-bowing flood gates to economic nationalism worldwide. Considering that U.S. companies sell five times as much stuff to foreigners through their foreign subsidiaries than by exporting from the United States, investment protectionism is as advisable as nationalizing car companies.

Second, the willingness of this Chinese company to purchase Hummer serves as a stark reminder of what could have been. Had George W. Bush not allocated TARP money to GM last December, in circumvention of Congress’s rejection of a bailout, then GM likely would have filed for bankruptcy on January 1. At that point, there would likely have been plenty of offers from foreign and domestic concerns for individual assets to spin off or for equity stakes in the New GM. There would have been plant closures, dealership terminations, and jobs losses, as there is under the nationalization plan anyway. But taxpayers wouldn’t be on the hook for $50+ billion, a sum that is much more likely to grow larger than it is to be repaid. It is also a sum that will serve as the rationalization for further government interventions on GM’s behalf.