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Sunday, December 11, 2005

"Nationalism" again

As regular readers (and readers of my last book) know, for nearly ten years now I have been deeply engaged with the historical theories of William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of Generations and The Fourth Turning. Essentially, they have argued that the life of a social and political order is about 80 years, culminating in a period of crisis that gives birth to a new order. For at least five years, the truth of their theory, I would suggest, has become clearer and clearer, although we certainly cannot as yet be sure where we are going, any more than our ancestors could in 1859 or in 1931. It was perhaps because I had already written and taught about so many historical periods and countries, and could test the theory in so many ways, that I became so interested in it, and this morning I shall share two illustrations bearing upon current events.

The first example involves the curse of the first half of the twentieth century: the inability of different ethnic and religious groups to live together in peace. As I discussed at length in Politics and War, the spread of nationalism from Western to Eastern Europe in the second half of the twentieth century became one of the two major causes of the First and Second World Wars (imperialism was the other.) Nationalism in the First World War tore down three the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires and created a whole host of new states, many of whom, inevitably, had mixed populations themselves. By that time, as Hannah Arendt pointed out rather brilliantly in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the international community had specifically abandoned the idea of the inalienable rights of man, and wrote treaties for the new post-1919 states in which they promised to respect the rights of their minorities--essentially confirming the existence of two kinds of citizens. The First World War and its aftermath also saw significant population and ethnic cleansing, most notably the genocide of the Armenians in Turkey and the exchange of Greek and Turkish populations. It also established the principle that Jews could settle in Palestine, opening the doors wide to another intractable conflict.

But the First World War was only a prologue to much greater horrors during the Second: the murder of about five million Jews and three million Christian Poles, and the expulsion of twelve to fourteen million Germans from territory taken by Poland and the Soviet Union, from Czechoslovakia, and from several other Eastern European states. Minorities, who in the 1930s had made up about 25% of the population of Eastern European states, had fallen to 7% of the same territories by the 1970s. Meanwhile, the creation of Israel started the modern Zionist-Palestinian conflict, and in Asia the independence of India and Pakistan was marked by hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees, as well as the beginning of another enduring conflict.

The triumph of the United States and the Soviet Union in 1945 gave the world a respite from such conflicts, not only because so many millions of minorities had been killed or uprooted, but also because both victor nations professed ideologies based upon reason, at least in theory, and affirming the essential equality of human beings. The triumph of the United States even led us to implement our own principles with respect to black Americans, undoing several centuries of legal white supremacy within just twenty more years. Communism was, as it turns out, the only modern ideology that could hold the old Russian Empire together, and its eclipse triggered a new round of ethnic wars in the Caucasus, and in Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, all signs point to a resurgence of ethnic and religious conflict in virtually every part of the world as the twentieth century yields to the twenty-first.

Thus, the European countries--for several decades, by various obvious measures, the most civilized in the world--are now threatened by the presence of a large and growing Muslim population which, as the riots in France showed, has not been integrated into their national communities in any meaningful sense. Iraq is being torn about by conflicts among Kurds, Shi'ites and Sunnis, and will probably join the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia among the crumbled relics of the First World War within a few years. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no closer to a solution. The Sunni-Shi'ite split threatens a number of other Middle Eastern countries. And the postwar, secular regimes in Arab states like Egypt and Syria have clearly lost a great deal of their legitimacy among their own people, and have even been repudiated by their patron the United States. Here in the United States, race remains a powerful predictor of voting, and public schools in much of the South are nearly as segregated as they were in 1954. To a considerable extent, the anti-government movement that has spread from the South to Washington draws on whites' unwillingness to fund public services for blacks. In India, the Congress Party struggles for dominance with Hindu nationalists who talk freely of a nuclear war with Pakistan, and the difference between Japanese and Chinese textbooks' treatment of the Second World War is increasing, not shrinking.

The terrifying question posed by Strauss and Howe's analysis is whether the United States and the rest of the world can create a new consensus without a new war that will cost millions, or tens of millions, of lives. The history of the last three centuries does not offer much hope. Violence on an enormous scale occurred in the 1774-1815 period, and during the First and Second World Wars. In the mid-19th century Europe largely escaped--thanks to a combination of memories of Napoleon and of Bismarck--but the American Civil War, the Indian Mutiny, and the Tai'ping rebellion in China all took the lives of many thousands. In any event, the civic and international order that we have taken for granted for 60 years is collapsing around us--and sadly, the government of the United States is taking a leading role in promoting its demise.

Meanwhile, here in the United States we are showing another malady characteristic of crisis periods--what George Orwell, at the height of the last great crisis in the 1940s, described in his essay, "Notes on Nationalism." Orwell was not referring to nationalism in the narrow sense of identification with one's own ethnic group, and still less to patriotism, which he defined in a revealing contrast as "devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people." Instead he meant, "the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests." As Orwell continues, his analysis gets closer and closer to home.

"A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist--that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating--but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade."

"Political or military commentators, like astrologers, can survive almost any mistake, because their more devoted followers do not look to them for an appraisal of the facts but for the stimulation of nationalistic loyalties."

"As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit. It is difficult if not impossible for any nationalist to conceal his allegiance. The smallest slur upon his own unit, or any implied praise of a rival organization, fills him with uneasiness which he can relieve only by making some sharp retort."

"All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage--torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians--which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by 'our' side. "

"The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia."

"Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered. He spends part of his time in a fantasy world in which things happen as they should--in which, for example, the Spanish Armada was a success or the Russian Revolution was crushed in 1918--and he will transfer fragments of this world to the history books whenever possible. Much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain forgery. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning. Events which it is felt ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied."

Neoconservatism, it seems to be, is surely the most important example of contemporary "nationalism" as Orwell defined it. Neoconservatives believe the United States has a sacred destiny to transform the world--which in practice amounts to eliminating any opposition to American interests--and that nothing but evil abroad and treachery at home stands in the way. Orwell also wrote that nationalists had a remarkable facility for switching sides, and some prominent neoconservatives such as David Horowitz and Melvin Olasky (the inventor of the the phrase "compassionate conservatism") began their adult lives on the extreme left. For thirty years economists, journalists and opinion leaders have sworn fealty to another kind of nationalism, free-market economics, in the name of which they continue to deny the most basic facts about the connections between taxes, deficits, and economic growth. To be sure, nationalism has been popular on the left for the last thirty years was well, focusing in the 1960s on Cuba and China, and in the 1970s and 1980s on Palestine and leftist movements in Central America. Orwell did, however, identify two forms of nationalism that have become extraordinarily influential among western intellectuals, the first of which, indeed, dominates most university humanities departments today.

"COLOUR FEELING. The old-style contemptuous attitude towards 'natives' has been much weakened in England, and various pseudo-scientific theories emphasising the superiority of the white race have been abandoned.[Note, below] Among the intelligentsia, colour feeling only occurs in the transposed form, that is, as a belief in the innate superiority of the coloured races. This is now increasingly common among English intellectuals, probably resulting more often from masochism and sexual frustration than from contact with the Oriental and Negro nationalist movements. Even among those who do not feel strongly on the colour question, snobbery and imitation have a powerful influence. Almost any English intellectual would be scandalised by the claim that the white races are superior to the coloured, whereas the opposite claim would seem to him unexceptionable even if he disagreed with it."

"PACIFISM. The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to the taking of life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States."

Today many popular opinion leaders on the Left have a Manichean view of the world, but they have lost most of their preferred causes or heroes. Perhaps, because the Left is relatively powerless now, it is less likely to suffer from another critical disease which the Bush Administration is falling victim to with respect to Iraq, as well as other issues.

"Moreover, although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge, the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to FEEL that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him. All nationalist controversy is at the debating-society level. It is always entirely inconclusive, since each contestant invariably believes himself to have won the victory. Some nationalists are not far from schizophrenia, living quite happily amid dreams of power and conquest which have no connection with the physical world. "

More than a year ago a senior White House official told Ron Susskind, whom he characterized as a member of the "reality-based community," that "We're an empire now, and we create our own reality." This is the classic fantasy of such nationalists in power, such as the Nazis, Stalinists, and Maoists, and Susskind apparently did not have the presence of mind or the bad manners to remind his interlocutor that reality has a nasty way of imposing itself sooner or later.

Orwell's whole essay, of course, prefigures 1984, which he probably already had in his head when he wrote it. That classic work really is based upon the fantasy of the "senior White House official" come true--the Party controls reality, because it can torture anyone into not only believing, but loving, Big Brother. It deals, really, with the eternal struggle among power lust, intellectual integrity, and sensuality, which in the character of Julia becomes an ally of Winston's rationalism against Party rule. Once again we come to the eternal drama of modern human life: our never-ending struggle to allow our brains to check our emotions. We are presently losing the battle, but we may take comfort that it shall never be entirely lost.

[p.s. Once again I invite those who have enjoyed this or any other post will take the opportunity to subscribe, below right, and receive notifications of every post.]

1 comment:

Rory Maxwell said...