Saturday, December 5, 2009

Scattered thoughts on nationalism

So I wrote a post last week on nationalism. My Ilya -- uh, the Artist Formerly Known as Ilya -- wrote his own post coming out still more forcefully against nationalism of both of the mystic and non-mystic varieties. Then Jonah Goldberg wrote a long post responding to Ilya's post. Will Wilkinson also weighs in, as does my friend Josh Blackman's guest blogger.

Some scattered thoughts:

1)As Ilya said in comments, I agree with nearly all of the content of Josh House's post. The kind of non-mystic nationalism/rational pride in one's country that he has is admirable, as I said in my original post.

2)Regarding Jonah Goldberg's post: as a threshhold issue, I respect things that are over-thunk. I fear under-thinking is nearly always a worse evil.

Onto the substance. Regarding Goldberg's first point - that the lethality of nationalism is in the dosage -- Ilya has a fine response that it's difficult to calibrate dosages precisely. But I don't agree with Goldberg's broad point that moderation in everything is always the right course. I don't think that there can ever be too much freedom or too much individualism. Or, at least, I am more worried about someday becoming too rich, too thin, or about owning too many silk shirts than living in a society that has too much freedom or too much individualism. Can Goldberg name a society that has suffered from too much freedom or too much individualism? A single public policy that is bad because it permitted (permits?) too much individualism and too much freedom? I can't.

Second, I don't think irrational affection is getting such a bad rap here. I admit that there are situations in which low doses of irrational affection are probably harmless. But I don't think there's anything especially laudable about staying in loveless marriages or in keeping a job at your current firm when you could make more money at a different firm. I admit the former situation gets more complicated when your concerns about children that you love come into play. But if it's just two adults involved, what is so wrong with ending an unhappy or loveless marriage? Why not do what will make both people happier? Ditto with abandoning a job for a more lucrative one. Mobility of labor is good for the broader economy, after all.

Regarding Goldberg's #5, I'm also unconvinced. It's a nice rhetorical strategy to say that freedom is intertwined with our national DNA. It's also kind of like looking over the heads of people we don't know at a cocktail party and noticing only our friends, to use Justice Roberts' analogy in a different context. Yes, the Founders wrote magnificient paeans to freedom -- and also crafted the Alien and Sedition Acts. Liberty's better defended on purely theoretical grounds.

3)Half-formed thought: is nationalism in low doses, of the non-scary kind, efficient because it bundle certain kinds of cultural goods together for us and makes it easier to consume them ? That is, the French ethnic nationalist doesn't have to do several sets of independent research on what to eat or what to read? She can just be like, "Oh, today I should read Victor Hugo, and I should eat a croissant while I'm doing that." And perhaps there are other benefits that are hidden in consuming goods largely from one culture? For example, sushi and edamame beans taste better together than sushi with tomato, basil, and mozzarella salad? Or perhaps people who sample distinctively Russian nineteenth-century literature and music together for nationalistic reasons have a more pleasant and coherent esthetic experience than people who sample literature and music from two unrelated cultures?

Tyler Cowen, who is as forcefully cosmopolitan as anyone I've ever met or read on these issues, would argue the opposite, I'd imagine. He's a champion of the idea that the ability to create our own distinctive blend of different cultures is what makes the modern world so interesting. Maybe he's right; I practice an approach that's much more like his in my own life. But many other people might not have the time and might find sampling nationalistically bundled cultural goods more efficient and enjoyable.

Again, half-formed thought. That is, however, the point of having a blog.

4)I mostly agree with Ilya's post, but I do have a nit to pick about the sentence "Americans made great sacrifices in the Revolutionary War, despite the fact that there was no nationalistic objective involved (18th century white Americans overwhelmingly came from the same ethnic and cultural background as the British they were revolting against)." I am no real historian of this period, but my sense is that people who are love to fight about how strong distinctive American national identity was before the Revolution and to what extent such national self-identity influenced the Revolution. I believe that there are scholars who argue forcefully on both sides of the question, and I distinctly recall writing an essay in eleventh-grade AP U.S. History coming out on the distinct national self-consciousness side. I know, high school, but I still think the arguments I made would pass the laugh test if shown to a real Americanist. Still, I defer to real historians here.

That said, I do agree with the broader point that wars can be successfully waged by people who lack strong national self-consciousness.

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