Thursday, July 25, 2019

What Sort of Awakening Shall We Have?

If you've been listening to the podcast, you know that I promote an early 20th century nationalistic version of conservatism. Any intellectually robust study of nationalism therefore immediately piques my interest.

Currently generating the most interest among nationalist thinkers is Isreali-American scholar Yoram Hazony. I recently read Hazony's The Virtue of Nationalismand while I haven't reviewed it yet, my copy has dog-ears and highlighted passages throughout, in preparation for the task. When I saw that Hazony was one of the organizers of the new National Conservatism Conference, I was sold.

After attending the event, I tossed around the idea of recording a podcast or even writing an article about my experiences. On the other hand, sticking to the book reviews seemed a little more on task for a podcast and website dedicated specifically to book reviews. I also had been turning over a variety of fresh ideas in my head and didn't want to jump into any sort of commentary until I had adequately percolated.

Then I read an analysis of the event on the Christian website Mere Orthodoxy. Much of my own thoughts concerning the event revolve around an atheistic, naturalistic interpretation of the current zeitgeist, and while I essentially concur with much of what was written there, a point-by-point response seems like the ideal avenue to raise a few important considerations.

Brad Littlejohn's article, 'A National Awakening', raises seven major points. He postulates three concepts that the new national conservatives repudiate, and four that they affirm. I'd like to respond to these one by one. First, the repudiations.

Repudiating White Nationalism

Littlejohn is correct that any successful attempt at American national conservatism must reject white nationalism. The task is all the more necessary given the Democrats' and media's obsessive attempt to pin the white nationalist label on the entire modern right, and all the moreso on any person or movement embracing the title of 'nationalist.'

Non-whites, and particularly African-Americans, have deep roots in the nation's history, and including them in a civic nationalism is necessary, decent, and pragmatic. The progressives rely heavily on the black vote, but don't seem to deliver anything but promises and fear. There is a rising tide of black conservatives and the energy among them is remarkable. Candace Owens is the most visible member of this movement, but she is far from alone. Listen to these young black conservatives and you will find that many of them are as nationalistic as any presenter at the conference. 

As Littlejohn noted, black conservative Bob Woodson delivered one the best speeches of the conference, spectacular in part because it deviated from the standard lofty concerns and dived right into the pragmatic necessity of face-to-face conservative activism within the black community. He gets it. If nationalist conservatives can draw black America into a shared vision of national prosperity, we stand to pull the rug out from under the progressives in a way that will have long-lasting effects on the global progressive agenda, will lift the fortunes of Americans of all backgrounds, and will bring a new sense of belonging to the minority communities of this country as we all work together toward prosperity and virtue.

With all this said, there are concerns that simply must be addressed. First and most basic, the separation of culture from ethnicity is simply nowhere near as clear-cut as Hazony and others would like for it to be. 

Everywhere on Earth, four things typically go together: land, blood, roots, and culture. These are not airtight connections, but all else being equal, human development tends to tie them together and the extent to which we reject or deny them is the extent to which we reject or deny our own natures. A place simply exists by virtue of geography. When a people live in a place for some time, in some greater or lesser degree of isolation from other people, they develop an ethnicity distinct from that of other peoples. This is the only way ethnicities come about. Ethnicity is not handed to us by some deity, we develop it by virtue of proximity to some and isolation from others. Even nomadic groups develop distinct ethnicities by virtue of adhering to in-group/out-group distinctions. Again the distinctions are not airtight, but if they were completely non-existent, ethnicities would not be able to develop in the first place, and the entire Earth would be a homogeneous melting pot. It clearly isn't, at least not yet.

Over time, on a shorter time scale than that of the creation of ethnicities but still over hundreds or even thousands of years, cultures develop. People put down roots in a place, as they take up agriculture or even migrate across the same lands repeatedly. This development is rooted in place, and ethnicity is also rooted in place so of course the two overlap. Languages develop, and cultures often adhere in one language group and see speakers of different languages as foreign. All of this is a perfectly natural development.

The multiethnic and multicultural nature of the United States deprives its inhabitants of this typical background. The manner in which ethnicity and culture bind other nations or groups simply cannot apply to us in the same way. But that is not to say that it does not apply to us at all. America was founded by Europeans and descendants of Europeans, much of our labor came from African slaves, and the native peoples continue to occupy areas of the country. Our culture and its attendant array of subcultures is a specific array as a result of this arrangement. Had we been colonized by the Chinese or developed exclusively by Native Americans, we would have developed in an entirely different way. We likely would not be so attached to baseball, blues, and burritos. It might sound trite, but it's also true.

I say all this simply to point out that our culture is to a large extent defined by our ethnicity, our location, and the various roots our forefathers have laid down for us. To be an American means more than simply being in this location. A first-generation Pakistani-American immigrant who dresses in traditional garb and doesn't speak English may be an American by law, but she simply isn't an American in the same capacity as a European American whose ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War. To argue otherwise is to argue that roots mean absolutely nothing, culture means absolutely nothing, and ethnicity means absolutely nothing. It is to argue that America is simply a place, and the full extent of being an American is defined simply by one's proximity to other Americans.

Now, if this said Pakistani is in the country legally, or even better has obtained citizenship, then she should be treated with the utmost respect, as a welcome guest. But it is not until she begins to deeply assimilate that she truly becomes American, in a deeper sense than can be bestowed by citizenship.

Moreover, she will never have the deep roots of one who lives in the same town as his great-grandfather, whose ancestors were slaves, abolitionists or even slaveholders, or whose roots go back to the colonial era. These roots means something, and they tie us into the greater American story in a way that no amount of assimilation ever can.

Moreover, we should recognize that over time different ethnicities will have children together. Eventually one could expect that Americans of all backgrounds will begin to converge toward a new American ethnicity that incorporates a wide variety of genetic stock and gives the people deeper roots. For instance, my great-grandfather was a Norwegian immigrant, but other English-American branches of my family tree reach back to the colonial era. As time goes by and the new American ethnicity is created, we will all have both deeper and shallower branches in our family trees. A massive inflow of immigrants undermines this slow but necessary process of convergence.

This may be a hard pill to swallow, particularly as we do our best to earnestly welcome new immigrants, who may even feel a sense of patriotism missing from a young snarky videogamer who can't even point to the US on a map. But its bitterness does not remove its truthfulness. Roots do matter, and it's only the modern liberal focus on individual autonomy and deracination that has convinced us otherwise.

How we address these potentially conflicting truths will define how well national conservatism will succeed as a movement. The best first step is to identify the truths and the conflicts between them, and to do so with love for our neighbors and our nation.

Repudiating Libertarianism

Littlejohn and some of the conference speakers went too far in their condemnation of libertarianism. While utterly unrestrained markets have some serious defects that need urgent addressing, the proven value of capitalism and the academic insights of the Austrian economists should not be nonchalantly cast aside. 

For example, I have seen it stated by progressives that conservative concerns for the working poor are not genuine if they are not paired with calls for minimum wage laws. But these laws have measurable downsides for the working poor that are too often ignored by progressives. National conservatives must avoid falling into this rhetoric. Government interference in markets is generally not going to make markets work more efficiently.This is not an absolute maxim, as I detail below, but it should be our starting point from which we only deviate deliberately and with cause.

The originator of fusionism, Frank Meyer, in his book In Defense of Freedom, made the important distinction between the realm of government and the realm of civil society. He proposed that the role of government is to secure freedom for the citizens, while the role of civil society and the family is to promote virtue. I call this 'the separation of culture and state.' We are treading in dangerous areas when we concede to the government the right to promote virtue. Right now the left is using the school system and the administrative state to force-feed the population their version of virtue. Rather than using the government as a football (a nuclear one at that) to be fought over and wielded to bring ultimate social power to one side then the other endlessly, whiplashing the population between prayer in school and gender-neutral bathrooms, leaving them disoriented, and either apathetic or engaged in a life-or-death struggle for coercive power, we should be building safeguards to keep the government morally neutral while advancing personal freedom, then focusing our efforts to reclaim control over civil society. The various institutions of civil society have been so thoroughly infiltrated by the left that it could be considered an 'all hands on deck' effort just to wrest back control over the media, the religious institutions, big tech, and especially the universities.

With this said, it's absolutely true that free markets are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end, and not a foolproof one either. The positive economic results we attribute to free markets are actually gained by 'monopolistic competition,' a situation where products and services are competitive but not in a state of perfect competition on account of product differentiation. Seeking such a scenario should be the goal of government, not a state of pure competition nor a state of completely free markets leading to anti-competitive monopolies or 'too big to fail' companies. There are also externalities, largely but not entirely environmental in nature, that are not addressed by markets and so require some degree of government involvement.

Libertarian economics also fails to recognize the profound difference between domestic and international markets. In domestic markets, the best analogy for a government is as a referee, making certain that all participants play by the rules but not actually participating in the game. In international markets, the US government is not a referee, but serves a role more akin to a general manager. The government may not be participating in the market directly, but has a vested interest in making sure that in the global balance of power, which is largely determined by economic might, the US comes out on top. It cannot be neutral with regard to winners and losers in the global struggle for economic power. Libertarianism simply fails to recognize this reality.

Nor does libertarianism adequately address the border, or even have a coherent defense of the existence of the nation-state. In short, libertarianism has some problems. But it also serves an important role is reminding us all that freedom is one of our core principles and, barring certain specific scenarios regarding the security and viability of the nation, the government ought to be prioritizing the freedom of its citizens in all its actions.

Repudiating Identity Politics

Here is an area where almost all national conservatives will find themselves in a rough agreement.

Demographic factors are a part of our identities, and we need not expel any notion of their relevance, becoming effectively 'colorblind.' The is no need for absolute colorblindness; it is an unnecessary and even unwelcome deviation from our natural mode of existence. But on the whole, we want to argue ideas regardless of their source. We should be cognizant of the way the biases and objectives of the source color the ideas, but this cognizance does nothing to validate or falsify the idea itself. This focus on ideas as such helps to purify our discourse of the constant contaminants of veiled or outright bias or disregard, and can inoculate us against social balkanization into warring demographic tribes.

This issue has been thoroughly discussed for years by most corners of the right, so there is little to add to it. I would only make the point that the other major trend in right-of-center politics, the rise of the Intellectual Dark Web, can provide the nationalists with a natural set of allies in the struggle against ubiquitous identify politics and its gurus, the social justice warrior left.

Affirming our Religious Heritage

The Democrats' positions on border security (none) and the viability of socialism and even, on the activist fringe, the viability of communism, grows more extreme seemingly by the day. Should they win in 2020, they will have a hard time walking back from their radical positions, which are actually becoming more and more accepted by the mainstream, particularly in the media and universities, our central idea factories. Should they lose in 2020, who among us thinks they will have moderated their ideas by 2024, or 2028? I for one can envision a broad swath of more and more radical leftists controlling every aspect of our civil society and vying for government power for as far as the eye can see. It will only take one far left President to drop all border enforcement, and if the radical left gains control of both houses of Congress and the White House, get ready for the third world invasion and a serious civil strife we may not survive as a unified nation-state.

I hope I've illustrated how dire the situation is.

I heard it vocalized by attendees of the conference that what was needed was a religious awakening. The notion seems to be that we will turn ourselves back toward God, and therefore recognize the value of the nation in its current form, with its attendant government and culture, and our love for our fellow citizens will blossom, and we will finally start to get it right.

I have serious reservations about this.

I'll be the first to admit that the US has a deeply Christian history that should be respected as a critical and foundational component of our national tradition. But let's not delude ourselves into thinking some sort of religious awakening is going to save this nation. I am an atheist, and I'm sure my position is inherently somewhat biased as a result of this. But I have a perspective on this from outside Christianity or Judaism that might prove a bit more clear-sighted as regards the state of the nation and what is truly needed to save it.

In 2014, 70.6% of the US population identified as Christian. This number is down from 78.4% identifying as Christian in 2007.  Back in 1990, 81.6% identified as Christian.

So in short, almost 3/4 of the country claims to be Christian, and that's only after a notable decline over the last thirty years. Can we possibly think that that last 29.4% of the population that isn't Christian is keeping the US from thriving?? That if we can just convert that last portion, we can turn this ship around? I know there is more to it than simply converting non-believers, that there is a component of a religious awakening that involves nominal Christians to begin to attend church more regularly, to pray more, and to be more religious in all facets of their lives.  But let's be honest. The New Deal was almost 90 years ago. The Great Society, over 50 years ago. Was church attendance lower at that time? Why, back in 1990, were the 81.6% of the population who were Christian not able to set us on the right course?

Look at the election of Donald Trump. How many among us can truly say that he is a deeply religious man, or that his election in some way signifies a return to religiosity? To say such a thing is to recklessly misread both the man and the moment. No, Trump's exhortations toward the Christian and Jewish communities are pragmatic maneuvers aimed at shoring up support among necessary constituents or, in the most generous interpretation, a weak sense of religious obligation. Voters did not elect Trump because they wanted a Godly man in the White House. They voted for Trump because he is a fighter, and he is focused on one thing and one thing only, and that is winning at all costs. Voters are tired of conservatives patting themselves on the back for losing gracefully, which they have been doing for a century now. They are ready to win. If that means fighting dirty or getting downright nasty, so be it. The left has a laser-like focus on obtaining worldly power, while the Religious Right sees its true objectives in the next world. Right-wing voters are tired of it. They want to fight for worldly power with every bit of pugilistic fervor as the left. In fact more aggression than the left. More dedication, more cunning, more strategy, more downright Machiavellian devotion to WINNING. Enough of the moralizing, we can work that out after we stave off the impending collapse. A Great Awakening? We don't have the time for that! 

What we need is not a Great Awakening. What we need is to hold the White House, Senate and House of Representatives by any means necessary for the next thirty years without interruption while we build the wall, slash immigration, take back the universities, big tech, the media, Hollywood, Fortune 500 PR departments and human resources departments, and to hand the left three decades of such devastating political defeats that they finally recognize the need to purge their far left flank from the ranks of party power. Nothing less is going to suffice, and if we decide that we first need to reverse the slow decline of Christian belief in which the national share of believers went from from 81.6% to 70.6% over the last thirty years, we will lose. That decline took thirty years, and it's reasonable to expect it to take thirty years to reverse. We don't have thirty years. One open borders radical socialist in the White House and it's over. It's a sociological war being waged upon us by power-hungry leftists, and we should treat it as such. It's time for us all to be fighters, not in a spiritual war but in a war for worldly power. If we can't do that we will not be able to save this country.

Now, with all that said, yes, our religious tradition is important to our cultural heritage. But its importance does not guarantee its truth, and that is a problem for which I have no simple answer. I have a slow, plodding, complex answer, but that will take the exploration of my current and future podcast episodes to work through. It's an important question, but we must recognize that it is not the most important question. The most important questions are: what do we need to do to win, and do we have what it takes to follow through?

Affirming National Heritage

On this and the other remaining affirmations, I agree with Littlejohn. Our nation, any nation, needs a sort of glue to hold it together. Hazony identifies this glue as ‘mutual loyalty.’ This is a vital component, but it is only one part of the glue. A shared sense of belonging to the greater society is critical, as is a wide array of institutions smaller than the state, from political parties to churches and corporations, all the way down to the family unit and even friendships. A robust society of multiple, overlapping voluntary social institutions allows us to engage with a wide variety of our neighbors by seeking common participation in these institutions.

A shared sense of heritage grounds a people in the world by connecting them to their own past and both their own offspring and the future of their nation.

This affirming of national heritage must still allow for innovation and questioning, but all such modifications to tradition must be rooted in a fundamental love of country.

Affirming Community

This love of country must manifest itself as love not only for the venerable institutions of our nation, but also as love for the participants within these institutions and those who choose to explore what is possible outside of them. Respecting the decisions of others as they seek to find their way in the world is one means of demonstrating an overarching love for our fellow Americans. This does not imply that we must agree with or celebrate every new institution, bizarre aesthetic, or destructive philosophy. But a solid nationalism will recognize that we should approach our neighbors with a sense of love, respect and gratitude. We should enhance with our words and our actions a sense of national and local community, while we remain free to retreat from, or express dissatisfaction or even disgust with, any part of our social environment. We must remain free people, even as we foster the ties that bind together the greater community of the American nation.

Affirming Nature and Natural Limits

This is the most important and promising aspect of this new nationalism, provided it is supported and examined adequately by the thought leaders of the movement. The existence of a natural order to the universe, with its attendant discreet human nature and the limits and constraints thus imposed upon us, is a fundamental component of much of conservative thought.

As Richard Weaver wrote in his 1960 essay ‘Conservatism and Libertarianism: The Common Ground,' found in the collection In Defense of Tradition:

It is my contention that a conservative is a realist, who believes that there is a structure of reality independent of his own will and desire. He believes that there is a creation which was here before him, which exists now not just by his sufferance, and which will be here after hes gone. This structure consists not merely of the great physical world but also of many laws principles and regulations which control human behavior. Though this reality is independent of the individual, it is not hostile to him. It is in fact amenable by him in many ways, but it cannot be changed radically and arbitrarily. This is the Cardinal point. The conservative holds that man in this world cannot make his will his law without any regard to limits and to the fixed nature of things.

This perspective is echoed by Thomas Sowell in his book 1987 book Conflict of Visions and is clearly supported by science as described in Steven Pinker's 2002 book The Blank Slate.

While the left claims to be the party of science, their only attachment to science is often insofar as it provides a method to break out of the limits imposed by nature or tradition. More recently, when science has delineated natural limits within the human psyche which are not so easily dismantled, the left has opted to disregard science entirely within that discipline. They regard evolutionary psychology as a pseudoscience; it is no such thing.

This becomes a strategic avenue of approach in gaining public and scholarly support for the core principles of national conservatism.

By adjusting the conservative position on climate science and taking a real interest in environmental conservation, (a position that is deeply in line with conservatism’s regard for cross-generational sustainability of culture and general prudent, cautious disposition) and drawing attention to the outright attack on science described in Pinker’s fantastic book, the national conservatives can pull the rug out from under the environmentalist and ‘Party of Science’ arguments the progressives use to shore up their electoral coalition. This is in addition to the simple fact that nationalism often sentimentally holds the tangible geographic space of the homeland in a high, almost sacred regard.

We should engage in a thorough exploration of the various ways in which the findings of science, respect for nature as environment, and an understanding of human nature and the limits of such can underpin the core tenets of national conservatism. This can do nothing but strengthen our case.

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