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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Fanaticism, Nationalism, Treason, and Patriotism

Fanaticism, Nationalism, Treason, and Patriotism
Image © Austin Cline
Original Poster: National Archives
Click for full-sized Image

It was argued by some that America faced such a grave crisis in the 9/11 terrorist attacks that everyone should rally together and support the president in whatever he decided to do. This attitude continued with Iraq (even up to the present day, at least in some quarters): anyone not supporting the president's plans doesn't support the troops and is a traitor. Is this reasoning sound?

It's difficult to come up with a rational argument that does support such reasoning. Every time I've seen any attempts to justify unquestioning and unstinting support for the president in however he decides to conduct his war on terrorism, the final product looks far more like a justification for fascism and authoritarianism than anything like a reasonable political position in a modern liberal democracy.

In America Right Or Wrong: An Anatomy Of American Nationalism, Anatol Lieven explains that it’s not only is the above position not sound, but that anyone with an understanding of 20th century history will realize that such arguments have a very disturbing past:

Even some self-styled liberals have argued that faced with a monstrous threat, such as that of international terrorism, American intellectuals have no choice but to close ranks in patriotic defense of their countries. The response to this was given in 1928 by Julien Benda in “La Trahison des Clercs” (The Treason of the Intellectuals), in which he described the corruption of European intellectuals by nationalism and, in doing so, warned of still greater catastrophes which were to come:

“I shall be told that during the past fifty years...the attitude of foreigners to France was such that the most violent national partiality was forced upon all Frenchmen who wished to safeguard the nation, and that the only true patriots are those who have consented to this fanaticism. I say nothing to the contrary; I only say that the intellectuals who indulged in this fanaticism betrayed their duty, which is precisely to set up a corporation whose sole cult is that of justice and truth.”

America of today isn’t the same as France or Germany of the 1920s and 1930s. There are parallels, but there are also significant differences, so no one can justifiably draw a simplistic and direct comparison between the two in order to insist that they be treated the same. It's been said that those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but becoming obsessed with historical parallels is arguably as dangerous as ignoring them entirely.

What's not unreasonable, and what Americans in particular seem to have trouble with, is to draw lessons from more narrowly circumscribed parallels between our current circumstances and past ideology, thinking, and attitudes. I think that this is just such a case in that Julien Benda’s response to his countrymen in 1928 is a sound response to some ultra-nationalistic Americans today: opposing the actions or plans of one’s government is not a sign of a lack of patriotism, is not a sign of treason, and is not something which should be attacked per se.

Such opposition may be criticized as gravely mistaken and if it has flaws they should be pointed out. Attacks which impugn the very idea of dissent and opposition themselves, however, are not only mistaken but contrary to what America should be about. For Julien Benda, part of what it meant to be an intellectual was to pursue and defend principles of justice and truth regardless of where they might lead — even including opposition to one’s government. Supporting the government regardless of what it does or what policies it adopts means abandoning independent thought, critical thinking, and personal responsibility — it’s fanaticism, pure and simple.

Intellectuals should oppose fanaticism and unthinking, unreflective nationalism as part of their larger agenda. So-called “liberals” who bow down to popular passions and refused to speak out against lies and injustices committed by the American government in the pursuit of a war on terrorism betray their duty to justice, to truth, and to intellectual credibility. Conservatives, too, betray basic political principles when they do the same thing — unless, of course, modern American conservatism no longer cares about things like justice and truth when larger issues of power are at stake.

Although far too many so-called liberals and progressives did betray the basic principles they should have been upholding, far more conservatives did so — even to the point where conservatism and the Republican Party in general have become far more authoritarian than it seems to have been before. Strains of authoritarianism have always been prominent, but I do think they have taken on a stronger, more defining role in the past few years, and it's something which non-authoritarian conservatives are going to have to confront. Can they? Is is possible for them reduce the scope of authoritarian thinking among their colleagues?

1 comment:

  1. Many others have made the point that the favorite rhetorical strategy of Karl Rove is projection, but few seem willing to make the connection to authoritarianism, and the liberal response to authoritarianism.

    A case could be made that Bush and company have been pursuing in Iraq, the interests, not of the USA, but of the oil companies and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Such a case, if it were to be made by liberal intellectuals, would not lack for indicative evidence, but the liberal intellectuals would have to adopt as vicious and uncompromising a partisan stance as can be imagined. To make the case, they would have to call Bush a virtual traitor, and mean it.

    Liberals politicians and pundits much prefer maintaining the fiction of political comity, and their complaints against the viciousness of, say, Zell Miller, is a complaint regarding etiquette and style, bolstered by the illusion that no substance is "really" intended.

    The problem with American intellectuals is not that they are caught up in a decadent nationalism, as European intellectuals were in the first World War and after, into the 1930's. The problem with American intellectuals and politicians is that they don't want to break a sweat, don't want to feel, let alone express, the outrage and alarm, which reality demands.


We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.