The Lib­eral Case For Na­tion­al­ism

Forward Magazine - - OPINION - Batya Un­garSar­gon

On the morn­ing of June 22, the tele­vi­sion show “Fox and Friends” dis­cussed Pres­i­dent Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive de­ci­sion to stop his own ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pol­icy of sep­a­rat­ing chil­dren from their par­ents at the U.S.Mex­ico bor­der.

“These aren’t our kids,” Fox News host Brian Kilmeade said of the 2,000 chil­dren who had been taken from their par­ents. “Show ’em com­pas­sion. But it’s not like he’s do­ing this to the kids of Idaho or Texas.”

Many on Twit­ter were dis­gusted by that com­ment. They pointed out that the chil­dren’s non-Amer­i­can­ness doesn’t make them any less hu­man.

No one pointed out that we do do this to “our” kids. Sep­a­rat­ing chil­dren from their par­ents is a prob­lem that af­flicts all too many Amer­i­cans on a daily ba­sis. Four hun­dred thou­sand chil­dren are in foster care, of­ten for crimes no worse than the poverty of their par­ents. Women who give birth in prison are in­stantly sep­a­rated from their ba­bies, some­times for­ever. Thirty thou­sand chil­dren are in de­ten­tion, with black chil­dren in­car­cer­ated at five times the rate of white chil­dren.

Kilmeade’s com­ments ex­em­pli­fied the ugli­est kind of racist na­tion­al­ism. But the re­sponse on the left be­trayed a trou­bling lack of na­tion­al­ism. So ea­ger were lib­er­als to sup­port im­mi­grant chil­dren that they erased the suf­fer­ing of those in their own back­yard.

It’s not sur­pris­ing that the left is al­ler­gic to na­tion­al­ism. From Europe to the United States, waves of farright na­tion­al­ism are on the rise, helmed by lead­ers who traf­fic in dis­taste­ful, even racist rhetoric aimed at Mus­lims and im­mi­grants. On the left, these pop­ulists and their plat­forms have come to stand for na­tion­al­ism and the na­tion-state, which it­self has be­come a synec­doche for all that ails so­ci­ety.

Cer­tainly, there is no short­age of na­tion­al­ists who are also racists. But are we on the left jus­ti­fied in view­ing na­tion­al­ism as the apoth­e­o­sis of racial ha­tred and white supremacy? Can na­tion­al­ism be sep­a­rated from racism?

I think it can be. Not only that — I be­lieve it must be. For only when we on the left learn how to sep­a­rate na­tion­al­ism from racism can we trans­form na­tion­al­ism into the pro­gres­sive force we need to pur­sue racial jus­tice. Rather than racism’s apoth­e­o­sis, na­tion­al­ism is the only way we’ll ever truly be free of racism.

In “The Virtue of Na­tion­al­ism,” conservative philoso­pher and the­o­rist Yo­ram Ha­zony ar­gues that na­tion­al­ism has been mis­un­der­stood. Rather than a col­lec­tive based around racial pride and ha­tred of the other, Ha­zony ar­gues that a na­tion is “a num­ber of tribes with a com­mon lan­guage or re­li­gion, and a past his­tory of act­ing as a body for the com­mon de­fense and other large-scale en­ter­prises.”

Be­cause a na­tion is a con­glom­er­ate of tribes, it is al­ways het­ero­ge­neous and never based on racial pu­rity, Ha­zony says. Rather than bi­o­log­i­cal ho­mo­gene­ity, “bonds of mu­tual loy­alty” cre­ate one unit from di­verse tribes. It’s this loy­alty that binds a na­tion-state.

The bonds of loy­alty also pro­tect in­di­vid­ual lib­er­ties, Ha­zony ar­gues, for it is only out of loy­alty to her peo­ple that a sov­er­eign would be will­ing to limit her power and pro­vide her peo­ple with rights like due process. Even more im­por­tant, the pro­tec­tion of mi­nori­ties is a nec­es­sary prin­ci­ple of a na­tion-state, cru­cial for ward­ing off an­ar­chy and em­pire.

Rather than a paean to uni­for­mity and ho­mo­gene­ity, na­tion­al­ism is based on a re­spect for dif­fer­ence, within the na­tion-state’s pop­u­la­tion as well as be­tween na­tions, fa­vor­ing au­ton­omy, tra­di­tion and self­de­ter­mi­na­tion over univer­sal truth. Ha­zony con­trasts na­tion­al­ism with a dif­fer­ent world or­der: im­pe­ri­al­ism, “which seeks to bring peace and pros­per­ity to the world by unit­ing mankind, as much as pos­si­ble, un­der a sin­gle po­lit­i­cal regime.”

Ha­zony ar­gues that we’re see­ing the resur­gence of em­pire in the Euro­pean Union and the Pax Amer­i­cana world or­ders that have dom­i­nated in re­cent years, as well as the in­creas­ing de­mands for ide­o­log­i­cal pu­rity on the left (there’s noth­ing im­pe­ri­al­ism hates more than re­sis­tance to its claims of univer­sal truth).

His­to­ri­ans will quib­ble with Hazo-

ny’s claim that na­tion-states have proved bet­ter adept than em­pires at pro­tect­ing mi­nori­ties. Surely, this has not al­ways been true for the Jews, though one of Ha­zony’s most bril­liant points is that while the Nazis are so of­ten in­voked as the proof that na­tion­al­ism is a con­duit to homi­ci­dal racism, in fact the op­po­site is true; Hitler’s as­pi­ra­tion was im­pe­ri­al­ist in na­ture.

Still, even with­out the Nazis, it’s im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore the fact that many na­tion-states have proved terrible at en­sur­ing mi­nor­ity rights. It’s some­thing Ha­zony ad­mits. “Amer­i­cans ex­pressed their na­tional free­dom and self-de­ter­mi­na­tion while tol­er­at­ing slav­ery and odi­ous race laws for much of their his­tory,” he writes. Ha­zony also ad­mits that there are na­tion­al­ists who hate mi­nori­ties. But he ar­gues that the al­ter­na­tive to the na­tion-state — im­pe­ri­al­ist move­ments — in­cite just as much ha­tred against any­one who re­sists their claims to univer­sal truth.

I think Ha­zony un­der­es­ti­mates the kin­ship be­tween na­tion­al­ism and racism. He un­der­states the fundamental ten­sion be­tween the civil rights the na­tion-state pro­vides and the mi­nori­ties the na­tion-state al­ways seems to want to de­nude of those rights.

But his in­sight that na­tion­al­ism can be a bond of loy­alty be­tween all cit­i­zens rather than the ha­tred a ma­jor­ity has for mi­nori­ties is cru­cial to re­solv­ing this ten­sion and pur­su­ing racial equal­ity.

The per­son who re­ally un­der­stood the ten­sion be­tween the na­tion-state’s role as the sole guar­an­tor of civil rights and its ten­dency to guar­an­tee them only to the eth­nic ma­jor­ity was some­one who for a time had her­self been state­less: Han­nah Arendt who ar­gued in “The Ori­gins of To­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism” that only the na­tion-state can pro­tect in­di­vid­ual lib­er­ties. She de­rives her ar­gu­ment from his­tory, a his­tory she lived first­hand when the Nazis stripped the Jews of their cit­i­zen­ship be­fore pro­ceed­ing with their geno­cide.

When the Nazis ren­dered the Jews state­less, they re­vealed that the “in­alien­able” rights we thought we had as hu­mans — what Arendt calls Rights of Man — were worth noth­ing with­out a na­tion-state to guar­an­tee them. For as merely hu­mans rather than Ger­mans or Poles, the Jews were dis­pos­able not only to the Nazis but also to the rest of the world. As

Are we on the left jus­ti­fied to view na­tion­al­ism it­self as the apoth­e­o­sis of racial ha­tred and white supremacy? Can na­tion­al­ism be sep­a­rated from racism?

Arendt el­e­gantly puts it, “The world found noth­ing sa­cred in the ab­stract naked­ness of be­ing hu­man.”

“The Rights of Man, sup­pos­edly in­alien­able, proved un­en­force­able,” Arendt writes. “It turned out that the mo­ment hu­man be­ings lacked their own govern­ment and had to fall back upon their min­i­mum rights, no author­ity was left to pro­tect them.”

In the 70 years since Arendt wrote her mag­num opus, many have made the same ob­ser­va­tion, even as the hu­man rights dis­course took off in the wake of World War II. De­spite a flour­ish­ing hu­man rights in­dus­try, “it is hard to avoid the con­clu­sion that gov­ern­ments con­tinue to vi­o­late hu­man rights with im­punity,” Eric Pos­ner, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Chicago Law School, wrote in The Guardian. “There is lit­tle ev­i­dence that hu­man rights treaties, on the whole, have im­proved the well­be­ing of peo­ple.”

Only the na­tion-state has proved able to pro­tect in­di­vid­ual free­doms. It is only from the na­tion-state that rights — civil rights, as op­posed to hu­man rights — are guar­an­teed.

A right is some­thing that’s guar­an­teed by the state to its cit­i­zens through law. We give the govern­ment the right to ex­er­cise state power against us, but only in ex­change for due process and equal­ity be­fore the law. In other words, rights are bound to the na­tion-state be­cause they are part of a col­lec­tive con­tract ne­go­ti­ated be­tween a peo­ple and its govern­ment. As Arendt wrote, “Rights can ex­ist only through mu­tual agree­ment and guar­an­tee.”

And it’s this guar­an­tee that hu­man rights don’t have. As part of a univer­sal plat­form, there is sim­ply no body that can en­force them. But hu­man rights aren’t just amor­phous and un­en­force­able; they are a fic­tion, noth­ing more than a wish list.

To make mat­ters worse, hu­man rights aren’t a be­nign fic­tion. They ex­ist in fundamental ten­sion with civil rights. Based as they are on the na­tion-state, civil rights are, to a cer­tain ex­tent, rooted in ex­clu­sion. They are guar­an­teed by a na­tion’s re­la­tion­ship with its govern­ment, and by its govern­ment’s re­liance upon it for its con­ti­nu­ity. The pro­tec­tion of my civil rights and those of other U.S. cit­i­zens de­pends on our abil­ity to vote out a non­com­pli­ant govern­ment — mean­ing it de­pends on be­ing lim­ited to cit­i­zens of this coun­try. Democ­racy it­self de­pends not only on a na­tion-state, but also on the very lim­its of that na­tion-state.

As Univer­sity of Vir­ginia pro­fes­sor James Lo­ef­fler notes in his re­cent book “Rooted Cos­mopoli­tans: Jews and Hu­man Rights in the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury,” “Arendt grasped that na­tional sovereignty was both the best source of mean­ing­ful rights and the gravest chal­lenge to those rights.”

Nowhere is this ten­sion starker than in the United States, where our as­tound­ing Con­sti­tu­tion is filled with gor­geous lib­er­ties that have been de­nied to so many of our cit­i­zens.

In­deed, if any­thing char­ac­ter­izes the United States, it’s this ten­sion be­tween promis­ing more free­doms than any other coun­try in the world and deny­ing those free­doms to such a huge pro­por­tion of its pop­u­la­tion.

There is a lot to be proud of here in Amer­ica. We are fa­nat­i­cal about our free­doms, like free­dom of speech, free­dom of the press and the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state — un­equalled across the world. But there’s a lot to be ashamed of, too. For our free­doms are dis­trib­uted un­equally. We live with racial in­equal­ity be­fore the law as a con­stant.

From the first en­counter with law en­force­ment all the way through trial and in­car­cer­a­tion, blacks are not en­sured equal pro­tec­tions un­der the law. In 2016, black males were nine times more likely than other Amer­i­cans to be killed by law en­force­ment of­fi­cers. Though they make up just 13% of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion, black peo­ple ac­counted for 31% of cases in which po­lice killed vic­tims in 2012. Blacks make up 34% of our cor­rec­tional pop­u­la­tion and are in­car­cer­ated at more than five times the rate of whites. Though blacks and whites use drugs at sim­i­lar rates, the im­pris­on­ment rate of black peo­ple for drug charges is six times higher.

This is to say noth­ing of the dis­pro­por­tion­ate rate at which black and brown men are stopped by po­lice in the first place. Data from 2017 found that black stu­dents were more likely to be ar­rested than white stu­dents. The share of ar­rested stu­dents who are black is at least 10 per­cent­age points higher than their share of en­roll­ment in schools with at least one arrest. In 10 of those states, that gap is at least 20 per­cent­age points.

The sta­tis­tics are hor­ri­fy­ing. It’s in­tol­er­a­ble that a racial mi­nor­ity would be so de­prived of civil rights. But it also means that none of us is guar­an­teed civil rights. As a white per­son, I may not ever en­counter racial in­jus­tice. But my due process rights are en­tirely de­pen­dent on them be­ing guar­an­teed to all cit­i­zens equally. And since they are not guar­an­teed for black Amer­i­cans,

The United States prom­ises more free­doms than any other coun­try in the world yet de­nies those free­doms to a huge pro­por­tion of its pop­u­la­tion.

no Amer­i­cans have civil rights pro­tec­tions.

This is an ex­is­ten­tial threat to our po­lit­i­cal free­dom. Racial jus­tice is the barest unit of civil rights, for if any racial mi­nor­ity can be per­se­cuted, so can we all.

And by not protest­ing racial in­equal­ity con­stantly, by not or­ga­niz­ing and elect­ing peo­ple who prom­ise to make real change, we are es­sen­tially con­sent­ing to a new con­tract with the govern­ment that ap­plies to only some of our cit­i­zens.

And yet, you never hear politi­cians putting civil rights front and cen­ter in their plat­forms. In­stead of em­pha­siz­ing things like prison re­form or po­lice bru­tal­ity, the most pro­gres­sive can­di­dates have been pur­su­ing plat­forms that in­volve hu­man rights: things like health care, free higher ed­u­ca­tion, rais­ing the min­i­mum wage and im­mi­gra­tion.

These are all no­ble as­pi­ra­tions, stem­ming from the dis­course of hu­man rights, which has be­guiled the left for decades. “We rou­tinely as­sert that the in­spi­ra­tion — and the onus — for our no­tion of univer­sal rights stems from a shared hu­man­ity that tran­scends race, re­li­gion, na­tion­al­ity, and, most im­por­tantly, pol­i­tics,” Lo­ef­fler writes. “Hu­man rights are sup­posed to be pre­po­lit­i­cal — in­trin­sic and not de­pen­dent on cit­i­zen­ship or po­lit­i­cal sta­tus.”

But in pur­su­ing these as­pi­ra­tions, we have aban­doned our obli­ga­tions to our fel­low cit­i­zens, to en­sure their equal­ity be­fore the law and other civil lib­er­ties.

It’s the fundamental irony of the left to­day that in our rush to es­chew the racism we find in so many it­er­a­tions of na­tion­al­ism, we have de­vel­oped an ab­hor­rence for the par­tic­u­lar, the lo­cal, the parochial. And in so do­ing, we have ac­ci­den­tally aban­doned our most marginal­ized cit­i­zens by dis­pos­ing of the one thing that binds us to them.

It’s here that I find Ha­zony’s anal­y­sis cru­cial.

Ha­zony’s the­ory does not trans­late eas­ily to the U.S. con­text. Ha­zony is Is­raeli, and an ar­dent Zion­ist, and in many ways his book is an im­plicit de­fense of Zion­ism and the Jewish state.

“What is needed for the es­tab­lish­ment of a sta­ble and free state is a ma­jor­ity na­tion whose cul­tural dom­i­nance is plain and un­ques­tioned, and against which re­sis­tance ap­pears to be fu­tile,” he writes. “Such a ma­jor­ity na­tion is strong enough not to fear chal­lenges from na­tional mi­nori­ties, and so is able to grant them rights and lib­er­ties with­out dam­ag­ing the in­ter­nal in­tegrity of the state.”

In other words, Is­rael can grant its Arab, Druze and Be­douin mi­nori­ties equal rights only in­so­far as they do not threaten its na­tional char­ac­ter or ma­jor­ity.

Of course, this is to rein­tro­duce that el­e­ment of eth­nic pu­rity that Ha­zony’s ar­gu­ment promised to pre­clude. As for the mil­lions of Pales­tini­ans liv­ing un­der oc­cu­pa­tion with­out civil rights, Ha­zony doesn’t say — an el­lip­sis that makes the book’s cen­tral premise, that na­tion­al­ism is vir­tu­ous, shiver pre­car­i­ously.

The United States presents al­most a counter-ex­am­ple to Ha­zony’s th­e­sis. Jews and blacks are hardly com­pet­ing clans within a coun­try with a Protes­tant ma­jor­ity, as Ha­zony’s anal­y­sis would sug­gest. In­deed, as a na­tion of im­mi­grants — some vol­un­tary, some in­vol­un­tary — our mi­nor­ity cul­tures and his­to­ries very much in­form the main­stream, mak­ing up the “in­ter­nal in­tegrity” of our state.

And yet, Ha­zony’s idea that bonds of mu­tual loy­alty are what bind a na­tion seems like a truth we on the left would do well to re­mem­ber, not emo­tion­ally so much as con­sti­tu­tion­ally.

We owe our co-cit­i­zens some­thing — some­thing they aren’t get­ting.

In­stead of dis­gust at the idea of par­tic­u­lar­ism, we would do well to em­brace it. In­stead of the lofty ideals that have lib­er­als look­ing far afield for new prob­lems to solve in a bid to es­cape the na­tivism as­so­ci­ated with car­ing for one’s own, we should be fo­cus­ing on the vul­ner­a­ble we have aban­doned here.

Rather than dis­taste for the parochial­ism of an “Amer­ica First” plat­form, we should be em­brac­ing that which makes us Amer­i­can, the free­doms Amer­ica was built on that can one day be guar­an­teed to all, by em­brac­ing achiev­able goals like putting an end to the carceral state. There­fore, we should lib­er­ate our­selves from Amer­ica’s great moral stain.

By tear­ing down our na­tion-state, we weaken the bonds that bind us and thus make the prospect of racial equal­ity even less of an achiev­able goal. We should in­stead fo­cus on strength­en­ing those bonds, cre­at­ing more and more loy­alty be­tween Amer­i­cans, more and more com­mit­ment to solv­ing the civil rights vi­o­la­tions that hap­pen on our watch.

We should be em­brac­ing na­tion­al­ism.

Racial jus­tice is the barest unit of civil rights, for if any racial mi­nor­ity can be per­se­cuted, so can we all — some­thing Jews know very well.


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