September 8, 2018


Yoram Hazony and the New Nationalism (Samuel Goldman, Summer 2018, Modern Age)

Nationalism is experiencing something of a revival. Unfashionable and even taboo for about a quarter century after the end of the Cold War, legal defenses of national sovereignty, expressions of national loyalty, and even assertions of particularistic national identities have become an inescapable feature of political discussion in the United States and Europe. Although most evident on the right, nationalist sentiments have also found a place on the left. The so-called Lexit--Left Brexit--faction supporting Britain's escape from the European Union is just one example.

Yoram Hazony is perhaps the leading theorist of this new nationalism. President of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem and long a mainstay of the Jewish intellectual right, Hazony has found a broader audience in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, American Affairs, and other influential publications. In occasional writings and an important forthcoming book, Hazony contends that developments including the election of Donald Trump, controversial governments in Hungary and Poland, and Brexit suggest the possibility of a return to sanity after the experiments with transnational governance that became increasingly prominent after the fall of communism. He is not wrong but underestimates the challenges that a revival of nationalism in the twenty-first century must overcome.

Despite its growing salience, nationalism remains forbiddingly difficult to define. Standard reference works suggest a web of meanings involving loyalty to one's people and the place in which they live, desire for their independence and prosperity, and efforts to secure those goals by political, economic, or cultural means. Nationalism, in this sense, is not so different from patriotism, except in its linguistic root. Where "nationalism" evokes the familial circumstances of birth--in Latin, natio--"patriotism" emphasizes its location--the patria or fatherland.

Yet the matter is not so simple. Precisely because they are political, these concepts have polemical as well as descriptive connotations. Patriotism is usually understood as a worthy sentiment, informed by knowledge and compatible with high moral principle. Nationalism, by contrast, tends to be associated with ignorance, conflict, and violence. Hazony rejects this conventional distinction. Nationalism, he insists, is a positive virtue, not a vice--or even a necessary evil. At the risk of pedantry, it is worth observing that the Latin term virtus alludes to what is fitting for a vir, or man. In this vein, Hazony writes movingly of learning nationalism at his own father's knee. The virtue in question is a kind of piety, comparable to the reverence that Aeneas, the personification of all that was best in Rome, shows for his father, Anchises.

But nationalism is not a personal virtue only. On Hazony's account, an appreciation for nationalism is also a distinctive virtue of the conservative intellectual tradition. In addition to defending nationalism against its cultured despisers, Hazony aims to rescue conservatism from the universalizing ideology that he associates with another of those famously problematic concepts, liberalism.

One reason for the eclipse of nationalism in recent decades--at least among the political, economic, and cultural elites of North America and western Europe--is that it has found few competent theorists. This weakness is not only the result of changing intellectual fashions but also arises in part from the concept itself. Because nationalism is grounded in loyalty to one's own people and place, its advocates tend to eschew general arguments. In other words, they make particularistic claims about the meaning and prospects of this or that specific nation.

Hazony tries to overcome this tendency by presenting a defense of nationalism as such. He defines nationalism as "a principled standpoint that regards the world as governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions, and pursuing their own interests without interference." Hazony contrasts this vision of world order both with empire, which aims to impose a single regime on as much of the globe as possible, and with anarchy, which he describes as an absence of centralized, reliable coercion. The nation, on these terms, is a kind of midpoint between the political form that makes no distinctions among peoples or places and the unreliable security provided by extended families.

This conception of the nation is important because it is the basis for Hazony's rejection of claims that nationalism is tantamount to racism. He insists that because nations inevitably comprise many clans and "tribes," they are not based on common descent. However, the nation is unified around cultural characteristics that include a distinctive language, religion, and a shared history of struggle. Outsiders can join a nation when they adopt these characteristics. At the same time, the nation is entitled to decide when and whether it wishes to accept more foster children.

Expressed mostly in generalizations rather than in historical detail, Hazony presents his case for the nation in The Virtue of Nationalism as an essay in "foundational political philosophy." This procedure would seem to contradict his insistence that nationalism appeals to an empirical understanding of human nature, rather than philosophical abstractions. Yet his argument does not emerge from the view from nowhere that he blames for the current disdain for nationalism. Instead, it is rooted in the Hebrew Bible, which Hazony numbers among "the first great works of the Western political tradition."

Many readers will find this claim surprising. Not only the growing ranks of the religiously illiterate, but also many serious Christians and Jews balk at the idea that the Old Testament offers political lessons that can be applied today. Even conservative evangelicals, who insist that the Bible is authoritative in matters of personal morality, mostly hesitate to draw direct conclusions about the conduct of governments from biblical texts.

But Hazony is not engaging in the kind of "theonomy" associated with the Christian Reconstructionist movement. In his 2012 study The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, he argued that the Bible is not merely a record of irrational revelation that demands implicit obedience; it also offers compelling arguments about the proper order of human society. In his new work, Hazony concentrates on what he considers the biblical argument for a world composed of independent nation-states. Even as it criticizes attempts to unify the human race, beginning with the Tower of Babel, the Bible promotes the unification of the Hebrew tribes into a single people living under a common legal authority within defined borders. For Hazony, the travails of the biblical Israel represent the paradigmatic case for nationalism in a period defined by the oscillation between empire and anarchy. [...]

Above all, however, The Virtue of Nationalism is a polemic against what Hazony calls "liberalism." By this he means "a rationalist political theory based on the assumption that human beings are free and equal by nature, and that obligation to the state and other institutions arises through the consent of individuals." On this theory, neither nations nor families have any inherent authority. Thus, they can be formed, abandoned, or modified as individuals pursue their interests--usually construed in terms of physical security and material prosperity.

In practice, of course, this argument could lead to the formation of nations as the most convenient vehicle for the pursuit of material interests. In principle, however, it suggests that truly rational human beings would establish the largest and most inclusive possible state. From its theoretical starting point in an anarchic state of nature, Hazony suggests, liberalism derives a virtually irresistible tendency toward empire.

The always interesting Mr. Hazony is essentially just defending Zionism (nationalism) against American Jews (neocons) and the End of History. What critics on the Right and Left mean by empire is the universal extension of the Anglospheric system (democracy, capitalism and protestantism) and values that we have witnessed over the past several centuries.  Mr. Hazony perceives, as the neocons do not, that their Anglo-American liberalism as far as other nations is concerned must ultimately be applied in Israel with potentially existential results. Thus the reliance on the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) where Israel is defined as a nation (race) as opposed to the definition of sovereignty that obtains in the Anglo-American (Protestant) world, which broadens the nation to all the people being governed and requires their consent to that governance and a system of republican liberty.

Of course, the tell here is the willful misreading of the Tower of Babel as a criticism of universalism, a position unsustainable by reference to the actual text:

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.

And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.

God here, as in the Garden, acts in self-interest.



Posted by at September 8, 2018 7:41 AM