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Saturday, June 14, 2003

Nationalism and its discontents.

Will Shetterly is disturbed about Israel's behavior, and concludes that "nationalism sucks." Mark Lilla, author of The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, has been thinking about contemporary anxieties about nation-states and about the Jews, too, but his thinking is a lot less partial than Will admits his to be. In "The End of Politics: Europe, the nation-state, and the Jews" (The New Republic, 6.23.03, sub req'd) he writes:

But what are the serious alternatives to the nation-state as a form of political life? Historically speaking, we know what they are: tribe and empire, neither of which Europeans wish to restore as their preferred form of political association. Between those extremes there have been short-lived experiments with small, defenseless republics and weak, ephemeral leagues or alliances.

Paul Berman, incidentally, has written about the America Will Shetterly looks back at nostalgically — the republic prior to 1846, Will says, before the US took on some of the qualities of empire — but Berman suggests that such a republic would have had a short life span:

Let us recall that U.S. democracy, in its Northern rump, might perfectly well have accepted the departure of the Southern states. In the North, a good many respectable leaders of the Democratic Party, not just the Irish mobs in New York's streets, advocated just such a passive acceptance. A shrunken United States would have had to accommodate the fearsome British and French imperialists (everyone forgets the French, but they were expanding just then into Mexico), not to mention the Spanish Empire in Cuba. A rump United States might not have survived for very long under those circumstances. Still, it might have prospered in the meanwhile. It might even have benefited from the amputation of its Southern half, might have become a second Canada or something still more adventurous in time: a Sweden of the New World, a social-democratic land of New Deals uninhibited by Bourbon alliances, a virtuous center of commerce and industry. A republic, in short, such as the many little republics of Florence and other cities in the Middle Ages, which blossomed splendidly for a few decades and then, in their defenseless condition, were invariably crushed under the heel of some marauding army. That was definitely an American possibility. ("Resolved: What Lincoln knew about war," The New Republic 3.3.03.)

But back to Lilla:

Here there is an extraordinary paradox that deserves to be savored. For centuries Jews were the stateless people and suffered at the hands of Europeans who were deeply rooted in their own nations. The early Zionists, from Hess to Herzl, drew a very simple lesson from this experience: that Jews could not live safely or decently until they had their own state. Those who claim today that the state of Israel is the brainchild of nineteenth-century European thought are not wrong; this is hardly a secret. But the point is often made with sinister intent, as if to suggest that Israel and the Zionist enterprise more generally represent some kind of political atavism that enlightened Europeans should spurn. Once upon a time, the Jews were mocked for not having a nation-state. Now they are criticized for having one.
And not just any nation-state, but one whose founding is still fresh in living memory. All political foundings, without exception, are morally ambiguous enterprises, and Israel has not escaped these ambiguities. Two kinds of fools and bigots refuse to see this: those who deny or explain away the Palestinian suffering caused by Israel's founding, and those who treat that suffering as the unprecedented consequence of a uniquely sinister ideology. The moral balance-sheet of Israel's founding, which is still being composed, must be compared to those of other nations at their conception, not to the behavior of other nations after their existence was secured. And it is no secret that Israel must still defend itself against nations and peoples who have not reconciled themselves to its existence—an old, but now forgotten, European practice. Many Western European intellectuals, including those whose toleration and even affection for Jews cannot be questioned, find all this incomprehensible. The reason is not anti-Semitism nor even anti-Zionism in the usual sense. It is that Israel is, and is proud to be, a nationstate—the nation-state of the Jews. And that is profoundly embarrassing to post-national Europe.
Consider the issue from the perspective of a young European who might have grown up in the postwar world. From his first day of school he would have been taught the following lesson about twentieth-century history: that all its disasters can be traced to nationalism, militarism, and racism. He might even have learned that Jews were the main victims of these political pathologies, and would have developed a certain sympathy for their plight. But as he grew up he would have begun to learn about contemporary Israel, mainly in light of the conflict with the Palestinians, and his views would probably have begun to change. From his own history he would have concluded that nations are suspect entities, that the distinction they make between insider and outsider is immoral, and that military force is to be forsworn. He would then have likely concluded that contemporary Israel violates all these maxims: it is proudly independent, it distinguishes between Jew and non-Jew, it defends itself without apology. The charges that Zionism is racism, or that Israel is behaving like the Nazis in the occupied territories, undoubtedly have roots in anti-Semitism; but frustration with the very existence of Israel and the way it handles its challenges has a more proximate cause in European intellectual life. That cause is the crisis in the European idea of a nation-state.

Replace "European" with "Unitarian Universalist." Sound familiar? I'm no imperialist, and I'm queasy about the chauvinism that patriotism can descend into, but I think liberals must come to grips with some basic realities. One is that the nation-state is a liberal achievement. It is a dangerous achievement, and it isn't the kingdom of God by a long shot, and it can't be pacifist unless it is protected by a bigger state or empire — but it is what we have, and what the Jews have managed to achieve in Israel. Liberals ought to embrace the twin goals of assuring both the viability and the humanity of the nation-states on which their liberal societies depend.

Update 6.18.03. Will Shetterly responds, and a conversation follows.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 14 June 2003 at 3:42 PM

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