26 December 2010

A reflection on nation, part 2

In my last rumination on the subject of nationality and patriotism, I expressed the opinion that nations were neither something to be dismissed nor to be blindly celebrated. The nation, in its most positive manifestation, is a natural stage of human affection, of the extension of love outward from the family and from the circle of friends to encompass people who have a shared conception of the Good. However, nation has the capacity to become destructive when one considers one’s nation an extension of Right rather than simply an expression of the Good.

Actually, it is rather ironic that I have trod bravely out onto these grounds only to find a larger set of footprints leading the way ahead. Once again, the good Mr Chesterton has beaten me to it, and has expressed himself far more eloquently than I have. As he puts it in Orthodoxy:

The worst jingoes do not love England, but a theory of England. If we love England for being an empire, we may overrate the success with which we rule the Hindoos. But if we love it only for being a nation, we can face all events: for it would be a nation even if the Hindoos ruled us. Thus also only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history. A man who loves England for being English will not mind how she arose. A man who loves England for being Anglo-Saxon may go against all facts for his fancy. He may end… by maintaining that the Norman Conquest was a Saxon Conquest. He may end in utter unreason—because he has a reason.

This, though seemingly paradoxical, is in fact quite astute – indeed, it strikes one as drawing near to Kierkegaard in his meditations on the nature of love (though it should be noted that Kierkegaard, for all his similarity to Chesterton in his passion for the edifying power of the faerie-tale and the parabolic image, reached all the further for making every emotion personal rather than general). If one truly loves, one simply cannot explain it away; otherwise, what he loves is not the beloved, but the reason for loving (if he holds even the courage for that!). The fortunate lover knows this because he lives this. He might find something similar to himself in his beloved, and might be surprised and remark upon that similarity, but that is no reason for love. (It helps that I happen to be so fortunate a lover!)

But when it comes to nation – yes, then things become tricky. Is nation merely an idea; or worse yet, an ideal? This cannot be true for Chesterton; to him England-as-character is far more real (and thus worthy of love) than England-as-theory or England-as-empire. He brings England from the realm of the unreal to his own level; once he can look England square in the eye and admire it for its finitude, he then may proceed with the work of transforming it through love, as in the faerie-tale of Beauty and the Beast (which he references quite frequently in Orthodoxy). There is, and rightly so, the expression of ‘Little England’. The same cannot be true for a nation whose essence is not a character, finite and flawed (and lovable for being both), but an ideal. This brings me to the very difficult and delicate problem of the existence of the United States.

We have, in this country – about which I must be exceedingly cautious about using the word ‘nation’, for reasons which will become clear momentarily – two parties which claim patriotism but which hold different attitudes toward the United States, both of which seem rather misinformed. They style themselves ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, though both are (in point of fact) more similar than they are different, having roots in the same kind of backwards-thinking. The former will often express a form of ‘tough love’, unflinchingly critiquing the country for failing to live up to its standard – the ‘liberal’ in this case conforms to GK Chesterton’s model of the pessimist (though an honest one). The latter will insist that it has been and remains the most perfect fulfilment of the standard, and will brook no argument to the contrary – the ‘conservative’ conforming to the model of the jingo optimist. Both, however, accept the Docetic nature of the standard: the secular Whiggism shared by its Founding Fathers that all citizens (however one chooses to define the word, which was a problem in itself) possess the same negative liberties and entitlements under the social contract. As I have said before, liberty is a fine and worthy thing, but what is the content of this liberty? You are never truly free, unless you have proscribed that freedom by deciding what to do with it. Indeed, this attitude that we can build a common expression of the Good only from a set of negative liberties and protections from the vices of others reflects a confusion about even the origins of the word ‘free’ (coming as it does from the Old English frēo, originally meaning ‘beloved’ and having the same root as the word ‘friend’). The object of freedom was to love and be loved, not to be party to an impersonal contract against a hostile world.

[As an aside, one of the things I have come to realise about why I use British rather than American spelling in my written work is that I find a deeper kinship with Dr Samuel Johnson and his eloquent love of the English language as spoken by the common people, than I do with Mr Noah Webster and his notion that language must be made to conform to an ideology propagated by society’s elites. It strikes me as no accident that Dr Johnson was himself a High Churchman of wit, humility and generosity; while Mr Webster was a true convert to Calvinism in all its grim, dour hauteur: the British usage to me reads as familiar, well-used and well-loved, comfortable in all its spacious vowels and voiceless consonants, at home in the hands and mouths of lord and peasant alike and yet personal for each; whereas the American spelling smacks to me of a cold, sterile, impersonal austerity and stinginess, brooking no personality or humour.]

However, back to the topic at hand – can a nation (the easiest, but not final, extent of that familial sentiment which Axel Honneth termed ‘solidarity’) be proscribed within an ideal, or a contract? I think, at the very least, we must be very careful with the notion that ideological contracts can make nations, for it can lead us into idolatry. We already are far too eager – ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ alike have been guilty in this – to foist our ideals and institutions upon other peoples without regard for practical circumstance, morality or real human need. We are already too quick to claim reasons for the supremacy of our institutions which do not stand the test of fact (the claim in bad faith that America must be or is ‘number one’ in every endeavour and in every field of commerce, education and social achievement). We are already too insistent on the idea that nations can be ‘founded’ like businesses or ‘built’ like office complexes, rather than grown like living, breathing creatures. It may very well have been that by the time Thomas Jefferson had put the finishing flourish to the Declaration of Independence, we were already on that ‘passage broad, smooth, easy, inoffensive down to hell’, sectarianism and empire. England survived that hell because she was not just a theoretical construct – there was and is within her the ‘Little England’ that could be redeemed. In America’s case, I think it wiser to say, as Zhou Enlai did when asked to comment on the outcome of the French Revolution, that ‘it is’, in fact, ‘too soon to say’.

EDIT: It seems I am not the only one who has been ruminating along these lines. Russell over at Obsidian Wings has been giving his own quite astute impressions of this issue.

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