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This matters for many reasons, not the least being that democracy is a form of government that depends upon a national, rather than a credal or tribal, idea of loyalty. In a nation-state the things that divide neighbors from each other — family, tribe, and religion — are deliberately privatized, made inessential to the shared identity, and placed well below the country and its well-being on the list of public duties. It is this, rather than any Enlightenment idea of citizenship, that enables nation-states so easily to adopt democracy. In a place where tribal or religious loyalties take precedence, democratic elections, if they occur at all, occur only once.
Of course, even in a nation-state, democracy is not achieved overnight. Democratic government depends upon a pre-existing rule of law and established customs upholding the freedom of individuals and the rights of minorities. Those benefits were historical achievements of the European legal and judicial systems. They preceded democracy and have not been replicated everywhere. Until they are in place, the introduction of elections may merely let the majority loose upon whatever minority provokes its indignation. We see this problem clearly in the Islamic states of the Middle East, where majorities either are kept in place by tyranny, like the Iraqi Shiites under Saddam Hussein, or (when freed from tyranny) look around to assert themselves against their sectarian rivals, like the Shiites in Iraq today. Democracy involves the ability to grant a share in government to people with whom you profoundly disagree, including people of another faith. This is possible only where government is secular, and where nevertheless people revere the process of government as the expression of a shared national identity.
The secular law of Western states has been made possible by territorial jurisdiction, and the territory in question has been defined by permeable but historically vindicated national boundaries. Our political culture has been a culture of the home and the homeland, rather than the faith and the faithful. The British people were until recently brought up on a conception of national history and national identity that promoted mutual trust and solidarity between neighbors. Although religion had a part to play in their political education, it was that of the “Church of England,” in which expression it was “England,” not “Church,” that was the operative term. The American people likewise have been brought up on the narratives of nationhood. God is invoked, but largely as the transcendental guarantee of a nation, a source of blessing that rains down on the land and its people, regardless of their local disagreements over who exactly He is.
THAT KIND OF TERRIORIAL PATRIOTISM has suffered erosion in Europe, not only from globalization, but also from the mass immigration of minorities that do not share it, who define their communities in terms of religion rather than territory, and who do not in their heart accept the authority of a merely secular law. It has suffered too from a culture among European intellectuals who, for a variety of reasons, not all of them bad, have tried to discard national loyalty and to replace it with the cosmopolitan ideals of the Enlightenment. The problem, as I see it, is that cosmopolitan ideals are the property of an elite and will never be shared by the mass of humankind. Moreover, when embodied in transnational institutions, they have an innate tendency to degenerate into the kind of corrupt and profoundly anti-democratic bureaucracies exemplified by the UN and the EU. The nation, suitably tempered and purged of its endogenous excesses, may be the best we can hope for, by way of a pre-political community that can accept the jurisdiction of a purely secular law.
Nevertheless, people often attempt to express what is distinctive about Western democracies in terms of the Enlightenment idea of citizenship. Americans, they say, are citizens, whereas Syrians, for example, are subjects. There is truth in this: but it is important to see that the concept of the citizen, whose relation to the state is not one of passive obedience but one of mutual right and duty, is himself a product of the nation-state. A society of citizens is a society in which strangers can trust one another, since everyone is bound by a common set of rules. This does not mean that there are no thieves or swindlers; it means that trust can grow between strangers, and does not depend upon family connections, tribal loyalties, or favors granted and earned. This strikingly distinguishes a country like Australia, for example, from a country like Kazakhstan, where the economy depends entirely on the mutual exchange of favors, among people who trust each other only because they also know each other and know the networks that will be used to enforce any deal. It is also why Australia has an immigration problem, and Kazakhstan a brain drain.
As a result of this, trust among citizens can spread over a wide area, and local baronies and fiefdoms can be broken down and overruled. In such circumstances markets do not merely flourish: they spread and grow, to become co-extensive with the jurisdiction. Every citizen becomes linked to every other, by relations that are financial, legal, and fiduciary, but which presuppose no personal tie. A society of citizens can be a society of strangers, all enjoying sovereignty over their own lives, and pursuing their individual goals and satisfactions. Such have Western societies been, when organized as nation-states. They have been societies in which you form common cause with strangers, and which all of you, in those matters on which your common destiny depends, can with conviction say “we.”
The existence of this kind of trust in a society of strangers should be seen for what it is: a rare achievement, whose preconditions are not easily fulfilled. If it is difficult for us to appreciate this fact, it is in part because trust between strangers creates an illusion of safety, encouraging people to think that, because society ends in agreement, it begins in it too. Thus it has been common since the Renaissance for thinkers to propose some version of the “social contract” as the foundation of a society of citizens. Such a society is brought into being, so Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and others in their several ways argue, because people come together and agree on the terms of a contract by which each of them will be bound. This idea resonates powerfully in the minds and hearts of citizens, because it makes the state itself into just another example of the kind of transaction by which they order their lives. It presupposes no source of political obligation other than the consent of the citizen, and conforms to the inherently skeptical nature of modern jurisdictions, which claim no authority beyond the rational endorsement of those who are bound by their laws. The idea is a beautiful one, precisely because it leaves the messy business of history out of account. But nothing happens without history, and the history behind the citizen is that of the nation-state.
ALL THAT IS IMPORTANT TODAY, as we see the old nation-states of Europe being steadily deprived of their territorial sovereignty. There are nation-states of a kind in South America; India and Japan have each an established claim to nationhood, as do one or two fragments of the British diaspora, such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. But it is more and more apparent that the United States of America is nearly unique among the states that have a seat at the United Nations in being both united and a nation. It is the last integrated nation-state in a world of imperial, tribal, and religious powers. And the growing anti-Americanism in Europe is partly the result of this. Collective antipathies do not, as a rule, arise in response to injury. They arise out of envy, resentment, and a sense that the other has succeeded where you yourself have failed. Europeans see in America an image of their own past, in the days before cynicism and nihilism wiped away their sense of home. They observe a country able to shape its own destiny and laws, and to take an active and eager interest in the affairs of the world. They observe a country trusting its own people, as they once trusted theirs, to rise in the common defense. They see a country that can still confess to its faults and repent of its mistakes, because it is confident in its good intentions.
Of course, not everything about America is good. Europeans are right to question American foreign policy, and right to distance themselves from its frequently naï¿½ve assumptions — not least the assumption that the world divides into nation-states. They are right to resist the globalization — which to many Europeans means the Americanization — of their economies, even though it is a process in which the business elites of Europe are as eager to join as their American competitors. They are right to see American popular culture as a temptation to be resisted rather than a gift to be received.
But these things do not explain the vehemence of their antagonism. This antagonism stems not from what they have and the Americans haven’t, but from what the Americans have kept and they have lost. Witnessing the mysterious togetherness of the Americans, even in times like the present when the country is deeply divided over issues of domestic and foreign policy, they recall their own recent experiences and acknowledge that “we too were like that.” We too used to make our own laws, elect our own governments, decide who should and who should not reside among us; we too used to join together in our national festivals, adopt our national customs, and salute the national flag; we too used to look on our country, its landscape and its cities, with a sense of ownership, and stand ready to defend them in the face of threat.
Above all, we too were a “we” — a community of strangers, bound together by our love of the home that we shared. And what has happened to that “we”? Ask the question and Europeans veer away into silence. For this is forbidden territory. National feelings come under that ever expanding category of forbidden passions, which in European Law go by the name of “racism and xenophobia,” and which are soon to be extraditable crimes throughout the Union.
The American example reminds us of one of the essential requirements of nationhood, which is a “myth of origins.” We in England had such a myth, in the form of the Arthurian legends, which established a claim to the land that could never be defeated, since it was founded in stories that could never be disproved. It worked, partly because those stories located the origin of England in a misty past beyond the reach of rational enquiry, to be understood in terms of the long history that stemmed from it, and not in terms of exact historical events. In America the myth of origins focuses on a precise moment, the moment of the Founding Fathers, heroes who stand higher in the narrative of history than ever they stood in reality, and who bequeathed to their countrymen a text every bit as sacred as the Hebrew Bible or the Holy Koran. And this text is all the more efficacious in the turbulent world that is now emerging, in being both sacred in its origins and secular in its effect. It is a revelation, but a revelation from man, not God. And its principles do not merely enshrine the Enlightenment conception of citizenship, purged of all belligerence and defiance. They unfold a clear idea of nationhood — of a people committed to each other despite all the differences of doctrine, opinion, and lifestyle that might otherwise force them apart.
ONE OF THE MOST REMARKABLE FEATURES of America in the eyes of a European visitor is the unselfconscious manner in which Americans still rehearse the myth of their origins, and repeat the narrative of their pilgrimage into the modern world. In Europe such things are either scorned as chauvinistic or condemned as another example of that “racism and xenophobia” which is lurking under every bed. Some of our national narratives have been scribbled over and canceled out, like that of the Germans. Others have become stories of class-conflict and oppression, like that now told in English schools, or records of belligerent episodes that never paid off — like the national stories that no longer appeal to the French. Everywhere we find a kind of repudiation of those fortifying legends on which nations have always depended for their sense of identity. Whether this is the cause of our loss of sovereignty or an effect of it is hard to tell. Maybe it is a bit of both.
But it is certain that the European Union does its best to encourage the debunking of national narratives. The EU-sponsored history textbook, which is now proposed as a basic text for both French and German schools, says little about France or Germany as nation-states, representing their history as a series of unfortunate conflicts on the way to a Union where conflicts can no longer occur. The textbook is consistently anti-American and equates America with the Soviet Union as joint causes of the Cold War and of the tensions that divided Europe. It is also unstinting in its praise for the European Union, as a cosmopolitan project spreading peace and order where the nation-states (the last example of which is America) spread only violence, exploitation, and distrust.
The book is the work of ten learned professors, five French and five German. And I doubt that any of them believes a word of it. But its purpose is that of historical narratives at every time and in every place: to provide a new myth of the past. The EU cannot create a rival identity to the nation-state, unless it can identify itself as something superior to the nation-states. It must become a project of release from the errors and crimes of nationhood. And this means identifying the nation-state as a symptom of the adolescence of mankind, a stage on the way to transnational maturity. And it also involves identifying the last great nation-state in the modern world — the United States of America — as an example of what must be overcome, if mankind is to enter into a secure and peaceful possession of its patrimony.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online