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Civic Nationalism and the Linguistic Coup on Western Values

Jean Béraud, La Marseilles,

“What is there about ethno-nationalism now that rallies voters, but hasn’t done so before?” (Ivan Krastev, Central Europe is a Lesson to Liberals: Don’t Be Anti-Nationalist)

Misunderstanding what is nationalism lies often in our confusion of terms and theoretical frame of reference. Sympathies with Western tradition are being increasingly identified and repudiated as being indistinct from “white nationalist rhetoric.” This is largely a reaction to the rise of new racialist elements going under the group names, Identitarian, “New Right,” race realists, and “ethno-nationalists.”

Jason Willick adds:

“…the intelligentsia is now flirting with an intellectually indefensible linguistic coup: Characterizing any appeal to the coherence or distinctiveness of Western civilization as evidence of white nationalist sympathies. Such a shift, if accepted, would so expand the scope of the term “alt-right” that it would lose its meaning. Its genuinely ugly ideas would continue to fester, but we would lose the rhetorical tools to identify and repudiate them as distinct from legitimate admiration for the Western tradition. To use a favorite term of the resistance, the alt-right would become normalized.” (Jason Willick, The alt-right is an attack on Western values. Liberals shouldn’t surrender so easily, 2017 July 14)

Equating nationalism with evil became common after World War II. However, JFK, Wilson, and the Roosevelts were nationalists. It is only the term nationalism contemporary liberals emotionally abhor, but not the language of nationalism. They still use the language of nationalism, especially when it is their idea of a benign, egalitarian form of nationalism or nationhood. As some thinkers suggest, anti-nationalism is not the way to go. Yascha Mounk, among others want Liberals to reclaim nationalism, explaining that:

“So long as nationalism is associated with one particular ethnic or religious group, it will serve to exclude and disadvantage others. The only way to keep the destructive potential of nationalism in check is to fight for a society in which collective identity transcends ethnic and religious boundaries — one in which citizens from all religious or ethnic backgrounds are treated with the same respect as citizens from the majority group. 

To effect this transformation is one of the great political challenges of our age. It requires principled resistance to right-wing nationalism, but it can succeed only if those who are most open to diversity abandon their hostility to other forms of nationalism.

One common reaction to the dangerous excesses of nationalism has been to forgo the need for any form of collective identity, exhorting people to transcend tribal allegiances completely. But for better or probably worse, it’s easier to be moved by the suffering of people with whom we have some form of kinship. That is why nationalism remains one of the most powerful vehicles for expanding our circle of sympathy.” (Yascha Mounk, How Liberals Can Reclaim Nationalism. March 3 2018.)

Noam Gidron on why the left shouldn’t fear nationalism said that:

“Throughout the 20th century, progressives mobilized for social justice most successfully when they spoke in the name of national solidarity rather than focusing exclusively on class-based interests or on abstract notions of justice. Left-wingers often cite the adage that patriotism is the last resort of the scoundrel — and with good reason. But it is important to also remember that a deep sense of national commitment underpins the egalitarian institutions we hold dear.

The historian Michael Kazin put it mildly when he wrote that patriotism “is not a popular sentiment on the contemporary left.” The influential British left-wing commentator George Monbiot has equated patriotism with racism: To give in to patriotism, he writes, is to deny the plain truth “that someone living in Kinshasa is of no less worth than someone living in Kensington.”

Yet in giving up on appeals to national solidarity, the left has forgotten the basic political argument that served it so well in the past: that out of the ties that bind together our national communities emerges a deep commitment to the well-being, welfare, and social esteem of our fellow citizens. This recognizes a basic moral intuition: We have deep and encompassing obligations to those we consider our own, based on a shared sense of membership in a community of fate — or more simply, based on our shared national identity.” (Gidron, Noam. The left shouldn’t fear nationalism. It should embrace it. Feb. 8, 2018.)

Thomas Paine (“Rights of Man”) is used to support internationalism and universalist ideals, but Thomas Paine was still arguing for the importance of the nation as the cause of liberty when he said:

“The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all Lovers of Mankind are affected, and in the Event of which, their Affections are interested. The laying a Country desolate with Fire and Sword, declaring War against the natural rights of all Mankind, and extirpating the Defenders thereof from the Face of the Earth, is the Concern of every Man to whom Nature hath given the Power of feeling; of which Class, regardless of Party Censure, is the AUTHOR.” (Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 14 February 1776.)

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