For the media, it means easy headlines: find the Black Hats, and you've got your story. Likewise for Hollywood: drama depends on conflict, and what better conflict is there than that between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil? Academics tend to take a little more prodding before they will admit to thinking in such reductive terms, but get them talking about power and oppression and the categories will become clear.
"We" (the speakers) are necessarily the Good Guys. "They" (those who think wrongly about sex, race, and gender) are the Bad Guys. All the Good Guys are on the side of the Oppressed (blacks, women, the poor); all the Bad Guys are on the side of the Powerful (whites, males, rich).
It does not matter that the categories make no historical sense, whether because they are recent inventions ("race" as something determined by evolution rather than culture or language), or because they are a fact of being mammals who reproduce sexually, or because there has never been a human society in which there were not some who commanded more resources than others. To refuse to think in the terms of these binaries is of itself to declare yourself a Black Hat.**
From the perspective of the professional Left (trust me on this, Jane Fonda said it just the other day), there are no viable categories of human community that exist outside these binaries. Every other category--nation, church, commerce, friendship, family--must be collapsed into them. Conversely, because the Left themselves think always in these binaries, they assume that everyone else does, too.
Have you ever wondered why "the Right" seems to have such a hard time defining itself? This is why. There is no such thing as "the Right" except as a projection of the Left. The Left needs a "Right" to oppose itself to, which is why the Left talks all the time about "fascism" as the enemy when both Leftists and fascists are, in fact, totalitarian. Actual conservatism cannot exist as far as the Left is concerned.
Which is how we get "white nationalism."
Nationalism, properly speaking, has nothing to do with race as biologically defined, never mind with something so literally superficial as skin color. As Roger Scruton has limpidly argued, it is a way of answering the questions "to what do we belong, and what defines our loyalties and commitments" without adverting to "a shared religious obedience, still less in bonds of tribe and kinship."
Nationalism defines "us" through "the things that we share with our fellow citizens, and in particular in those things that serve to sustain the rule of law and the consensual forms of politics."
What are these things that "we" share? To start with, Scruton says: territory. "We believe ourselves to inhabit a shared territory, defined by law, and we believe that territory to be ours, the place where we are, and where our children will be in turn. Even if we came here from somewhere else, that does not alter the fact that we are committed to this territory, and define our identity--at least in part--in terms of it."
From this perspective, it is as nonsensical to talk about "global citizenship" as it is to claim that democracy can or should exist without national borders. In Scruton's words: "Democracy needs boundaries, and boundaries need the nation state. All the ways in which people come to define their identity in terms of the place where they belong have a part to play in cementing the sense of nationhood."
Second, albeit closely tied to territory, are the history and customs according to which a particular territory has been settled. These customs may include, but do not need to include, religious ceremonies; secular rituals observed in common are equally potent, as are stories about how the territory was settled.
(In contrast: "To someone raised on the doctrine that legitimate law comes from God, and that obedience is owed to Him above all others, the claims of the secular jurisdiction are regarded as at best an irrelevance, at worse a usurpation"--for example, among those raised in dar al-Islam. This, as Scruton points out, is one of the most important reasons for many Islamists' resentment of the West and its representative, the United Nations: the imposition of the idea of the nation with its ideals of secular law and citizenship on Muslim communities founded rather on "divine law, brotherhood, and submission to a universal faith." Perhaps paradoxically for many modern secularists, the secular nation is a peculiarly Christian construct, grounded in the idea of the separation of Church and State.)
Showing once again his English roots, Scruton insists: "The essential thing about nations is that they grow from below, through habits of free association among neighbours, and result in loyalties that are attached to a place and its history, rather than to a religion, a dynasty, or, as in Europe, to a self-perpetuating political class."
From this perspective, America would seem to embody the ideal nation.
Defining America as a nation
Still in Scruton's words:
Under the American settlement, people were to treat each other, first and foremost, as neighbors: not as fellow members of a race, a class, an ethnic group or religion, but as fellow settlers in the land that they shared. Their loyalty to the political order grew from the obligations of neighbourliness; and disputes between them were to be settled by the law of the land. The law was to operate within territorial boundaries defined by the prior attachments of the people, and not by some trans-national bureaucracy open to capture by people for whom those boundaries meant nothing.My colleagues in the History department gathered again yesterday to talk about the implications for America of a Trump presidency. While they seemed to believe that it was important that America continue to exist--the one American historian talked explicitly about whether the Republic was in danger--it was difficult for me to understand why they thought it should. Except for the one Americanist, all the others work on other parts of the world: China, Eastern Europe, medieval Germany, Mexico, Marxist theory in the original German. As a group, those who work on the modern world seemed willing to champion the idea that other nations should exist in their own territories with their own histories and customs, but whether America has a place in that constellation seemed somewhat unclear.
Our Mexican historian spoke forcefully (and correctly) about the degree to which America is already and always has been Mexico. I get this intuitively, having grown up in New Mexico and spent my childhood wondering why all American history seemed to begin on the East Coast. (I'm old; I know this is not the version of our national history kids these days are learning.) "But what," I asked him in the Q&A, "do Mexicans think about us? Do they agree with you when you say that Mexico is already and has always been America?" "Oh, no, they think I am crazy for siding with the gringos."
Likewise, our Chinese historian spoke eloquently about the way in which China looks at the rest of the world through the lens of its own national history, particularly the imperial system of competitive examination. The current ruling elite in China, he told us, value expertise above all. To them it is nonsensical that we as America seem so willing to undermine ourselves competitively, while at the same time they are unsurprised. China, after all, is the Middle Kingdom, the place where heaven and earth meet. (I paraphrase somewhat, adding my own understanding of imperial China from my undergraduate days--I got to play Empress in our recreation of Qing politics.)
But what President Trump said yesterday in his inaugural address? Dangerous.
Unless, of course, you have been reading Scruton.
"We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and to restore its promise for all of our people." That is, we are neighbors who live and work together, fellow settlers in the land we share, obliged to each other through neighborliness.
"Together we will determine the course of America and the world... We will face challenges. We will confront hardships. But we will get the job done." Here Trump invokes all three tales of the nation at once: glory, sacrifice, and emancipation.
"This is your day. This is your celebration. And this, the United States of America, is your country. What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people." The nation is defined, again, as a shared territory, the we of those of us who live here as citizens under the same law.
"At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves." Note the explicit emphasis on neighborliness and the implicit appeal to the understanding that the nation grew up from the free associations between neighbors.
"We are one nation...We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny." America is a shared home with a story, a territory with a history and a future as the place where our children will live.
"We must protect our borders..." Trump's signature promise: America exists as a territory, not just an idea or a people, but a region in which particular laws are enforced to do justice to the individual parties involved.
"We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone..." We recognize that our customs are not others' customs.
"...but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow." But our customs are real and can serve as an example to others for how to imagine their nations.
"When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice." We are the ones who live here in America together. Our sense of nation depends on this shared neighborliness, not on a shared religious obedience or on bonds of tribe and kinship, but on our shared history (which is why it is so important that we have one) and our national narrative of living under a common law.
Those, like my colleagues who have spent their lives building communities of scholarship with likewise elite intellectuals around the world, have a hard time with such territorial claims to allegiance and belonging. They (as I know from long experience living here in Chicago) do not tend to think of themselves as Chicagoans or even know that much about our city where they live. They participate only in a limited fashion in the life of the community around us, whether through church or other hobbies. (Most of them aren't here that much, if they can help it; I take my sabbaticals on my couch.) When I pushed them at another point in the conversation about the long-term effects of automation on the American workforce and how important it is for human dignity to feel oneself skilled at making things, they had a hard time imagining actual hobbies in which one might engage if he or she did not read books. "Looking at screens" was the only thing they seemed to think most Americans not in academia do with their leisure time. (To be fair, one suggested raising heritage chickens.) In their imaginations, I am sad to report, except for my fellow medievalist and I (you gotta wonder), America did not exist.
Which is most likely why they, like most of the mainstream media, could not hear President Trump when he said: "It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American flag."
In other words, our nation qua nation is not about race--and never was.***
Why the Left needs "white nationalism"
The Left depends for its very existence on the narrative that nations exist only as expressions of something other than territory inhabited by those with shared customs and history. As Scruton shows elsewhere, it came into being explicitly as a rejection of history (that of France), and has depended ever since on the imposition (often by violence, as in the Terror) of universalizing ideals at the expense of local custom and practice.
From the beginning, it has likewise depended on identifying all those who stand against its narrative of rupture and cleansing as enemies, counterrevolutionaries who would turn back the clock on the redefinition of society according to the Left's own uncompromising standards of virtue (as, for example, in the Vendée). Like its founding father, Maximilien Robespierre, the Left thinks in terms of absolutes, of virtue guaranteed through terror. The nation built up through custom and the habit of free association between neighbors is anathema to such a top-down, idealizing vision.
It, therefore, cannot be allowed to exist.
"White nationalism," like the patriarchy, is a myth. To be sure, there were Scots in the late nineteenth century, most famously among them Rudyard Kipling, who talked in terms of "the white man's burden," but as Arthur Herman has shown in his history of the Scots and their influence on the development of the West, this "burden" was never, at least in the English-speaking world, what later post-colonial theorists have imagined it to mean. (Perhaps it was for the French, which would explain Foucault.)
The Left, however, given its own founding mythology, cannot admit that it is working with a radically different understanding of nation. Nor, it seems, will those of us who are forced by definition to call ourselves conservatives be able to get them to see why we are conservative not in the sense of wanting to preserve all customs unchanging or the control of this or that biologically-determined race over our country, but simply in the sense of being neighbors living and working together under a common law.
It is rather like the Sphere in Flatland trying to explain itself to the Square. The Square only knows how to see in two dimensions, but the Sphere exists in three.
Roger Scruton, How to Be a Conservative (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), pp. 31-40
_______, Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)
Cartoons courtesy of Polandball.
*The mainstream media, most of my colleagues in academia, the paid protestors at Trump's rallies and presidential inauguration, most Hollywood actors and actresses, the Beltway elite, you know.
**David Horowitz puts it somewhat more apocalyptically in his new book on Trump:
Why do progressives have hatred in their hearts for conservatives? Why do they sound like hellfire-and-damnation preachers when they are on the attack? Because they are zealots of what can only be described as a crypto-religion modeled on the Christian narrative of the Fall and Redemption--the difference being that they seem themselves as the redeemers instead of the divinity. To progressives, the world is a fallen place--beset by racism, sexism, homophobia, and the rest--that must be transformed and made right. This redemption was once called communism and is now called socialism, or "social justice." Theirs is a vision of a world that has become a "safe place"--where there are no deplorables, or where such irredeemables are outlawed and suppressed.
***And, no, of course, we have not always lived up to our own ideals as Americans in this respect. I am talking about the way in which we imagine ourself as a nation.