Our Staring Contest With the Abyss
Dear Reader (including Seth Moulton, whoever he is!),
Sometimes I think the zombie apocalypse is really going to happen, because humans have the strange ability to create the villains they want to oppose.
Yesterday, I caught an interview on NPR with the black fiction writer Rion Amilcar Scott. Let me pause already and explain: I normally wouldn’t care about the race of a fiction writer, but Scott writes fiction about blacks. In his new collection of short stories, The World Doesn’t Require You, Scott offers a bunch of tales spun off from a successful slave revolt in the fictional Maryland town of Cross River. In the course of the interview, Scott said this:
We have a lot of alternate realities in which the Confederacy wins, which I don’t think we need because (laughter)—they lost the war, but the idea about all they won. So I wanted to have a place where the idea of battle is still waging but there’s actually a physical victory.
I want to be fair, because Scott was chuckling and hard to understand in that moment (and I think the transcript is slightly off), but it seemed quite clear to me that Scott was saying that in the real world the Confederacy lost the war but won the battle of ideas.
And that is just about the craziest and most pernicious thing an American can say. Just to review the record, the Confederacy not only lost the war, it most definitely lost the battle of ideas as well. This is not my own rosy, quasi-literary interpretation of American history. It’s simply as much of a historical fact as anything can be. It is no less true than saying the Nazis and Japanese not only lost World War II physically, but intellectually as well.
After the Civil War, the slaves were freed and the Constitution was amended several times to ban that hateful institution as well as the disenfranchisement of blacks. It’s true that the former slave states did fight a rearguard effort to claw back some of their losses by imposing Jim Crow and other evils. And it is also true that the battle of ideas outlasted the end of formal hostilities by generations. Indeed, there are still some related political clashes to this day, as the descendants of the victors now try to scrub the last vestiges of a defeated culture from the historical record in acts of modern day iconoclasm.
But by no reasonable understanding can the tearing down of Confederate statues be seen as anything other than the continued routing of the defeated. Whatever significance you ascribe to the election of Barack Obama, it strikes me as literally impossible to see it as anything other than tangible and obvious proof that the Confederacy didn’t just lose the Civil War, it lost the war of ideas as well.
1619 and All That
Now, as I said, I may have misunderstood Scott. But it’s an easy mistake to make, given that this broader idea that America is a racist, white-supremacist nation is the chief motivating passion of many on the left today—and not just the campus left.
The New York Times recently launched its 1619 Project, which gets its name from the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves’ forcible importation to what became the U.S., “to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”
I think the project is deeply flawed, even though there is much value in some of it. I also think some of the criticisms of it are flawed as well.
But I want to stay on the big picture (National Review’s The Editors podcast has a good discussion of the topic, by the way). There are many ironies to the left’s intellectual effort to set America’s Founding nearly two centuries before the American Revolution, as well as many to the right’s response.
Many of my nationalist friends passionately agree that America was a nation, or a “people,” long before the United States was born. And it is true that the first European settlers brought with them ancient customs and traditions but also fairly novel and distinct political and religious ideas that were disfavored in the Old World. This doesn’t mark my conservative nationalist friends as “white nationalists.” It marks them as faithful students of American history.
It’s funny: In other contexts, the 1619ers tend to hate this argument precisely because it supports the case that America really is a nation, not just an idea. It also lends credence to notions of American exceptionalism that have roots much deeper than 1776. The uniqueness of American society chronicled by Alexis de Tocqueville did not spring solely out of the Constitution’s text, like Athena from Zeus’ forehead.
But now the 1619ers want to argue that the conservatives were right about America being a nation all along; they just want to make that case the heart of an indictment against America. If the American nation was founded with the arrival of the first slave, then the American nation is evil from birth by implication, and the American Revolution and all that followed can’t siphon the toxin from the fruit of the poisoned tree.
Idea v Nation
But wait, there’s more. The next irony is that the conservative nationalists are resorting to the argument that America really is an idea, an assertion that many of them roll their eyes at in other contexts. My friend Rich Lowry regularly heaps scorn on the claim that America is an idea. But in this excellent column on the 1619 project, he finds himself rightly and necessarily resorting to precisely that argument to rebut what amounts to a nationalist argument from the left.
To be fair, Rich doesn’t say America is “just a nation” any more than he says it is not “just an idea.” But his rebuttal of the 1619 Project is an exercise in what the Marxists call “praxis,” the application of ideas or theory to the real world. And the rebuttal to the 1619 Project can only truly be made by straightforwardly explaining how the idea—and ideas—of the Founding unfolded over time.
The Civil War was about many things. But slavery and the hypocrisy of slavery in a nation founded on the idea that “all men are created equal” were at the core. Abraham Lincoln took the opening of the Declaration and made it the central idea of this country. He didn’t create that idea out of whole cloth; after all, Jefferson had made it the lede of the Declaration. But Lincoln made it the central idea that other competing ideas must get out of the way of.
A century after the Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to his fellow Americans, specifically white Americans, and told them they were hypocrites for not following through on that idea. The Founders issued a “promissory note” and America had not yet made good on it. That was a major assault in the battle of ideas, and King and his comrades secured tangible victories in the Civil Rights Acts.
And that’s why it is so grotesque to pretend, claim, or believe that the Confederacy won the battle of ideas.
A Tale of Two Nationalisms
People are loading a lot into the cargo hold of the word “nationalism” these days. But at the most basic level, nationalism is the idea there is a real “we the people” from which political authority and legitimacy flows. Nationalism is related to democracy by their common relative: populism.
And that’s why, if you look closely, you’ll see that the anti-nationalists have a nationalism all their own. While their rhetoric is formally anti-nationalist, their agenda is quintessentially nationalist. They have their own “we the people” (or “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for”). It’s just that their new nation, their “coalition of the ascendant,” is being held back by America’s outdated constitutional structure. Listen carefully and you can hear echoes of the German nationalists of the early 1800s, who believed that the imposition of French Enlightenment principles on the True German Nation were depriving the Teutons of their rightful status and power.
For instance, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez insists the Electoral College is a “racist scam.” The arguments against the Electoral College and the Senate and for court-packing boil down to the idea that the ‘real’ American nation is being thwarted by arcane ‘anti-democratic’ constitutional mechanisms that enshrine ‘white privilege.’ Sweep away these illegitimate obstructions and the true voice of “We the People” will make itself heard. (Ron Brownstein argues more or less exactly this here.)
This is the mirror image argument of many Trumpist arguments about how “real America” is thwarted by the establishment, the Deep State, or the “fake news.” Both sides believe “the system” is against them. Not all versions of this argument are wrong—the administrative state, crony capitalists, etc. pose real problems—but all versions that turn the Constitution itself into an evil scheme thwarting this or that group’s will-to-power are wrong.
The problem with both arguments is that the whole point of our constitutional structure is to protect political minorities and just plain individual Americans from one-size-fits-all impositions from the central government.
And that’s why I am cheered by the conservative nationalists’ invocation of the Constitution as a defense against the liberal nationalists’ new offensive. The best defense against bad nationalism isn’t good nationalism, but a recommitment to the neutral rules of a liberal order enshrined in the Constitution.