Nation, State, and Kerrey

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by Joseph R. Stromberg

The tempest over Senator Bob Kerrey's exact role in one of the liberals' many wars has raised some interesting questions. Others have dealt with those, and I only wish to make a few observations on patriotism and nationalism, starting from the fact that many writers have sought to distinguish between the concepts.

Edward P. Lawton, for example, suggests that patriotism "fits best an area small enough and homogeneous enough for its natives to acquire love for it by the wholly u2018natural' means of personal familiarity and acceptance, as with Rousseau and Geneva. To me the key word here is u2018natural.' For I do not see how one can respect and trust any nationalist feeling that is induced by indoctrination in schools or other forms of propaganda…. And nationalism, in my meaning, is artificial and more apt to do harm than good." He goes on to question "why the people of an artificially contrived nation have a moral obligation to be patriotic." He referred Belgium as an example; but as a Southerner, writing in 1963, he had in mind the artificial US nationalism whose bloody triumph came in 1865.

Robert Nisbet comments that "Nationalism, in the form that has become triumphant in the last century and a half, is no mere development, as is so often argued, of folk ties of tribe, locality, or region. Doubtless the emotional elements which earlier populations found in kinship and region, in local community and church, have been transferred, so to speak, to the nation. But the logical continuity of symbolic transference should not be made the basis of assuming any continuity of social development in this instance. Modern nationalism, as a state of mind and cultural reality, cannot be understood except in terms of the weakening and destruction of earlier bonds, and of the attachment to the political State of new emotional loyalties and identifications."

Walker Connor's many books and essays seek to distinguish between national feeling based on naturally existing ties of kinship, history, and geography and modern nationalism as the official ideology of state-building elites. In despair, he has taken to using the term "ethno-nationalism" for the former thing and concedes the term "nationalism" to the nation-states. The interesting point is that states use, invent, and reinvent "national" ideology in pursuit of state purposes. Where nationalism is a naturally occurring phenomenon unconnected with state-controlled education, it is usually in the hands of separatist or anti-colonialist political movements opposing the official nationalism of some state in which the movements feel trapped. In other words, it is more or less the same as patriotism, as defined above.

In US history we have seen situational appeals to the "nation" (=central state) by our state-building liberals (or social democrats). Early in the 20th century, US official nationalism was a handy cudgel to wield against localists, regionalists, and defenders of states rights and in favor of Progressive state-building centering on Washington as the hub of a projected US world empire. But the central state endures, and adjusts its ideological justifications as it goes.

In the current formula, other states' or peoples' nationalism is bad, a wicked wellspring of potential international evil; it is the sort of thing that causes wars in which the US must intervene out of duty. By contrast, US nationalism is good, if by this we mean instant, hang-dog, submission to the central state. On the other hand, US nationalism of a more traditional sort is almost as bad as the foreign nationalisms. The older US nationalism – which had some real drawbacks, to be sure – is linked to conservative, even "right-wing" impulses, and to an unprogressive attachment to what these united states were like before the reigns of JFK and LBJ, or before the arrival of FDR.

All through the fifties and sixties, liberals wielded the killing epithet "super-patriot" to refer to backward types trapped in the older, World War I-style nationalism. Since Woodrow Wilson, a paladin of the early 20th-century nationalism, was a "liberal" of some kind, that nationalism and its faults ought, in justice, to tell against the liberals' account. It has long seemed to me that the hyper-nationalism and anti-foreign (especially anti-German) hysteria whipped up by the high-minded US employees from 1917-1919 explains, as much as anything does, the "Red Scare" and the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan (with no institutional connection to its namesake). This is as good place as any to remind our Northern friends that the state with the highest per capita membership in this Klan was Indiana, and that the neo-Klan did quite well in places like New Jersey, Oregon, and the lower Midwest.

Evidently, the hyperthyroid "patriots" Wilson called into being needed another outlet for their emotions after the war. Liberals, with their wider perspective founded on pragmatism and instrumentalism, believed that popular mass hysteria could be turned off and on, like water from a tap. I guess they were disappointed when the frenzied elements joined the Klan. Wilson deserves much of the credit for this peculiar outcome.

But, alas, the world is not a just place, and far from taking any blame, liberals have since moved on to new definitions of acceptable and unacceptable US nationalism. The key is whatever benefits the central state at any given time. The pragmatic liberal, the fascist, and the Bolshevik are as one on such matters. It goes without saying that local patriotism is even worse, from this standpoint, than the retrograde nationalism of right-wing Republicans in the 1960s. Hence the general unhappiness when the terrible Mississippians failed to eradicate their past in recent weeks. They wilfully cling to their past, when they should embrace change; re-education is doubtless in order.

This brings us, finally, to Senator Kerrey's war. The war in Indo-China was the creation of the pragmatic, gung-ho, can-do liberal imperialists, who came to power under John F. Kennedy. However much New Right warmongers and the still lingering China Lobby supported the war, it was the liberals' baby until they handed it off to Richard Nixon to clean up for them.

Here was a war in no way defensive, in no way calculated to appeal to the natural patriotism of ordinary Americans. No one was invading or even slandering my home county. I doubt the Viet-Cong were spotted in anyone else's county either.

To justify conscripting young Americans into an aggressive war of overseas imperialism, resort was had to the ideology of Cold War anti-communism and to official US nationalism, both now equated with "patriotism." I leave the moral and philosophical outcomes to that eloquent fellow, Carl Oglesby, president of SDS, 1965-1966. Writing in 1967, Oglesby pictured a brave young American cadet, full of patriotic good intentions: "There is no Mein Kampf hidden in his footlocker." Faced with the reality of the war in Vietnam, he must believe all the more in the official nationalism which justified it: "You need not inform this Wyoming lad that his hands are bloody. He is the expert about that. But the blood will wash away, will it not? … The cleansing water is victory. The sacrifice is redeemed by the rebirth for which it prepares the conquered land. But if the water is not brought, that deferred innocence in whose name the present guilt is borne vanishes from the future. And what becomes of this strange savage blood? It fuses permanently with the skin of the hands that shed it. We ought to be able to understand a very simple thing: From now on in America, it shall be with such hands that children are soothed, office memoranda signed, cocktails stirred, friends greeted, poems written, love made, the Host laid on the tongue and wreaths on graves, the nose pinched in meditations. In the forthcoming gestures of these hands – this is really very simple – we shall behold an aspect of Vietnam's revenge."

That, it seems to me, is the moral of the Kerrey story. I can only repeat my recommendation that true patriots defend what is real, concrete, and local; and leave killing and dying for high abstractions which mask the interests of central states to the staffs of various centrist and center-right publications in the northeastern US. With that small bit of manpower, could they even conquer Monaco?

Joseph R. Stromberg [send him mail] is the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and a columnist for Antiwar.com.

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