Home | Away

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Still nation time

OK, I’ve decided to continue yesterday’s discussion up here, because (a) I don’t want some of these arguments to stay buried deep in comments and (b) some people are still disagreeing with me, and despite my commitment to pragmatist pluralism, I think this has just gotta stop.  So the discussion of Glenn Greenwald and civic vs. ethnic nationalism can keep on goin’ afresh.  But those of you who are already weary of this topic and are looking for something else on this very serious blog are advised that Scott Lemieux and I are covering the Stanley Cup finals over at Lawyers, Guns, and Hockey, and an intrepid blogger known only as Moi Oci (I think that’s a pun) has devised a groundbreaking set of equations for calibrating dangerality against dangerosity.  You already knew I was the worst or second-worst professor in America, but Moi Oci has quantitative proof.

Now for civic nationalism and yesterday’s comments.  First, Ben Alpers.  In response to my comment --

I think it’s quite difficult, actually, to read Greenwald’s outrage as anything but an expression of civic nationalism.  Remember, he wasn’t alarmed by the creation of the category of “enemy noncombatants” and the Bush Administration’s decision to hold thousands of detainees at Gitmo.  That was the tocsin for any number of other smart attorneys at home and abroad, many of whom have been interviewed by the invaluable talking dog.  Greenwald, by contrast, wasn’t that kind of internationalist or universalist; he was motivated by the deprivation of a citizen’s rights, and though you can read that motivation as being directly or indirectly allied to a more internationalist revulsion at the tactics of police states, it seems, here, quite specifically directed at a breach of the citizenship protocols of the nation-state.

-- Ben kicks off all kinds of mischief with an innocent little parenthetical remark:

But does even a revulsion “quite specifically directed at a breach of the citizenship protocols of the nation-state” necessarily involve a commitment to civic nationalism (and here I’m using nationalism in its normal sense to designate a form of patriotism, or belief in the superiority of one’s particular nation)?

The answer to this question, absent the parenthesis, is simply yes.  An objection to a breach of citizenship protocols involves a commitment to civic nationalism.  Crucially, that commitment need not preclude what Ben wisely calls “a universal commitment to citizen’s rights, a commitment that includes a belief that the legal distinction between the rights of citizens and non-citizens is necessary to the functions of the nation-state, while still maintaining that states in general should honor the rights of their own citizens.”

But the parenthesis mucks everything up.  When you say you’re using the word “nationalism” in “its normal sense to designate a form of patriotism, or belief in the superiority of one’s particular nation,” you’re putting a big fat thumb on the scales (and in saying this I do not mean any form of recognition harm with regard to Ben’s actual thumbs).  You’re deliberately evacuating the term “nationalism” of its civic, procedural sense, and substituting for it a common form of jingoism.  You’re deliberately confusing Greenwald’s civic-proceduralist conviction that the president does not have the power to set aside laws passed by Congress, and substituting for it the belief that the United States (GoUSAFreedom!) is better than other countries.

That dice-switching hampers our ability to think clearly about states, citizens, and universal commitments to citizens’ rights; closer to home, here on this very blog, it created a kind of dogpile on civic nationalism, and plenty more blurring of the difference between ethnic and civic forms of belonging.  (Of course, on the Internet no one knows if there are any actual dogs on the dogpile.) Next up was Luther Blissett:

Just want to agree with Ben Alpers’ comment above.  The line between civic and ethnic nationalism cannot be so boldly drawn.

Part of the debate over immigration posits the Samuel Huntington argument: America’s civic documents, institutions, and procedures are the product of certain ethnic worldviews, and so America cannot allow in too many of certain ethnicities and must force other immigrants to assimilate in order to preserve its civic identity.

And part of my end of the debate rejects the Samuel Huntington argument altogether.  Look, folks.  Drop the Hardt and Negri already; it’s not like they have anything coherent to say about citizenship and rights.  And please, please don’t adopt Huntington for any purpose whatsoever, not even in the safety of your own home.  Nothing good can come of that kind of “experimenting.” Instead, look closely at the difference between these two principles:

1.  The executive branch should be bound by the laws passed by the legislative branch.

2.  This land is the rightful land of the Anglo-Saxon people, having been won in conquest and in accordance with the will of God.  (For “Anglo-Saxon” substitute any form of ethnos you like.  Even your own!  If you have one, that is.)

Now, I suppose you could blur these two forms of nationalism if you wanted to, by citing some ethnocentric crackpot who believes that the principle of the separation of powers is uniquely Anglo-Saxon.  But why would anyone want to do this?  In order to argue that we shouldn’t get too upset about Bush’s secret and illegal NSA surveillance, because, after all, this whole “the president is not above the law” business is merely one of the ethnic folkways of one little proceduralist tribe?

Next comes jpj, to take issue with my claim about the constitutional origins of the United States:

I would argue that Michael is wrong when he argues that the US was “founded entirely on civic rather than ethnic grounds.”

For most of our history, our laws reflected the idea that civil society was a racial trait.  I’m sure I don’t have to rehearse the litany of racially based laws the country has had.  Chinese Exclusion, the 1924 Immigration Act, the entire structure of Jim Crow in the South… The list could be endless.

There was even an entire theoretical apparatus on the “Teutonic Origins of Democracy” to support the idea that democracy was a racial trait of Northern Europeans and that extending democratic ideals to other European races, never mind the “colored” races, was doomed to fail.

Given that extensive history, whipping up concerns about Mexican invasions is all to easy to explain.

Again, I don’t want to get parochial about this, but in my experience, I’ve found that propositions that begin “I would argue that Michael is wrong” almost never pan out.  And this one is no exception!  You certainly don’t have to rehearse the litany of racially based laws in the United States, because, as it happens, I recently wrote a very scholarly (and very heterosexual!) lecture on the subject, a lecture commissioned by General J. C. Christian himself.  No one around here is going to argue that the history of the United States is free of ethnic nationalism.  But we will argue that the checks on executive power in the Constitution are not predicated on any form of ethnic belonging.  Likewise, there is no provision in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution that declares the section null and void if the President happens to be a good ol’ boy with whom one would like to have a beer.  (That would be silly!) So yes, jpj is right that there is plenty of ethnocentric precedent for whipping up concerns about Mexican invasions.  But he is wrong to see this as having any bearing on the separation of powers.

Which brings me to Lee Konstantinou’s comment.  Lee starts off great:

The problem with Greenwald isn’t that he’s finally starting to smell the coffee (we’re all very pleased that he is, really) but that by justifying his complacency and lack of interest in politics in the pre-Bush II Era on the basis of some Constitutionally-enforced political equilibrium, he suggests that If Only We Could Return to Politics as Usual then Everything Would Be OK.  Well, sorry, but it won’t be OK.

But then goes horribly awry:

There is a strong case to be made that Bush II’s policies are merely natural extensions of what has come before.

If you’re arguing that Bush II represents a restoration of the Nixon Presidency rather than the Reagan Presidency, then this is just about right.  (In a recent essay, I harked back to my belief, in my more optimistic moments of 2004, that “progressives would begin to look back on the Bush Presidency as a failed attempt to re-animate the Reagan Era, complete with tax cuts, cowboy boots, winks to religious fundamentalists, and tactical Constitution-shredding on the side.” Hey, I was wrong about the “Reagan” part!  It happens, you know.) But otherwise, it’s a very serious mistake to argue that anything about this administration is a “natural extension” of anything.  When we make the case against Bush’s NSA program and the Cheney Archipelago, we serve no good purpose if we do not stress the unprecedented nature of these things.  To do otherwise, I’m afraid, is to fall into the trap of arguing things like, “well, Clinton was just as bad in his way, and that’s just like Cheney’s secret torture sites if you think about it,” and thereby making a “left” argument that winds up having strange affinities with the right in its attempt to normalize Bush II.

Which brings me, at last, to Eric J-D and his citation of Robert Jensen’s argument about why leftists should distrust liberals:

I think at times like these it is quite difficult to know what to do with someone like Greenwald.  Certainly the exigencies of the present suggest to some the necessity of forming as broad a coalition as possible with those who oppose the present administration, but as Robert Jensen argues here, there are good reasons for those on the left to be suspicious of the value of building coalitions with liberals.

Being somewhere between liberalism and the left, let me return the favor: Jensen’s article is a standard piece of self-flattery, in which “the left” is principled and steadfast, and liberals are compromising (and compromised) wimps.  But I don’t always see things quite that way.  (Except when it comes to The Left, because he’s always objectively correct.) Apart from the fact that Counterpunch has, in the past, spread a nasty (and quite stupid!) little fib about how I am secretly in cahoots with David Horowitz, thereby giving me good reason to be suspicious of them, I have reason to be suspicious of the value of building coalitions with any part of the left that champions the “Iraqi maquis.” (For a brief but scathing reply on the left, check out Joe Lockard; for a trenchant analysis of the decline of the New Left Review more generally, see Danny Postel’s recent interview with Fred Halliday.  Long story short, right now I have fewer coalition-forming problems with Glenn Greenwald than I do with, say, Alexander Cockburn or Tariq Ali.) Yes, there are times—more than I can count—when liberals have been disappointing, craven, or worse; this snarly blog has remarked on many of them.  But there have also been times when liberals have been consistent on domestic civil liberties and universal citizenship rights, as well as on Cuba, Liberia, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and the Middle East while “the left” has been all over the map, from good sound anti-imperialism all the way to noxious red-brown alliances.  So I don’t think there’s any reason to hold Glenn Greenwald to the Counterpunch standard of ideological purity.  Perhaps, in some people’s opinions, it took him too long to get where he is now, and perhaps he didn’t get there for all the right reasons.  But personally, I’m with cloudsplitter when s/he says,

To me, every voice of reason that’s raised against the erosion of civil liberties in America—while it’s still possible to raise them—is a welcome addition, and when the voice is as consistent and forceful in its articulation as Glenn’s, I’m a lot more interested in turning up the volume than in determining the exact motives for the decision to speak.

And that’s why, in closing, I’m going to direct you all to Amanda Anderson’s defense of Habermasian civic nationalism, as elaborated toward the end of The Way We Argue Now.  Anderson acknowledges that civic nationalism relies on a faith in proceduralism that, as I mentioned yesterday, seems unacceptably weak when juxtaposed to other forms of belonging:

proceduralism is seen as overly thin, arid, and abstract. . . .  It is further asserted that people need affective attachments and meaningful affiliations, that attachment to impersonal procedures and universal principles cannot provide the glue that holds communities of various scales together. . . .

Historically, the idea that participants in modern democratic life might fundamentally aspire to the forming of an attachment to abstract or universal principles has been a key issue in the debate over the possibilities for a nationalism defined in civic rather than ethnic terms (stretching back at least as far as J. S. Mill), and it has also informed discussions about cosmopolitan attachment (can one experience solidarity as a world citizen?) and about proceduralism of the type that Habermas espouses (not only through his concept of “constitutional patriotism,” but also through the idea of commitment to postnational institutions like the European Union and to international law).

Anderson then goes to argue that a commitment to proceduralism and civic nationalism need not be so arid and thin after all, especially if you take into account the history of ethnic nationalism:

Habermas has emphasized the ways in which citizens can form solidarities and affiliations based on a common struggle to install abstract principles and procedures at the heart of their national political institutions.  Sharing a common history in which there were collective efforts to overcome the damning effects of ethnic nationalism—as is certainly the case in Germany—can have the effect of what we might call “thickifying the thin.” In these instances, a shared dedication to principled democratic procedure itself promotes those forms of affective solidarity that Habermas elsewhere assigned exclusively to preexisting ethical life.  “The political culture of a country crystallizes around its constitution.  Each national culture develops a distinctive interpretation of those constitutional principles that are equally embodied in other republican constitutions—such as popular sovereignty and human rights—in light of its own national history.  A ‘constitutional patriotism’ based on these interpretations can take the place originally occupied by nationalism.” [Quoting Jürgen Habermas, “The European Nation-State: On the Past and Future of Sovereignty and Citizenship,” in The Inclusion of the Other, ed. Ciaran Cronin and Pablo de Greiff (MIT Press, 1998), 118.]

Thus, Anderson argues, “the collective attempt to resist forms of patriotism that attempt to subordinate or sidestep the rigorous demands of law, principle, and right—at either the national or the international level—can themselves promote productive forms of patriotic and cosmopolitan affiliation.” (By the way, this reminds me: wasn’t The Valve supposed to do one of their collective reviews of Anderson’s book?  Back in January, Scott Eric Kaufman was promising us a “book event” “in the next month or so.” And after all, wouldn’t they be better off reading Amanda Anderson than wasting their time and ours with houses of cards?)

This Habermasian project, I submit, is precisely what Greenwald’s How Would a Patriot Act? attempts to accomplish: to counter America’s history of narrow, ethnic nationalism with a constitutional faith, a procedural commitment to principled democratic procedure itself.  And every effort to blur the distinction between the ethnic nationalism of the Volk and the civic nationalism of political constitutions hampers that attempt.  In my humble yet tenacious opinion, the left should try to keep that distinction as clear as possible.

Posted by Michael on 06/06 at 01:22 PM
(74) Comments • (0) TrackbacksPermalink
Page 1 of 1 pages