An Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives: A Horizon Made of Canvas

Are you an open-minded progressive? Maybe not, but you probably have friends who are. This is for them. Perhaps it can serve as a sort of introduction to this strange blog, Unqualified Reservations.

If you are an open-minded progressive, you are probably not a Catholic. (If you are, you probably don’t take the Pope too seriously.) Imagine writing an open letter to Catholics, suggesting ways for them to free their minds from the insidious grip of Rome. That sort of thing is quite out of style these days—and in any case, how would you start? But here at UR, we are never afraid of being out of style. And as for starting, we already have.

Is being a progressive like being a Catholic? Why shouldn’t it be? Each is a way of understanding the world through a set of beliefs. These beliefs may be true, they may be false, they may be nonsense which does not even make enough sense to be false. As an open-minded progressive (or an open-minded Catholic), you would like to think all the beliefs you hold are true, but you are willing to reevaluate them—perhaps with a little gentle assistance.

There is one big difference between Catholicism and progressivism: Catholicism is what we call a “religion.” Its core beliefs are claims about the spirit world, which no Catholic (except of course the Pope) has experienced firsthand. Whereas progressive beliefs tend to be claims about the real world—about government and history and economics and society. These are phenomena which, unlike the Holy Trinity, we all experience firsthand.

Or do we? Most of us have never worked for a government, and those who have have seen only some tiny corner of one. History is something out of a book. It isn’t the Bible, but it might as well be. What is our personal experience of economics? Gasoline prices? And so on. Unless your life has been both long and quite unusual, I suspect your memories shed very little light on the great questions of government, history, etc. Mine certainly don’t.

Of course, much of progressive thought claims to be a product of pure reason. Is it? Thomas Aquinas derived Catholicism from pure reason. John Rawls derived progressivism from pure reason. At least one of them must have made a mistake. Maybe they both did. Have you checked their work? One bad variable will bust your whole proof.

And is this really how it happened? Are you a progressive because you started by believing in nothing at all (“We are nihilists! We believe in nothing!”), thought it through, and wound up a progressive? Of course I can’t speak for your own experience, but I suspect that either you are a progressive because your parents were progressives, or you were converted by some book, teacher, or other intellectual experience. Note that this is exactly how one becomes a Catholic.

There is one difference, though. To be a Catholic, you have to have faith, because no one has ever seen the Holy Ghost. To be a progressive, you have to have trust, because you believe that your worldview accurately reflects the real world—as experienced not just by your own small eyes, but by humanity as a whole.

But you have not shared humanity’s experience. You have only read, heard and seen a corpus of text, audio and video compiled from it. And compiled by whom? Which is where the trust comes in. More on this in a little bit.

I am not a progressive, but I was raised as one. I live in San Francisco, I grew up as a Foreign Service brat, I went to Brown, I’ve been brushing my teeth with Tom’s of Maine since the mid-80s. What happened to me is that I lost my trust.

David Mamet lost his trust, too. His Village Voice essay is worth reading, if just for the shock value of the world’s most famous playwright declaring that he’s no longer a “brain-dead liberal.” There are about five hundred comments on the article. Perhaps I missed one, but I didn’t notice any in which the commenter claimed that Mamet had opened his eyes.

Of course, Mamet is Mamet. He’s out to shock, not convert. Even the word “liberal,” at least as it refers to a present-day political persuasion, borders on hate speech. It’s like an ex-Catholic explaining “why I am no longer a brain-dead Papist.” John Stuart Mill was a liberal. Barack Obama is a progressive, and so are you. Basic rule of politeness: don’t call people names they don’t call themselves.

Worse, Mamet doesn’t just reject progressivism. He endorses conservatism. Dear God! Talk about making your problem harder. Imagine you live in a country in which everyone is one of two things: a Catholic or a Hindu. Isn’t it hard enough to free a man’s mind from the insidious grip of Rome? Must he accept Kali, Krishna and Ganesha at the same time?

For example, Mamet endorses the conservative writer Thomas Sowell, who he claims is “our greatest contemporary philosopher.” Well. I like Thomas Sowell, his work is certainly not without value, but really. And if you Google him, you will see that his columns frequently appear on a conservative website called

Click that link. Observe the atrocious graphic design. (Have you noticed how far above the rest Obama’s graphic design is? Some font designers have.) Observe the general horribleness, so reminiscent of Fox News. Then hit “back.” Or, I don’t know, read an Ann Coulter column, or something. Dear Lord.

I am not a progressive, but I’m not a conservative either. (If you must know, I’m a Jacobite.) Over time, I have acquired the ability to process American conservative thought—if generally somewhat upmarket from Fox News or This is an extremely acquired taste, if “taste” is even the word. It is probably very similar to the way Barack Obama handled the Rev. Wright’s more colorful sermons. When David Mamet points his readers in the general direction of, it’s sort of like explaining to your uncle who’s a little bit phobic that he can understand the value of gay rights by watching this great movie—it’s called 120 Days of Sodom. It’s not actual communication. It’s a fuck-you. It’s Mamet.

But many people will think exactly this: if you stop being a progressive, you have to become a conservative. I suspect that the primary emotional motivation for most progressives is that they’re progressives because they think something needs to be done about conservatives. Game over. Gutterball. Right back to the insidious grip.

Where does this idea that, if NPR is wrong, Fox News must be right, come from? They can’t both be right, because they contradict each other. But couldn’t they both be wrong? I don’t mean slightly wrong, I don’t mean each is half right and each is half wrong, I don’t mean the truth is somewhere between them, I mean neither of them has any consistent relationship to reality.

Let’s think about this for a second. As a progressive, you believe—you must believe—that conservatism is a mass delusion. What an extraordinary thing! A hundred-plus million people, many quite dull but some remarkably intelligent, all acting under a kind of mass hypnosis. We take this for granted. We are used to it. But we have to admit that it’s really, really weird.

What you have to believe is that conservatives have been systematically misinformed. They are not stupid—at least not all of them. Nor are they evil. You can spend all the time you want on, and you will not find anyone cackling like Gollum over their evil plan to enslave and destroy the world. They all think, just like you, that by being conservatives they are standing up for what’s sweet and good and true.

Conservatism is a theory of government held by a large number of people who have no personal experience of government. They hold this theory because their chosen information sources, such as Fox News,, and their local megachurch, feed them a steady diet of facts (and possibly a few non-facts) which tend to support, reinforce, and confirm the theory.

And why does this strange pattern exist? Because conservatism is not just an ordinary opinion. Suppose instead of a theory of government, conservatism was a theory of basketball. “Conservatism” would be a system of views about the pick-and-roll, the outside game, the triangle defense and other issues of great importance to basketball players and coaches.

The obvious difference is that, unless you are a basketball coach, your opinions on basketball matter not at all—because basketball is not a democracy. The players don’t even get a vote, let alone the fans. But conservatism can maintain a systematic pattern of delusion, because its fans are not just fans: they are supporters of a political machine. This machine will disappear if it cannot keep its believers, so it has an incentive to keep them. And it does. Funny how that works.

So, as a progressive, here is how you see American democracy: as a contest in which truth and reason are pitted against a quasicriminal political machine built on propaganda, ignorance and misinformation. Perhaps a cynical view of the world, but if you believe that progressivism is right, you must believe that conservatism is wrong, and you have no other option.

But there is an even more pessimistic view. Suppose American democracy is not a contest between truth and reason and a quasicriminal political machine, but a contest between two quasicriminal political machines? Suppose progressivism is just like conservatism? If it was, who would tell you?

Think of conservatism as a sort of mental disease. Virus X, transmitted by Fox News much as mosquitoes transmit malaria, has infected the brains of half the American population—causing them to believe that George W. Bush is a “regular guy,” global warming isn’t happening, and the US Army can bring democracy to Sadr City. Fortunately, the other half of America is protected by its progressive antibodies, which it imbibes every day in the healthy mother’s milk of the Times and NPR, allowing it to bask securely in the sweet light of truth.

Or is it? Note that we’ve just postulated two classes of entity: viruses and antibodies, mosquitoes and mother’s milk. William of Ockham wouldn’t be happy. Isn’t it simpler to imagine that we’re dealing with a virus Y? Rather than one set of people being infected and the other being immune, everyone is infected—just with different strains.

What makes virus X a virus is that, like the shark in Jaws, its only goals in life are to eat, swim around, and make baby viruses. In other words, its features are best explained adaptively. If it can succeed by accurately representing reality, it will do so. For example, you and I and virus X agree on the subject of the international Jewish conspiracy: there is no such thing. We disagree with the evil virus N, which fortunately is scarce these days. This can be explained in many ways, but one of the simplest is that if Fox News stuck a swastika in its logo and told Bill O’Reilly to start raving about the Elders of Zion, its ratings would probably go down.

This is what I mean by “no consistent relationship to reality.” If, for whatever reason, an error is better at replicating within the conservative mind than the truth, conservatives will come to believe the error. If the truth is more adaptive, they will come to believe the truth. It’s fairly easy to see how an error could make a better story than the truth on Fox News, which is why one would be ill-advised to get one’s truth from that source.

So our first small step toward doubt is easy: we simply allow ourselves to suspect that the institutions which progressives trust are fallible in the same way. If NPR can replicate errors just as Fox News does, we are indeed looking at a virus Y. Virus Y may be right when virus X is wrong, wrong when virus X is right, right when virus X is right, or wrong when virus X is wrong. Since the two have no consistent relationship to reality, they have no consistent relationship to each other.

There’s a seductive symmetry to this theory: it solves the problem of how one half of a society, which (by global and historical standards) doesn’t seem that different from the other, can be systematically deluded while the other half is quite sane. The answer: it isn’t.

Moreover, it explains a bizarre contradiction which emerges beautifully in Mamet’s piece. At one point he writes, in his new conservative persona:

What about the role of government? Well, in the abstract, coming from my time and background, I thought it was a rather good thing, but tallying up the ledger in those things which affect me and in those things I observe, I am hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of the government led to much beyond sorrow.

But earlier, he told us:

As a child of the ’60s, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart.

Okay, Dave. As a child of the ’60s, you accepted as an article of faith that government is bad, but now you believe that… government is bad? Who’s doin’ donuts on the road to Damascus?

One of the fascinating facts of American politics today is that both progressives and conservatives hate their government. They just hate different parts of it, and they love and cherish the others. In foreign policy, for example, progressives hate the Pentagon, and love and cherish the State Department. Conservatives hate the State Department, and love and cherish the Pentagon.

Look at how nicely this fits in with our virus X–Y theory. Washington contains many mansions, some of which are part of the virus X machine, others of which are perma-infected with virus Y. Outside the Beltway is our herd of drooling, virus-ridden zombie voters. The X zombies hate the Y agencies, the Y zombies hate the X agencies.

But none of them hates Washington as a whole. So they can never unite to destroy it, and the whole machine is stable. See how beautiful this is? By separating voters into two competing but cooperating parties, neither of which can destroy the other, the two-party system creates a government which will survive indefinitely, no matter how much happier its citizens might be without it.

This is the prize at the end of our mystery. If you can find a way to stop being a progressive without becoming a conservative, you might even find a way to actually oppose the government. At the very least, you can decide that none of these politicians, movements or institutions is even remotely worthy of your support. Trust me—it’s a very liberating feeling.

But we are nowhere near there yet. We have not actually found a genuine reason to doubt progressivism. Minor errors—some little fact-checking mistake at the Times or whatever—don’t count, because they don’t do anything about your conviction that progressivism is basically right and conservatism is basically wrong. Even with a few small eccentricities, progressivism as a cure for conservatism is worth keeping. It may not be an antibody, but perhaps virus Y is at least a vaccine.

Moreover, we’ve overlooked some major asymmetries between the progressive and conservative movements. They are not each others’ evil twins. They are very different things. It is quite plausible that one would be credible and the other wouldn’t, and the advantages all seem to be on the progressive side.

First of all, let’s look at the people who are progressives. As the expressions “blue-state” and “red-state” indicate, progressives and conservatives in America today are different tribes. They are not randomly distributed opinions. They follow clear patterns.

My wife and I had a daughter a few weeks ago, and right before she was due to be discharged the doctors found a minor (and probably harmless) heart problem which required a brief visit from UCSF’s head of pediatric cardiology. A very pleasant person. And one of the first things he said, part of his bedside manner, a way of putting us at ease, was a remark about George W. Bush. Somehow I suspect that if he had diagnosed us as hicks from Stockton, he would not have emitted this noise.

Rather, the good doctor had identified us as members of the Stuff White People Like tribe.1 This little satirical site has attracted roughly 100 times UR’s traffic in a tenth the time, which is a pretty sure sign that it’s on to something. The author, Chris Lander, really only has one joke: he’s describing a group that doesn’t like to be described, and he’s assigned them the last name they’d choose for themselves.

Lander’s “white people” are indeed overwhelmingly white, as anyone who has been to Burning Man can testify. But there are plenty of “white people” who are Asian, or even black or Latino. In fact, as Lander points out, “white people” are the opposite of racist—they are desperate to have minorities around. Thus the humor of calling them “white.” In fact, as anyone who went to an integrated high school can testify, Lander’s use of the word “white” is almost exactly the black American usage—as in, “that’s so white.” Add the word “bread” and you have it down.

Who are these strange people? Briefly, they are America’s ruling class. Here at UR we call them Brahmins. The Brahmin tribe is adoptive rather than hereditary. Anyone can be a Brahmin, and in fact the less “white” your background the better, because it means your achievements are all your own. As with the Hindu original, your status as a Brahmin is not a function of money, but of your success as a scholar, scientist, artist, or public servant. Brahmins are people who work with their minds.

Brahmins are the ruling class because they are literally the people who govern. Public policies in the modern democratic system are generally formulated by Brahmins, typically at the NGOs where these “white people” like to congregate. And while not every progressive is a Brahmin and not every Brahmin is a progressive, the equation generally follows.

Most important, the Brahmin identity is inextricably bound up with the American university system. If you are a Brahmin, your status is either conferred by academic success, or by some quasi-academic achievement, like writing a book, saving the Earth, etc. Thus it’s unsurprising that most Brahmins are quite intelligent and sophisticated. They have to be. If they can’t at least fake it, they’re not Brahmins.

The natural enemy of the Brahmin is, of course, the red-state American. I used to use another Hindu caste name for this tribe—Vaisyas—but I think it’s more evocative to call them Townies.2 As a progressive you are probably a Brahmin, you know these people, and you don’t like them. They are fat, they are exclusively white, they live in the suburbs or worse, they are into oak and crochet and minivans, and of course they tend to be Republicans. If they went to college at all, they gritted their teeth through the freshman diversity requirement. And their work may be white-collar, but it has no real intellectual content.

(It’s interesting how much simpler American politics becomes once you look at it through this tribal lens. You often see this in Third World countries—there will be, say, the Angolan People’s Movement and the Democratic Angolan Front. Each will swear up and down that they work for the future of the entire Angolan people. But you notice that everyone in the APM is an Ovambo, and everyone in the DAF is a Bakongo.)

The status relationship between Brahmins and Townies is clear: Brahmins are higher, Townies are lower. When Brahmins hate Townies, the attitude is contempt. When Townies hate Brahmins, the attitude is resentment. The two are impossible to confuse. If Brahmins and Townies shared a stratified dialect, the Brahmins would speak acrolect and the Townies mesolect.

In other words, Brahmins are more fashionable than Townies. Brahmin tastes, which are basically better tastes, flow downward toward Townies. Twenty years ago, “health food” was a niche ultra-Brahmin quirk. Now it’s everywhere. Suburbanites drink espresso, shop at Whole Foods, listen to alternative rock, you name it.

Thus we see why progressivism is more fashionable than conservatism. Progressive celebrities, for example, are everywhere. Conservative ones are exceptions. Although many progressive celebrities appear to be quite sincere in their beliefs, cold calculation would suffice: Bono’s PR people are happy that he’s speaking out against AIDS. Mel Gibson’s PR people are not happy that he’s speaking out against the Jews.

So when we question conservatism, we are thinking in a way that is natural and sensible for people of our tribe: we are attacking the enemy. And the enemy is, indeed, a pushover. In fact the enemy is suspiciously easy to push over.

Look at the entire lifecycle of conservatism. The whole thing stinks. Virus X replicates in the minds of uneducated, generally less intelligent people. Townies are, in fact, the same basic tribe that gave us Hitler and Mussolini. Its intellectual institutions, such as they are, are subsidized fringe newspapers, TV channels, and weirdo think-tanks supported by eccentric tycoons. In government, the bastions of conservatism are the military, whose purpose is to kill people, and any agency in which corporate lobbyists can make a buck, e.g., by raping the environment.

Whereas virus Y, if “virus” is indeed the name for it, replicates in the most distinguished circles in America, indeed the world: the top universities, the great newspapers, the old foundations such as Rockefeller and Carnegie and Ford. Its drooling zombies are the smartest and most successful people in the country, indeed the world. In government it builds world peace, protects the environment, looks after the poor, and educates children.

The truth of the matter is that progressivism is the mainstream American tradition. This is not to say it hasn’t changed in the last 200 years, or even the last 50: it has. However, if we look at the ideas and ideals taught and studied at Harvard during the life of the country, we see a smooth progression up to now, we do not see any violent reversals or even inflection points, and we end up with good old modern-day progressivism. Of course, by “American tradition” we mean the New England tradition—if the Civil War had turned out differently, things might have gone otherwise. But when you realize that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a novel about a hippie commune 150 years ago, you realize that nothing is new under the sun.

As Machiavelli put it: if you strike at a king, strike to kill.3 Conservatism, which is barely 50 years old, and which has numerous shabby roots, can be mocked and belittled and scorned. The difference between criticizing conservatism and criticizing progressivism is the difference between criticizing Mormonism and criticizing Christianity. You can’t doubt progressivism just a little. You have to doubt it on a grand scale.

To say that conservatism is a corrupt and delusional tradition, no more than some “virus X,” is to say that it’s a tick on the side of America, an aberration, an abortion, an error to be corrected. A failure of education, of leadership, of progress. A small thing, really.

To doubt progressivism is to doubt the American idea itself—because progressivism is where that idea has ended up. If progressivism is “virus Y,” America itself is infected. What is the cure for that? It is a strange and terrible thought, a promise of apocalypse.

And yet it makes an awful kind of sense. For one thing, if you were a mental virus, which tradition would you choose to infect? The central current of American thought, or some benighted backwater? The Brahmins, or the Townies? The fashionable people, or the unfashionable ones?

Copy your DNA into the New York Times, and it will trickle down to Fox News in twenty or thirty years. Copy yourself into Fox News, and you might influence the next election. Or two. But how lasting is that? How many people are intellectually moved by George W. Bush? (Repulsion doesn’t count.)

As a Brahmin (I’ll assume you’re a Brahmin), you live inside virus Y. You are one of the zombies. Your entire worldview has been formed by Harvard, the Times, and the rest of what, back in David Mamet’s day, they used to call the Establishment. Everything you know about government and history and science and society has been filtered by these institutions. Obviously, this narrative does not contradict itself. But is it true?

Well, it mostly doesn’t contradict itself. It’s very well put together. In some places, though, if you look really closely, I think you can see a stitch or two. You don’t need to sail to the edge of the world, like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. All you need, for starters, just to tickle your doubt muscle and get it twitching a little, is a few details that don’t quite fit.

Let’s start off with three questions. We’ll play a little game: you try coming up with a progressive answer, I’ll try coming up with a non-progressive answer. We’ll see which one makes more sense.

I don’t mean these questions don’t have progressive answers, because they do. Everything has a progressive answer, just as it has a conservative answer. There is no shortage of progressives to compose answers. But I don’t think these questions have satisfying progressive answers. Of course, you will have to judge this yourself with your own good taste.

One: what’s up with the Third World?

Here, for example, is a Times story on the fight against malaria. Often, as with politicians, journalists speak the truth in a fit of absent-mindedness, when their real concern is something else. If you read the story, you might notice the same astounding graf that I did:

And the world changed. Before the 1960s, colonial governments and companies fought malaria because their officials often lived in remote outposts like Nigeria’s hill stations and Vietnam’s Marble Mountains. Independence movements led to freedom, but also often to civil war, poverty, corrupt government and the collapse of medical care.

Let’s focus on that last sentence. Independence movements led to freedom, but also often to civil war, poverty, corrupt government and the collapse of medical care.

I often find it useful to imagine that I’m an alien from the planet Jupiter. If I read this sentence, I would ask: what is this word freedom? What, exactly, does this writer mean by freedom? Especially in the context of civil war, poverty, and corrupt government?

What we see here is that independence movements—which the writer clearly believes are a good thing—led to some very concrete and very, very awful results, in addition to this curious abstraction—freedom. Clearly, whatever freedom means in this particular context, it’s such a great positive that even when you add it to civil war, poverty, corrupt government and the collapse of medical care, the result still exceeds zero.

Isn’t that strange? Might we not be tempted to revisit this particular piece of arithmetic? But we can’t—because if we postulate that colonial governments and companies (whatever these were), with their absence of freedom, were somehow preferable to independence movements, which created this same freedom (the words freedom and independence appear to be synonyms in this context), we are off the progressive reservation.

In fact, not only are we off the progressive reservation, we’re off the conservative reservation. No one believes this. You will not find anyone on Fox News or or any but the fringiest of fringe publications claiming that colonialism, with its intrinsic absence of freedom and its strangely effective malaria control (note how the writer implies, without actually saying, that this was only delivered for the selfish purposes of the evil colonial overlords), was in any way superior to postcolonialism, with its freedom, its malaria, its civil war, etc.

And what, exactly, is this word independence? It seems to mean the same thing as freedom, and yet, it is strange. For example, consider this Post op-ed, by Michelle Gavin of the CFR, which starts with the following intriguing lines:

When Zimbabwe became an independent country in 1980, it was a focal point for international optimism about Africa’s future. Today, Zimbabwe is a basket case of a country.

Let’s put our alien-from-Jupiter hat back on, and consider the phrase: When Zimbabwe became an independent country in 1980…

In English as she is normally spoke, the word independent is composed of the prefix in, meaning “not,” and the suffix dependent, meaning “dependent.” So, for example, when the United States became independent, it meant that no external party was funding or controlling her government. If my daughter were to become independent, it would mean that she was making her own decisions in the world, and I didn’t need to give her a bottle every three hours.

In the case of Zimbabwe, however, this word seems to have changed strangely and taken on an almost opposite meaning. From La Wik:

The Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) of Rhodesia from the United Kingdom was signed on November 11, 1965 by the administration of Ian Smith, whose Rhodesian Front party opposed black majority rule in the then British colony. Although it declared independence from the United Kingdom it maintained allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II. The British government, the Commonwealth, and the United Nations condemned the move as illegal. Rhodesia reverted to de facto and de jure British control as “the British Dependency of Southern Rhodesia” for a brief period in 1979 to 1980, before regaining its independence as Zimbabwe in 1980.

So, strangely enough, the country now known as Zimbabwe declared independence in 1965, much as the US declared independence in 1776. The former, however, was not genuine independence, but rather illegal independence. In order to gain genuine, legal independence, the country now known as Zimbabwe had to first revert to British control, i.e., surrender its illegal independence. Are you feeling confused yet? It gets better:

When Zimbabwe became an independent country in 1980, it was a focal point for international optimism about Africa’s future. Today, Zimbabwe is a basket case of a country. Over the past decade, the refusal of President Robert Mugabe and his ruling party to tolerate challenges to their power has led them to systematically dismantle the most effective workings of Zimbabwe’s economic and political systems, replacing these with structures of corruption, blatant patronage and repression.

So: the independent rulers of the new, free Zimbabwe have refused to tolerate challenges to their power. Thus, the international optimism held by Ms. Gavin (who perhaps needed a bottle or two herself in 1980) and her ilk, has given way to pessimism, and the place is now a basket case. And who might have been challenging good President Mugabe’s power? Presumably someone who did not intend to dismantle the most effective workings of Zimbabwe’s economic and political systems—thus earning the friendship of Ms. Gavin and her not-uninfluential ilk. This independence, as you can see, is a very curious thing.

In the sense of doing its own thing and never, ever needing a bottle, there is actually one remarkably independent country in the world. It’s called Somaliland, and it is not recognized by anyone in the international community. The Wikipedia page for Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa, achieves a glorious level of unintentional high comedy:

Aid from foreign governments was non-existent, making it unusual in Africa for its low level of dependence in foreign aid. While Somaliland is de-facto as an independent country it is not de-jure (legally) recognized internationally. Hence, the government of Somaliland can not access IMF and World Bank assistance.

Isn’t all of this quite curious? Doesn’t it remind you even a little bit of the scene in which Jim Carrey rams his yacht into the matte painting at the edge of the world?

Two: what is nationalism? And is it good, or bad?

This question is rather similar to question one. I thought of it when a progressive blogger for whom I have great respect made the offhand comment that “Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist.” “Sure,” I found myself thinking. “And so is Pat Buchanan.” It wasn’t the time, but I saved this little mot d’escalier and can’t resist bringing it back up now, like bad fish.

Unlike independence, I think everyone pretty much agrees on the definition of nationalism. Nationalism (from the Latin natus, birth) is when people of a common linguistic, ethnic, or racial heritage feel the need to act collectively as a single political entity. German nationalism is when Germans do it, Vietnamese nationalism is when Vietnamese do it, black nationalism is when African-Americans do it, American nationalism is when Pat Buchanan does it.

And this is where the agreement ends. La Wik’s opening paragraph is a masterpiece of obfuscation:

Nationalism is a term referring to a doctrine or political movement that holds that a nation, usually defined in terms of ethnicity or culture, has the right to constitute an independent or autonomous political community based on a shared history and common destiny. Most nationalists believe the borders of the state should be congruent with the borders of the nation. However, recently nationalists have rejected the concept of “congruency” for sake of its reciprocal value. Contemporary nationalists would argue that the nation should be administered by a single state, not that a state should be governed by a single nation. Occasionally, nationalist efforts can be plagued by chauvinism or imperialism. These ex-nationalist efforts such as those propagated by fascist movements in the twentieth century, still hold the nationalist concept that nationality is the most important aspect of one’s identity, while some of them have attempted to define the nation, inaccurately, in terms of race or genetics. Fortunately, contemporary nationalists reject the racist chauvinism of these groups, and remain confident that national identity supersedes biological attachment to an ethnic group.

Everything between them is pure nonsense as far as I can tell, but note the direct contradiction of the first and the last sentences. How can you be a nationalist, even a contemporary nationalist, if you believe that national identity supersedes biological attachment to an ethnic group? If nationalism isn’t plagued by racist chauvinism, in what sense is it nationalism at all?

And so: if I’m a Czech and I live in Austria-Hungary, do I have a right to my own country? Should I make violence and terror and bomb until I get it? What if I’m a German and I live in Czechoslovakia? Should I make violence and terror and bomb?

A number of Germans noticed this very odd thing in the ’20s and ’30s. They noticed that America and her friends were very much committed to national self-determination, that is, unless you happened to be German. Czech nationalism was good—very good. German nationalism was bad—very bad.

Once you start looking for this little stitch in the canvas, you find it everywhere. It is good, very good, to be a black nationalist. In l’affaire Wright we have seen the intimacy between progressivism and black nationalism—so well illustrated by Tom Wolfe. Indeed, every reputable university in America has a department in which students can essentially major in black nationalism.

On the other hand, it is bad, very bad, to be a Southern nationalist. Any connection to Southern nationalism instantly renders one a pariah. Of course, Southern nationalists have sinned. But then again, so have black nationalists. Are Americans, black or white, really better off for the activities of the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, or even the good Rev. Wright?

Similarly, it is good to be a Vietnamese nationalist. It is still bad to be a German nationalist, or a British nationalist, or even a French nationalist. Germans, Brits, and Frenchmen are supposed to believe in the common destiny of all humanity. Vietnamese, Mexicans, or Czechs are free to believe in the common destiny of Vietnamese, Mexicans, or Czechs. (Actually, I’m not sure about the Czechs. This one may have changed.)

Does this make sense? Does it make any freakin’ sense at all?

Since this subject is so touchy, I will let my feelings on it slip: I don’t believe in any kind of nationalism. Of course, being a Jacobite and all, I also believe in Strafford’s Thorough, so you might not want to be getting your constitutional tips from me.

Three: what’s so bad about the Nazis?

Okay, they murdered ten million people or so. That’s bad. There’s really no defending the unprovoked massacre of millions of civilians.

On the other hand, I really really recommend Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker, which (according to the book blurb) gives “a wide-ranging, astonishingly fresh perspective on the political and social landscape that gave rise to World War II.” Baker is a progressive and pacifist of immaculate credentials (his previous achievement was a novel which fantasized about assassinating President Bush), and what Human Smoke drums into you is not a specific message, but the same thing I keep saying: the pieces of the picture do not fit together. They almost fit, but they don’t quite fit. The genius of Baker’s book is that he simply shows you the picture not fitting, and leaves the analysis up to you.

For example: we are taught that the Nazis were bad because they committed mass murder, to wit, the Holocaust. On the other hand… (a): none of the parties fighting against the Nazis, including us, seems to have given much of a damn about the Jews or the Holocaust; (b): one of the parties on our side was the Soviet Union, whose record of mass murder was known at the time and was at least as awful as the Nazis’.

And, of course, (c): the Allies positively reveled in the aerial mass incineration of German and Japanese civilians. They didn’t kill six million, but they killed one or two. There was a military excuse for this, but it was quite strained. It was better than the Nazis’ excuse for murdering the Jews (who they saw, of course, as enemy civilians), but the death toll was still appalling.

And as Baker does not mention, our heroes, the Allies, also had no qualms about deporting a million Russian refugees to the gulag after the war, or about lending hundreds of thousands of German prisoners as slave laborers to the Soviets. The idea of World War II as a war for human rights is simply ahistorical. It doesn’t fit. If Nazi human-rights violations were not the motivation for the war that created the world we live in now—what was?

Furthermore, Baker, who is of course a critic of American foreign policy today, sees nothing but confusion when he tries to apply the same standards to Iraq and to Germany. If Abu Ghraib is an unbridgeable obstacle to imposing democracy by force on Iraq, what about Dresden or Hamburg and Germany? Surely it’s worse to burn tens of thousands of people alive, than to make one stand on a box wearing fake wires and a funny hat? Or is Iraq just different from Germany? But that would be racism, wouldn’t it?

Beyond this is the peculiar asymmetry in the treatment of fascist mass murder, versus Marxist mass murder. Both ideologies clearly have a history of mass murder. If numbers count—and why wouldn’t they?—Marxism is ahead by an order of magnitude. Yet somehow, today, fascism or anything reminiscent of it is pure poison and untouchable, whereas Marxism is at best a kind of peccadillo. John Zmirak pulls off a lovely parody of this here, and while I have yet to read Roberto Bolaño the reviews are quite glowing.

Neither the Soviet Union nor the Third Reich is with us today, but the most recent historical examples are North Korea and South Africa. North Korea is clearly somewhat Stalinist, while apartheid South Africa had looser but still discernible links to Nazism. I welcome anyone who wants to claim that South Africa, whose border fences were designed to keep immigrants out, was a worse violator of human rights than North Korea, an entire country turned into a prison. And yet we see the same asymmetry—“engagement” with North Korea, pure hostility against South Africa. If you can imagine the New York Philharmonic visiting Pretoria in an attempt to build trust between the two countries, you are firmly in Bolañoworld.

Again: this is just weird. As with nationalism, each individual case can be explained on its own terms. Put all the cases together, and double standards are everywhere. And yet the inconsistencies do not seem random. There seems to be a mysterious X factor which the Nazis have and the Soviets don’t, or the South Africans have and the North Koreans don’t. The treatment may not just be based on X, it may be X + human rights, but it is definitely not just human rights. And yet X does not appear in the explanation.

X seems to be related to the fact that the Nazis are “right-wing” and the Soviets “left-wing.” As the French put it: pas d’ennemis à gauche, pas d’amis à droite.4 But why? What do “right-wing” and “left-wing” even mean? Weren’t the Soviet and Nazi systems both totalitarian dictatorships? If Communism is “too hot,” fascism is “too cold,” and liberal democracy is “just right,” why not oppose Communism and fascism equally? In fact, the former is much more successful, at least since 1945, so you’d think people would be more worried about it.

Again, we are left with pure confusion. It is simply not possible that the horizon is made of canvas. And yet our boat has crashed into it, and left a big rip.

1. It has become common to use the initialism “SWPL” (pronounced “swipple”) to refer to the Stuff White People Like tribe.

2. Moldbug later coined an even better term for this group: Amerikaners, in analogy with the Afrikaners of South Africa. As he writes in “How to occupy and govern a foreign territory”:

Like their lexical analogues, the Amerikaners are a cultural group of European stock, but their present-day traditions cannot be easily connected with any group in modern Europe.

3. This formulation is attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson and was popularized by Oliver Wendell Holmes. The quote that inspired it appears in Machiavelli’s The Prince:

Upon this, one has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.

4. Usually rendered in English as “No enemies to the left, no friends to the right.”