The Good Kind of Nationalism (and other scattered thoughts)

When My Esteemed Partner asked me which country I wanted to visit next, I answered without hesitation: Spain. My reason was equally clear: I wanted to see Las Meninas in person. I fulfilled that goal on our first full day in Madrid, and the remainder of our trip was full of world-historical artworks: Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, Picasso’s Guernica, Berg’s Wozzeck (an amazing performance at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu), and the artwork pictured above, Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia. I have wanted to see that amazing church since I learned of its existence in high school Spanish class, and it did not disappoint. More even than the Bosch, it felt like an artwork that I could never exhaust, like every square centimeter was saturated in meaning.

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Against national security: With some thoughts on “religious violence”

Corey Robin has posted an extract from his book The Reactionary Mind in which he critiques the concept of “national security”:

The twentieth century, it’s often said, taught us a simple lesson about politics: of all the motivations for political action, none is as lethal as ideology. The lust for money may be distasteful, the desire for power ignoble, but neither will drive its devotees to the criminal excess of an idea on the march. Whether the cause is the working class or a master race, ideology leads to the graveyard.

Although moderate-minded intellectuals have repeatedly mobilized some version of this argument against the “isms” of right and left, they have seldom mustered a comparable skepticism about that other idée fixe of the twentieth century: national security. Some writers criticize this war, others that one, but has anyone ever penned, in the spirit of Daniel Bell, a book titled “The End of National Security”? Millions have been killed in the name of security; Stalin and Hitler claimed to be protecting their populations from mortal threats. Yet no such book exists.

To me, this is the ultimate disproof of the secular liberal contention that religion is the biggest possible cause of violence. Literally nothing could be more rigorously secular than “reasons of state,” and yet this principle has led to millions upon millions of deaths in the 20th Century alone. Of course, one could always fall back on the same dodge that allows one to get around the deaths caused by International Communism, for instance — “yes, they may have been officially atheistic, but in the last analysis Stalinism and Maoism are really religious in structure” — in order to define away abberant forms of “national security.”

And I think this typical dodge shows why the notion of religion as chief cause of violence has such a powerful hold — what “religion” signifies in such statements isn’t a body of beliefs and rituals, etc., but irrationality itself. It’s this irrationality that makes “religious violence” violent, not the body count. Within this framework, then, when rational people — for example, legitimate statesmen calculating the national interest — use violence for rational ends, it is not, properly speaking, violence. It is simply necessity.

(That’s the same reason why my typical rejoinder to “religious violence” rhetoric — “ever heard of money?” — also doesn’t work: the profit motive is rationality itself and could never be violent.)

A premature review: States Without Nations by Jacqueline Stevens

Last year, Columbia University Press sent me a review copy of Jacqueline Stevens’ States Without Nations, at my request — and unfortunately I let it sit for a year. This is unfortunate not only for reasons of politeness, but also because I’ve finally started reading it and absolutely love it. She argues that birthright citizenship is one of the primary causes of injustice and suffering in the world and that it should be abolished, along with any state recognition of essentially anything hereditary (inheritance of wealth, ethnic groups, etc.).

While she acknowledges that capitalism is also a major source of injustice and suffering, she believes that the left has historically been blind to the need to combat nationalism and family ideology, believing them to be “holdovers” from previous eras that will essentially go away by themselves. I find her focus on the family and on the fantasies underlying national loyalty (namely, the fantasy of obtaining immortality through identification with the eternal being of the nation) to be an interesting variation on the Marxist turn to psychoanalysis to figure out why the revolution failed to take place or whatever — instead of just plugging psychoanalytic concepts into a framework where it is presupposed that the economy should be primary but is being spuriously covered over, she directly confronts the primary domain of psychoanalysis, namely, the family unit.

As a long-time opponent of nationalism and family values, I’ve found that Stevens’ book provided a nice combination of confirming previous intuitions and giving me more food for thought. Her analysis and proposals are as far-ranging as any “continental” figure, yet her approach is much clearer and more argument-centric than Agamben or Foucault. I will definitely be using this book in my future work, even if the second half inexplicably falls off in quality.