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The Right side of history
Why liberals are conflicted over patriotism and western values
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Why is patriotism, in English-speaking societies, mainly associated with conservatives? After all, measured against almost any other civilizational model, the Anglosphere has been overwhelmingly progressive.
It is true that the individualism of English-speaking societies has an anti-socialist bias: There has always been a measure of resistance to taxation, to state power, and, indeed, to collectivism of any kind. But look at the other side of the balance: equality before the law, regardless of sex or race, secularism, toleration for minorities, absence of censorship, social mobility, and universal schooling. In how many other places are these things taken for granted?
So why is the celebration of national identity a largely Rightist pursuit in English-speaking societies? It won’t do to say that patriotism is, by its nature, a Right-of-center attitude. In the European tradition, if anything, the reverse was the case. Continental nationalists—those who believed that the borders of their states should correlate to ethnic or linguistic frontiers—were, more often than not, radicals. The 1848 revolutions in Europe were broadly Leftist in inspiration. When the risings were put down, and the old monarchical-clerical order reestablished, the revolutionaries overwhelmingly fled to London, the one city that they knew would give them sanctuary. With the exception of Karl Marx, who never forgave the country that had sheltered him for failing to hold the revolution that he forecast, they admired Britain for its openness, tolerance, and freedom.
So what stops English-speaking Leftists from doing the same? Why, when they recall their history, do they focus, not on the extensions of the franchise or the war against slavery or the defeat of Nazism, but on the wicked imperialism of, first, the British and, later, the Americans?
The answer lies neither in politics nor in history, but in psychology. The more we learn about how the brain works, the more we discover that people’s political opinions tend to be a rationalization of their instincts. We subconsciously pick the data that sustain our prejudices and block out those that don’t. We can generally spot this tendency in other people; we almost never acknowledge it in ourselves.
A neat illustration of the phenomenon is the debate over global warming. At first glance, it seems odd that climate change should divide commentators along Left–Right lines. Science, after all, depends on data, not on our attitudes to taxation or defense or the family. The trouble is that we all have assumptions, scientists as much as anyone else. Our ancestors learned, on the savannahs of Pleistocene Africa, to make sense of their surroundings by finding patterns, and this tendency is encoded deep in our DNA. It explains the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. When presented with a new discovery, we automatically try to press it into our existing belief system; if it doesn’t fit, we question the discovery before the belief system. Sometimes this habit leads us into error. But without it, we should hardly survive at all. As Edmund Burke argued, life would become impossible if we tried to think through every new situation from first principles, disregarding both our own experience and the accumulated wisdom of our people—if, in other words, we shed all prejudice.
If you begin with the beliefs that wealthy countries became wealthy by exploiting poor ones, that state action does more good than harm, and that we could all afford to pay a bit more tax, you are likelier than not to accept a thesis that seems to demand government intervention, supranational technocracy, and global wealth redistribution.
If, on the other hand, you begin from the propositions that individuals know better than governments, that collectivism was a demonstrable failure, and that bureaucracies will always seek to expand their powers, you are likelier than not to believe that global warming is just the left’s latest excuse for centralizing power.
Each side, convinced of its own bona fides, suspects the motives of the other, which is what makes the debate so vinegary. Proponents of both points of view are quite sure that they are dealing in proven facts, and that their critics must therefore be either knaves or fools.
The two sides don’t simply disagree about the interpretation of data; they disagree about the data. Never mind how to respond to changes in temperature; there isn’t even agreement on the extent to which the planet is heating. Though we all like to think we are dealing with hard, pure, demonstrable statistics, we are much likelier to be fitting the statistics around our preferred Weltanschauung.
Central to the worldview of most people who self-identify as Left-of-center is an honorable and high-minded impulse, namely support for the underdog. This impulse is by no means confined to Leftists, but Leftists exaggerate it, to the exclusion of rival impulses.
Jonathan Haidt is a psychologist, a man who began as a partisan liberal, and who set out to explain why political discourse was so bitter. In his seminal 2012 book, The Righteous Mind, he explains the way people of Left and Right fit their perceptions around their instinctive starting points. As he puts it, our elephant (our intuition) leans toward a particular conclusion; and its rider (our conscious reasoning) then scampers around seeking to justify that lean with what look like objective facts.
The liberal Support for the underdog is balanced by other tendencies in conservatives, such as respect for sanctity. In Leftists, it is not. Once you grasp this difference, all the apparent inconsistencies and contradictions of the Leftist outlook make sense. It explains why liberals think that immigration and multiculturalism are a good thing in Western democracies, but a bad thing in, say, the Amazon rain forest. It explains how people can simultaneously demand equality between the sexes and quotas for women. It explains why Israel is seen as right when fighting the British but wrong when fighting the Palestinians.
History becomes a hierarchy of victimhood. The narrative is fitted around sympathy for downtrodden people. The same group can be either oppressors or oppressed depending on the context. Hispanic Americans, for example, are ranked between Anglos and Native Americans. When they were settling Mexico, they were the bad guys; when they were being annexed by the United States, they were the good guys.
All historians, of course, have their prejudices. My purpose is simply to explain why national pride in Anglo-American culture is so concentrated on one side of the political spectrum. The answer, quite simply, is that there are very few scenarios in which the Anglosphere peoples can be cast as the underdogs. Small countries take satisfaction in their struggles against mightier neighbors, and that pride is shared across the parties. In many former colonies, patriotism is seen as an essentially Leftist cause, and conservatism is associated with, if not exactly collaboration, certainly cultural subservience to the former power. In the Ba’athist Arab states, in Sandinista Nicaragua, in Peronist Argentina or Bolivarian Venezuela, nationalism was a revolutionary socialist creed, associating popular sovereignty with state power, the toppling of unpatriotic oligarchies, and the removal of foreign influence.
Anti-American and anti-British agitators around the world have taken up nationalist language—the only nationalism of which English-speaking progressives generally approve. George Orwell wrote disparagingly of “the masochism of the English Left”: its readiness to ally with any cause, however vile, provided it was sufficiently anti-British. He cited the IRA and Stalinism. Had he been writing today, he’d doubtless have extended the critique to the American Left and Islamism.
Nationalism is fine for Leftist opponents of the Anglosphere: Welsh nationalists, anti-yanqui agitators in Latin America, Quebec separatists: All are able to slot their sense of nationhood into the hierarchy of victimhood, to see themselves as underdogs. Anglosphere progressives, by contrast, can rarely do so. The few occasions when they can—Washington leading his exhausted men through the snow at Valley Forge, Churchill rallying London during the Blitz—are commensurately popular. But there is no getting away from the fact that the Anglosphere, over the past three hundred years, has generally been more technologically advanced than other civilizations.
This very success makes it awkward to celebrate the distinguishing features of Anglosphere culture. To do so is to risk the appearance of complacency or jingoism. Episodes that, in any other context, leftists would uncomplicatedly applaud are tainted by their supposed cultural imperialism or colonial arrogance.
When, for example, Sir Charles Napier, a tough career soldier, was approached by a delegation of Hindu priests protesting against the British authorities’ proscription of sati—the habit of burning widows alive on their husbands’ funeral pyres—his response put multi-culturalism in its place:
Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Ye may then follow your custom, and we shall follow ours.
On one level, every liberal wants to applaud the banning of a barbaric custom. But, in this instance, he is conflicted. A white-skinned man in a stiff military uniform is telling a brown-skinned man, whose country has been occupied, what to do. So he feels it would somehow be wrong to applaud wholeheartedly.
The tendency to what Orwell called masochism is the perversion of a healthy Anglosphere characteristic, namely fair-mindedness. We like to think, we English-speaking peoples, that we are tolerant, that we look at things from other people’s point of view. It is not hard to see how this trait can be exaggerated to the point where it becomes, if not exactly self-hatred, certainly a form of cultural relativism in which the unique achievements of Anglosphere civilization are devalued.
The tendency has existed ever since the Anglosphere countries rose to global dominance. In their 1885 operetta The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan mocked “The idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,/ All centuries but this and every country but his own.” Until the second half of the twentieth century, though, cultural relativism was largely confined to university campuses and small circles of intellectuals. Even those most determined to see the other point of view, to find fault in their own civilization, generally had to admit that the Anglosphere was a freer, fairer, and more progressive society than, say, Stalinist Russia or Republican China or Imperial Ethiopia.
Still, ideas have consequences. The students of the relativist academics became schoolteachers. Their pupils ended up imbibing a version of the doctrine. It is now quite normal, in English-speaking societies, to approach our history with guilt rather than pride. It won’t quite do to say that we have done away with moral judgment. But, absurdly, we judge the deeds of the English-speaking peoples according to contemporary Leftist nostrums rather than by the standards of their times.
I have just one question for those who throw the misdeeds of our ancestors at us, who prate unceasingly about the transatlantic slave trade and the repression of the Mau Mau and the valuation of slaves at three-fifths of a human being and all the rest. Who, at the time, had evolved a freer, fairer, or happier form of administration? Against which contemporary civilization is the Anglosphere judged and found wanting? I am still waiting for a good answer.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 January 2014, on page 29
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