I think I know man, but as for men, I know them not.
—Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In a memorable passage at the beginning of The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant evokes a soaring dove that, “cleaving the air in her free flight,” feels the resistance of the wind and imagines that its flight “would be easier still in empty space.” A fond thought, of course, since absent that aeolian pressure the dove would simply plummet to the ground.

How regularly the friction of reality works that way: making possible our endeavors even as it circumscribes and limits their extent. And how often, like Kant’s dove, we are tempted to imagine that our freedoms would be grander and more extravagant absent the countervailing forces that make them possible.

Such fantasies are as perennial as they are vain. They insinuate themselves everywhere in the economy of human desire, not least in our political arrangements. Noticing the imperfection of our societies, we may be tempted into thinking that the problem is with the limiting structures we have inherited. If only we could dispense with them, we might imagine, beating our wings, how much better things might be.

What a cunning, devilish word, “might.” For here as elsewhere, possibility is cheap. Scrap our current political accommodations and things might be better. Then again, they might be a whole lot worse. Vide the host of tyrannies inspired by that disciple of airy possibility, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. “Man was born free,” he declaimed, “but is everywhere in chains”: two startling untruths in a single famous utterance. Rousseau was keen on “forcing men to be free,” but we had to wait until his followers Robespierre and Saint-Just to discover that freedom in this sense is often indistinguishable from what Robespierre chillingly called “virtue and its emanation, terror.” Something similar can be said about that other acolyte of possibility, Karl Marx. How much misery have his theories underwritten, promising paradise but delivering tyranny, oppression, poverty, and death?

How regularly the friction of reality works that way: making possible our endeavors even as it circumscribes and limits their extent.

It wasn’t so long ago that I had hopes that the Marxist-socialist rot—outside the insulated purlieus of humanities departments at Western universities, anyway—was on the fast track to oblivion. Has any “philosophy” ever been so graphically refuted by events (or number of corpses)?

Maybe not, but refutation plays a much more modest role in human affairs than we might imagine. In fact, the socialist-inspired utopian chorus is alive and well, playing to full houses at an anti-democratic redoubt near you. Consider the apparently unkillable dream of “world government.” It is as fatuous now as it was when H. G. Wells infused it with literary drama towards the beginning of the last century.

Every human child needs to learn to walk by itself; so, it seems, every generation needs to wean itself from the blandishments of various utopian schemes. In 2005, the political philosopher Jeremy Rabkin published a fine book called Law Without Nations? Why Constitutional Government Requires Sovereign States. Rabkin ably fleshes out the promise of his subtitle, but it would be folly to think this labor will not have to be repeated. As the essays in this special section demonstrate, the temptation to exchange hard-won democratic freedom for the swaddling comfort of one or another central planning body is as inextinguishable as it is dangerous.1 As the English philosopher Roger Scruton argues in “Conserving Nations,” “Democracies owe their existence to national loyalties—the loyalties that are supposedly shared by government and opposition.” Confusing national loyalty with nationalism, many utopians argue that the former is a threat to peace. After all, wasn’t it national loyalty that sparked two world wars? No, it was that perverted offspring, nationalism, which was defeated at great cost only by the successful mobilization of national loyalty. Scruton quotes Chesterton on this point: to condemn patriotism because people go to war for patriotic reasons, he said, is like condemning love because some loves lead to murder.

It is one of the great mysteries—or perhaps I should say it is one of the reliable reminders of human imperfection—that higher education often fosters a particular form of political stupidity. Scruton anatomizes that stupidity, noting “the educated derision that has been directed at our national loyalty by those whose freedom to criticize would have been extinguished years ago, had the English not been prepared to die for their country.” This peculiar mental deformation, Scruton observes, involves “the repudiation of inheritance and home.” It is a stage, he writes,

through which the adolescent mind normally passes. But it is a stage in which intellectuals tend to become arrested. As George Orwell pointed out, intellectuals on the Left are especially prone to it, and this has often made them willing agents of foreign powers. The Cambridge spies [Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, et al.] offer a telling illustration of what [this tendency] has meant for our country.

It is also telling that this déformation professionelle of intellectuals encourages them to repudiate patriotism as an atavistic passion and favor transnational institutions over national governments, rule by committee or the courts over democratic rule. Rabkin reminds us of the naïveté—what others have called “idealism”—that this preference requires. In order to believe that international bodies will protect human rights, for example, you would have to believe

that governments readily cooperate with other governments on common projects, even when such cooperation promises no direct exchange of benefits to each side. In the end, you must believe that human beings cooperate easily and naturally without much constraint—without much actual enforcement, hence without much need for force.

To believe this you must believe that almost all human beings are well-meaning, even to strangers. And you must believe that human beings have no very serious disagreements on fundamental matters.

The persistence of such beliefs is no guide to their cogency or truth. What that other Jeremy, Jeremy Bentham, long ago called “nonsense on stilts” presents a spectacle that is perhaps unsteady but nonetheless mesmerizing. And when it comes to the erosion of the nation state and its gradual replacement by unaccountable, transnational entities such as the EU, the UN, or the so-called “World Court,” the results are ominous. As Andrew C. McCarthy notes in his essay below,

[w]ith the potent combination of a seismic shift in public attitudes away from democratic self-determination and toward oligarchic juristocracy (or rule by courts), as well as a sweeping infrastructure of so-called “international human rights law,” this movement is now poised to realize much of its goal: A world in which the nation state, the organizing geopolitical paradigm and engine of human progress since the Treaty of Westphalia, substantially gives way to a post-sovereign order of global governance led by supra-national tribunals (or tribunals that, though nominally “national,” pledge fealty to the higher calling of “humanity”). Like other utopian projects, the end of this one is tyranny.

Today, the nation state, that territorially based network of filiation bound together through shared history, custom, law, and language, is under greater siege than at any time since the dissolution of the Roman Empire. The external threat of radical Islam—pardon the pleonasm—may be the geatest threat to Western civilization since 1571 when the Battle of Lepanto checked the incursion of what we used to call the paynim foe into Europe. Daniel Johnson is undoubtedly right when he observes that “We must rid ourselves of any illusion that we can eliminate the contrasts between Islam and the West: the Koran is not about to be interpreted less literally, Muslims are not about to embrace Western ideas of toleration or terrorism, and jihad will remain a fundamental part of the Islamic attitude to the rest of mankind.” But in the end, perhaps the greatest threat to the West lies not in its external enemies, no matter how hostile or numerous, but in its inner uncertainty—an uncertainty that is all-too-often celebrated as an especially enlightened form of subtlety and sophistication—about who we are. Johnson is right, too, in stressing the importance of the nation state as a bedrock of Western identity—a foundation we can abandon, whether through the embrace of judicial or bureaucratic fiat or the slow-drip method of unchaperoned immigration, only at our peril.

The attack on the nation state—a less orotund formulation might say our unwitting self-demolition—proceeds apace on several fronts. The essays below offer a sort of pathologist’s report as well as some suggestions for therapy. As to the latter, it’s a never-ending prescription, but its fundamental requirements are clear. As Keith Windschuttle puts it below,

there is no mystery about how to combat the long campaign waged by the intelligentsia to undermine the nation and to create “community without nation.” It requires a contest for ideas and a contest for the electorate. It means rejecting racial, ethnic, sexual, and religious compartmentalization, as well as the vast legal and ideological baggage accumulated in its train. It means regarding victimhood not as a virtue but a weakness. It means reviving national history as a political narrative and putting the interests of the democratic majority first. In the English-speaking world, it means reviving the values of the thousand-year-old British tradition. The fact that so many influential Western political and intellectual figures have today either forgotten or discarded these once elementary values and interests is a measure of how much ground there is to reclaim.

The simplest, most fundamental things are often the most difficult to acknowledge and preserve, especially among those too clever to countenance the reality of anything simple, let alone fundamental. That is one reason, to adapt a line from the poet Theodore Roethke, that we find so much beating of wings “against the immense, immeasurable emptiness of things.”

  1.  “Is the Nation State Threatened?,” a symposium organized jointly by The New Criterion and London’s Social Affairs Unit, took place on September 29, 2006 in Winchester, England. Participants were Jeremy Black, Christie Davies, John Fonte, Michael W. Gleba, Daniel Johnson, Roger Kimball, Andrew C. McCarthy, Kenneth Minogue, Michael Mosbacher, Douglas Murray, John O’Sullivan, James Piereson, David Pryce-Jones, and Keith Windschuttle. Discussion revolved around earlier versions of the essays printed in this special section and additional presentations by Messrs. Black, Davies, and Murray.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 5, on page 4
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