Though current discussions of nationalism are incredibly confused and Wayne Allensworth in “The Nationalist Imperative” (February 1996) does a pretty good job in showing the fragility of the modernist version, what he proposes as the “primordial” counterpart is ridiculous. Let me register a few objections.
The Bowie anecdote is amusing but highly misleading. What follows from Allensworth’s claim that “Bowie, like most Americans of the first half of the 19th century, did not think of his Americanness as a mutable quality”? Was Bowie confused, or is “Americanness” really a timeless Platonic form? If Allensworth thinks that Americans are defined by “language, culture, and worldview, as well as . . . all those qualities, including the way a people walk and talk, that set them apart from all others,” he must have a pretty dim view of his countrymen as mass produced by some assembly line in Thailand. Not only will he have a hard time differentiating his simplistic caricature from a lot of Canadians and Englishmen, but he excludes from his definition the most American of Americans—those rugged individuals who not only walk and talk differently, but have heterogeneous cultures and worldviews not reducible to “most Americans,” a category useful only to market researchers seeking ways to sell some other piece of junk.
Identity is always a dynamic category, constantly constituted anew by the concrete social relations within which individuals and groups operate. It freezes into particular constructs only when the concept is mistaken for that which it seeks to capture, thus distorting and falsifying it. There were no “Americans” in the 14th century (the natives never thought of themselves in these terms); there were a few pilgrims and a lot of “Indians” later on, and more English subjects when colonization began in earnest. Americans as we know them did not even come into being with the Declaration of Independence—a document still appealing to abstract universalists—but only with the successful outcome of the Revolution and the eventual ratification of the Constitution. Whatever one may think of “Americanness,” it is always an extremely mutable quality. We are not carbon copies of our grandparents, and our grandchildren will not be carbon copies of us, in the same way that we are not the same people we were 20 years ago or will be 20 years from now.
To Allensworth’s credit, he notices that things do change, since he acknowledges “The America that [Bowie] belonged to was not something that many of us would recognize as such,” but there is no inevitability as to how and in which direction. Thus it is disingenuous to recycle the Turner thesis about “the inevitable march of the Americans to unsettled areas.” One can imagine a number of possible geopolitical scenarios, which would have led to radically different results. “Inevitability” is always the legitimating form the present imparts on the past to dismiss challenges it can no longer openly confront. Worse vet, Allensworth’s “inevitable imperialism” did not “help to fuse the Christian, English-speaking, northern European communities” into a “nation,” but forced them through a bloody civil war to give up their “cultural particularity”—precisely what they sought to maintain when they originally ran away from a corrupt old continent allowing no freedom to be different and to practice their peculiar brands of Protestantism. Allensworth’s “Christian, English-speaking, northern European communities” did not want a “nation.” When they had a choice, they formed a “federation,” precisely in order to avoid the kind of “Americanization” imposed on them by an increasingly powerful central government from the Civil War to the present. Unfortunately, the change in this case was not always an improvement: the nation has meant homogenization, loss of freedom and self-determination, as well as the eradication of that individualism and self-sufficiency which is still in some sense the most distinguishing American ideal.
When Allensworth shifts from the anecdotal to the theoretical mode, the quality of his account deteriorates. He wants to define nations as “large groups of people who are conscious of such bond,” i.e., family, clan, and tribal ties, to a larger group—something that allegedly existed with the “ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans,” who allegedly all possessed “a sense of identity, uniqueness, and destiny.” This he sees as a “national extension of kinship.”
The main problem with this is that these kinds of “national” bonds are always externally imposed. The “natural” thing is for those small communities to federate into larger units, while retaining their cultural particularity. Nations, as we know them, homogenize all units belonging to them and flatten all culture into the national standard—something usually imposed by an intellectual elite from the center outward. It does not help Allensworth’s case to fudge by throwing in the ancients, e.g., the Romans. Usually, these were empires and not nations, i.e., aggregations of smaller communities usually subjugated by force and only subsequently integrated, never altogether successfully.
If Allensworth thinks that all was “hunky-dory” within those empires and that there were some transcendental bonds, then he better guess again. The Roman Empire was never a nation and, with the exception of the patricians living in the seven hills in the center, the rest of the subjects were never altogether happy with the arrangements—particularly when it came to paying taxes and putting up manpower to fight wars in faraway lands. Roman law did become the lingua franca of all Europe, but that hardly constitutes a European “nation.”
To shift a little closer to the present, it is not immediately obvious that the residents of Buffalo, New York—probably a bunch of ethnic mongrels with no clear ancestral lineage—share more with people in San Diego or Miami than with their friends and relatives in Toronto or Hamilton on the other side of the border. Anyway, it is clear that Southerners have never been very fond of the kind of Yankee ties and bonds imposed on them since the last century. The same can be said of Canadians from Newfoundland and their co-nationals in Alberta, the Prussians and the Bavarians in Germany, Piedmontese and Sicilians in Italy, etc.
In a nutshell, ethno-nationalism is utter nonsense. Ethnicity itself is nothing but the cultural specificity that obtains as a result of people coexisting within a particular territory and sharing common problems. It is always being reconstituted, even in the most “primordial” communities where often the assimilated outsiders end up taking the name of the place from which they originally came. It has nothing to do with race or biology and everything to do with territory and the concrete institutional order that has developed over time in the form of traditions, customs, cuisine, festivals, dialects, etc. There is no need to trace ancestral relations back to Adam and Eve to constitute a community. When all is said and done, ethno-nationalism is but a badly recycled version of that old-fashioned racism according to which some groups (usually all others but one’s own) are deemed inferior and, consequently, candidates for domination, exploitation, or in the case of Nazi Germany, scapegoating.
Allensworth’s archaic approach is, however, consistent, even in its recycling of crypto-Heideggerian ravings against technology and industrialism as the fons et origo malorum. He longs for an agrarian, preindustrial, and pre-capitalist society which he sees as the only alternative to the present state of degeneracy. Yet he lacks the imagination to prefigure a postmodern, truly federal system without nations and managerial elites—a world where the information highway is not full of pornographic hitchhikers and commercial shysters but is a mode of relating autonomous communities with their culture intact and their traditions thriving. Hatred of the present and of the human degradation it has brought about need not lead to inventing a golden past that never was and whose fraudulence ultimately ends up relegitimating that very same present it originally sought to indict. Rather, it should translate into concrete efforts to integrate new and not-so-new developments such as capitalism, industrialism, and technology within traditional frameworks which are always much richer and more flexible than most of their alleged defenders assume.
Editor, Telos: A Journal of Critical Thought
New York, NY
Wayne Allensworth Replies:
If Mr. Piccone had not been so busy trying to sound clever while scoring points against what he thought I said, he might have gone back and read the piece a little more carefully. For Piccone makes some of the same terminological errors that Connor is critical of in his book. Mr. Piccone uses the term “nation” in the same way that Connor’s “modernists” do: the “nation” is a centralized state, Connor’s “integrated state.” I agree with Mr. Piccone when he says that men of Bowie’s kind had no use for the integrated state, preferring a looser federation that allowed for regional peculiarities. I was criticizing the modernist equation (“nation” equals “state”; membership in the “nation” is a matter of filling out the correct bureaucratic forms), and the point I made in writing that Bowie’s Americanness was immutable (for him, at least) is that neither he nor many of his contemporaries saw their identity as Americans as tied to the state, any state, and that it had a more solid center to it than “coexisting within a particular territory” or “sharing common problems.” Just why did the people of Cincinnati support the Texas rebellion? Does Mr. Piccone really think the New Orleans Grays or the Kentuckians and Tennesseans who fought on the rebel side of the conflict would have done so if the rebels had not been people who walked and talked like them? They did not share the immediate problems of the rebels, but they fought with them because the rebels were the American side of the conflict; they were helping fellow Americans in trouble.
I also agree that identity is a “dynamic” category. I said as much in the article, when I pointed out that an American identity was formed by common experiences and shared perspectives (the experience of the Indian wars, for instance), something that pulled the diverse “Christian, English speaking, northern European communities” together, but that did not necessarily homogenize them. I pointed out that Bowie was representative of a particular type—not of all Americans of the era. That is, in part, what I had in mind when I wrote that the “conservative’s main concern is not simply the physical survival of his people, but their survival as what?” The modern state does “flatten all culture into the national standard” as Mr. Piccone points out, something I detest as well, but it is Mr. Piccone who lacks imagination on this score. How arc smaller communities to federate into larger units “while retaining their cultural peculiarity” in an era of mass communication, mass production, air travel, and bureaucratic social organization? That is a nut conservatives and libertarians have failed to crack. I wish I had an alternative—we can start with attacking big government, but where do we go from there? I hope Mr. Piccone is right about the information highway, but I have my doubts. Not all of us will be able to make a living at a computer keyboard, and I wonder if traditional culture can long survive disconnection from nature.
I wrote (more than once) that the sense of national solidarity is “largely an internalized psychological state” among people who imagine themselves to be “ancestrally related.” This kinship element explains the strength and resilience of the national bond, which so many observers, including Mr. Piccone, dismiss at their (and our) peril. Human beings need a sense of communal belonging in order to develop normally, and ethnocentrism, tribalism, nationalism, or whatever you wish to call it, is an important and necessary ingredient of community. If we are going to revitalize America in the next century, we had better get used to recognizing this truth, as inconvenient as it is. Connor’s theories are for serious people who are concerned with getting at the truth, not with the way we might like things to be, and they should be criticized on their own terms. The cheap “racism” accusation is unbecoming a man like Mr. Piccone, who is supposedly committed to “critical thought.”