The two books reviewed here provide a contrast both in style and in substance. Whereas Thomas Molnar treats Utopians and historical optimists with exuberant contempt, Michael Ignatieff bewails the fact that nations and nationalism have not yet disappeared. Molnar is proud of his relentless realism, in which politics are related to man’s fallen state; Ignatieff, by contrast, wants us to move beyond the past toward a world without national loyalties. Despite these differences, both men succinctly set forth their positions, resting their arguments on bold generalities and arresting illustrations. Ignatieff, who prepared his book for a BBC series aired in 1993, is clearly aiming his remarks at a bien pensant liberal audience, one that wishes to be told that its own sentiments, albeit currently impractical, are admirable. One respects that Molnar has in mind his own particular readership, perhaps those who, like myself, have read him over the years and value his opinions.
I must insist that Molnar is of the two the far more intelligent commentator, even when his prejudices come to the surface. And he does have prejudices— against Protestantism, the American founding, and commercial societies— that detract from his otherwise sober analysis of American institutions and culture. He tries to explain all the lunacies in contemporary American life by too often going back to the Protestant Reformation or to Ernst Troeltch’s turn-of-the-century views about cultural Protestantism. Like other European commentators on America, Molnar is also overly dependent on Alexis de Tocqueville. Indeed, he seems to believe that the investigation of American smalltown democracy done by a visiting French aristocrat in the 1830’s can serve to illuminate Bill Clinton’s America. But Tocqueville is more useful for his critical reflections on Jacksonian democracy than in disclosing a supposedly unchanging American character. Like Samuel Francis and Forrest McDonald, but unlike Molnar, I am far more struck by the political and cultural gulf between early and present-day America than by any presumed continuity between them. I cannot recognize in the multicultural, therapeutic America of the present the Protestant Republic of 1835. Tocqueville might as well have been describing the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, for all the relevance that the America he visited has to our own.
Despite the Catholic and Tocquevillian filters that he applies, Molnar does perceive certain things very clearly. The culture that arose on both sides of the Atlantic in the wake of American political hegemony following World War II is far more brittle, he reminds us, than is often imagined. Europeans took over American political slogans and paid at least lip service to “American values” like democracy, pluralism, and equality because shattered Europe respected American power. Unlike naive American globalists, Molnar is brutally honest in exposing the shallowness of European enthusiasm for American control. He is also too much of a historicist to attribute transcendent importance to the ideological accoutrements of power. There is nothing intrinsically moral, he observes, about whatever political system the United States enjoys at any particular time and decides to impose on dependent governments. When asked by an earnest disciple of Harry Jaffa whether he believed that American democracy is the only true Judeo-Christian regime, Molnar looked at the young man as if he were insane.
American liberal democracy, he insists, is incompatible with strongly corporate societies that value group identity more than individual expressiveness. Its success depends on social and cultural transformation that is still less advanced in most of Europe than in the United States. Europeans also distinguish between culture and technical civilization, and both their left- and their right-wing critics mock American materialism, in contrast to Europe’s centuries-old artistic achievements. Moreover, most Americans have no sympathetic interest in the European past. It is what their forefathers left behind or, in the cases of Asians and blacks, never possessed in the first place. American interest in Europe, Molnar explains, is typically confined to a concern with whether the Europeans are coming to resemble us. Presumably, the more they do resemble us, the less reason we have to feel threatened when we encounter people on the other side of the Atlantic.
These observations are right on the money, and the most fatuous remarks in Ignatieff’s lament for internationalism confirm Molnar’s insensitively stated truths. The Canadian-born and educated Ignatieff weeps over what he supposes to be the temporary eclipse of his vision of progress, of what he calls “cosmopolitanism” sweeping across the globe: “Twentieth-century democracy and unprecedented post-war prosperity have extended the privileges of cosmopolitanism from a small white male moneyed elite to a substantial minority of the population of the nation-states of the developed world.” Ignatieff praises the revolutions in transportation and communication and the overthrow of authoritarian structures like the Habsburg and Turkish empires in preparing the way for this new cosmopolitanism. In the world of his imagination, there would exist only individuals interacting without ethnic or sexual distinctions or any hint of discrimination. This is not coming to pass, Ignatieff explains, because a new (really old) nationalism has surged up in Europe and elsewhere. Ignatieff’s banal, politically correct treatment of this subject winds on for so long that it almost turned me from my ancestral Austrophilia into a Serbian nationalist. And though sympathetic to the Whites against the Reds, I find it hard to sympathize with Ignatieff’s Russian émigré family, in view of the ideas he ascribes to them. After all, there are less appetizing miscreants than communists, starting with frenzied “cosmopolitan” journalists.
Ignatieffs book also substantiates a generalization that Murray Rothbard and I have been testing for years: that all left-liberals are obsessive Teutonophobes. Ignatieff hates Imperial Germany, which he intemperately attacks in a discussion of German and other nationalisms. In 1913, the German imperial government erected a monument commemorating the victory of several German states over Napoleon at Leipzig in 1813. This, for Ignatieff, shows the inevitability of Hitler’s victory in 1933: “The entire erotic paraphernalia of Nazi appeal is already there in the Leipzig monument: the same helmets, the same snakes, the same Teutonic ardor, the same ludicrous cult of masculine harness; the same erotically charged confusion about nature—is it to be a life-giving force or carnal malignity?” As hysterical as these passages sound, they are shockingly typical of Ignatieff’s digressions into German history. They also reveal the contemporary American media view of unsubdued aspects of European life. Whatever there is in it that cannot be assimilated to here-and-now American values and sensitivities is essentially evil—and should be seen as such.
All over America there are commemorative monuments, many of them grimmer than the German statue that offends Ignatieff. Yet these monuments are not supposed to give offense, inasmuch as they can be seen to presage the eventual victory of American pluralism and democratic cosmopolitanism. Molnar is right to protest against the ugly American tendency, of relatively recent appearance, to ascribe diabolical motives to the national sentiments and memories of those who stood—or stand—in the way of the imperial projects of our political class. Since the American Empire, as opposed to the American Republic, represents cosmopolitanism, anyone who resists that empire must be crazed or evil. And the most aberrant nationalists, following this tortured logic, were those who opposed or were opposed by Wilson’s crusade to make the world safe for democracy.
None of this criticism is intended to gainsay the vicious and savage face that contemporary nationalism often exhibits. On this point, unfortunately, Ignatieff is correct. What he fails to note, however, is that cosmopolitans in the 20th century have been at least as mischievous as nationalists; reveling in control and reconstruction, they will not leave others alone. The Bolsheviks who persecuted Ignatieff’s family claimed to be internationalists. Ignatieff may object that his internationalism is more benign than the coercive kind preached by Trotsky and Lenin. Undoubtedly he would like to think so, but the question does arise: Exactly how far would he go to impose his own vision? Since the world as it now exists with its divisiveness and distinctions infuriates him, what would he do to ensure the nondiscriminatory, globalist society he invokes at the beginning of his book? And what would he inflict upon those who resist his plan? I suspect that what he has in mind is a more ambitious version of the American therapeutic state, but one that would make special provisions for still-unadjusted nationalities. In any case, I would prefer to live in Thomas Molnar’s fallen world than in the perfected one envisaged by Michael Ignatieff.
[The Emerging Atlantic Culture, by Thomas Molnar (New Brunswick: Transaction) 113 pp., $27.95]
[Blood and Belonging: Journeys Into the New Nationalism, by Michael Ignatieff (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 263 pp., $21.00]