Saturday, 22 January 2011

From nationalism to Niebuhr and the nature of evil

I've been meaning to recommend the high-quality discussion about nationalism and the nation state that took place at Bob's blog over the NewYear period. It began with Bob listing ‘national sovereignty’ as one of his ‘bad influences’ on the left, at the same time praising a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict as a 'good influence'. Norm took issue with both of these selections, defending the idea of the nation state and arguing that Bob’s advocacy of the one state solution relied on a misplaced premise.

This prompted Schalom Libertad to post a response to Norm’s response, arguing that ‘the national stands in the way of emancipation’ and advocating a break with, rather than a reinforcement of the nation state. Bob then posted a comprehensive response to these and other comments in another post.

I don’t propose to make a belated contribution to this debate, except to say that it prompted me to reflect on how my own position has shifted over time. Briefly, I would once have lined up unhesitatingly with the anti-nationalists and eagerly looked forward to a world in which the nation state and national interests were things of the past. Now, I find myself instinctively wary of such optimism. I suppose I’ve become more of a realist – about human nature as much as about politics (though not a 'realist' in the US foreign policy sense) – and more keenly aware of both the danger of utopian ambitions and the persistence of a need for local belonging and citizenship.

Anyway, the discussion between Bob and his online interlocutors reminded me of Jean Bethke Elshtain’s defence of the nation state, towards the end of her book Just war against terror: the burden of American power in a violent world. Elshtain challenges what she sees as the dominant hypothesis, certainly on the left, ‘that international organisations will slowly but surely take over many of the functions of nation-states’. She continues:

Nationalism and patriotism, according to this hypothesis, will give way to internationalism and universalism. These trends are often presented as if they undeniably herald a better day. The blurring and melting away of national boundaries, we are told, will make way for a more enlightened and less aggressive international order, or so the confident promise holds.
But for the time being nation-states are surely here to stay. One reason is the spread of democratic ideals. If, as Hannah Arendt insisted, no one can be a citizen of something as vague as 'the world' in the same way he and she can be a citizen of a specific polity, then it makes enormous good sense to build up politics in which people can be citizens.
I think I agree. Of course, Elshtain is writing as a Christian, and as one who has been influenced by a particularly Augustinian strain of Christian thinking, one which is realistic – critics would say overly pessimistic - about human nature and human potential. 

Coincidentally, around the time I was following Bob’s debate on nationalism, I discovered (via new Facebook friend Gabriel Noah Brahm) the US journal Politics and Culture, which recently published Scott R. Paeth’s article on ‘The need for an Augustinian Left’. In what is basically a review of Michael Berube’s The Left at War, Paeth describes anti-war, anti-imperialist, ‘blowback' leftists as the ‘Manichean left’, after the philosophical dualists with whom Augustine contended. He condemns their tendency to divide the world simplistically into good and evil camps and calls instead for a pragmatic left that, following Augustine, recognises that we live in an imperfect world in which some form of order (like the nation state) is necessary and in which compromises with human fallibility have to be made. The argument is of course much more elaborate and sophisticated than this, so I recommend reading the whole thing.

One of the writers recommended by Paeth is Reinhold Niebuhr, whom he describes as ‘the quintessential Augustinian leftist of the past century'. Niebuhr has also been a huge influence on Jean Bethke Elshtain, of course. Regular readers may remember that some time ago I posted a video of a fascinating discussion, between David Brooks and E.J.Dionne, of Niebuhr and the Obama presidency 

Perhaps this is the year when I will finally get round to reading some Niebuhr: he's been sitting in my Amazon 'saved for later' section for far too long. And you never know, I might even force myself to tackle some St. Augustine. That would mark another shift of perspective, this time on the theological plane. Back in my believing days, I was briefly influenced by something called 'creation spirituality' whose advocates maintained that Christianity needed to recover a pre-Augustinian sense of the essential goodness of the world, and that the theological rot had set in with the North African saint's guilt-tripping  obsession with personal sinfulness. Again, I think the passage of time - and possibly middle age - has brought on a degree of Augustinian realism in me.

Anyway, in this video Jean Bethke Elshtain claims that reading The City of God can actually be 'fun'. I came across this talk thanks to a link on Facebook by Alan Johnson. It's ostensibly about Harry Potter, but Elshtain touches on a whole lot of other things besides, including the nature of evil, many of them tangentially connected with the above discussion:

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