Will and the flag.

I guess I will be stripped of my passport and moustache-wearing rights, but let me stand up for a second for Jonah Goldberg who, in a slightly touching post on Thanksgiving in Paris (mon Dieu!), had the misfortune to write:

A little mystic nationalism is a good and healthy thing because it provides the emotional sinew that helps us hold onto our patriotism.

To which Will Wilkinson replied that the “good and healthy” looks like this:

Well, that’s just great.

Will, I heard you like capitalism, so I put some capitalism in your capitalism and here’s what capitalism looks like:


The great thing about the internet is that if you caricature an opponent you win, and if you can prove that something can sometimes have bad consequences, you’ve proven that thing is always bad.

Oh, wait. That’s not actually how it works! How it works is that you argue in good faith, come to reasonable disagreements, don’t call each other names, and maybe, every once in a while, convince the other guy or let yourself be convinced. In short, you behave better than 8 year olds in a schoolyard. At least, that’s how it should work.

But of course this is unlikely to happen when one (or both) protagonist(s) is convinced that they are the only ones who are objective and reasonable (ahem).

So yes, I agree with Jonah, I do think that a little “mystic nationalism” is a good and healthy thing because the union of the national polity around a common identity is the necessary precondition of its health.

And patriotism does have an irrational side, like most everything else we flawed creatures come up with. Of course the bad impulses of nationalism must be checked, as with the bad impulses of democracy, of free enterprise, and of everything else that we consider good and healthy.

How great it must be to be so enlightened, so above the morbid miasmas of irrational attachment, to be able to view the whole world unmoored from belonging. How irrational, how icky it must seem to be actually attached to something so quaint as one’s country. How coarse must be the dark bread of patriotism when one can feast on the fine brioche of enlightened cosmopolitanism. Let the world eat brioche! Cosmopolitans of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains!

I’ve long meant to pen here an elaborate defense of so-called “national greatness conservatism” intended for libertarians and conservatives who view every stirring of government as a threat (a generally healthy instinct to be sure but, like all instincts, one that must sometimes be checked).

The thrust of my argument would probably be this: that a strong national polity, cemented by a common identity, is the yin to democracy’s yang. Democracy is not about a ballot box, or even only about fundamental human rights. Democracy, at its core, is a national community choosing the rules and values that it wants to live by. And it is a great and wonderful thing that there are hundreds of nations, each different, each with its own specific quirks, ideas, and thoughts. And the fact that, in time, hopefully, each of these nations will secure for its members a universally shared set of human rights, will not mean that they can or should be subsumed in a globalist glob.

This is, in fact, the main thrust of that beautiful of beautiful documents, the American Declaration of Independence: we recognize that there are universal human rights, and we’re going to secure those rights for ourselves in our way. The first part cannot be separated from the second part. And this was made possible, at least in part, by the love of a band of brothers for their unborn country, in all its brilliant, exuberant irrationality.

Like the pimply-faced college freshman who rants against free trade while wearing Nike and Gap, Will proudly displays his contempt of patriotism as he reaps its tangible benefits. When you live in a country which is violently despised by a significant minority of its population, you realize the importance of patriotism and see the effects of its decline. Were the post-national cosmopolitan polity that Will evidently dreams of to come true, I’m afraid he would find himself stripped of many of the liberties he holds dear, because after all the rest of the world doesn’t really agree with most Americans about the size of government and the importance of free enterprise (not that America is free in all respects but it’s certainly more free than most of the alternatives — and no, having legal pot and married gays does not make the Netherlands free in the way that America is free).

In America and in every free country the freedoms that libertarians and others hold dear are, and have always been protected by patriots. Ideologies that seek to replace national identities have not been good for my continent, to say the least. It is significant that the nations that suffered most under the totalitarian yoke did not awaken to embrace bloodless internationalism but instead embraced their own patriotism, and it is no coincidence that the same countries (France and Britain) invented both the sovereign nation-state and the idea of universal human rights.

As much as I wish for a peaceful and cosmopolitan world, it seems self-evident to me that for such a world to be healthy, we must have in equal measures openness to other cultures and peaceful pride in our own (of choice or of birth).

Clearly, I won’t convince Will. I know that he is otherwise a very intelligent thinker who writes thoughtfully and with an open mind. But I couldn’t let this instance of vituperative approximation slide by unchecked.

And Jonah, since you’re in Paris, I’d love to buy you a beer.