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Soundings

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A friend recently kindly told me that I often view phenomena as if through the multiple facets of a diamond and am always interested in securing a deepened understanding by doing so. I truly hope that is so. Perhaps among major American poets, Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost are most readily identified as having crafted poems concerning the importance of developing such an orientation and acumen. Among modern filmmakers, Akira Kurosawa explored the central significance of sympathetic perspective and alternate ways of knowing in many of his films and particularly in “Rashomon.” Sometimes, indeed, when we focus on one manifestation of a concern, we cannot see another, however plainly it may be before us. Yet, if we turn the proverbial diamond just a bit, new insights and patterns may emerge as we confront a new surface and uncover and inspect a new tableau. I have found myself applying this insight in recent days to my last Soundings, in which I identified a pattern of behavior and provided examples of it. Here is how I summarized the principal argument of that essay:

In sum, I find myself reflecting that all of these cases represent the dangers of a populace, elite or not, willing to embrace mythology and loose rhetoric that an idealized past can be reclaimed if only a targeted “other” can be held responsible for supposed shortcomings and removed. That “other” is scapegoated through lies and/or unsupported broad and hazy contentions designed to unsettle and appeal to false dichotomies, suggesting that “if only” that target did not stand in the way, wonderful things could occur for the favored tribe. [1]

Elsewhere in that same commentary I observed:

More generally, each of these efforts has employed broad-gauged and imprecise claims harking to a mythical status that could be attained by embracing a false binary to foment a kind of tribalism on the basis of which their architects thereafter were able to take authoritative actions: removing a misleadingly targeted incumbent or shutting down much of the federal government, respectively. In each case, those proposing the action said virtually nothing of defensible factual purport to set up a Manichean good-versus evil struggle that galvanized supporters to back their otherwise unsubstantiated assertions.[2]

What I did not say in my last essay is that the style of rhetoric and persuasion I identified can and does precisely describe so-called “nationalist” claims and nationalism as a perspective. Here, for example, is President Trump embracing that mantle in late October 2018 at a campaign rally and in an interview the day after,

You know, they have a word—it’s sort of became old-fashioned—it’s called a nationalist. And I say, really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist. Nothing wrong. Use that word. Use that word. …[3]

‘I love our country, and our country has taken second fiddle,’ the president said, arguing that ‘we're giving all of our money, all of our wealth to other countries and then they don't treat us properly.’[4]

These are perfect illustrations of the phenomenon I described in my last commentary and Trump here employed them to describe himself as a “nationalist.” In very few words, he appealed to an undefined and fictive past, argued that “others” were now fleecing us and taking all of our (presumably personal and national) wealth and that we had to rally so as to prevent their continued onslaught. His rhetoric was binary, crude, ugly and devoid of any relationship to reality. Nationalism appeals hazily to an idealized past and blames a targeted other for its loss, and it calls for united tribal efforts to beat down that mythic usurper.

I confess I did not have nationalism in mind when I wrote the last Soundings. The fact that orientation relies on the self-same emotive form and willed ignorance as the other examples I provided became plain to me while reading an essay by Roger Cohen after I had completed my own effort. In language similar to that I had employed, Cohen contended,

Nationalism, self-pitying and aggressive, seeks to change the present in the name of an illusory past in order to create a future vague in all respects except its glory. Pregnant with violence, manipulating fear, it is an exercise in mass delusion. I hate it with all my being.[5]

Cohen’s forceful eloquence captured succinctly the grave danger unleashed when a country’s leaders employ fear and delusional and empty claims of a lost grandeur to fuel anger at the supposed agents responsible for that loss. Nationalists always go further, however, as Trump did in October, not only to make their tribal demand, but also to suggest that only they, as the symbols and vehicles of efforts to vanquish the nemesis, may interpret its portent and meaning. To join the clan is to agree to drink the elixir on offer and to declare full-throated fealty in doing so. It should not surprise that Trump, like those I profiled in my last commentary, called for support on the basis of a lost world, an idealized vision of a mythic past, and then declared himself the lone arbiter of how to recover that Edenic era.

Cohen also underlined another profound danger of nationalist arguments. Once unleashed, their ugly fury will undermine respect for the law, human dignity and human rights:

I am a European patriot and an American patriot. I am not from one place but several. The bond that binds the West is freedom—the cry of revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic. There is no contradiction in my patriotisms. Patriotism is to nationalism as dignity is to barbarism. As nationalism equals war, so contempt for the law brings savagery.[6]

Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, writing in 1986, argued similarly as he explored the question of whether the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, developed on the basis of nationalist zealotry, idolatry and hatred, could be consigned to history:

How much of the concentration camp world is dead and will not return, like slavery and the dueling code? How much is back or is coming back? What can each of us do that in this world pregnant with threats at least this threat can be nullified? [7]

Plainly, the autocratic habit of mind, “the barrier erected against pluralism of information and the [employment of] terror” that Levi also highlighted and that had accompanied the virulent form of German nationalism brought to its tragic apotheosis in the Lager (concentration camps) have reemerged under Trump and many other current Western leaders. [8] These individuals have been willing to brandish fear as a weapon to gain support and have likewise sought to delegitimate all sources of information that did not embrace and popularize their preferred points-of-view, however fanciful, outlandish or mendacious. Each has also singled out specific groups (especially refugees and immigrants, but also minorities of all sorts) as “less than” and per se “undeserving” of human and democratic standing.

Trump’s comments quoted above highlight the dangers of nationalism that Cohen articulated and of which Levi warned. But perhaps Levi has captured what is most concerning about this turn to nationalist identity politics in his description of how it applied to its ugliest historic moment in National Socialist Germany:

At any rate, the entire history of the brief ‘millennial Reich’ can be reread as a war against memory, an Orwellian falsification of memory, falsification of reality, negation of reality.[9]

Would-be nationalist leaders offer claims of loss of an idealized and memorialized past and falsely contend that a specific group or groups is responsible for its decline. History teaches that such fantastical rhetoric and thinking leads to brutish imaginings and steps, even as it encourages those embracing its binaries to attack the rights and dignity of those targeted. Cohen was surely correct. Any friend of freedom should despise and do all they can to prevent the “success” of this all too human propensity. It should ever be seen for what it is, an attack on human possibility whenever and wherever and under whatever auspices it may appear.

Notes

[1] Stephenson, Max, “The Perils of False Binaries and magical Thinking,” Soundings, January 28, 2019, https://ipg.vt.edu/DirectorsCorner/Soundings/Soundings0128190.html
 Accessed February 3, 2019.

[2] Stephenson, “The Perils of False Binaries and magical Thinking.”  

[3] Cummings, William. “‘I am a Nationalist:’ Trump’s embrace of controversial label sparks uproar,” USA Today, October 24, 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/10/24/trump-says-hes-nationalist-what-means-why-its-controversial/1748521002/ Accessed February 3, 2019.

[4] Cummings, “‘I am a Nationalist.’’

[5] Cohen, Roger, “Why I am a European Patriot,” The New York Times, January 25, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/25/opinion/europe-nationalism-trump.html?emc=edit_th_190126&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=400875340126 Accessed January 25, 2019.

[6] Cohen, “Why I am a European Patriot.”

[7] Levi, Primo, The Drowned and the Saved: Essays. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986, p. 10.

[8] Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, p.19.

[9] Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, p. 21. 

Publication Date

February 11, 2019

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