Thursday, February 05, 2009

A Regard For All Mankind

At the simplest level, those who want to eliminate, or at least deemphasise nationalism in favor of a more universal regard for humanity are absolutely correct. If Frenchmen were as generous of spirit to Algerians as they are to their fellow townsmen, that would be a good thing for the world. If an American saw no real difference in personal responsibility to Iranians as to other Americans, we would regard that person as noble and elevated, having achieved a level of love for mankind worthy of emulation. If we had only the practical objection that such things are beyond the capabilities of mortal men, or that they are often poses covering a darker tribalism, that would not tarnish the ideal. This is the sort of completely unprejudiced openness we think Jesus had, that Mother Theresa had, that the Dalai Lama has.

If the Iranians and Pakistanis and Canadians and Brazilians – all the nations of the world – could indeed achieve or even approach such a comity of coexistence, who wouldn’t like it? Of course that’s a better world. Of course we should all try to get there. I sometimes get the impression that those who advocate for this ideal think that those who disagree with them are so base as to not want universal peace and justice. They seem to think that we prefer a world of strife so long as our guys can be dominant. They are quite sure that nationalism is an obstacle, even the obstacle to universalism and transnationalism.

That’s rather insulting, and more than a little self-congratulatory. It is the moral attitude of adolescents, who think that because they feel something so strongly they must be better than those others.

Yet even in this perfected world, wouldn't nationalism be part of the fun? Like rival teams or towns or schools, might we not hope the best for others while still enjoying our own group making its way through the troubles of the world together? Even heaven seems to be populated by different groups, each with its own song, its own honors, its own unity.

More seriously, what do we do with the people who don't want to go along with us? To keep things simple, imagine a village setting rather than national messes for the disputes. The village decides that certain land shall belong to one group. Someone else puts a house there. After five years of arguing and mediation, the town stops negotiating and decides to evict. It looks like it's going to require force. What do you, the citizen, do? What if you think the village is correct but disapprove of force? Now all of a sudden it's you that is no longer part of "we."

There is no general answer to this. It matters greatly what this house and group are. If it's a black person building in a designated white neighborhood, then it looks one way; if it's Israeli's settling on the West Bank it looks another way; if it's an illegal immigrant building in a state park it looks a third way. What if one of the parties is being impoverished or endangered by this? To pretend that there is a Christian solution, an always-moral solution to this generic dispute is absurd. We appeal to an authority, a tradition, a church for a decision - but what if one party will not abide by it?

These are not silly hypotheticals. This is what will always happen, everywhere, with every group of human beings, from the family to the international level. Nor can we resort to the idea of starting everyone afresh, clearing the slate and making a new arrangement, for there will be disagreements about that arrangement also. Do we start afresh again? After fifty tries, when we have established that one party will not stop until they have everything, do we start again? It is one thing for me personally to forgive seventy times seven, spending my life humbling myself before another for the sake of the gospel. But what if the side that will only be satisfied with complete victory is robbing the poor? Shall I do nothing?

But here I will add an interesting twist. Thus far, it has all been very basic stuff. Only the most ardent of pacifists would deny that eventually, people have a right to seek justice, on behalf of others if not themselves. Well of course you can eventually take firm action. No one's denying that. Well, actually you are.

Let's add a new person to the village. This sensitive, moral person arrives just after the fiftieth infraction and says the village is being hasty. They should try to work with the offender. They should appeal to a mediator, or be willing to make more concessions. The village makes another fifty tries, just to live up to that elevated morality, when a second new person arrives, exhorting the others with tears and heaving bosom to have mercy fifty more times.

Something odd has happened here. The new people arriving on the scene aren't personally tired of the whole thing, so they think the village shouldn't be either. Because they haven't seen the injustice and the honest efforts, they think they haven't "really" happened. At this point we must note that there are always new people coming into the village. They might feel as if they are more moral and just, because their personal store of forgiveness has not yet been exhausted. They see the villagers as vicious, divisive, uncaring, unwilling to listen...

This is what is happening behind these calls for peace. John has been victimized for years. Joe says he's not sick of it yet, so John shouldn't go to war. Except Joe just came in last week. Of course he's not sick of it. He wants to start afresh. Worse, he's self-righteous with John about it.


Retriever said...

Great stuff! Such a good point about those new to an issue not yet being tired or having the true measure of it. Reminds me of some choice words I was exchanging with one of the puppies spouting pc garbage with an air of utmost authority last week....And also reminds me of stuff we used to say preparing the seminarians for how to work with the kids we served, warning them about things to do and not do, and the way the starry eyed novices would look at us as if we were cynical jerks. About a month later they would come back to us and say "Uh, about what you told us about X....well, I guess you were right...."

Anonymous said...

Not to play contrarian, but I couldn't help but recall the classic Henry Fonda movie 12 Angry Men - depicting the patience of one hold-out versus the rest who were sick and tired of the whole issue after awhile. If we're questioning the cogency of nationalism as a concept (and its very close twin, patriotism), then what to make of its use as an almost limitless force of action against defined enemies? Isn't a continuous re-checking of its necessity more consistent with the view of universal brother/sister-hood? Why should the hope for world peace be monopolised by those we deem the ultra-left?