Friday, October 01, 2010

Liberal Nationalism

In trying to again refine some empirical values of liberalism, I was again struck by the notion that liberals regard the federal government as the dominant expression of the people much more than other American groups do. Libertarians, and to a lesser extent conservatives, regard the government as a tool for doing the business of keeping everything going smoothly and fairly. It is inanimate. Liberals, especially the Religious Left, see government in anthropomorphic terms. The "Not In Our Name" campaign described a government that speaks on behalf of the people; there is much more concern about how we "appear" to other nations, rather than the practical result of government actions - to the point that they believe a proper appearance or attitude expressed by our government will solve many of our international problems; the UN, much more loved by liberals than others, is assumed to be the main way for the peoples of the world to work together, with government acting as embodiment of each people. Others, noticing that many governments do not represent anything near a majority of their citizens, assign less authority to this, elevating the role of business, charity, or culture in expressing Americanism - or in turn, developing an opinion about other nations. It often seems to me that those not represented by their own governments do not count for much in liberal views of international affairs. (Perhaps this is why they are so fond of treaties, while discounting the importance of actions by non-governmental forces in a country - whether criminal, such as terrorists, or beneficent, such as charities or trading partners.)

It would explain then, why liberals do not regard the UN as a sham, as they believe we have no other choice. That government might only be one force among several seems not to occur to them. Or similarly, one is more likely to hear reference to "office of the presidency" from the right: Reagan always wearing a suit out of respect for the office; Clinton having shamed, not the nation but his office by his actions; all the ruckus about Obama giving cheap gifts to the queen - citizen Obama may express displeasure to his heart's content, but the office of the president should not do that. Citizen Obama may bow to whatever foreign dignitary he fancies in order to express that he's a regular guy who gets it. But the office of the president should not bow. The small gestures bespeak a profound misunderstanding of what the job means.

Society, however we depersonalise it in speech or thought, is pretty clearly people. Government is pretty clearly a system. Facile equivalences of those concepts mislead badly.

As I noted, this is even more pronounced on the religious left. How "we" treat the poor or the least among us is conceived first as how the government treats them, as if the government were a person. It seems rather Old World - monarchist, aristocratic, with largely European ideas of the nation-state. It pays to recall that God allowed Israel to go the way of monarchy only reluctantly. Government as person, or even collection of certain associated persons, He thought dangerous. Even from such as Amos criticising the people, it is not the government but the he's and she's that are addressed.

Nor does the NT offer much excape. The exhortations to charity, to good works, to justice, are to individuals. It is not anti-biblical to apply the charge to people individually to people collectively - it seems a fair exercise to consider government action from the perspective of "what if this were judged according to the rules for a single person?" But it is not an automatic equivalent. One can call it an extension of biblical principles, but it is not explicitly biblical. Jesus mentions government little, and certainly does not command to followers to influence the Roman government or the chief priests to do good, but to do it themselves.

All in all, an odd disguised nationalism, that sees government as a person, our representative in the (heh) Family of Nations; a parent who watches over the children and is responsible for them.


karrde said...

What is even weirder is that portions of this movement claim to have such an international view. (Usually citing 'family of nations' language...)

The assumption that the citizens are childlike in nature with respect to that subset of citizens who are elected/appointed to high office is likewise weird.

I almost want to call it wilfully blind.

Anonymous said...

That was genuinely enlightening. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.