Nationalism’s Identical Twin Enchants Westerners with the Lure of the Exotic
Swedish sociologist Göran Adamson’s latest book is about two forms of nationalism. Both treasure their own culture of spiritual identification along with its roots and biased textbooks. Both are enticed by kitschy, nebulous origins. They share an obsession with past injustice and idealise homogeneous groups, underscoring their unique differences from others. Neither mind imposing laws and customs from its respective homeland on cultures deemed inferior. One of them (white supremacist nationalism) unites in vengeance, the other (anti-white nationalism) in shame. One insists that Christianity is inherently peaceful, the other than Islam is unambiguously innocent. Both emanate from the early 19th-century Counter-Enlightenment. Whether you talk to people from overseas in a coarse voice or whether you coddle and mollify foreigners as though they were infants, your attitude is one of superiority. It is racist.
The catalyst for Adamson’s polemic is George Orwell’s 1945 essay Notes on nationalism in which the latter observed that a nationalist is one who thinks primarily in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a ‘positive’ or a ‘negative’ nationalist – that is, he may be in the business of boosting or denigrating his nation – but in either case, he is obsessed with hierarchies in which actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merit, but according to who does them. Orwell described the British version of negative nationalism typical of his contemporary literary intellectuals as a combination of collectivist self-abuse and excitement, for which he coined the term “transferred nationalism”. He described a form of nationalist allegiance that fastens onto a foreign country, making it an object of intense romanticism. The distinction between positive nationalism (the object of the bourgeois left’s loathing) and “transferred nationalism” (the illiberal left’s favourite pastime) is merely geographical and superficial. Their sentiments, attitudes and ideas are identical. Adamson takes Orwell’s concepts of negative nationalism and transferred nationalism and invents his own term for their commonalities: “masochist nationalism”.
The illiberal new left that has coalesced around Critical Race Theory frames the conflict as a rift between narrow-minded, Trump-voting nationalists and progressive, unprejudiced internationalists. Adamson exposes the illiberal left’s internationalism as the mirror image of positive nationalism — not its antithesis. The UN, the EU and silicon valley’s big tech, the Washington elites, New York Times and The Guardian, the globalists and multiculturalists taking down the borders of nation states from outside and within, have merely replaced adulation for their own country with a patronising warmth for all things exotic.
Drawing many examples from his own country, Sweden, Adamson chronicles many ways in which the nationalist’s beliefs about his people’s roots overlap with those of the masochist nationalist. While the nationalist claims that our roots are deep and strong, whereas the roots of others are weak and short, the masochist nationalist claims that we have no roots. All has been imported or stolen. Wearing his xenophile blinders, the masochist nationalist overlooks troublesome aspects of exotic cultures for the sake of kitschy multicultural aesthetics. Those who sneer at the nationalist’s mythical zeal at home are thrilled to see it flourish the minute national pride is sunk into another culture’s language, folk music, nationalist-sentimental poetry, literature, or home-grown cuisine.
The embrace of hypocritical double standards can be seen in the similarities between the positive nationalist’s self-obsession and left-wing Swedes’ indiscriminate excitement for the exotic. Adamson cites Christopher Caldwell’s observation about Europeans who consider churches houses of stupidity, sexism and superstition and then rush to embrace exotic religions like Islam with “childish credulity”.
In the xenophile’s amnesia and enthusiasm to realise an exterior political ambition, Adamson sees another similarity with the positive nationalist. If the past can be erased by political views, then it can just as easily be created by ideology. Reality ceases to be something we must accept and is transformed into a product of political pressure. If we can be completely dissociated from our past and be made to pretend to have no relationship to our own culture, this begins to smack of complete mind control.
Masochist nationalists groomed in post-modernity transform a quest for truth into a codified call for authoritarianism with its stamping out of dissent. When masochist nationalists mistake criticism for fascism, all conflicts – whether civil or not – will be deemed politically suspect. Democracy will be defined by groupthink. Here too, Orwell is instructive. He predicted that racists were bound to come back, next time under the name of “anti-racists”.
Reading Adamson, I was reminded of a talk given by Jonathan Rauch to the UK’s Free Speech Champions in which he pitted democracy against free expression and implied that the former was threatened by the latter, a false dilemma that no one need accept.
Adamson argues that, despite their progressive self-perception, masochist nationalists surpass positive nationalists in their attachment to primitivist images such as Rousseau’s “noble savage”, as exemplified by the myth of the Noble Eco-Savage and the perception that non-Western primitive societies are peaceful, harmonious and “respect nature”. The masochist nationalist combines historical kitsch – sentimental and romantic clichés about traditional and exotic communities – with a full-blown anti-modernist posture. This is despite his citizenship in progressive and successful Western liberal democracies to which his entire outlook is nevertheless opposed.
Masochist nationalists are quick to condemn history books written by positive nationalists, labelling them as Eurocentric, ethnocentric, monocultural, imperialist or plainly nationalist. And while there may be some truth in these assessments, the masochist nationalist then prescribes his own version of the same. Rather than wiping out ‘monoculture’ or ‘ethnocentric’ texts as such, illiberal leftists merely offer their own “Afrocentric” texts that, according to Yehudi O. Webster, “lack even the pretence of scholarly neutrality” and inculcate ancestor worship. Afrocentricity only leads to politicization of the curriculum. Rather than countering the practice of group selection per se or in principle it merely reinstates it from the opposite direction.
Collectivism and Communitarianism
Adamson homes in on the illiberal left’s obsession with culture and its preference for groups or “communities” over and above the individuals within them. In keeping with conservatism’s organic metaphors that imply a harmony of interest between ‘natural leaders’ and their people, class tensions and individual self-determination are erased. Nikolaos Michaloliakos, leader of the Greek far-right Golden Dawn, says “individuals do not have historical significance”. In similar fashion, the masochist nationalist defines “identity” as a euphemism for the individual’s submission to the group. He defends organicism in overseas cultures. Adamson cites Ayaan Hirsi-Ali’s story of how the UN distributes food to self-described clan leaders who then keep it for themselves or sell it. The multicultural leftist’s persistent (and seemingly deliberate) misperception is that relations between individuals within non-Western societies are harmonious. This colossal political fiction fools only the most obtuse Westerner. Yet when our pet ideas of anti-racism and exoticism are at stake, reality is the first victim.
Colonialism’s most ruthless critics spin the myth of organic harmony of distant cultures, which entails the related assumption that minorities in the West are homogeneous “communities” free of political or religious tensions. The result is that when left-wing dissidents from other cultures are under attack by religious reactionaries, Westerners offer no help, or worse, they lend fawning support to self-appointed right-wing religious ‘representatives.’ This disproves the left’s claim to be opposed to conservative oppression of minorities. Leftists are currently religious conservatism’s greatest defenders, so long as their support is cloaked in ethnicity. The West’s masochist nationalists ignore political views altogether and lump individuals – oppressors and dissidents alike – into one box labelled “Syrian Nationals” or “Iraqi co-patriots” or just “Muslims”. From this pseudo-leftist perspective, any member of the ethnic group speaks on behalf of the entire group (unless of course the individual is Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, or any genuine liberal). The nationalist’s belief in unity between representative and Völk is given a brush or two and re-tooled as an emancipating idea for the benefit of minority populations. At the same time, progressive individuals from within the minority society are merrily thrown to the wolves.
Masochist nationalists rightly denounce European politicians like the Greek Golden Dawn and the Bulgarian Ataka when they defend national ancestry, but these same critics go on to re-frame hard-core nationalism from outside of Europe positively as “self-determination” or “cultural pride”. In their self-contradictory, unprincipled alliances, the illiberal left’s anti-Western zealots betray their support for group fanaticism, so long as it doesn’t happen at home. The anti-Western left (or stealth right-wing?) has re-defined identity in a way that severs it from individuality, turning “identity” into Newspeak for communitarian dependence and conformity, which have always been ultra-conservative political values.
Adamson concludes that both positive nationalists and masochist nationalists fuel support for right-wing parties, even if the latter’s grandiloquence and labelling makes it seem otherwise. Influential sections of the elite have pushed the notion that even moderately social conservative values at home (safety, family, and social cohesion) are ‘extreme right wing’. The majority is not convinced. The success of the global elite’s propaganda has been confined to self-described ‘left-wing anti-racists’ whose smug superiority and categorical rejection of all Western values only boosts public support for right-wing parties and radicalizes the European electorate.
In the past, positive nationalists have tried to prevent left-wing artists from mocking the West. In Germany in the 1930’s state interests trumped artistic freedoms. As Adamson explains, positive nationalists try to stop left-wing artists mocking the West. Masochist nationalists seek to demote artists defending the West. Both nationalists throw artistic freedom under a bus for the benefit of their respective political convictions. Both share a view that art must “have a purpose” and both claim that art must be “edifying”.
Adamson’s case in point comes from August 2007 when Lars Wilks, a white male classic leftist Swedish artist and professor in art theory gained international notoriety by publishing a drawing of a roundabout dog with the face of Mohammed in a Swedish local newspaper. Following this, an Al-Qaeda linked group placed a $100,000 dollar bounty on his head. His house was torched, and he now lives under full-time protection by the Swedish Police. Wilks had dared to provoke massive retaliation from religious reactionaries. In turn, Ilmar Reepalu, for decades the head of Social Democracy in Malmo and a man who might be expected to defend the political purposes of art, did a U-Turn and denounced Wilk’s exhibition as “empty provocation” while idealizing religious reactionaries as “victims of Western colonialism”. In the past, the establishment’s bourgeois art criticism clamped down on perceived threats to decency and order. Bringing up morality or the virtue of a left-wing ideological perspective is just another authoritarian way of dismantling artistic freedom, says Adamson. If the left is to abandon its traditional role of defending l’art pour l’art and if the newfound establishment leftists have redefined artistic rebellion as right-wing extremism, having placed their own elitism under the mantle of ‘anti-racism’, amply celebrated by their own media apparatus, then the whole idea of modern art breaks apart.
Imperialism and colonialism
Early 20th-century Western empires forced legislation on overseas cultures. Imperialism is bad, right? Wrong. Again, the abstract idea that foreign intrusion is bad is only a façade used to promote one side’s ideological self-interest. The political Islamic doctrine – including Sharia laws – is spreading in the West because masochist nationalists don’t mind foreign intrusion into sovereign nations when the West are not the perpetrators.
The cult of powerlessness, no less than the cult of power, is infused with political romanticism. The fury unleashed by the masochist nationalist, no less than the positive nationalist, contains its own justification because fury must be caused by external defamation. ‘They should have known’, says one nationalist. ‘We should have known’, says the other.
Both positive nationalism and masochist nationalism are societal pessimists. One says strangers are dangerous. The other says natives are dangerous. Both types of nationalist end up taking a surprisingly callous, ungenerous attitude towards suffering individuals in overseas cultures. Brandishing their exoticism and moral relativism, multicultural leftists perceive other peoples’ suffering romantically while stubbornly disavowing the virtues of progress that they themselves enjoy. We often hear Western feminists claim that ‘we should focus on our own problems’ rather than try to help women in foreign cultures. Ostensibly, this is the antithesis of self-righteousness. In truth, it is chic complacency masking chilling indifference to the other’s situation. This cavalier attitude towards clean water, personal safety, self-determination, education, and a reasonably accountable legal and political infrastructure is a luxury only we can afford. Rejecting these values to avoid appearing presumptuous is a bit like having a food fight with caviar in front of a starving crowd. If given a choice, women from patriarchal traditional cultures would much prefer Western feminists’ resources, time, experience, money, and solidarity (i.e., their privileges) over the empty ‘compliment’ of pretending that we’re not relatively better off. The irony is that intersectional feminists never cease to remind white liberal feminists of their ‘privilege’ until the minute the latter want to share it with ethnic minority women. Suddenly the narrative changes and white liberal women’s problems become equal in gravity to those of foreign women. The ‘we’ve got plenty of our own problems’ subterfuge is an elegant, if farcical, cop-out.
Instead of relying on data and statistics, xenophobes fuel attractive horror scenarios about migrants, while xenophiles “beautify” foreigners. Adamson cites the sexual assaults across Germany during New Year’s Eve 2016. When the figures had finally been established, it turned out that more than 2,000 sexual assaults and robberies had taken place, with a similar number of perpetrators, almost all of whom were men of “Arab or North African appearance”. But German Police suddenly had difficulty in reporting what had happened. The wheels of whitewash were spinning. Not many noticed that the incidents, in the Arab world, were known as Taharrush gamea, “group sexual harassment in crowds”.
Johann Herder and Counter-Enlightenment Romantics
Crucially, Adamson locates the common ideological backbone shared by these two forms of nationalism in their underlying Counter-Enlightenment worldview. The Enlightenment cherished the individual. It prized reason, open debate, intellectualism, scepticism and the virtues of aimless conversation. It defended progress and science, cherished equality, and the optimistic quest for understanding. Its scientific method rested on doubt, rather than certainty based on belief or authority.
However, the romantics of the early 19th-century Counter-Enlightenment pushed the individual aside for the benefit of group cult. They promoted emotions and passion, historical mysticism, organic collectivism, nationalism based on myths, cultural relativism and the virtues of uniqueness and difference over universalism and human commonalities. One of the most celebrated proponents of this early Counter-Enlightenment was the German philosopher Johann Herder. According to Herder, it was impossible to judge any society from the perspective of another society. Attempts to understand another culture were futile. Herder replaced understanding with an almost mystical veneration of culture for its own sake. Herder often discussed the “organic” nature of cultural entities, as though a society were a body with a thinking head and active limbs. Nowhere did he glimpse internal tensions nor recognise that cultures evolve or mutate. Herder’s notion of “belonging” described his understanding of the individual’s bond to his group and its destiny, a theme that is also crucial to positive nationalists.
Both positive nationalists and masochist nationalists oppose the liberal idea of self-determination. Two forms of culturalism result. When confronted with foreign cultures, Herder invokes a drastic image: they devour our indigenous culture “like a cancer”. From this perspective, the only cure is separation of cultures. Masochist nationalists cling to Herder’s pessimism and separatism with no less determination. Adamson cites Charles Taylor’s idea that societies must “take steps to ensure the survival of” any fragile culture or completely ring-fence them to protect them from the gruesome impact of Western modernity. Here the same romantic and collectivist rhetoric about the frail and the indigenous, and about the vile nature of foreign influence, prevails. Masochist nationalists share with positive nationalists a longing for organic wholeness unspoiled by the impact of dissent or invasion. Both are völkisch forms of culturalism. According to Patrick West, this makes Herder an early exponent of “hard multiculturalism”.
But Adamson demonstrates that the relationship between Herder and his modern nationalist offspring is not seamless. Herder’s “primitive savage who loves himself and his family” is more of a passive and forbearing conservative than a vengeful proto-fascist. Another difference between Herder and his modern Counter-Enlightenment nationalist counterparts can be found in the value he gave to self-determination not only for “us” but as a principle. He sided with the ‘everyman’ against authority and utopian aspirations. So, while his writings resonate with holistic images, they never fuse into a nation as a beast. Herder was also adamant that “empathy” with foreign cultures is crucial and that we must try to understand them “from within”. Adamson concludes that the ruthlessly collectivist, anti-humanist implications of masochist multiculturalism exceed Herder’s outlook, which contained a distinctly modernist strain despite his conservatism and his relativism. “The Negro,” says Herder, “is as much entitled to think the white man degenerate … as the white man is to think of the Negro as a black beast.” In assigning the same rights from any given cultural point of reference, Herder stands out as a Universalist and can be separated from today’s positive and masochist nationalists who from different places push the same hierarchical, self-privileging Völkisch mentality.
Adamson’s most topical chapter is titled ‘Racism’. The 1960’s civil rights movements combatted racism by criticizing all those generalisations and assumptions upon which racism ultimately rests – stereotypes, segregation, hierarchies and physiognomy. It aimed to deconstruct ethnic walls and defend the rights of the individual and critical thinking. Anti-racist politics is about principles, not about activism. If the spectre of positive nationalism is to be vanquished, its underpinnings must be dismantled. But masochist nationalists have kept them intact, merely replacing the racism of the brute bully with the racism of the gentle patron. Western academics with a soft spot for non-Western cultures begin by rejecting the idea that any race is inherently superior to others. This is outdated essentialism, we are told. At first, they seem to espouse the constructivist, plastic account of human nature that gives emphasis to our social conditions, upbringing and environment – these are what shape our ‘identity’. But, as Laurie Wastell has pointed out elsewhere, the prevalence of essentialist reasoning in woke identity politics is staggering. Writers like Delgado and Stefanic, for example, in their book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction display a remarkable awareness of the problem of essentialising people by their race, but soon the veneer comes off and we are back where we started because they substitute ‘intersectionality’ in its place, which means that everyone has potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties and allegiances. In setting up ‘intersectionality’ as the ostensible antithesis of essentialist thinking, when intersectionality is riddled with it, they manage to capture all the ground from which any counterargument could launch. In effect, intersectionality represents a co-opting of their opponent’s rebuttal, onto which they slap their own label while redescribing race in essentialising terms. Having captivated and hooked anti-racists with the ‘bait’ of actual anti-racist ideas, they then ‘switch’, replacing the defining tenets of actual anti-racism with their own essentialist jargon. This mesmerising bluff is delivered with stunning verbal fireworks that beguile impressionable people who fear looking stupid. Linguistically, CRT’s spokespersons construct an insidious dichotomy, reductively dividing society into two camps: white people and everyone else. This non-sequitur somehow follows from their previous observation that “[n]o person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity”. With mind-boggling inconsistency, intersectional feminists argue as though all members – male and female – of a particular racial subgroup have uniform experiences owing to their membership of that sub-group, while all members of a particular gender subgroup – black and white women – cannot have uniform experiences owing to their membership of that sub-group.
Skin Colour and Physiognomy
Skin colour, the emblematic aspect of racism, has been resurrected under the banner of anti-racism. A tourist leaflet produced by the German city of Koln announced: “All whites are racists.” In 2020, Black Lives Matter activists are shouting the same thing. All whites are innately disgraceful. But Adamson asks why, if self-idealization is a lie, then why not also self-hatred? And if we are all racists then why do we preoccupy ourselves with the struggle against racism? Shouldn’t racists support racism?
Adamson cites Yehudi O. Webster’s observation that, “[r]eferences to human beings as white people and black people are part of a tradition of anatomical reductionism that … belong to the blunders of a bygone biology.” The only ones who have defended ethnic belonging in terms of skin colour are the National Socialists, which does not enhance the masochist nationalist’s progressive self-image. Webster points out that “the racial inventory” used by certain critics of white supremacy smacks of the pseudoscience of Cesare Lombroso’s mid-nineteenth century physiognomy. An editorial in the leaflet distributed by the town of Koln stated, “We love human beings with different skin colour and shapes of their head.”
On one hand we have Martin Luther King, enlightened leftists and Marxists, feminists un-crippled by relativism, cautious universalists, liberals who take this label seriously – who all say colour doesn’t count; and on the other hand, we have an unholy alliance of nationalists, multiculturalists, adherents of political correctness, Islamists and intersectional feminists who all insist colour does count.
What, asks Adamson, is the difference between one form of segregation and native pride and the other? Both hold deeply conservative views and prefer the company of their own kind. Skin colour may make learning more interesting, but you cannot escape racial segregation by replacing negative stereotypes with positive ones. From the point of view of principle, it is no different if you wish to fence off whites from the lives of black people or the other way around. In both cases it is about amassing all things exotic into a cage of colourful splendour for us Westerners to marvel at – either on our high horses or in post-imperialist shame and fascination. Many advocates of Afrocentricity, like spokesperson Molefi Asante, belittle the West but are not opposed to holding academic positions there, at the heart of ‘the system’ (of systemic racism, you know, the one that supposedly excludes and demotes them).
Adamson explains how a brochure published by the Belgian Green Party describes strangers as “positive potential”. But few would label Belgians “positive potential” because we don’t know all Belgians. Opinions about animals are similar; they are about ‘dogs’ and not about a particular dog, as in, ‘I prefer dogs to cats.’ The veneration of ‘the other’ as such is not based on specific individuals. Racist implications loom large underneath the veneer of multicultural anti-racism.
Adamson also discerns neo-liberalism underpinning both forms of nationalism, especially in the manner in which exotic ethnic minorities are paraded as a carnival of disconnected images separated from any real-life context beyond glossy surface appeal. Masochist nationalism is singularly focused on the exterior; bodies, skin colour, hairstyle, clothes, jawbone, the shape of the skull – the same things that obsess the world of commercial consumerism. Adamson concludes that masochist nationalism is similarly a lifestyle and status symbol, the academic version of make-up – L’Oreal™ with a footnote.
Adamson sees the way out of this mess through classic liberal values in which nobody is a prisoner of culture, and everyone has access to the international arena of technology and progress. And if we are going to show zeal for cultures overseas then let it be based on knowledge, rather than on a combination of naïve ignorance and emotional excitement akin to religion.
Equality and meritocracy are preferable to the honour-based belief that a single person’s transgression infects his entire tribe. Even the most ardent multiculturalist already agrees that individual agency and responsibility are preferable to group stereotyping when it suits his ideology, e.g. when one Muslim commits a terrorist act, no one should blame all ‘Muslims’. Finally, let’s engage in proper arguments (the kind we might lose) rather than weaponizing sentimentality, resurrecting blasphemy laws, or throwing temper tantrums. Finally, we should follow liberal philosopher Karl Popper’s advice from The Open Society and Its Enemies by turning from “utopian social engineering” towards “piecemeal social engineering” with life on earth in mind.
T M Murray is an American author, essayist and educator. Her writing has been published at Quillette, AREO Magazine, The New Humanist, Philosophy Now, UnCommon Ground Media, Sp!ked, and many others. Books include Identity, Islam and the Twilight of Liberal Values (2018) and Thinking Straight about Being Gay: Why It Matters If We’re Born That Way (2015). Murray is a Director of Studies at Fine Arts College in London, England, where she also teaches Film Studies, Religious Education and Critical Reasoning (not critical theory!).
©2021 by T M Murray