The Enemy of the Nation
Not long before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Mikhail Gorbachev was still in power and I was an editorial writer at the Washington Times, a bunch of Soviet “journalists” came to lunch at the newspaper. At that time, I was still sufficiently in good graces with the paper’s management to be invited and to listen to the editors explain to the communists what a terrific paper the Times was. (The ostensible purpose of these “editorial lunches” was to interview whatever VIP’s would accept an invitation to the city’s “Moonie paper,” but the real purpose was to show off the Times to the guests and impress them with how mainstream we were.) The Times had the largely justified reputation of being an “anticommunist” newspaper, and one of the main things the visiting reds wanted to know was what it meant to be “anticommunist,” a term and concept that seemed to offend them deeply.
Wes Pruden, then the managing editor of the paper and the host of the luncheon, hastened to explain to them, accurately but perhaps banally, that, while the Times was certainly anticommunist, that did not mean that we were “against the Russian people.” The commies hit the lighting fixtures. The distinction between being anticommunist and being “against the Russian people” was incomprehensible to them. How could you possibly be against communism and not against the Russian people, they demanded, when it was obvious that communism was indistinguishable from the Russian people? How Mr. Pruden answered this conundrum, I do not recall.
I remembered this exchange several years later when, in the course of perusing a 1997 article by neoconservative pundits Bill Kristol and David Brooks in the Wall Street Journal, I came across their aperçu that the “national-greatness conservatism” they were espousing that week “isn’t unfriendly to government, properly understood” and their question, “How can Americans love their nation if they hate its government?” If you think about it, you will see that the latter question is exactly the one the communists asked the editors of the Times some years before. The distinction (or absence thereof) in the Kristol-Brooks question between the “nation,” on the one hand, and the “government,” on the other, is precisely that between the “Russian people” and the communism to which the Russian people were enslaved. It ought to be of considerable interest that self-proclaimed neoconservatives find the nondistinction no less incomprehensible than the communists they claim to despise.
I trust I will not be misread as suggesting that neoconservatives are really communists or somehow part of the international conspiracy that used to put fluoride in the drinking water and advocate graduated income taxes, but I am suggesting that they share more with them than either neoconservatives or communists (or paleoconservatives) perhaps know. One belief that they share is the concept of a “credal nation,” an idea that has now come to permeate the entire American right.
As far as I can tell, the idea that America is or should be a credal nation originated (on the right) with Harry Jaffa and his doctrine that Abraham Lincoln is the defining icon of the nation through his concept of equality. For Mr. Jaffa, the Declaration of Independence (or, more accurately, the sentence fragment from its second paragraph declaring that “all men are created equal”) is the original definition of the American creed, which Lincoln at Gettysburg was merely articulating. The historical and philosophical flaws in Mr. Jaffa’s views have been exposed several times, classically by the late Mel Bradford but by several other conservatives as well, so there is little reason to rehearse them here. Nevertheless, despite its flaws, this credal egalitarianism has metastasized throughout the body (or perhaps the cadaver) of the American right, and especially among neocons. It is this concept, that America is defined by a creed and the creed is egalitarianism, that puts the neocons and other egalitarian conservatives on the same wavelength as the Bolsheviki.
To be sure, “equality as a conservative principle,” as Mr. Jaffa once called one of his essays, is not the “equality of condition” that Marx and the socialist left have always drooled over. “Conservative equality,” we are invariably assured, is supposed to be “equality of opportunity” or “equality before the law.” Not the least of the problems with this distinction is that what Jefferson called the “self-evident” truth of equality always needs such extended explanations, justifications, and qualifications; if it were really self-evident, it would not. But “equality,” of course, means equality. Two plus two is equal to four, because two plus two and four are the same, and to say that Joe is equal to John means and can only mean that Joe and John are the same—not just in opportunities, rights, and legal claims but in abilities and in what their abilities gain them. It is all well and good to spout off about how committed to “equality” you are and how the nation is based on it, but, sooner or later, there will be masses of folks who insist on taking their equality neat—especially when it becomes clear that “opportunity” and the “law” are never any more equal than nature itself and that some people always wind up getting less than what they have decided, on the grounds of the egalitarianism they have been taught, their fair share ought to be.
Equality, whether as a “conservative principle” or the principle of communism that it really is, always leads to communism or something like it, no matter what “conservatives” dim enough to invoke it think they mean by it. For the same reason, it also leads to the leviathan states that both the communists and the neoconservatives adore. As Mr. Kristol and Mr. Brooks noted in their Journal article, Lincoln himself argued for a national government
whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford men an unfettered start, and a fair chance in the race of life.
It was through constructing and empowering a state powerful enough to demolish “artificial weights”—the intermediary institutions that restrain the state—that the federal megastate that now prevails in Washington came to exist at all, and it was for much the same purpose that the communist states across the globe were created. The mission of equality is what animates and justifies these monsters.
The egalitarian content of the supposed “creed” is the immediate source of tyranny; the very concept of a credal nation, however, is tyrannical. I had thought for some years that the insight that the Soviet Union was a real credal state was confined to paleoconservatives, but I was disabused of that delusion when Irving Kristol himself, in the Weekly Standard last year, acknowledged the same thing: “Large nations, whose identity is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of today,” he wrote, “inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns.” That is why, he argued, the United States should have supported Great Britain and France in World War II and should support Israel today, because, as an “ideological” nation, we “will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from nondemocratic forces.” Aside from this non sequitur, what is interesting is that Kristol lumps the Soviet Union in the same category as the United States. Most conservatives would distinguish them, and the distinction they would draw would largely revolve around the difference between an ideological regime like that of the Marxists and the conservative order that is supposed to prevail in this country.
The whole concept of a nation or state basing itself on a “creed” or “ideology” or abstract doctrine of any kind (including religion) ought to be profoundly offensive to real conservatives, since it means that the whole of the national life as well as its foreign policy must be subordinated to the implementation of the abstraction at the expense of the actual institutions and way of life that really defines the nation and its culture. A credal or ideological nation is tantamount to totalitarianism, which is why those who advocate such a regime can see no distinction, let alone any antagonism, between its state and the “people” or “nation” the state rules. In such a system, there is no distinction between state and nation. If neither Kristol père nor fils grasps this, one who does is Jean Raspail, the once-well-known author of Camp of the Saints, who, last June, published a short article in Le Figaro entitled, “The Fatherland Betrayed by the Republic.”
“The Fatherland,” of course is the nation, La Patrie, and the Republic is the government, the state—or, more precisely, the ideology or creed that animates the state. “The Republic,” M. Raspail wrote,
which is only one shape of government, is synonymous for [the French political class] with ideology, ideology with a capital “I”, the major ideology. It seems to me, to some extent, that they betray the first for the second.
In France, as indeed in this country and in most other Western societies, the state has become the enemy of the nation. This brings us to the answer as to how it is that one can love his nation and hate its government.
M. Raspail is especially concerned with the mass immigration from nonwhite, non-Christian, and non-Western cultures that the French political class has allowed to deluge his nation, to the extent that
the situation is moving irreversibly towards the final swing in 2050 which will see French stock amounting to only half the population of the country, the remainder comprising Africans, Moors and Asians of all sorts from the inexhaustible reserve of the Third World, predominantly Islamic, understood to be fundamentalist Jihadists.
It is no accident that the same neoconservatives who peddle the “credal nation” concept in this country are among the most fervent supporters of mass immigration. Indeed, this ideology is one of the most common arguments that the pro-immigration crowd invokes: How can immigration threaten our culture and identity since all immigrants need do to assimilate is to agree to the propositions of which the creed is composed? The Soviets used much the same argument in making Soviet citizenship available to anyone who espoused the Marxist-Leninist creed that defined their own ideological state.
Against the domination by ideology, M. Raspail invoked the racial unity of his nation—“France is from the outset a country of common blood.” So, for that matter, is the United States, as Jefferson, using that very phrase in his draft of the Declaration and similar terminology in the final form (“common kindred,” “consanguinity”), acknowledged, as did John Jay, in Federalist 2, where he wrote of “one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors.” In fact, every real nation is a “people of a common blood” and “descended from the same ancestors.” A nation—from the Latin word meaning “to be born”—can have no other meaning. A nation is a community defined primarily by a common blood, and it is only on the basis of a common blood that its population becomes a people—a community united by a shared language, religion, moral values, social institutions, government, and political and social beliefs (“creeds”).
In France and most of Europe even today, it remains fairly simple to defend the concept of a common blood, but in the United States it is not, in part because of the impact of mass immigration since the 19th century and, in part, because the descendants of some of those very immigrants have been the first to seek to redefine the nation in terms of creed rather than blood. That is largely why such dubious characters as Harry Jaffa, the two Kristols, and Mr. Brooks are so keen on their own credal definition and their readiness to demonize anyone who insists that there is a good bit more to being an American than the capacity to sneak across the Rio Grande and mumble the appropriate fragments of the Declaration in pidgin English. To define the nation as a people of a common blood is to establish a boundary, a border that keeps some people in and some people out. That, indeed, is its whole purpose.
Where the false and dangerous superstition of the “credal nation” ultimately leads is the destruction of the real nation and the construction of what really binds communism and neoconservatism together—what Israeli conservative historian J.L. Talmon called “democratic totalitarianism,” a concept first institutionalized in the French Revolution that really came into its own in the last century but promises to enjoy a renaissance in this century and in this country. Back when I was at the Washington Times, it looked like a concept that might be dying. Today, thanks to the triumph of neoconservatism, it thrives.
This article first appeared in the October 2004 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.