The case for coherence: Conservatism and the fallacy of Nationalism

I think most of us agree that ideas have consequences and false ideas are less troubling than treacherous ones. While the former are easier to repel with stiff foresight and page after page of classic readings, the latter appeal to our worst side, to the diabolic imagination „which delights in the perverse and subhuman”, as Russell Kirk would describe it.

Let’s stay on guard because nowadays the proliferation of shady ideas and deceptive apostles has reached a level never before known in history. Yes, it is true that modern means of communication make it easier for everyone, friend or foe, to disperse any kind of message. It is also true that modern men, especially in Europe or America, tend to yearn for straightforward ideas, for effortless narratives, for wheedling palliatives. We cannot oppose the trend, but we can become part of the trend. How? For sure not mingling prophetic declamations with alarmist stories about a secret apocalypse that is delivered to us by some sort of unrevealed fellowship.

My point is that we need to stick to our shared virtues and core values that erected the conservative tradition. Otherwise, the expression of the message becomes the message. We need to be coherent with our great human literature and with our conservative predecessors which knew that nihil sub sole novum, there is nothing new under the sun. Again, as Russell Kirk had apprised us, „men cannot improve a society by setting fire to it: they must seek out its old virtues, and bring them back into the light”.

Let’s start with the meaning of conservatism; from my understanding, conservatism is the predisposition to search for ordered wisdom while holding on to the accumulated lessons received from previous generations. It is about a practice old as mankind: trial, error and validation. Conservatism is grounded in historical knowledge, acommodating both sentiment and reason while insisting that each should be confined to historical experience, in a form of prescriptive judgement. If we dismiss the benefit of historical experience and proceed with our own march, it is quite possible to be led astray by a sort of ignus fatuus, a ghost ship with mere illusions, perceiving reality through a shady lit mirror and eventually reaching a brink where we have forgotten what humanity looks like, pleased with no more than a shadow of the imago Dei.

Conservatism is not about sheltering a party agenda, but about cultivating a cast of mind; conservatism is about the right balance between liberty and order, about the equilibrium between individual need of personality and the imperatives of social life, about the dignity of personhood, inheritated manners, established institutions and equal justice.

Putting two and two together, we should arrive at the conclusion, along with Russell Kirk, that „uniformity and absolute equality are the death of all real vigor and freedom in existence. Conservatives resist with impartial strength the uniformity of a tyrant or an oligarchy, and the uniformity of what Tocqueville called democratic despotism”.

Being conservative means that one cannot and will not accept uniformity. As my Romanian countryman Ion Rațiu once said: „I will fight till my last drop of blood so you have the right to disagree with me”. Off course, it is about variety of thought and lifestyle while staying true to our human nature and reality. We know that every utopia is the antechamber of ideology and despotism.

One such utopia is that of a pure and unhampered trib. I have in mind the perennial nation and the due ideology, nationalism. Conservatives do stick to their community, so they value the idea of nation. Still, it is not the timeless nation but the etnosymbolist one; it is an idea of nation based on shared symbols, conventions, values and customs by a certain group of people with a common memory and in a limitated area.

One of the dangers regarding our core vision of society is to equate nationalism and conservatism, or even including the former under the umbrella of the latter.

Let’s be clear on something: nationalism was a product of the French revolution, while consevatism is an answer to the revolutionary excesses. It was Sieyès that used the word „nation” as synonim for the state in a way that made indivisible the unity and togetherness of the political body. His writings are largely responsible for empowering Rousseau’s concept of „general will”, pairing it with a concept of nation fashioned in a new way. His vision was one of a levelled French population with no particular traits from North to South and West to East, under the lead of a central government and with a blind faith in an uncontested national character.

In other words, we are confronted with the first collectivistic paradigm in history. Yes, and I insist, nationalism is just another herd ideology where the enthusiastic „nostrism” is no more or less than an enemy of personal liberty. Identity politics, either we talk about race, class or lgbt-ism has a collectivistic nature. Identity politics simply doesn’t admit competing or alternative views, state of mind which, sooner or later, leads to fanaticism, sectarianism and dogmatism.

As any other ideology would do, nationalism appeals to an inverted religious sense to promise heaven on earth for the ideological believers. It is in a competition with other ideologies to immanentize the eschaton by adapting to our modern tendency of searching salvation in an earthly political and social order. We see here, again, the danger of comfortless narratives. But it was like this from the beginning of nationalism, as any respectful historian of ideas will tell you. This characteristic, together with a few others that I will soon list, are sufficient to equate nationalism with a political gnosis.

Thanks to the work of Eric Voegelin we know that a gnostic person is dissatisfied with his situation. So do I, I would like more money and knowledge (sic)! A gnostic also believes that the drawbacks of the worldly situation can be attributed to the ill organization of society, so the human order needs to be changed in an historical process; and, I quote Voegelin, „we recognize the construction of a formula for self and world salvation, as well as the gnostic’s readiness to come forward as a prohet who will proclaim his knowledge about the salvation of mankind”.

In order to reach his goal, the nationalist gnostic will create symbols to make clear for everyone the advent of earthly salvation: the traits of his nation, the so-called national character; the embodiment of a nation through state, the nation-state; the officialization of language through standardization, so the choking of dialects, vernaculars and even other languages; last but not least, the creation of an aristocracy of function, the bureaucracy.

It is true that the idea of nation cleared the way for a lot of agony, but it was also an obstacle to civil war. Conservatives admit that a sense of identity with an established social order is needed; only recognizing the bright side of the concept of nation we can reach the indispensable bond of a civil society. Conservatives also believe that the nation is the best form of modern community that steadily supported the person’s need for familiarity as opposed to unkwnon or uncertain. Nation is not an end in itself, but a means which helps putting together the personal and the communal. For conservatives nation comes before nationalism, the latter being just an overeaction to uncertainity. Because conservatives accept that chance is a part of life, and an important one, they do not complain to much about uncertainity or, in other words, they don’t transform fear into a social force. Conservatives know that personal identity is only a matter of choice to a small extent, the accidental element being the one that pushes from behind until the person acquires certain habits, gets accustomed to familiarities, and forms loyalties.

Nationalists try to shape a society where fear is removed by making a rule out of likeness and by multiplying a type of citizen considered to be some sort of ancestral prototype of modern national man. That is why they tend to overstate government power, public interventions, and centralization. On the other hand, conservatives acknowledge the need for restraints upon power and upon human passions. The government or any other central agency needs to be balanced by parliamentary entitlement and rule of law. „Nevertheless, as Russell Kirk told us, men and women are tempted to overthrow the limitations upon power, for the sake of some fancied temporary advantage”. Hence, a proper government perpetuates a gentle tension between the claims of authority and those of liberty.

I understand that a conservative political project needs to persuade a broader electorate, needs to obtain some sort of consensus, but not at any costs. We cannot ignite establised society hoping for a better future. We need to work with our fellow man hoping to reform whatever exists nowdays by taking into consideration that human imperfection will allways slow us down. A reasonable person will expect to live in a society in which some wrongful deeds and sufferings will continue to sidle. Why? Because if perfection could be grasped, we would be deities and not mortal beings. But we are what we are and we should know better than to try to reach for the forbidden fruit, we should be aware that some fruits are out our hands. A man and a woman once ate a forbidden fruit and it didn’t turn quite well.

The bigger the fallacy, the more secluded the dreams and the darker the future!

(Remus Tanasă, an adaptation after my public lecture from 4th of November 2022, BucharestThe Case for coherence: Conservatism between consensus and confusion)

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