The Siren Song of Nationalism

The appointment of Steve Bannon to a White House role that has never existed before, what fun, “Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor,” hey that can’t possibly hold unknown horrors inside its remit, is a matter of grave concern. People immediately called Steve Bannon all of the things that describe what Breitbart has been spewing into the world ever since Bannon took over, which is to say anti-Semitic, racist, misogynist, Islamophobic, among many other things. Those same people demanded his removal. That suits Bannon just fine; he is a provocateur. He taunts the establishment into utter outrage and then presents himself to his audience: unkempt, edgy, intelligent, but in no way openly racist or misogynist himself. This lets him point out the hypocrisy of “the Media” (up to and including Fox News, whose hands are being bitten repeatedly by the hellhounds they whelped): “Me? I’m just a believer in Judeo-Christian capitalism. Look at how much they want to destroy you.”

When Bannon is confronted by the utter intolerance of his most cherished audience (that would be neo-Nazis), Bannon demurs and tries claiming that he is really nothing of the sort, he’s just a nationalist and I just find that so incredible. It wasn’t that long ago that Tom Brokaw had us arguing about The Greatest Generation. The signature accomplishment of that generation: the total defeat of the ugliest forms of ethnic nationalism. There is no such thing as “just a nationalist.”

In 2014, Steve Bannon gave a speech and took some questions from a group of conservative Catholics in the Vatican during a conference on poverty sponsored by the Human Dignity Institute (Buzzfeed also provided the audio, if you’re really feeling it). There’s a lot of utter b.s. in that address and several egregious evasions of pointed questions (I read it twice, because I am an idiot, so I was angry several times over). But this one passage, which just HAAAAD to be way at the end, blows the roof off of my doors:

“I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing. I think strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors, and that is really the building blocks that built Western Europe and the United States, and I think it’s what can see us forward.”

That does not seem like something a racist would say, right? That sounds completely reasonable. Bannon is so dangerous because that paragraph isn’t just unreasonable, it’s the complete rejection of every lesson the world tried to learn when it first started to brush the ashes of World War II off of itself. Ironically, this is a bizarro version of history even as Bannon himself frames it. Bannon opens his remarks with meditations on the profound brutality of the 20th century, caused by nationalism, and then frames the post World War II restoration as a success of Judeo-Christian tenets and values and Judeo-Christian capitalism in opposition to the atheism and the Far East (such comforting keywords — “what anti-Semite would use the phrase Judeo-Christian? I’m a Judeo-Christian and I’m not an anti-Semite . . .” ). It’s hard to reconcile these two viewpoints intellectually, let alone that they were both spoken aloud within a one hour period, but hey, propaganda will do that to you. In actuality, of course, nationalists make terrible neighbors, especially irredentist ethnic-nationalists. History has rarely been neat enough to draw the correct boundaries for nation-states (history is sloppy like that). The Balkan states have been cantankerous about their own ethnic nationalism since ethnic nationalism was born in the late 19th century. The score card for Serbian nationalism since the 1880s, for example, is two Balkan wars in close succession, years of oppression and ethnic cleansing, the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, World War I, two brutal counter wars within World War II, the dissolution of Yugoslavia, MORE ethnic cleansing, often in neighboring states because why not, and the re-introduction of the Slavic heritage trip wire only this time with nukes. Nationalism is a blasting cap that blows combustible states into smithereens. There is a really good reason why pacifism is built into the Japanese constitution: militant nationalism almost destroyed Japan and wiped them off the face of the earth (Japan remains the only nation on earth to have been on the receiving end of nuclear weapons). Europe developed the mechanisms that became the European Economic Community and eventually the EU precisely to prevent nationalism from causing the continent to descend into bloody chaos ever again. I do not feel better because Steve Bannon said he was a nationalist, instead of a neo-Nazi, I feel quite a bit worse. We have decades of reflexes built in to help us, even us Americans, associate Nazis with bad things, but we did not develop similar reflexes for the kind of nationalism that makes Nazis possible.

What is truly extraordinary about “American nationalism” is that it is a complete rejection of the founding facts and principles of the United States of America. The very definition of America is centered on ideas and not ancient blood ties to specific places. America is literally a nation of immigrants (aggressive, blood-thirsty, and disease ridden ones, to be sure, but still). The United States has attracted migrants from across the world because it is supposed to be (and is, at its best) a place where your blood and your place of birth do not determine your destiny. Albert Einstein came here and performed work that helped save the world, at least for awhile. Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian immigrant and where would you be without his company’s products? Alexander Hamilton was from the West Indies but he saw the future of America and finance more clearly than anyone for multiple generations. The idea of America was supposed to be part of the cure for the sicknesses of the old world, the ones that metastasized, to use one of Steve Bannon’s favorite words, into wars that consumed the entire world.

Metastasized is also one of Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s favorite words. He had cancer himself, so he came by it quite a bit more honestly than Bannon. Solzhenitsyn used the word to describe how the internment system at the founding of the Soviet Union became a cancer that consumed its internal organs in the Gulag Archipelago. The cancer in America right now is not the crony capitalism of the industrialists and the bankers and the lawyers that Bannon wants Middle America to think it is. The cancer is the belief that America is inherently better than other countries simply for being “American,” especially given that Bannon’s definition of “American” is very very white and explicitly Judeo-Christian. Ooh, remember Ann Coulter’s insane tweet, the one that ignored the heritage of the people brutally imported to this country as economic objects? That’s Bannon’s “America.” That cancer, the one Steve Bannon is acculturating in his Breitbart petri dish, could cause a madness that ends the world as we know it. But to Steve Bannon, it’s totally acceptable to cop to such nationalism in public and that’s a problem we need to fix ASAP.

Nationalism is dangerous because it is a comfort in unsettling times to believe that your nation’s glorious sovereignty is just around the corner and that all of your fears can be soothed by the complete destruction of your hated enemies. This appeals to human beings on a fundamental level; all societies have been guilty of this type of thinking in every corner of the world. And it is absolutely terrifying that we are here, where the least worst case scenario is that the man behind the man is “just a nationalist,” the exact kind of score-settling, zero-sum game lunatics who set the match to a world ready to burn on multiple occasions throughout history.

Propaganda functions by activating emotional centers in your brain which entirely bypass other processes. To counter such emotion, you don’t just need the truth, you need a counter-vision, you need another story to tell, one that appeals to way more people than the dark song the (white neo-Nazi) nationalists are singing, regardless, indeed in spite, of whoever is President. I believe that American ideals and the progressive fulfillment of them is a potent enough story that we can come back from the brink, if we work at it. The original American dream was a glorious vision of what could be, of freedom and justice, that we were, until very recently, busy making ever more true. That dream does not exclude Middle America, despite what have been told over and over again by Bannon et al, their worst fears raised with the care we usually reserve for childrearing. Steve Bannon believes that “the elites” in the cities don’t speak the same language as the suburbs. For him, the disconnect is near total, but Bannon lives in a world of black and white extremes that is a cartoon version of reality. We can do better.

I am not the guy who’s going to sing the song of glory that brings us into the light again, but I will trumpet it (ok, tweet it) when I discover it. I am the guy who can help you with facts and reason and a reminder not to get caught up in outrage and to very calmly collect the stories of hate crimes, prosecute them, and carefully, carefully build your case against those in power making those crimes possible. I am the guy who reminds you that there is no one magic spell to cast that will restore the light. And I am one of the many of people telling you that we are going to have to walk through the darkness and we are going to have to fight in order to become our best selves. It’s business time for the original American dream. I’m going to take as many shifts as I can and I hope that you will do the same.