Thursday, July 1, 2010

On Appeals to Orwell -- The -Isms on the Home Stretch

Orwell's "Notes on Nationalism" has become something of a touchstone among some folks of the Libertarian persuasion for criticizing the blind loyalties among all those people out there who have been brainwashed by the State or who have been inculcated by propaganda to believe routine falsehoods about the exceptionalism of "my side" and denunciations of the "other."

I took issue with Glenn's calling such beliefs and mindless loyalties tribalism, and challenged him to defend his lazy slur on tribal peoples and their societies and cultures. Response to the challenge made clear that it was an issue rarely thought of among the coterie of quasi-intellectuals that has assembled around Glenn.

The notion that "tribalism" = "mindless loyalty"/"mindless loyalty" = "tribalism" is one that Glenn has mindlessly put forth for years. I imagine it's something he picked up thoughtlessly at a Cato seminar years ago and he never considered that it might be inappropriate. After all, "everyone knows" that "tribalism" is less highly evolved than the "clear-thinking rationalism" of your average Libertarian intellectual. It stands to reason.

Thus using "tribalism" to denounce the political positions and mindless loyalties of others with whom you disagree isn't a slur so much as it is a recognition of the truth that the mindless loyalties of others suck. Whereas one's own highly evolved self is made of Star Stuff and Glorious, by definition. It's the classic Mud People vs the Gods. How can such obvious truth be a slur?

Besides, Orwell, in his "Notes on Nationalism" defined precisely what is wrong with other people's "tribalism" compared to his own highly evolved self -- immune as he was to the mindless loyalties and ridiculously inadequate political positions of his contemporaries.

Of course the text itself demonstrates that Orwell never addressed the issue of tribalism or tribal peoples in his "Notes on Nationalism," and what he was dealing with in this essay had nothing to do with tribalism and/or tribal peoples. It was about how various forms of nationalism -- which he defines broadly -- came to be, how they are sustained, and the damage they do.

If he had been inclined to introduce tribalism into the equation, either as a form of Nationalism or as a contrast to it, more than likely he would have done so, as -- so far as I can tell from the rest of his works -- he did not mince words or concepts. He said what he meant and meant what he said, whether he said it directly or through allegory.

And in his works, Orwell demonstrates a remarkable level of respect, if not regard, for the peoples his own British Empire and nation had been oppressing and exploiting -- with great indignity and violence -- for his entire life. Some of those peoples were most certainly of a "tribal" cultural and social orientation. And if he had wished to criticize them he would have done so.

If he wanted to compare the mindless loyalties of nationalists with typical behaviors of tribalists he would have done so, but he did not do that. Instead, his compared the mindless loyalties of one group of nationalists with those of the others and found them far more similar than different, and all just as destructive.

So, "Notes on Nationalism" ultimately fails as a defense of lazy slurs on tribalism.

I go so far as to argue that nationalism is difficult or impossible to inculcate in a tribal society, that in fact nationalism all but requires detribalization and individualization in order to be successful. One must be separated from the tribe, in other words, to become more than a casual nationalist.

But individuals, specifically individuals under stress, are easily inculcated into nationalist loyalties. Mindless nationalist loyalties.

Nationalism is a mindless substitute for mindful tribal loyalties, and it is only possible in the context of detribalization and individualization.

Nationalism was such a problem in Orwell's time that it led to the destruction of his world, the world of the "higher order" peoples of Europe, twice in his lifetime. He recognized that many "isms" were at root "nationalist" in nature, including such now-quaint-sounding "isms" as

  • Neo-toryism
  • Celtic Nationalism
  • Zionism
  • Communism
  • Political Catholicism
  • Colour Feeling
  • Class Feeling
  • Pacifism
  • Anglo-phobia
  • Anti-semitism
  • and Trotskyism.

  • Orwell was not alone in his recognition of the dangers of Nationalism; curbing nationalist tendencies and providing a peaceful outlet for nationalist rivalries was part of the justification for the establishment of the United Nations and a whole raft of regional organizations and alliances. Limiting the role of Nationalism in Europe is one of the main functions of the European Union.

    We can go on with other examples of how Nationalism has been widely -- though not completely -- suppressed since World War II through the establishment and institutionalization of all kinds of transnational political organizations that didn't exist in Orwell's time, and especially through the economic globalization that is such a feature, and a burden, of the 21st Century.

    Many "nations" were created by the break up of the great European Empires after World War II, some of them pulled together through the amalgamation of various tribal regions, and we can evaluate them as... somewhat less than successful. This was so on the one hand because nationalism was being actively suppressed in Europe and elsewhere, and on the other because tribal peoples resist being fused into larger political units. The effort to force tribal peoples into becoming nationalists often leads to civil war and genocide, much as we've seen in Africa for generations. It is not that Africans are instinctively bloodthirsty and uncivilized, it is more that so many African "nations" are artificial creations of colonial powers that have no justifiable reason to be, and the efforts from their capitals to force their disparate tribal peoples to become "nationalists" inevitably cause immense social, economic and political strains that lead to violent reactions.

    Were the tribal peoples left alone -- rather than trying to force them into rival nation states -- more than likely the endless wars and genocides of the region would cease forthwith. But the idea of leaving these uncivilized wretches alone is almost impossible to conceive among the higher orders of humanity where nation-states are natural, and the goal is to prevent nationalism from overwhelming... well, common sense.

    You see.

    I have long claimed that the "-isms" of the 19th Century are anachronisms in the modern world, and the sooner we get rid of them, the better. Zionism is a particularly insidious 19th Century "-ism" in today's world, and it is the basic cause of the constant conflicts in the Middle East. It is not tribalism, contra Glenn and others. Zionism is a form, a very twisted form, of nationalism, as Orwell clearly understood and stated in his "Notes on Nationalism."

    The expression of and the mindless support of Zionism has put the whole of humanity on the brink of annihilation. This is not tribalism, not even remotely. It is the natural outcome of mindless nationalist loyalty. Even on as tiny as scale as that of Zionist Israel -- one of the most egregious hyper-nationalist entities in the world today -- it is a dangerous and destructive delusion.

    When Zionism is quarantined and confined to a rump -- and no doubt rebellious -- fringe belief, much as totalitarian Communism or Nazism is today, then the prospects for peace in the Middle East will grow. Until then, the danger will mount, for all of us.

    Orwell's specific remedy to overweening nationalism was Democratic Socialism, a political, social, and economic system I have raised approvingly here many times, and Cuchulain2007 has very eloquently advocated and defended here and elsewhere.

    But isn't Democratic Socialism just another one of those 19th Century anachronisms? Given the submission of so many of the European Social Democrats to the prevailing Neo-Con/Neo-Liberal/Neo-Feudalism rampant in the world today, the argument can certainly be made that Democratic Socialism has become as infirm with old age and irrelevance as any other political system that came out of the ferment of the era of "-isms".

    On the other hand, I see it as the political, social and economic rationalization of something much deeper in human nature than the various other "-isms" of times gone by. Democratic Socialism is, in my view, an Enlightenment version of the tribalism that is so easily slurred and denounced by those who know nothing about it.

    If there is a future for humanity, that's where it will be found. Something I think our friend George Orwell understood very well.

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