The Virtue of Nationalism
By Yoram Hazony
Basic Books, 304 pages, $18.99
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a surge of patriotism ran through me. I was, however, a junior professor teaching at Princeton University. National pride struck most of my colleagues as a crude emotion. With a healthy interest in career advancement, I kept my feelings to myself. If I entertained thoughts of reversing this policy, a cautionary tale I heard from a student banished them. Flush with patriotic feeling, he had volunteered to help organize a memorial service in honor of the victims of 9/11. The members of the planning committee took it for granted that the ceremony would feature patriotic speeches on a stage festooned with American flags. The senior leaders of the university, however, had other ideas. Upon reviewing the plans, they ordered that the patriotic displays be all but removed from the program. The terrorists, they explained, had attacked universal human values, not simply the United States of America.
Discomfort with nationalism had been growing at Princeton for decades—and not just there, but at all elite educational institutions. In 1996, the university changed its unofficial motto from “Princeton in the Nation’s Service” to “Princeton in the Nation’s Service and in the Service of All Nations.” But this dilution did not fully satisfy the critics, because it still focused on nations. The university changed the motto yet again, in 2016, in direct response to a suggestion from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. To demonstrate Princeton’s “commitment to diversity and inclusivity,” the motto now became “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity.”
Thus, back in 2001, when the university leaders stripped the 9/11 memorial ceremony of patriotic expression, they were consciously advancing an ideology that codes patriotism as chauvinism and bigotry. They feared, no doubt, that the event would devolve into the kind of spectacle they had just witnessed when President George W. Bush visited Ground Zero. Standing on the rubble days after the attacks, surrounded by rescue workers, an American flag fluttering behind him, he raised a bullhorn to his mouth. “I can hear you!” he told the crowd. “The rest of the world hears you! And the people . . . who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” The rescue workers cheered wildly and broke into a chant, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
There was a time, not that many years ago, when Princeton administrators did not recoil from such sentiments. Proof of that fact stands in Café Vivian, the coffee shop in the center of campus. On a brick pillar near the cash register, some ten feet up, there hangs an enlarged copy of the telegram that Princeton President Harold W. Dodds sent Franklin Delano Roosevelt the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 8, 1941:
Mr. President, Princeton University pledges itself unqualifyingly to support the President and the Government of the United States, and places at your disposal all of its resources in the present emergency. The university is taking steps to intensify the training, which it is already providing, to equip students for more effective national service.
How many times did I read that telegram and chuckle! While waiting to purchase my coffee, I would amuse myself by imagining the reaction on campus if Shirley Tilghman, Princeton’s president on 9/11, had made a similar offer to President Bush. Would the faculty not have gagged on the affront to “diversity and inclusivity”?
Shortly after 9/11, my personal affairs took me repeatedly to nearby Hamilton Square, New Jersey, a working-class hamlet about fifteen miles from Princeton. Fifteen miles and a world away. Hamilton’s reaction to 9/11 was unselfconscious. American flags were everywhere on display: on pick-up trucks, porches, and shop windows. I would linger at a local pizza joint, soaking up the atmosphere, which took me back to the Indiana of my youth. In Princeton, I was suffocating. In Hamilton, I could breathe.
In the intervening seventeen years, the gap between the Princetons of America and the Hamilton Squares has only grown larger, as the controversy over the practice of taking the knee during the national anthem proves. For the last three years, President Trump has deftly exploited this gap. The vast majority of intellectuals have sided against him, but a small group, growing in number, argues that popular nationalism is not bigoted, and our elite’s hostility to it is harmful.
At the forefront is Yoram Hazony, an Israeli-American philosopher. From his perch in Jerusalem, where he is insulated from the social pressure to conform to the anti-nationalist norms among intellectuals, he has been watching the transformation of American and Western attitudes with trepidation. With the express goal of reversing the tide, he has written a compelling and original book, The Virtue of Nationalism. It already appears to be having a direct impact on political discourse. At a rally in Houston on October 22, Trump said, “They have a word, it sort of became old-fashioned. It’s called a nationalist. I say, really? We are not supposed to use that word? You know what I am? I am a nationalist. Nationalist. Use that word. Use that word.” The crowd responded with a U.S.A. chant.
Where does the hostility to nationalism originate? Hazony’s most spirited passages take aim at the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke and the classical liberal understanding of the social contract—the idea that individuals, in a state of nature, are free and equal. They come together voluntarily and form governments in order to safeguard their liberty, safety, and prosperity. In Hazony’s view, Locke “offers a rationalist view of human political life that has abstracted away every bond that ties human beings to one another other than consent.” In this consent-based universe, “the individual becomes a member of a human collective only because he has agreed to it, and has obligations . . . only if he has accepted them.” In short, Locke formulated the simultaneously individualist and universalist creed now dominant in the West.
Hazony rejects this radical individualism on empirical grounds: Locke’s state of nature never existed. We humans are never the free and autonomous agents of his imagination. We are born without our consent, and before we are fully cognizant of our choices, we accept profound obligations. We do not choose our mothers, fathers, and siblings, and yet our bonds of loyalty to them are deeper than any others. Similarly, we form powerful and enduring attachments to our clans and communities. From childhood, we also develop profound attachments to the traditions of our nation. The claim that this loyalty is contractual, based on the idea that it protects our property and our person, is false on its face.
And yet our elites have come to see this Lockean “dream-world” as the essence of reality. “One need only ask a thoughtful person trained in the fields of politics or economics or law,” Hazony observes, “to mount a defense of the institution of the national state, or of the family, or of public recognition of God’s kingship, to immediately see how unfamiliar these things have become, and how foreign they are to the terms in which members of our elites are accustomed to conceptualizing the world.” Powerful elements across the Western world are now making law, social policy, and even foreign policy based on the idea that the nation is an oppressive force, an obstacle to individual freedom and safety.
As contractual obligations supplant national traditions, politics is reconceived as the management of impartial, legal processes. This trend is especially pronounced among the members of the European Union, who are involved in creating a supranational state that increasingly usurps the prerogatives of the nation-state. Elites across Europe have grown increasingly hostile to nationalism, which they now regard as the primary cause of Europe’s catastrophic wars of the twentieth century. On both sides of the Atlantic, globalized economies, multinational corporations, and international institutions all instill in elites the belief that laws designed to strengthen the nation are, if not bigoted, certainly outmoded and highly restrictive of human freedom.
Hazony argues that this critique of nationalism is grounded in a false history. The very virtues that transnationalism arrogates to itself rightfully belong to nationalism. The Western traditions of personal freedom and open elections, for example, depend on the notion of limited government, which is impossible to imagine except in the context of a national community. In a nation-state, citizens obey the law, pay taxes, and serve in the armed forces, even when their party is out of power, because they share with their political rivals loyalty to a shared identity—to traditions and institutions that transcend mere political difference. Such attitudes are nonexistent in polities that cobble together diverse communities. In countries such as Syria and Iraq, for example, brute force is the only thing holding the state together. In such cases, the removal of state repression does not bring freedom, only disintegration and civil war.
The nationalist idea came to the West, Hazony argues, through the Bible—through, more specifically, the example of the Ancient Israelites’ efforts to safeguard their kingdom from the empires of Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, and Persia. For most of its history, the West, under the tutelage of the Church in Rome, understood empire to be the basis of legitimate political order. With the advent of Protestantism, however, the example of the Israelites took on a new immediacy. The peoples of early modern Europe began to view political order through the lens of Israelite nationalism. Unfortunately, the rise and eventual dominance of Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke have cut Europeans off from this salubrious tradition and once again resurrected empire as a primary source of political legitimacy.
Hazony, then, is proposing a three-stage theory of history: Catholic, Protestant, and Liberal. The first and the third stages are imperial by nature, but sandwiched between them is what he calls the “Protestant Construction of the West.” This is the golden age of biblically-inspired political thought. Hazony’s theory invites us to cast off Locke’s “dream-world” and to reconnect directly with the sound ways of our forefathers, whose nationalism drew its vitality directly from Scripture.
Beneath the surface, there lurks here a religious theme—and a very old one at that. The contemporary world, Hazony suggests, is worshiping the golden calf. We must reject it and turn back to true belief. This theme is old as the Bible itself, but it’s easy to miss in The Virtue of Nationalism, because religious thinkers more typically equate nationalism with idolatry than with right belief. Moreover, Hazony couches his argument in largely utilitarian terms. The biblical conception of the nation, he argues, is better attuned to the realities of the human condition than Enlightenment thinking. It simply produces the best practical results—for the individual as well as for the nation.
The argument is bold and intellectually stimulating, but Hazony’s efforts to ground it historically fall flat. Three questions help to explain why.
First: Just how Protestant was the “Protestant Construction”? The Reformation certainly helped to spread nationalism, but the prototypical nation-states, France and Britain, arose without the assistance of Protestant scripturalism. In France, Protestantism never gained ascendancy.
As for developments across the channel, historians are divided over when England became a nation-state. But the main events in the story are clear enough—and they all predate the Reformation. First Bede the Venerable, who died in 735, wrote Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The nation did not yet exist, but the idea of it was born. Then came King Alfred the Great, who successfully defeated the Viking king Guthrum in 878. Fashioning himself King of all Anglo-Saxons, Alfred fostered education in the English language, foregoing Latin. In 1066 the Normans, from their base in northern France, conquered England. Thereafter, the English landowners, with increasing resentment, supported through their taxes absentee kings pursuing power on the continent. The frustrations of the landowners produced the Magna Carta, by which rebel barons forced King John, in 1215, to recognize their rights. Parliamentary government did not yet exist, but its seed was planted. Shortly thereafter, in 1258, another set of barons revolted against King Henry III, justifying their grievances on the Magna Carta. But they also appealed directly to the pope, saying “a prince owes all his duty to God, very much to his country [patria], much to his family and neighbours, and nothing whatsoever to aliens.”
The barons of the thirteenth century sought to make England great again and to close its borders—and they tried to enlist the pope in their efforts. In other words, no later than 1258, the English nation-state was an established fact in European political life. That’s 259 years before Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Both the French and English nation-states crystallized under the umbrella of the Catholic Church.
Second: How “nationalist” was the era of the Protestant Construction? Hazony makes much of the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which some scholars credit with establishing the modern state system and articulating the concept of territorial sovereignty—thus paving the way for national self-determination. While the Peace certainly created an international framework conducive to nationalism, there was nothing explicitly nationalist about it. Westphalia was a compromise between Catholicism and Protestantism; its terms protected the integrity of territorial states, regardless of their internal configuration. Typically, historians date the heyday of nationalism much later—in the nineteenth century, which witnessed the Italian and German unifications. Hazony must reject the conventional wisdom, however, because it makes nationalism largely a modern phenomenon—a post-Enlightenment phenomenon. The standard periodization returns John Locke to center stage and it threatens Hazony’s most cherished notion: that the Bible is the font of European nationalism.
Third: What are the origins of the Western tradition of human rights? Hazony finds it exclusively in the Bible—“rooted,” he writes, “in the constitution of Moses.” Rooted, yes, but one scours the book of Deuteronomy in vain for discussions of three branches of government, checks and balances, and constitutional restraints on the executive. These are primarily Enlightenment ideas—though more grounded in religion than they appear to be to today’s college students, instructed as they are by secular Progressive professors. Hazony would be on stronger ground if he were to advocate reading Locke in the religious and political context of the philosopher’s time. Instead, he implies that the entire Enlightenment is a noxious accretion on the sacred tradition.
Hazony is persuasive when he argues that the protections of the rights of the individual sprouted in the soil of the nation-state and are best preserved in that context. He exaggerates, however, when he claims that nationalism is inherently respectful of those rights. We have before us more than a few examples of illiberal and chauvinistic nationalism—Nazism being the most obvious. Hazony, however, defines this problem away. Nazism, he asserts, is not nationalism; it is a form of imperialism. This is a dodge. The maneuver allows him to skirt the challenge of illiberal nationalism, but at a cost, forcing him into a tautology: The greatest virtue of nationalism is that it is inherently virtuous.
The greatest virtue of Hazony’s book is also its vice. It is nothing if not certain. It presents the world in terms of sharp binaries—nationalism versus imperialism; Enlightenment versus Bible—that admit of no gray zones. In essence, it is a polemic, though a very good one, to be sure. It places the faults of the anti-nationalist ethos under klieg lights and arms the reader with weapons to begin combatting it. Hazony’s clarity and forcefulness, to say nothing of his intelligence, explain why the book is having an immediate and significant political impact. But as we move past the first definition of the problem and begin to think about the nature of the long-term challenge of sustaining the virtues of a strong, cohesive nation (a challenge both political and intellectual), The Virtue of Nationalism sends us on a mission impossible.
While its call for a return to tradition will certainly resonate with conservative readers, its agenda is radical, not conservative. The imagination that generated this engaging book is not primarily philosophical or historical; it is religious. More specifically, it is an imagination shaped by Judaism. The Jewish people, unique among the nations, were born from a book that tells of their sacred covenant. Hazony seeks to universalize this experience—to fit the nations of the West into the same mold. Because the post-Christian West has erased much of its religious memory, Hazony’s effort generates startling insights and exciting discoveries. In the final analysis, however, the biblical template is a comfortable fit for only one nation. Hazony’s ideas, taken to their logical conclusion, invite us to scrap Enlightenment thought and reconnect with a golden age of biblically-based nationalism that never really existed in the West. His “Protestant Construction” is as much a dreamworld as Locke’s social contract.
A return to the ideas of early modern Europe will not solve our current dilemmas—and is an unrealizable ambition anyway. We need to focus instead on a more obtainable goal: recalibrating from Lockean universalism back toward nationalist particularism and religious belief. This may mean nothing more than creating an elite culture that nurtures a healthy respect for Christian belief and patriotism. If Harvard, Princeton, and Yale—all of which began as seminaries—were simply to instill an awareness of the religious roots of their “commitment to diversity and inclusivity,” we would live in a much healthier and more cohesive society. And it would be healthier still if elite institutions like Princeton could once again join unselfconsciously in the popular, patriotic displays of places like Hamilton Square.
We need not turn the clock back centuries. We need only return to the reflexive patriotism that girded leaders such as Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. Living Americans still remember those presidents—and the nationalism that guided them still resides in popular culture. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Convincing Princeton to anchor itself once again to Hamilton Square would alone be a monumental mission, but not an impossible one.