Lazy Thinking: Problems of Exceptionalism and the Threat of Nationalism

Western tradition gets upheld as a lone bastion of freedom, the shining city on a hill. To make that story plausible, we can argue that, among other things, Western countries uphold conceptions of nationalism that center around individual rights and intermediate institutions which preserved freedom and community.

That story falters, however, when we treat the horrors of Western history as if they were based in foreign ideas or ideas antithetical to the West.* Culture, institutions, and historical developments have succeeded in allowing individuals to cultivate freedom and thrive in Western countries in significantly unique ways. Yet, not for everyone. Slavery, legalized discrimination against minorities, colonialism, horrifically repressive regimes, and Nazis were as firmly established in some instances as John Locke and capitalism. Can something that lasted decades or centuries in the West be dismissed as aberrations? Or does that explanation seem akin to “true communism has never been tried?”

Is it more appropriate to say that Western tradition is exceptional, or that something within the development of the West was unique in limiting the expansive power of the State and society over individuals? Not always successful, and fraught with problems, but relevant enough for an intellectual tradition to be discovered. The latter can be defended, but the former demands us to jettison its nationalistic undertones, and implicitly acknowledges the complexities of nationalism that drives societies for good or ill.

Nationalism becomes insulting when we imagine countries outside the West have something unique in their history where they crave authoritarian leaders or oppose individual freedoms, whereas we cultivate admirable men. As if Western history isn’t littered with cravens and rapscallions.

As John Gallagher notes in Romania After Ceausescu, leaders such as Milosevic and Ceausescu used nationalism in ways that “denied individualism and disempowered intermediate institutions designed to set curbs on what the state could do to its citizens.” They reduced the multitudes contained in a person so that “Citizens hitherto defined by jobs, education, character and ideas, as well as nationality, were increasingly reduced to one dimension as the climate of insecurity turned nationalism into a state religion.” The all-encompassing potential for abuse within nationalism can redefine and control a people with brutal, overt methods, or in a creeping, inconspicuous manner.

The Balkan countries hold a bad reputation for nationalism, but is it something inherent in their cultures, or does it develop from a similar vein in the United States when we hear “America: Love It or Leave It!”? Nationalism is “barbarity in the Balkans,” but somehow, it’s “defending freedom” when a drone strike hits its target in Pakistan. That cognitive dissonance stems from ignorance of the region, but a more nuanced understanding of nationalism’s function would help us see the log in our collective eye instead of fretting about the speck in a distant country.

Geographic and historical circumstances can make the preservation of freedom appear random; undoubtedly, American isolation from the United Kingdom helped avoid a fate similar to Ireland. Just as, in Romania, “the communist era robbed local communities of whatever means they had previously enjoyed to determine their own affairs,” which profoundly affected the post-communist transition.† When communities and cultures cannot continue methods and processes previously thrived upon, they become vulnerable to predatory neighbors or governments.

Rousseau and Marx are as much a part of Western history as were Locke, Hume, and Smith. Dismissing them as bogeymen provides a false sense of assurance in Western thought, leaving us weaker to face problems, foreign and domestic. The problems we face with Western exceptionalism are problems we face with nationalism: an elevated country or people who avoided the pitfalls of history and will continue to elude danger. Lest we forget, there but for the grace of God, go we.

*Part of that problem, in some circles, comes from treating “Western tradition” as synonymous with “classical liberalism.”

†Gallagher again: “Communities which for centuries devised informal strategies to cope with ethnic group differences and regulate conflict were often powerless to stop ethnocentric elites splitting them up into rival groups and forcing them to take sides in disputes which did not really affect their own interests … unaccountable communist elites acquired skill in manipulating ordinary citizens, techniques which they employed in the post-communist era especially if a power vacuum ensued.”