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America the Abstraction

The neoconservative attempt to package the American ideal for export foments chaos abroad.

I will never forget the night I was called “un-American.” I sat at a bachelor friend’s birthday party, which he had thrown for himself, with several six packs of industrial-grade beer and a foil tray of take-out lasagna. A grim affair. But this was no ordinary night in Staten Island. Two of the guests were regular editorial writers for the Wall Street Journal. One, a brilliant young import from Eastern Europe, brought up the question of immigration. (He had heard that I hold unorthodox views.) Like his colleague, he supports the Journal’s proposed constitutional amendment: “There shall be open borders,” and he wanted to know if I agreed.

So I explained that I thought the U.S. needed to accept reduced numbers of immigrants for a decade at least to encourage those who are already here to assimilate, as my grandparents had, and to reduce the downward pressure on the wages of the working poor. It is hard for people to leave the welfare rolls, I suggested, when they face an onslaught of competition for low-skill jobs from legal and illegal immigrants.

He snorted. His native-born colleague smirked. Then they took turns explaining to me how superior Latino and Asian immigrants are to native-born American poor folk, especially blacks. They did not shrink from mentioning IQ, but their main focus was on the “mentality” of people who grew up inside the welfare system compared to that of recent arrivals from the developing world. They freely cracked jokes about the “shiftlessness” and resentful attitudes they had encountered with black Americans contrasted to the earnest, dutiful, eager-to-please behavior of domestic servants, busboys, and cooks from Latin America. As if to expiate the apparent racism of what they had said, they assured me that they also cherished Jamaican nannies and Haitian fruit-vendors, whose attitudes were ever so much more “co-operative” than the sullen, unionized minorities they found working at the Post Office.

“Even if all that were true,” I said carefully, “we can’t just leave people on the welfare rolls to rot.” How, I asked, do you re-introduce the work ethic in sectors of society where it has been lost, while supporting an immigration policy that pushes wages so low that they barely exceed welfare benefits? What will happen to those native-born Americans?”

They shrugged. The question did not interest them. They knew they would never live anywhere near “those people,” so what did it matter?

And then the émigré leaned forward, brow knitted, to confide a new insight. “They’re not real Americans,” he said in a thick Slavic accent. The people who show up wanting to work, who aren’t afraid of 12 hour days, who set up shops in Chinatown and put their whole families to work from childhood on—people who put their faith in capitalism, those were the real Americans. “Not those resentful parasites. Just because they happen to live here, that doesn’t make them Americans.”

I inquired, “So what does?”

He went on to explain that what makes someone an American, regardless of where he lives, is a belief in the unfettered free market, a support for secularism and mass democracy, and an optimistic faith in the future.

“I don’t accept all those things,” I said. “For one thing, as a Catholic …”

“Then you’re not a real American,” he finished.

That took me aback. I almost let it pass, let him natter on with his friend, to consider the argument won—as I am sure happens all the time to this sort of person, reinforcing his sense that he is infallible. But I have too much Irish blood in me for that.

“I was born here, pal,” I said through clenched teeth. “My father served under Patton, along with the fathers and grandfathers of plenty of those ‘resentful parasites.’ Didn’t that service earn their descendants a special stake in America?” I resisted the urge to bring up what I knew of this fellow’s background—how his grandfather helped Stalin implement the Ukrainian famine. “How about all the free labor their ancestors put in as slaves?”

The elder editorialist gave a chortle. “Oh, so I guess you’re in favor of reparations, too? Al Sharpton, call your office!”

I shook my head, realizing at last why so many people hate self-styled “conservatives.” I went on: “Don’t you think being born here, and loving the place and the people, along with the system of government, means something?”

“Where you’re born,” the ex-Soviet said, batting the air as if at a misconceived chess move, “it’s so arbitrary. It’s of no ideological significance.”

In a way, he was right. If you are trying to boil down citizenship to its philosophically respectable components, and if ideology is all you are interested in, then it does not really matter where you were born. Or who your parents were. Or whom you love. Or the hymns you know by heart, the folk tales you treasure, the God you worship. None of these merely human matters measures up, ideologically speaking. None of them can be enshrined in a manifesto, or beamed across the world via Voice of America, or exported in music videos. They do not raise the GDP, or lower the interest rate, or increase our command of oil reserves. They cannot be harnessed to drive the engine of globalization. Therefore, to some people, these things do not matter. Such pieties can be harnessed in the run-up to a war, can form part of the Army recruitment ads and propaganda campaigns, and may even find their way into presidential speeches. But essentially there is no difference between a fourth-generation American and an Afghan refugee who just landed at JFK—so long as they both accept the same ideology.

How did we get to this pass? How did conservatism, which once centered on the fierce defense of tradition, religion, and particularism, turn into an ideology—that is, a philosophy in arms, a political system shorn of its ties to real people and places, slimmed down by dropping historical baggage, packaged for export on the global market of ideas? The simple answer is the Cold War. With the end of World War II, the U.S. faced for the first time since 1812 a foreign enemy that could actually strike its shores, damage its cities, devastate its infrastructure. What’s more, we faced not just a foreign enemy, pursuing global domination at our expense and that of our allies, but something unprecedented at home: a political philosophy opposed to American democratic capitalism that appealed to many Americans.

In the early 20th century, there was mass support for socialist and Communist parties in America. This had dried up by the dawn of the Cold War—in the U.S., if not in Europe, where Soviet-sponsored parties came tantalizingly close to power in France and Italy. But the appeal of Marxism to intellectuals was strong—in part because it was more ideological than the mixed philosophy of governance found in our own Constitution and Declaration of Independence. As Peter Augustine Lawler explains in Aliens in America: The Strange Truth About Our Souls, we find in our founding documents an impure compound: Locke’s Deist individualism, an elite doctrine accepted by leaders among the Founders, admixed with the Augustinian Christianity accepted almost unanimously by Americans at the time. (One could argue that a majority still do accept it, adding up the church-going Catholics, Southern Baptists, black church members, and other conservative Protestants.) In other words, our founding philosophy was a political compromise between two incompatible doctrines, which have functioned in a creative tension ever since. Not very satisfying to a political pamphleteer or coffeehouse radical and downright frustrating to the young intellectual. Marxism, on the other hand, has an immense theoretical machinery, carefully developed on the basis of rigorous Hegelian reasoning, ruthless in its consistency, easily harnessed to the analysis of every facet of existence. Grad students in the humanities find it almost irresistible—a sausage grinder through which you can feed any work of literature or art and produce a reliable A- paper on “The Economic Underpinnings” of fill-in-the-blank. Jane Austen. The Book of Job. Whatever.

The post-war conservative movement labored mightily to craft an alternative, a version of Americanism that could be promoted internationally, which Europeans and Asians, Latins and Africans alike could adopt as an alternative to Marxism. The best intellectual formulation this effort produced can be found in the work of Frank Meyer, whose “Fusionism” tried to bridge the gap between libertarian economics and traditional Christian conservatism. We ought not to sneer at what this “movement” conservatism achieved; our victory in the Cold War, never a foregone conclusion, may well be traceable in part to the hard work done over at the humble offices of National Review.

Nor should we overlook the contributions of neoconservatives, even when we find their foreign policy ideas wrong-headed or extreme. The hard-headed policy analyses, number-crunching, and empirical studies undertaken by converts from the Left added immeasurably to the force of philosophical arguments long offered by the Right against the growth of government and the appeasement of the Soviet Union. In domestic policies, some have argued that federal support for civil rights legislation in the U.S. was driven mainly by Cold War concerns: the ugly spectacle of Jim Crow and black disenfranchisement provided excellent propaganda for the Soviets. So the FBI got involved in the struggle against bigoted sheriffs and all-white juries. We should be thankful for at least this side-effect of Yalta.

That said, it is worth re-assessing some of the weaknesses of Americanism-for-export. For one thing, we are no longer in a Cold War. The misnamed “War on Terror” has been recast on the model of the Cold War, perhaps out of intellectual laziness or the strength of long-held habit. In fact, it could hardly be more different than the global confrontation with Communism. Then, we faced a heavily armed, centrally-directed enemy, with universities and intelligence services, with thousands of highly-educated American intellectuals in sympathy, which purported to promote a “progressive,” “scientific” political theory of modern Western origin. Their goal was conquest and domination of the West.

Today, we seek out renegades and bandits, armed with weapons aimed mostly at civilians, funded by secret transfers of drug and oil money, who cleave to a pre-medieval creed, a fanatical variant of a variant of Islam, repulsive to intellectuals, oppressive to women, inimical in every way to the Western tradition. Their weapon is sabotage (now renamed “terrorism”), a weakling’s tactic as old as war itself. Their goal is the expulsion of Western influence from a strategically vital region and the destruction of a valued American ally, Israel. While these outcomes are unacceptable, they are not of the same order as the Soviet conquest of Europe and North America or international proletarian revolution. Nor, in the light of America’s hunger for oil and Israel’s nuclear deterrent, are they remotely likely to be achieved.

The Cold War habits and language that still dominate in conservative circles distort this reality and lead to rhetorical absurdities such as the “axis of evil” and to such downright silly claims as President Bush’s assertion that Islamists want to “take away our freedom.” Respectfully, Mr. President, they just want to take away our oil.

In understanding the dynamics of Cold War conservatism, it is worth digging a little in the rubbish pile of Soviet history—since so many of the great thinkers on the Right are former Stalinists and Trotskyites. There is a key difference between them. Old Stalinists such as Whittaker Chambers were schooled to support “socialism in one country,” to promote the concrete interests of a given polity, the Soviet Union. This trained them in a kind of perverse particularism and made them ready to defend the concrete institutions of a given place—however evil. The Trotskyites, on the other hand, were bound by no such constraints. Because they supported a global Marxist revolution, and a system which had no national host on which it could feed, they were able to function much more in the mold of Jacobins, of “pure” revolutionaries unfettered by national interest and realpolitik. This—along with the un-speakable crimes of Stalin—made Trotskyism vastly more appealing to serious thinkers than simple Soviet loyalty. As a pure ideology, it attracted more intellectual converts—while dutiful Stalinism tended to attract more of the dim-witted “joiners” and “movement” types, who prefer a pre-digested creed. (Obvious exceptions to this rule include Chambers and Arthur Koestler.)

So the Right was lucky to attract bright, disillusioned Trotskyites such as James Burnham, Sidney Hook, and Irving Kristol into its ranks. They brought with them vast talents, literary learning, and serious moral concern for universal issues of human rights. But they also carried a strong tendency towards pure abstraction, towards viewing national questions purely in ideological terms. They defended America bravely during the Cold War—but they did so not as our homeland, as the particular place where a people and their treasured institutions took root, but rather as the (almost accidental) spot where certain ideas had taken hold. Those ideas—unmoored from the institutions and historical realities that nurtured them— became the important thing. The country itself became secondary to the ideas it used to govern itself, which it lived in order to instantiate and spread around the world. As Irving Kristol famously wrote, the United States and the Soviet Union were alike in one key respect—they were “the only two large nations in the world today that were born out of a self-conscious creed, and whose very existence as nations is justified and defined in creedal terms.”

In The Neoconservative Mind, Gary Dorrien traces the origin of abstractionist Americanism to the work of James Burnham—the great theoretician of “rollback” anti-Communism. Formerly a leading member of Trotsky’s Fourth International, Burnham had become completely disillusioned with Marxism and turned into a vigorous anti-Communist and American nationalist—without really reconciling himself to most aspects of his native country. Ferociously committed to an all-fronts war against a Soviet Union still ruled by Stalin and inclined to expand in Europe, Asia, and even Latin America, Burnham made clear in his famous call to arms The Struggle for the World that he was more devoted to the abstract mission of America than to any of her concrete attributes. Examined by contrast with the well-oiled, fanatical machinery of the Communist empire, America simply did not measure up. Burnham professed himself disgusted with the flabbiness, short-sightedness, sentimentalism, and provincialism of American politicians—as evidenced by the brief resurgence of pre-war isolationism just after World War II and the reluctance with which many Americans moved from hot to Cold War.

As Burnham wrote: “It was the members of Congress, not the soldiers, who showed real cowardice and blindness when they responded to the complaints of the soldiers not by pointing out to them the responsibilities of world power but by yielding to the homesickness, and seeking demagogically to gain a few cheap votes by joining in the clamor to bring the boys home at whatever cost to the interests of the nation—and of the world.” Such a paragraph could have been written in 2002 by a civilian hawk appalled at the reluctance of many to invade Iraq. Indeed, the chasm dividing the conservative movement over the Iraq war and related foreign manifestations of the War on Terror mirrors in many ways the post-war split among Republicans between interventionists and small-government, “America First” conservatives—to personify the matter, between James Burnham and Robert Taft.

Historian David Gress cogently analyzes Cold Warriors’ addiction to abstraction in his study From Plato to NATO. Gress writes that the growth of ordered liberty in the West has always been made possible by the existence of particular institutions, without which the abstract defense of individual rights becomes impossible: in Switzerland, the fierce independence of the cantons, and the direct democracy practiced there since the early Middle Ages; in the U.S., the congregational structures of Calvinist churches, the town meetings of New England; in Italy, the free cities such as Florence and Venice; in Germany, the fractious nobles of the Holy Roman Empire and civic alliances such as the Hanseatic League; throughout Medieval Europe, the existence of the Church as an alternative locus of loyalty to the State; all these concrete, particular roots made possible the growth of liberal government in the West. Their relative absence in most of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East makes democracy hard to export to such alien climes. Such an export was possible in Japan only after a massive defeat of the nation’s elites, the discrediting of the national religion—Shintoist emperor-worship—and a prolonged military occupation in the midst of a nuclear-powered Cold War.

Some of the particularist Western institutions, which Gress labels the “Old West,” have distinctly illiberal elements: the rustic half-canton of Appenzell-Innerhoden—a venerable democracy where all citizens still vote, once a year, by show of hands in the public square—only gave women the vote in the late 1980s. Women are distinctly less powerful than men in most Christian denominations. The Constitution enshrined slavery. And so on. These elements interfere with making a purely ideological case for freedom in the West, and so they tended to drop out of Cold War accounts of the growth of liberty. Instead, Gress argues, Cold War writers gravitated towards a Jacobin reading of history, which focused on documents, slogans and abstractions, at the expense of the concrete realities, limits, and inconsistencies that marked the slow expansion of free, representative government.

The messy history and imperfectly liberal institutions that conservatives used to argue—following Montesquieu and Tocqueville—made freedom practicable in the West were swept aside. Increasingly, America was defined according to the most expansive, abstract reading of the Declaration of Independence, combined with a version of market economics well-suited to the unrestricted “pursuit of happiness.” Anything that did not fit that formula tended to fall down the memory hole: the Anglo-Celtic roots of the Founding, the specifically Christian (mostly Protestant) identity of America, the very existence of the Confederacy, and the profoundly Western roots of our culture. For this reason, Gress argues, Cold War conservatives have rendered themselves helpless against multiculturalism—and undermined the concrete foundations upon which the edifice of American freedom stands.

To conservatives schooled in this mode of argument, restrictions on immigration are simply insane; anyone, anywhere who will sign on to the Declaration of Independence is already an American. Keeping him out makes no more sense than building a Berlin Wall to divide Manhattan’s East Side from its West. Embittered blacks, or religious conservatives, or leftists who do not accept the Cold War ideology of America are not real Americans. An ideological litmus test becomes the standard of citizenship. American foreign policy must cease to pursue the concrete interests of a concrete, national community and become the tool by which an abstract creed is imposed across the world—hindered only by the resistance of the benighted and bigoted, who are fated to end on the ash-heap of history.

Such a creed is dangerous to the country that espouses it. It sets an impossible standard by which all its actions will be judged and invites well-founded charges of hypocrisy. It enrages and goads enemies. It alienates home-grown patriots. Most tragically, it invites the attacks of fanatical young men on American civilians—as it did on September 11, 2001, in my hometown, New York City.

J.P. Zmirak is the author of Wilhelm Röpke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist.