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The Intractable, Invincible Ignorance of Jonah Goldberg

At The Rockford Files (Chronicles), Scott Richert delivers a withering rebuke to (yet another) facile Jonah Goldberg post:

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that Goldberg could not be more mistaken, both about Lukacs’s understanding of patriotism and his understanding of nationalism. Considering that this has been one of Lukacs’s chief preoccupations (if not the chief preoccupation) of his 60-plus years of professional historianship, there is simply no excuse for Goldberg’s ignorance. It is, after all, the chief theme of Lukacs’s 2005 book, Democracy and Populism.

Let’s assume for the moment, though, that Goldberg is behind in his reading. Surely, as an admirer of Lukacs, he’s familiar with “About Historical Factors,” the fifth chapter of Lukacs’s magnum opus, Historical Consciousness (first published in 1968, with new editions in 1985 and 1994). If not, perhaps he’d like to pick up a copy of ISI’s Remembered Past: John Lukacs on History, Historians, and Historical Knowledge, a remarkably inexpensive 900-plus-page reader which reprints “About Historical Factors,” as well as 66 other major essays.

What prompted this? At The Corner, Goldberg said this:

For the record, John Lukacs has many great observations about the differences between patriotism and nationalism. The difference, to me and I believe to him, is that nationalism is rooted in the mystic concept of a nation—most famously in blood and soil—while patriotism is rooted in adherence to a creed or doctrine. A patriot in the Weimar Republic was considered a traitor by most nationalists, for example.

Let’s just say for the moment that this stunning conceptual error does not bode well for the content and argumentation of Goldberg’s forthcoming book, Liberal Fascism (not that we expected very much that was worthwhile). What is a little surprising about this post is that it came in response to Iain Murray quoting Orwell (the same quote that Prof. Lukacs cites and which Scott also uses in his post) on the difference between patriotism and nationalism. Goldberg had at his disposal the exact quote that would have guided him to the correct conclusion and he still managed to get it wrong! More entertainingly, Murray’s post was a clarifying follow-up to Andrew Stuttaford noting with approval the revival of healthy expressions of German patriotism during the World Cup in Germany this year. Somehow, between Murray quoting Orwell’s affirmation of the patriotic love of place and Stuttaford affirming healthy national pride (German national pride, no less!), Goldberg still wound up scoring an own goal by misunderstanding the concepts entirely.

In the rest of his post, Scott delivers body blow after body blow to Goldberg’s comment, about which more in a moment, and if anyone should know Prof. Lukacs’ view on this and other matters it would be Scott Richert. Scott goes on:

In other words, patriotism is rooted in a particular place, and the people who live there, not in “adherence to a creed or doctrine.” By “a particular way of life,” Orwell (and Lukacs) mean just that: not abstract credal principles but the real life of real people in a real place—their language, their food, their religion, their manners, etc.

Nationalism, on the other hand, is, for Lukacs (and Orwell), an ideological phenomenon. It subsumes man in the nation; it divorces the nation from “a particular place and a particular way of life”; it defines the nation at least in part in terms of its opposition to the other.

This is an excellent summary of Prof. Lukacs’ understanding and a fine statement of the real difference between the two phenomena. This distinction is certainly a fairly old one circa 2006. It is one that the late Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (to return to another great man whose name Goldberg waves around to demonstrate superficial familiarity with the better minds on the Right, since such minds are so sorely lacking among his comrades) also stressed very strongly by way of correctly indicting (abstract) nationalism as a child of 1789 and a monstrous form of leftism and what he called identitarianism. The words themselves indicate the difference: the patriot loves his fatherland (Lat., patria, Gr., patris), something distinct and different from himself, while the nationalist identifies with and loves those like himself, which K-L maintained was more like self-love than real love.

K-L distinguished the two by tendencies towards natural diversity, such as one might find in various regions or local communities in the same country, and the deadening uniformity imposed across an entire people to fabricate a superficial unity. Toeing an ideological line to be a “good American” is as far removed from patriotism as can be. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I think K-L underestimated the importance of language and culture as natural and good things that do make a people’s identity that contributes to and makes up their love of country, but he inherited the revulsion that any sane man would have when confronted with the consequences of the abominations of Pan-Germanism and all other forms of abstract nationalism and formed his opinions accordingly.

Rather obviously love of the patria has more than a little to do with the soil, the land itself, since the word refers to the land. There is some disagreement among defenders of patriotism against the ravages of nationalism over whether loyalty to one’s “blood” (that is, one’s ethnicity) is a necessary component of patriotism, or whether it is something that coexists distinctly alongside love of country. Cosmopolitan men of the Right will tend to play down the importance of “blood” as less important and the potential source of political excesses, even as they reemphasise loyalty to “soil” and the living communities that are planted in that soil. But none of them would ever make the mistake of confusing patriotism with commitment to a creed, doctrine or ideology.

So why does Goldberg make this lamentable etymological and conceptual mistake? Ignorance must account for some of it, of course, but there is also a built-in bias among neoconservatives and their hangers-on against thinking of patriotism in terms of either “blood” or “soil.” Loyalty to place and people is not very useful for someone whose other commitments require him to affirm that America is a proposition nation, a “creedal” and ideological nation, so he must reverse the obvious meaning of the words to make loyalty to a shallow, ideological definition of American identity the essence of patriotism or else find himself on the wrong side of the patriot-nationalist divide.

Those who find that they cannot honestly pledge allegiance to the historic America, but only to the “ideals” that America is supposed to represent (on account of which much of historic America must be denounced or discarded) and the imagined community of this ideal America, have no choice but to define loyalty to place and people as the fictive and “mystic” loyalty, even though it is the primary and perhaps only grounded, natural and normal loyalty that men know in their political life. If Goldberg’s definition of patriotism were correct, it would surely be a badge of honour to be called unpatriotic. Fortunately for us all, his definition is as wrong as can be. Happily, we do not have to surrender speaking of the virtue of patriotism with its proper name; we can instead recognise the ideological nationalists for who they are by the ways in which they abuse and misunderstand this admirable term and noble love of country.

For the nationalist, the country and the people are only worth respecting to the extent that they live up to the imagined pure form of the nation, a supposed destiny of greatness, a world mission or some other ugly lie. When they fail to measure up, the nationalist has no use for them and will even turn against their best interests to fashion the nation with (the shedding of) blood and iron.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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