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The “Isolationist” Bogeyman

Justin Logan ably covers [1] familiar ground in his explanation of why there are no isolationists in America:

The second thing you should know is that “isolationist” was designed as a slur and remains one. No one calls himself an isolationist.

As I’ve noted before, the label continues to be useful to hawks because its meaning can be changed to suit almost any argument. One can be a mostly conventional internationalist, accept the U.S. role in the world as it is today, support most U.S. wars, and still be attacked as an isolationist if you fail to endorse a maximally hawkish foreign policy. The most common use of the slur is to attack critics of whichever ill-conceived military action happens to be under consideration at the moment, but it can also be applied liberally to skeptics of government surveillance and detention, advocates of military spending reductions, or opponents of cruel and pointless sanctions policies. Thiessen’s column [2] today was overflowing with references to “isolationists” and “isolationist retreat,” and it serves as a helpful guide to how the word is used to insult the people it supposedly describes. Thiessen uses the recent Paul-Christie quarrel as one of his examples:

Christie was absolutely correct when he called Paul’s isolationist views “dangerous” and challenged him “to come to New Jersey and sit across from the [Sept. 11] widows and the orphans and have that conversation.”

As I have said [3], Christie didn’t attack Paul for his “isolationism,” but for his libertarianism, and this is the word he wanted to use. He was defending NSA surveillance activities against an effort to rein in those activities a little. Not only did Christie never mention the i-word, but his criticism would have been even more inaccurate and demagogic than it was if he had. Notably, Thiessen never identifies which of Paul’s views are isolationist, nor does he explain why they are dangerous. Simply using the word isolationist is a shorthand to convey contempt, fear, and warning all in one without ever having to confront the specifics of the views the person holds. One of the chief uses of the isolationist slur is to avoid a debate on the substance of any particular policy, and to lump any and all skeptical arguments together with the “isolationist” bogeyman.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "The “Isolationist” Bogeyman"

#1 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On August 12, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

The term also conveys a faint whiff of an accusation of anti-semitism. America First and Lindbergh were tagged, largely unfairly, with this accusation, and to those with any historical knowledge, the implication is there.

Given the saliency of pro-Israel types in the ranks of our hawks, “isolationist” is a perfect “lite” way of trying to silence those who question unrestrained interventionism in general, and interventionism in support of the right-Zionist agenda in particular.

#2 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On August 12, 2013 @ 1:20 pm

this may not make sense; but it makes sense to me. not to kick a dead horse, but as I see it; Christie’s language when discussing Paul and the NSA, etc. was basically saying that (some) libertarians can be “hawks”. that is to say, they’re always looking for a fight and hoping to project their “libertarian power” abroad (within the GOP, or US). their zeal is almost dogmatic. there is no room for compromise or negotiation. “you’re either with us, or against us…” gee, where have we heard that one? ironically; hawks need a “bogeyman” to justify their penchant for waging war; and Paul’s ‘particular brand of libertarianism’ needs a ‘bogeyman’ of its own (in this case, Christie). ergo, can be very easy for (some) libertarians to kind of loose sight their motives; and the “conflict” becomes the driving force. make sense?

#3 Comment By spite On August 12, 2013 @ 1:46 pm

I am an isolationist and not ashamed to admit it. Unless you have a country like the hermit kingdom, no country is truly isolated from others. There are other ways of engaging the nations world other than bombing them or inviting them all in.

#4 Comment By balconesfault On August 12, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

This is where it would be useful if each time someone made the “isolationist” charge, someone in the media challenged them to define more precisely the boundary that once crossed, one became “isolationist”.

The danger here, of course, is that this boundary would likely either be far enough to one side that almost no politician who gets any attention actually fits the definition … or far enough to the other side that most Americans find “isolationism”, as defined, to reasonably well match how they believe.

So it’s best used as a showstopper epithet, with a media happy to play stenographer to a pissing match rather than to actually challenge people to say exactly what they mean.

#5 Comment By HyperIon On August 12, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

Thiessen…what a piece of work.
You continue to scrape the bottom of a very rotten barrel.

#6 Comment By Slammer On August 12, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

“Isolationist” = 95+ percent of Americans. As a slur it resonates most with those who use it as such.

#7 Comment By Dennis Brislen On August 12, 2013 @ 4:54 pm

Thiessen is a one trick pony who merely “phones it in”.

Whenever you read an author using the “isolationist” tar baby you can be sure they are ill prepared to discuss foreign policy.

#8 Comment By David T On August 12, 2013 @ 5:24 pm

It’s funny how those who attack the use of the word isolationism (because it originated as a slur, etc.) like to criticize the people who use the word as neocons–even though neoconservative also started out as a slur (specifically by Michael Harrington against the *Commentary* and *Public Interest* type intellectuals who he saw as moving to the right). To be sure, some of the people labeled neoconservatives did embrace the label, like Irving Kristol; but some people like Murray Rothbard embraced the label isolationist. (He wrote a 1959 article entitled “For a New Isolationism” and sent it to National Review, which not surprisingly declined to publish it.)

#9 Comment By Ken Hoop On August 12, 2013 @ 8:06 pm


Something here to diappoint everyone from hard-core libertarian to hard-core Buchananite economic nationalist
to simple non-interventionist.

#10 Comment By Ken Hoop On August 12, 2013 @ 8:10 pm


Even so, how can anyone read Dreyfuss on the inchoate destructiveness of American interventionism and believe “isolationism” is comparatively regressive.
As for “anti-semitism,” any Jewish anti-Zionist is commonly bestowed with the “self-hating” label.

These phenomenae might continue until Empire collapse.

#11 Comment By Noah172 On August 12, 2013 @ 11:17 pm

Ken Hoop:

Yeah, the younger Paul is a disappointment. Hear, hear for Ralph Nader in saying it. It won’t be pretty when some of the younger Paul’s fans here at AmCon lose their crushes on him.

#12 Comment By Neildsmith On August 13, 2013 @ 7:21 am

Isolationist is not a slur to me. Nor do I think it is one to many regular Americans who hate politics and our dysfunctional federal government.

Americans are often criticized for letting the small group of people who volunteer for military service do the fighting and sacrificing while the rest of us go on about our business. This is exactly the way the hawks want it and need it to be. If they were to spread the sacrifice around more broadly by adequately funding their military adventures or drafting unwilling American into service, their freedom to act with impunity would be lost.

I don’t belong to the military, don’t know anyone who is, and I don’t have to pay much in taxes to support it. I am isolated from the impact of the decisions made by the war-mongers. That’s the deal.

Of course, don’t ask me to feel sorry for those who sell themselves into the service of the warmongers either. They deserve their fate. This is, I know, an unpopular position to take. But without the troops and our support for them, the hawks couldn’t play their silly power games. It’s time to starve the real beast in this country.

#13 Comment By James Canning On August 13, 2013 @ 1:30 pm

Ken Hoop – – Yes, what a preposteerous concept: the “self-hating” Jew. Because that Jew attacked foolish policies of Israel.

#14 Comment By Carl On August 14, 2013 @ 12:17 am

Embrace it Daniel! No one knows what an “isolationist” is and only the neocon hawks think of it as a bad thing. Just declare that from now on “isolationist” means, “person with sensible foreign policy views,” and let them fling you in the brier-patch all they want.