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Why The “Isolationist” Slur Survives

Jim Antle calls for banishing “isolationism” from foreign policy debate:

By now it is clear that the “i-word” does more to distort the foreign-policy debate than to accurately describe anyone’s substantive views.

Antle is right that this should happen, but “isolationist” is far too useful to hawks as a slur and as a means for defining the terms of debate for them to give it up. The slur is still in circulation today because it is misleading and inaccurate. Hawks continue to use it because it distorts the debate in the way that hawks need it to be distorted. Advocates of foreign policy restraint have to keep demonstrating the inaccuracy and absurdity of the slur, but that isn’t going to make the slur any less useful to the people that use it on a regular basis. Like any meme, the “isolationist” label survives and thrives not because it is true, but because it fills some need for the people that reproduce it. In this case, hawks need to see themselves as the only real internationalists that are continuing the long struggle against Americans’ instinctive “isolationism,” and they can’t very well do that unless they falsely accuse their opponents of being something that they clearly aren’t. “Isolationist” keeps being used for much the same reason that hawks keep resorting to the same 1930s references as crutches for their awful policy arguments. Hawkish arguments in favor of any particular intervention are typically weak, so they have to fling accusations of “appeasement” and “isolationism” to distract attention from the fact that their arguments usually make no sense. Charging someone with “isolationism” is intended to shut down an argument that the hawks would frequently lose if their claims were judged solely on the merits.

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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