Tuesday, March 04, 2003

What’s a Philosopher To Do? Part III

And this bring us to the greatest anti-national institution of our time: the European Union. Now as I noted, during the Cold War the United States, which is certainly a nation, came to dominate Western Europe due to the confluence of numerous events ranging from the complete destruction of Germany, the humiliation of France, the rise of the Soviet threat and the loss of Europe’s empires. The contrast between a powerful and confident US on the one hand and a disgraced and cynical Europe on the other, couldn’t have been greater. These circumstances, in a sense, conspired to support a certain level of resentment among Europeans over the role the US would play during the Cold War. In addition, the US was the justification of the strength of capitalism and its version of universalism, a fact that grated on communist and socialist intellectuals, journalists and politicians in Western Europe, and most particularly in a French existentialist/communist like Jean-Paul Sartre. To be intelligent was to be progressively anti-American, and it was to desire the destruction of the nation, the form which the US has used so successfully. And indeed, even in Europe’s case, it was during the development and golden age of the nation-state in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that Europeans produced some of their most impressive cultural and scientific efforts. This, however, was all to be overcome.

Here, in many respects, lies the growing divide that we see between the United States and the European Union. The European Union innately distrusts national sovereignty and all the ideas and principles which accompany it. As a result, we shouldn’t be surprised that the EU repeatedly styles itself as a counter-weight to the US and American globalization. Actually, the English here doesn’t quite capture some of the irony involved. If we turn to the French, the term they use for counter-weight is contre-pouvoir, which means literally counter-power. This might lead us to wonder exactly where this so-called power would originate since Europe certainly does not have military might comparable to the US. Similarly, as an economic force much of Europe, including Germany and France are having some problems at present, problems which make the US’s current situation appear rather insignificant. The source of the power then must lie in its social capital, also called its soft power, and this means nothing more than promoting human rights, understood not as political rights but as social and economic equality, throughout the world. It contrasts sharply, or so its advocates believe, with the American militaristic approach, an approach based on domination. France’s current position on Iraq reflects this thinking. The problem that leaps immediately to mind however, is that France’s support for continued inspections assumes the pre-existing threat by America to use precisely its dominating military force. However, it is quite clear listening to Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin that they are certain of the wisdom of their more nuanced and subtle approach. This is simply a more diplomatic way of saying they are smarter and the Americans are boors. Intelligence once again rests with the progressives and those who would prefer transnational dialogue to international law and national sovereignty.

But here’s the rub, because intellectuals in both the US and Paris are coming to the defense of none other than the nation. First, we need only look at the most vocal supporters of an active, almost imperial role for the US in the world. These people are led by individuals such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, William Kristol and Andrew Sullivan who are themselves, more or less, public intellectuals. However, we would be mistaken to assume that a desire for American empire lies at the core of their intellectual views. Rather, it seems to me that what drives these people is a concern to maintain the national vigor of the United States. They are unrepentant defenders of the nation, and their own American nation. In this regard, I can confirm they are not alone because I am rather familiar with the political philosophic viewpoint they espouse, since Mr. Kristol, Mr. Sullivan and myself were all students of one Harvey Mansfield Jr., the great keeper of the conservative flame at Harvard. And, if I’m not mistaken, Professor Mansfield is rightly aware of the exclusive nature of any truly healthy political community. During an interview he provided to a journalist on the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Professor Mansfield commented that those events taught conservatives that government was not an enemy but an honorable and ennobling force, while liberals learned that government was needed not only to redistribute wealth but to fight enemies as well. In other words, contrary to conservative individualists, humans must be more than simple consumers, they must be citizens. And, contrary to liberal communitarians, being a citizen means not only supporting social welfare, but fighting those who would destroy the very government that provides that welfare. The result of all this, according to Professor Mansfield, is that patriotism, though difficult to justify, is somehow necessary; which is the same thing as saying patriotism ultimately can be justified – intelligent reasons can be given for loving one’s country.

Similarly, there is a group of public intellectuals in Paris, most notably Alain Finkielkraut and Jean-Francois Revel, who also defend the notion of patriotism and the importance of the nation. Additionally, there are other thinkers in France, people like Dominique Schnapper, Pierre Manent and Philippe Raynaud, who are ardent defenders of the nation-state and the exclusive nature of citizenship. Once again, I can confirm this since these are professors of mine here in Paris. And once again, these highly intelligent people do not subscribe to the view that intelligence would follow the assertion that the nation is outdated. In this vein, I recently saw both Finkielkraut and Revel speaking on French television and both were discussing European misconceptions regarding the US in terms of the ideological pretension now so uniform among those who seek to construct a new, humanitarian Europe. For Revel’s part, he pointed out the numerous misconceptions, taken to be facts by many Europeans, regarding the role of the US in the twentieth century. He traced the persistence of these falsehoods to the ideological need to lie, hiding the truth in order to bolster the anti-reality of the philosopher’s system. For his part, Finkielkraut came at the same problem from another angle. He discussed the manner in which the base democratic cynicism of French political culture was blinding many in France to the amplitude of American intentions for the Middle East – the American plan to bring moderate democracy to the Middle East. With both men, the European problem lay in Europe’s pessimism regarding the force and effectiveness of a powerful nation, a pessimism born of a false philosophic assumption: the assumption, referred to above, that nature is necessarily egalitarian while exclusive distinctions are merely conventional and hence unjust.

Here we arrive at the core of the problem. Modern philosophers have consistently sought to create a pure egalitarian nature in order to undermine conventional differences. The problem is that nature itself appears to both condone and encourage conventional distinctions since humans seem naturally to form exclusionary communities. In other words, nature is far more ambiguous than moderns make allowance for. Interestingly enough, this is essentially how the Greek philosophers viewed the situation. Far more interested than moderns in explaining what actually existed (which incidentally means they were more properly scientific than we moderns), philosophers such as Aristotle argued that human life was a complex interaction between conventional law and universal nature. Ultimately, it was only through institutional conventions that universal nature could be realized. As such, the ancient city and the modern nation are the exclusive forms through which the universal is articulated. By effacing the nation, Europe is substantially impoverishing European political life and human nature, while placing itself in an inevitable and direct conflict with the United States, which continues to act as a nation. Similarly, the contrary European conception of human rights and international law will produce conflict with the US inside organizations such as the United Nations.

Now, with this in mind, we might well wonder how the intellectuals I mentioned above feel about the current war of words between the US and France. Since both the American and French thinkers I mentioned support the continued strength of the nation, it would seem they would simply take America’s side. However, that isn’t really the case. While both camps are more or less supportive of the American nation and critical of the dissolution of the French nation, the very fact that they are citizens of particular nations suggests that they must defend particular nations – there is no conceptual nation in the abstract. As such, many of the American thinkers (though not all – I really have no idea how Professor Mansfield views the current French position) I’ve mentioned are strongly supportive of an attack on Iraq and harshly critical of France. Their concern as intellectuals in the US is to defend the nation in which they live. On the other hand, the French thinkers are generally more reticent regarding a war in Iraq and are often rather critical of the provocative rhetoric coming from people such as Donald Rumsfeld. Though they share the Americans’ concern for maintaining healthy nations, the nation they seek to instruct is France, which means attempting to educate the French as to why France must continue to guard its independence while acting responsibly in the world. It would seem that even the most intelligent of philosophers must be philosophers in particular nations. The natural and the conventional are truly complementary.

The difference between these French and American fellow-travelers also extends to their conceptions of international relations. For Americans concerned to defend the nation which is the United States, Europe, along with its desire to construct a non-national society, would appear to have a rather corrupting effect, one that might ultimately undermine their efforts to ensure a healthy American political life. To borrow a phrase from Raymond Aron, decadent Europe may be too dangerous to defend if you’re an American. However, if you’re a French defender of the nation, you are most likely to prefer a close, though not subservient, relationship with the US as this relationship has, over the last sixty years, been essential to preserving the peace and independence of European nations. For these thinkers, a harsh war of words between the two nations is not welcome, and they are more prone to pointing out American misconceptions regarding Europeans, which ironically would include the American habit to see Europe’s nations and the balance of power system as completely irredeemable structures. French thinkers then are dedicated precisely to defending decadent Europe.

Ultimately, what we’re dealing with here is the future of the Franco-American relationship, and perhaps the larger Euro-American relationship. Because the US is itself a European nation, based on European ideas and experiences, a break between the two would be perhaps the most important event since the American and French Revolutions. In this regard, my earlier suggestion in a previous post to the effect that France should be removed from permanent membership on the UN Security Council may carry with it some substantial problems, especially since such a move may only serve to increase the European turn to an anti-national, anti-American stance. On the other hand, we are currently witnessing the effects of this growing intellectual, even spiritual rift between the national Americans and the post-national Europeans. And, as I mentioned, this difference will become increasingly evident in all areas where Europe and the US come into contact, not the least of which are international organizations. In these circumstances, intelligent men and women who share concerns about the importance of the nation can disagree about the proper relationship between the US and Europe. In the final analysis, a break between the two great centers of democracy would be a practical decision – based on the national concerns of those involved. If France, leading a post-national Europe, should seek to undermine the national defense interests of the US, it would, I think, become inevitable that such a break would occur. As a Canadian who studies the nation, and who has roots in both the US and Europe, I find myself in something of an odd position during the current crisis. Both sides in the trans-Atlantic debate have legitimate concerns, but even philosophers may at some point have to leave their nation to its own resources. While Socrates eventually found himself put to death by his city, Aristotle refused to allow philosophy suffer the same fate twice and fled. If I remember correctly, Alain Finkielkraut recently mused about the possibility of leaving France for Australia, concerned as he was that France was becoming an intellectually totalitarian society. I am not aware of any similar statements on the part of William Kristol, Richard Perle or Andrew Sullivan. Indeed, it is Hollywood stars, those paragons of political and cultural analysis who seem most interested in quitting America for Europe. This is hardly a resounding recommendation for European sanity.

Incidentally, if you’re wondering what all this might have to do with my own nation of Canada, well all I can say is, coincidentally September 11, 2003, is the tenth anniversary of my departure from Canada. It was a few months after I left back in 1993 that Jean Chretien’s Liberal government was elected. Apparently Mr. Chretien will be stepping down in February 2004. This might be an excellent time to return to Canada and try to defend my own nation, whatever that means.


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