There are many possible ideologies regarding the relationship of the individual to society (see for instance, Individual & Society: Conformity v. Accommodation, and the essays linked to therein, for discussions of this relationship). Among them are the notions that the individual exists independently of the society, and the society is a mere vehicle in service to the individual (what we’ll call “individualism”), and the notion that individuals have no identity other than their identity as members of a discrete and exclusive society, with members and non-members sharply distinguished (what we’ll call “nationalism”). At a glance, one might imagine these two ideologies to be mutually incompatible, and that would be good, since both are brutally deficient, each in its own way, particularly in their more extreme forms (i.e., when individualism is so extreme that equity and fairness cease to be valued within the society, and when nationalism is so extreme that compassion and humanity cease to be valued without). But, remarkably enough, it is possible for them to coexist within a single ideological package, a package which manages to combine the worst of both worlds. First, let’s examine the worst of each world.
Though revisionists abound, the characteristic that marks the Nazi movement of 1930s Germany as a movement to be reviled for all time was its ultra-nationalism, which blossomed into racism and genocide. “Ultra-nationalism” is not the same as “collectivism” or “socialism,” but is rather a sharp distinction being drawn between those identified as members of the nation, and those identified as foreigners. Ultra-nationalism is ugly enough when “foreigners” are identified as those residents of other nations, regarded as of less importance or value than the residents of one’s own nation, leading to aggressions such as “lebensraum,” Hitler’s policy of expanding into Eastern Europe in service to German “superiority.” But it is particularly ugly when directed against those identified as “the foreigner within,” authoring domestic policies of rounding people up, throwing them into detention centers, and removing them in one way or another, that should revolt all decent human beings. (I will return to this in more detail in an up-coming post, and to the speeches and testimonies at the Familias Unidas event yesterday, on June 25, at Bruce Randolph School in Northeast Denver).
America has long flirted with its own version of Ultra-Nationalism. “Patriotism,” which is almost universally lauded in America as a virtuous affection and respect for one’s nation, is a relatively benign form of nationalism, but the line between it and nationalism’s more malignant incarnations is fuzzy and frequently crossed. Not surprisingly, many of those most ostentatious in their demonstrations of patriotism are also most inclined to indulge a demeaning and even belligerent attitude toward foreigners, more often implicit than explicit, but erupting into the latter at the slightest provocation.
Ironically, those Americans who are most strident about the evils of a government used as an active agent of public will tend to be blithely indifferent -or, more, subscribers- to the ultranationalism laced through the American psyche. They are not opposed to our government kidnapping foreign citizens off of foreign streets, holding them indefinitely, sometimes in secret installations, and either torturing them or rendering them to other governments to be tortured, all on wisps of frequently manufactured evidence that wouldn’t even rise to the level of “probable cause” in America (a policy in place throughout the Bush administration, as part of our “war on terror”).
Nor are they in any way outraged by the fact that their own government rounds up people from their homes and jobs in America and places them in detention centers, marking them for removal from the country, people who go to church and commit no crimes and contribute to the economy, mothers and fathers and respected and beloved members of our communities. They support this policy, indeed, demand that it be ramped up manifold, because they define some as members of the nation, and some as foreigners living among us, and by virtue of this definition feel no debt of decency, no recognition of de facto membership in our society, no compassion for the children left fatherless or motherless or the communities left with holes in them, no unease at the brutality or inhumanity of it….
I already wrote of the limited but still horrifying similarities between our current attitudes and policies toward undocumented residents of our nation and that infamous previous chapter of human history in which a population within the nation defined as “foreign” was rounded up and marked for removal (see Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding). And I have discussed the observation that one of the most fundamental distinguishing frames between the right and left in America today is the frame of “in-groups and out-groups” versus the frame of inclusiveness (see Inclusivity & Exclusivity), part of a larger defining distinction regarding the perceived relationship of the individual and society (see. e.g., Individual & Society: Conformity v. Accommodation, Liberty & Society, Liberty & Interdependence).
But American conservatism is built on another pillar as well, one which should be antithetical to ultranationalism, but is somehow amalgamated with it into the worst of all worlds. That second pillar is “extreme individualism,” the belief that the state (i.e., federal government) can never be used as an agent of the polity, serving the interests of the citizens of the nation and of humanity in general. By means of this combination, our government is prohibited from performing any positive or life-affirming function, either for its own members of for others (declaring the former to be an infringement on individual liberty, and the latter to be irrelevant), but is charged with acting aggressively against certain categories of outgroup members (e.g., non-citizens, suspected criminals, etc.), or refusing to protect other categories of outgroup members (e.g., gays, the poor, etc.), in service to a narrowly conceived and largely erroneous national interest divorced from any sense of humanity either to its own citizenry or to “foreigners.”
This marriage of extreme individualism and ultra-nationalism is perhaps the most inhumane and predatory ideological concoction imaginable. It informs an attitude which, on the one hand, preserves unlimited social injustice by simply defining it out of existence and, on the other, promotes unlimited belligerence toward all those defined as non-members of the nation (whether they reside within the national boundaries, or beyond them). It preserves the implicit racism of disregarding the legacies of a racist history, using a perverse definition of “liberty” to prohibit addressing those legacies of racism. It sets America up as a fortress from which we can exercise our military and political power in whatever ways we choose, tempered only by our own interests (and not by any concern for humanity). And, perhaps most unsettling of all, it rationalizes (and clamors for an increase in) domestic policies that bear an uncanny resemblance to Gestapo agents rounding up Jews and Gypsies during the Holocaust.
As Pastor Martin Niemöller famously wrote:
First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.
It is particularly telling that, despite the current right-wing revisionism that defines fascism as a left-wing movement, this famous quote, if only you replace “Jews” with “Hispanics,” perfectly describes right-wing America’s current and traditional out-group targets.
The extreme individualism rationalizes the preservation of existing inequalities and injustices, identifying them as something that we cannot address as a nation, because to use our agent of collective action (i.e., our government) to do so would supposedly infringe on the individual liberties of those who are at least tolerably untouched by those current inequalities and injustices. But the ultra-nationalism adds to passive indifference to injustice and suffering an active aggression in service to in-group members and antagonistic to out-group members, permitting limitless crimes against humanity, as long as the humanity against whom the crimes are being committed are not members of their in-group.
The history of Americans using the concept of “liberty” to justify exploitation and oppression is an old and well established one. The famous antebellum southern statesman John C. Calhoun, in his tome Liberty and Union, perversely argued that the “liberty” of southern slave owners to own slaves could only be preserved by protecting the “minority” (i.e., southern states) against the majority (i.e., northern states). The “states’ rights” doctrine was born and thrived as a preservation of slavery doctrine, and I have seen comments by some modern Tea Partiers that continue in precisely that same vein (one insisting that the Union prosecution of The Civil War was a crime against the southern states) .
This tradition continued after The Civil War and emancipation, in the form of Jim Crow. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, many racist southerners saw the attempt to impose civil rights protections on southern states as an infringement on their liberties. Rand Paul, a Tea Party icon, voiced his own reservations about The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he admitted he would not have been able to support at the time. After all, his brand of “freedom” means the freedom to deprive others of theirs, or the right to deprive others of their rights. This is the true meaning of Tea Party individual liberty, an old and discredited concept that has a long and sordid history in this country.
It is a movement which dismisses and continues to trample upon those already trampled upon by our history, and which justifies dismissing and trampling upon those that are not defined as a part of our history. And it is a movement that we as a people must confront and challenge and extricate from our national politics and our national psyche with all of the force of reason and human decency we are capable of mustering, because we are sliding deeper and deeper into a national identity that will condemn us to being reviled and disdained by future generations around the world, as one of the examples of a nation that came to embody belligerence and irrationality and inhumanity.
This is not who and what we are. This is not who and what we should choose to be.
(See A Frustrated Rant On A Right-Wing Facebook Thread for a reaction to the aspects of this ideology which facilitate the accelerating concentration of wealth and opportunity in America.)