Not the Solution

Oh David Brooks, you are so funny!

Since when is the state ever engaged in “humane and productive ends”?

Ah, but that’s the anarchist in me laughing at his latest column, “The Nationalist Solution,” which proffers a reinvigorated love of nation and country as a way of channelling the spiritual ardor, the aspirations of so many young Muslims, to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Or, as Brooks puts it:

Extremism is a spiritual phenomenon, a desire for loftiness of spirit gone perverse. You can’t counter a heroic impulse with a mundane and bourgeois response. You can counter it only with a more compelling heroic vision. There will always be alienated young men fueled by spiritual ardor. Terrorism will be defeated only when they find a different fulfillment, even more bold and self-transcending.

In other times, nationalism has offered that compelling vision. We sometimes think of nationalism as a destructive force, and it can be. But nationalism tied to universal democracy has always been uplifting and ennobling. It has organized heroic lives in America, France, Britain and beyond.

We’ve been here before. Nationalism was widely viewed as the way to blunt the appeal of revolutionary socialism (and its internationalism) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This took off after the Bolshevik Revolution, and all the various forms of fascism that came to exist — from Portugal’s Estado Novo through to Naziism — were seen (at least initially) as acceptable “nationalist” answers to the “existential” threat of international socialism. Even the Catholic church awkwardly embraced this kind of nationalism as a fitting alternative to the godless communism of the revolutionaries.

Brooks seems to want something akin to a cultural New Deal, a state that can conscript bodies and souls into state-centered and state-defined purposes. We had that last century, and it resulted in some pretty awful things. I’m not sure Brooks is aiming at global war (though maybe he is), but states have rather consistently shown themselves incapable of mobilizing men and material solely for peaceful means. That was true 100 years ago, and it’s still likely very true.

(Unless he’s thinking of something like the Civilian Conservation Corps? I’m not sure tree planting, road building and national park refurbishing are the kind of “self-transcending” enterprises that would satisfy young Muslims across the world…)

Besides, the secular nationalist states Brooks seems to prize for the Arab Middle East now — Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Algeria — failed in large part because for several decades, the West saw them as the problem and did everything it could to undermine them. Which is half the reason we are here right now. (You cannot tear down a state and put it back up — Iraq has shown that.) And there aren’t enough liberals in the Middle East to govern much of anything. Not in 1960, and certainly not now.

Two things are at work here. First, there is a desire for a quick and relatively painless solution to the “problem” of Revolutionary Islam. That’s not possible. Like the various strains of revolutionary socialism (and anarchism) that emerged in the last half of the 19th century, this is a complex phenomenon that has many different and interwoven causes and will not be dealt with quickly, painlessly, or easily. It will have to be tolerated for a while, largely because the appeal will not go away, and like Bolshevism, Revolutionary Islam may unfortunately have to succeed somewhere for a time in order to show conclusively it cannot deliver on any of its promises.

Second, and more importantly, is the existential dread gripping the liberal world, which is bigger than a bunch of young men waving black flags and beheading people. I am no great fan of liberalism, in part because I see it as banal, bourgeois, and idolatrous. But it is that very bourgeois banality that has made liberalism — the ruling ideal of the West (and the world) since sometime in the 19th century — so successful. The fascists, communists, and Islamists may have their pomp, their parades, their flash, their yearning for death and meaning and the final end of history, but nothing seems to be able to beat liberalism’s inexorable, boring steamroller of settled commercial and family life. This is how the world wants to live, in fits and starts, and it is how much of the world already lives.

There is no existential threat to liberalism. Why liberals insist upon seeing one — perhaps they understand the very human desire Brooks rightly sees, and fear its appeal — is beyond me. There are threats to liberalism, but mostly they come from within, from the various forms of illiberal liberalism emerging across the liberal world. (That is for another piece.) Again, patience and confidence will prevail.

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