One God, many peoples V: Propositional peoplehood

Allow me to wrap this up.

Universalism, we’ve seen, goes way back.  The ideas of universal brotherhood, a universal natural law, and even of a single ultimate God were known to the pagans.  Far from a sign of spiritual advance, the separation of God from one’s people and social order has often marked spiritual decline.  In Voegelin’s terminology, the compactness of the world, the sense that local rituals and duties connect to ultimate reality, is lost.  The world’s Axial Age, and Israel’s Prophetic Age, were the time when people started to intuit God’s transcendence but didn’t know how to handle it.  They could no longer see God’s presence in the ancient theocracies and vaguely imagined Messianic kingdoms in which this tension could be overcome.  In the moral order, the question was how one could justify particularity in light of this new universalistic perspective.  Having mentally “risen above” the tribe, how does one get back down?

Christianity did not create this problem.  Christianity is one proposed solution, the most adequate on offer, in my opinion.

What is the other solution?  Imagine the predicament of man who loves his tribe or country but has come to accept that this love, loyalty, and piety are rationally and morally indefensible.  His highest moral principles condemn his noblest sentiments.  In fact, you don’t have to imagine this–you’re living it–but I’ll get back to that.  How can he live with such a spiritual wound?  The problem, as he misconstrues it, is this:  how, from a universal perspective (shedding, as he imagines he must, his own “empirical ego”) can it be justified to favor this group in particular?

The group must be special in some absolute, objective sense.  The only quality that really matters is morality, and the heart of morality (as he understands it) is universalism.  And here is the solution!  His group is the one to have discovered universalism.  That doesn’t, of course, mean that they own it, that they can hoard this treasure for themselves.  Quite the opposite!  They have a duty to spread their light to those still in darkness.  This is, indeed, the very essence and reason-for-being of the group:  to spread universalism.  A group dedicated to the abolition of groups.  A universal, a propositional people.  So our man lays down his natural loyalty, and in return he is allowed to pick up a new unnatural loyalty.  His new love, for an idea rather than a concrete people, is a cold and inhuman thing compared to the love he left behind, but it is the only thing his cold and inhuman morality of universal brotherhood will allow him, so he makes due with it.

Where do we see these propositional people?  Where don’t we see them?  Islam.  Freemasonry.  Reform Judaism.  The United States of America.  The European Union.  Each represents an attempt to make a tribe of anti-tribalists, a brotherhood of those who don’t believe in brotherhood.  Muhammad is the closest thing the world has had to the warrior Messiah dreamed of by the Prophets.  Be honest:  doesn’t the Messiah sometimes sound more like Muhammad than like Christ?  As we’ve seen, historians agree that Islam is, in its essence, more individualistic, egalitarian, and cosmopolitan than Christianity, Christianity being the religion that defines itself around its “scandal of particularity”.  The reform of Judaism undertaken by eighteenth-century German Jews was an attempt to repackage Judaism as a carrier for moral universalism, a boiling down of the Jewish faith to nothing but the Prophets.  America and its European copies you know all about.  And you know that the people who spout the most ludicrous nonsense about America being “exceptional”, as being based on “an idea” rather than “blood and soil”, are the people most drawn to “blood and soil”.  They are people who are looking for some excuse to affirm their own people and land while holding fast to the moral principle that one may not affirm one’s own people and land.

This is all clear to me because, as an American Catholic, I get hit by it from both sides.  As an American, when I hear that we’re a propositional nation, I see it as a denial that I as an American have any distinct culture that I’m allowed to cherish.  I see it as a commitment to my people’s eventual destruction through immigration and multiculturalism.  After all, a propositional people must aim at its own extinction.  It must desire for its carrier-ideal to become universally accepted, so the carrier itself shall disappear.  As a Catholic, I get to have propositional peoples shining their light unto me, calling me to join them in rejecting Christian tribalism.  From their point of view, this is a generous offer.  From my point of view, it seems that I’m being asked to renounce my ancestors, to admit that the Church has been in the wrong and villainous all the time after all, while they are being allowed to keep revering their predecessors, who after all were heroes in the fight against Catholic oppression.

This is what allows me to imagine what it must be like to be on the other side of these universalist exercises.  America as the propositional nation looks to me like suicide, but it looks to other countries like chauvinism.  “Our Founders were geniuses who came up with the one correct way for everyone to live.  Your ancestors were a bunch of superstitious savages, but don’t worry!  You can become an American, adopt our ways and revere our ancestors, too.  Aren’t we wonderfully post-nationalist to make you an offer like this?”  And while it is true that their universalist creed sets liberal Jews over Catholics in the march of history, anti-tribalism is killing assimilated Jewry.  Their panics over intermarriage are like Americans’ over immigration.  In fact, some of the clearest defenses of particularity have come from Orthodox Jews.

Thus, to our neo-pagan critics, we Christians warn you not to imagine that eliminating us will save you from the universalist plague.  The ability to mentally lose oneself outside of the tribe is a danger intrinsic to the human intellect.  As humanity abandons Christianity, it finds itself stranded in the landscape of American politics–the choice between Leftist cosmopolitan degeneracy and neoconservative ideological belligerence in the service, ultimately, of cosmopolitan degeneracy.

12 thoughts on “One God, many peoples V: Propositional peoplehood

  1. Pingback: One God, many peoples V: Propositional peoplehood | Reaction Times

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  3. It is not Tribe that is a rational object of love but Nation,
    And Nation is a mystical thing that embodies a particular facet of Natural Law over a certain people.
    In other words, nations are particular instantiations of the Natural Law. It is thus they ought to be admired.

    Are English a tribe or a nation?. Are French a tribe?

    • What about Germans or Swiss or Austrians? Are they a nation? And Bavarians, are they a tribe? Why is tribe not a facet of Natural law in your view?

  4. Austria is technically and nominally a nation, but in fact it is a fragment of an empire, Austria-Hungary, in which it was a region. Switzerland is minimally a nation, in which the federal principle has left the regions to govern themselves more or less independently. Switzerland acts as a nation only in respect to other nations. Germany became a nation at the same time it became an empire, in 1870, after the sequential military victories over Austria-Hungary and France. To assemble “Germany,” Prussia needed at one point to conquer Bavaria militarily, an episode in the history of the wastage of blood and treasure equivalent to our own Civil War. The nation called Germany is really the hegemony of Prussia over the other formerly quite distinct regions, just as the nation called the USA is the hegemony of Washington over the formerly sovereign states and their regions. Bavaria is a region of Germany although Bavarians typically think of themselves as Bavarians first and Germans second. Linguistically, culturally, and historically, Bavaria is in many ways closer to Austria than it is to Prussia. Munich is a more pleasant city than Berlin because in the Bavarian region of Germany, identification with the local (one might even say the tribal) is stronger than identification with the national; the imperial abstraction has not fully obliterated the regional nature. Prussia too was once a region, but it transformed itself under the Wilhelmine Dynasty into the administrative center of a massively bureaucratized kingdom. Characterologically, there is no difference between Berlin and Brasilia, just as there is no difference between Brasilia and the District of Columbia. The words “nation” and “nature” have the same root, an old Latin verb meaning “to be born,” hence also to have an identity related to the place of birth. The nation-state is an historical anomaly. Before the invention of the nation-state, people identified with their city or their region. When people ask me where I was born, I say, “Santa Monica.”

    • In 1919 the first republic of A. was called “The Republic of the German Austrians”. The point is that a germanic cultural identity existed before the nation-building took place. In one sense the whole of the DACH is one cultural area, in another sense the three meaningful cultural differences are Allemanic (Switzerland + the Vorarlberg state of Austria), South German (the rest of Austria + Bavaria) and North German (north from Bavaria). These are major linguistic and cultural barriers. These cultural identities are larger than just cities or regions, but indeed do not match well with the borders of nation state either.

      However in one sense you can consider the whole DACH one cultural area – from the viewpoint of its neighbors, the whole area is distinct becausei it is obsessed with order, discipline and efficiency instead of laying back and enjoying life. If you just drive through Switzerland (CH) you will notice when you left the German-speaking cantons and you are in Francophonia: things are noticeably more chaotic in the litter on the street sense (but arguably more enjoyable, more relaxed).

    • If I remember correctly one of the Austrian Emperors (Francis Joseph perhaps) called himself a “German Prince” so he seemed to consider himself a German. And yet he was loyal to his Empire, to his non-German nations and as heir of Austria to his native estates.

      Another example is Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakian nation never actually existed, Czechs and Slovaks did and then their “nation” was established by political fiat in order to rule the newly created country where none of the independent nation could form majority. Were Czechoslovakians a nation?

      So all this “national business” seems to be pretty complicated and vishmehr’s suggestion too general.

  5. Nation is defined by loyalty, not ancestry. A sense of belonging, a psychic fit between oneself and the national ideal makes one citizen of a nation.
    Lacking this psychic fit, even a born-citizen is alienated and makes himself a foreigner among his kin.
    Thus a hindu or a Jew could belong to the German nation,. for instance but not to the German tribe.

  6. Aren’t you overcomplicating it? Group favoritism can be justified by the simplest utiliarian angle: you need a Hayekian circumsantial knowledge, first-hand life experience and not just theories and statistics to be able to really help other people. So focus your altruism on that group of people you have the most first-hand experience with. This obviously creates concentric circles of focus. (Centered on YOU – which sounds uncomfortably egocentric to me but it is true that the people I know best is my immediate family.)

    For example, in all these online debates we try to use rational arguments but I think it is clear that it is very often just a rationalization for a feeling that is kept secret. Often the real way to help people is not to confront their rationalizations rationally but to root out the real emotional reasons behind them. So a stranger can throw at you half a dozen rationalistic arguments for his binge drinking habit not being that harmful and being fun, but if your nephew does it, you don’t need to engage them on this rationalizing level, but can say “Come on I know the real reason you drink is not all these clever arguments but that you feel hurt that that girl whom you thought will be the love of your life left you.” This is what circumstantial knowledge does.

    To really help people you need to be something sort of a self-made psychologist, always hunting for the real, inner, secret, suppressed, emotional stuff, and obviously you can do it better with the group of people you know best.

  7. Pingback: An alternative grand bargain on identity | Throne and Altar


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