by Seth Nightengale

We have always lived our lives in communion with others. There exists no scenario or time predating civilization in which the human can be considered seriously as an essentially and naturally lonesome being. Our communal experience of life is the well from which we draw much of existence’s rich meaning. However, many customs which serve as the backbone of the nation-state (citizenship, love for one’s country, and adherence to societal mores) endure unyielding assault. Tradition is innately plagued by chronic decay, but never have the symptoms of its absence been so acutely apparent as they are now: words are often equated with violence; conflict over national sentiment is so pervasive that figures as trivial as football players are conscripted into the culture wars; and citizenship is diluted to the point that many major cities openly dismiss the notion as a mere formality, abandoning the idea of citizenship entirely and openly welcoming illegal aliens. It is time that we asserted ourselves as a nation principally, and a humanitarian organization with a fetish for free-trade secondarily.

The idea of being allegiant to neighbors, with whom one shares values, traditions, and territory, is regarded as little more than plebeian ignorance in the eyes of western intelligentsia. For the noble, beneficent intellectual, ties of neighborliness and custom prove to be little more than an oppressive formality. They, the liberators, enlighten by providing benevolent emancipation to the suffering, ignorant masses slogging away under the nation’s yoke. Thus, progressive ideology is often steeped in the motif of “teaching” or “explaining.” However, nothing can be further from the truth of the matter. National sentiment–the idea that we share bonds of neighborliness and an obligation to protect our mutual way of life with our compatriots–is in fact one of mankind’s greatest achievements.

It is true that humans are social animals. We work, eat, and find fulfillment with others. Indeed, it is an essential aspect of being human to know other humans. Dostoyevsky’s canon, for example, portrays the madness of isolation and the loneliness of arrogance. Since we must live with one another, we should strive to live together well, informed by custom and concern for future generations. We must find ties that bind and affirm or we will find ourselves hindered by uglier, primitive classifications–or, worse, a total absence of identity. According to Roger Scruton, the beauty of the nation state “is that they grow from below, through habits of free association among neighbors, and result in loyalties that are attached to a place and its history, rather than to a religion, a dynasty, or, as in Europe, to a self-perpetuating political class.”[1] In lieu of the unalterable chains of race and ethnicity, the nation-state can function with padded ties of neighborliness and a shared way of life. When compared with realistic alternatives, the modern nation-state is among the greatest of our inheritances.

Undergirding the nation as a concept (and the point at which many accuse average people with a normal pride in their homeland of “nationalism”) is a belief in its constitution or way of life. Constitution, with its American connotation, is quite different from its classical conception. Aristotle, living in the midst of the nation-state’s first embers, writes, “The citizen-body is the constitution.”[2] The actual constitution, the fabric of our society, is not written, enshrined, or enumerated. In Aristotle’s constitution, there are no listed terms and conditions for opting out of the arrangement. It is lived. The success of the nation-state lies in its ability to protect its people and preserve its way of life. It binds together not only through legalistic terms of consent, but also through shared language, custom, territory, and values. It is a body not of oppressive legalism, but of harmony.

The nation-state belongs to a different class of obligations by virtue of its constitution. Take, as an analogy, the symphony. When examined plainly, the symphony is but a group of individuals that come together of their own volition, playing their instruments simultaneously. When the concert concludes, they return home. They perform together for enjoyment, and they would be none the worse if they simply never did so again. However, upon hearing a work of art performed by such a symphony, the human capacity for meaning would undoubtedly resist describing it in mechanical terms. While it may be true that bows are pulled across strings and air is blown through horns at specific frequencies and a certain tempo, this description tells us nothing of the experience. The product of their labor is far superior to the sum of its parts. Yet in order for a symphony to perform the intricacies of Tchaikovsky, its members must contribute as individuals. This metaphor allows for significant extension: after all, if a musician were to quit the symphony the night before a performance, wouldn’t it hinder the others, even though it has nothing to do with them as individuals? Or suppose the director were to add a didgeridoo to the cello section? Would that not ruin the entire affair?

What happens when musicians stop believing in the symphony? Tchaikovsky truly dies. Perhaps performing Tchaikovsky is not to the symphony’s comparative advantage, or it is less popular than this moment’s hit, so it dies. The movement towards individual liberation–which espouses the individual as king above all, uninhibited by responsibility or obligation–has ripped apart the fabric of our society. The empowered individual’s greatest enemies are both societal mores (the nuclear family, chiefly) and national sentiment. In the words of Edmund Burke:

It (the state) is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those that are living, but between those that are living, those that are dead, and those who are to be born.[3]

Members of a family may fight and, in fact, fight often. Yet there is never a question as to their relation to one another. Their association is not willingly formed, and it is certainly not willingly nullified.  

When the musicians stop believing their work to be of any merit, when the family members believe they can absolve themselves of obligation, the symphony and the family alike crumble. Critics of the nation-state are correct in pointing out that it imposes burdens that an individual in the state of nature would never voluntarily assume. There are many aspects of my nation that I too am unsatisfied with, but there is a key difference between questioning the merit of policy and undermining the very presuppositions of our democracy. Democracies require national allegiance. In our blind hostility to the phantom menace of “nationalism,” we have kneecapped ourselves.

We are not joined together as a nation in the pursuit of globalized free trade. Neither are we a humanitarian aid organization intent on ameliorating the world’s ailments. We are a nation of people with a way of life, a culture, and a set of values that we believe must be preserved, and we have every right to act in defense of our commonalities. Insofar as other nations or systems of trade threaten to undermine this national culture, our obligation is to each other rather than markets; to the future of our children rather than to abstract supranational agreements like those of the United Nations–or in the case of European states, the EU. As the progressive intelligentsia and the conservative establishment clutch their pearls in response to Middle America questioning free trade and notions of political civility, one thing is clear: Americans believe they are bound together by ties greater than free trade, and they will assert it. They don’t believe in open borders, they don’t care about the Paris climate accords, and they spend their lives breaking their bodies to earn a living, so they don’t swallow the counterfactual premises in the “make everything free” school of thought. It will not always be pure rationality, and it will not always be “nice,” but national sentiment will assert itself from the bottom of our society up, and it will do so until elites listen or find themselves subsumed.

Seth Nightengale is a student at the University of Oklahoma.

Notes:

[1] Scruton, Roger. 2014. How To Be A Conservative. New York: Bloomsbury. (36)

[2]Aristotle. 1962. The Politics. London: Penguin. (187)

[3] Burke, Edmund. 1993. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Oxford: Oxford Press. (96)