Posts Tagged ‘Anatol Lieven’

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism” by Anatol Lieven

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

“America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism” by Anatol Lieven, Oxford University Press, 2004.

This is an important book.  Fortunately, it’s also a darn good read and a well-researched book.  (I’ve noticed that several of the books I’ve read lately, though incredibly dense, are shorter that I originally anticipated as the last 50-odd pages are the notes to the text!)

Lieven lays out the cultural and political history of what he calls our “national creed” and our “national antithesis”, the former being our aspirations toward individual liberty and participatory democracy, and the latter being our messianic willingness to force our ways upon other cultures around the globe.  The author neatly weaves in his knowledge of European history to draw illuminating parallels to our own progress as a nation from our founding to the present (in this case, 2004 — still in the middle of the Bush years).

The author lets us know that this book is written for an international audience that wants to understand why the most powerful nation on earth behaves the way it does.  And, boy, is our split-personality behavior set out for us to consider!  Yet the tone of this book strikes me as completely fair, and motivated by a deep admiration for the many (and undisputed) good things that America both represents and does in the world.  In that sense, it satisfies my own American vanity in the same way that I might enjoy the attention of a doctor on whatever concern brought me into his or her office.  The prescription, however, is always another matter.

The main target of concern for the book is, naturally, our high-keyed nationalism, which is growing in a hothouse of disdain for the views of anyone not of American citizenship: “Nationalism therefore risks undermining precisely these American values which make the nation most admired in the world and which in the end provide both a pillar for its current global power and the assurance that future ages will look back on it as a benign and positive leader of humanity”.

And the final chapter of the book is dedicated to the problems of our un-questioning support of Israel and the implications that this has for our expressed interest in both the suppression of Islamic terrorism and our need for allies in that battle in the Muslim world.

Along the way is a great primer on the basis of our particular form of Conservatism and how this has fed the view that, as God’s chosen nation, we don’t have to listen to a thing anybody else says about us.

Lieven’s descriptions make things make sense:  his is clear, concise, engaged and even in tone.  He has an international viewpoint that offers important perspective, particularly as it applies to our myopic belief that we can simply transfer our capitalist democracy into any foreign neighborhood:  “Historically speaking, there is little reason to believe that many of these societies are capable of supporting true democracies now or that the kind of democracies they might create would be able to bring about rapid and stable economic growth.  This is not to say that authoritarian rule is any kind of universal recipe for economic success either.  What it indicates rather is that we actually know very little about universally applicable rules for human progress, assuming such rules exist at all.”

I can highly recommend this book.  It’s everything I like in a book of this kind: informative, enlightening, intelligent and dense, like a meal that is flavorful, nutritious and filling.  Yum.

In closing, I’ll include a few selected quotes from the book:

“Daniel Bell’s words of 1963 remain true today: “What the right wing is fighting, in the shadow of Communism, is essentially ‘modernity’ — that complex of beliefs that might be defined most simply as the belief in rational assessment, rather than established custom, for the evaluation of social change.  But it is precisely those established ways that a modernist America has been forced to call into question.””  P. 91

“The tragicomic aspect of the situation of politically conservative American religious believers is that the laissez-faire capitalism which they support is not only undermining their economic world, but through the mass media and entertainment industries is also playing a central role in biting away at their moral universe.”  P. 127

“American liberal writers have expressed a certain bewilderment about the way in which, over large areas of the United States, growing economic and social desperation on the part of many White workers leads them to vote not for progressive liberals, but for right-wing Republican candidates.  The radical capitalist economic policies pursued by these politicians then contribute still further to precisely those economic trends which are corroding working-class incomes, status, and self-respect, leading to yet more radical conservatism, and so on and on: a kind of political perptuum mobile.”  P.220

‘If the middle classes continue to crumble, they may therefore take with them one of the essential pillars of American political stability and moderation.  As in European countries in the past, such a development would create the perfect breeding ground for radical nationalist groups and for even wilder dreams of “taking back” America at home and restoring the old moral, cultural and possibly racial order.”  P. 221

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Which Century are We In?” by the-not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

I’ve jumped in a couple of times on the New York City Muslim “Community Center” debate this week.  Having become so engaged locally in political debate with the TEA Party, my primary impulse was to defend the freedom of religion pronouncements of our Constitution, and, well, use that as a hammer to pound these Conservatives that have portrayed (literally) President Obama as one who is “shredding the Constitution”.

Setting aside the extreme xenophobia that such a debate always brings out (the church in Florida scheduling a “Burn the Koran Day”, for example), I understand the unease that people feel.  The difference is, I think, that I feel an unease about any religious structure, be it Muslim or Christian, Mormon or Scientologist, as they are all monuments (to varying degrees) to irrational belief.

But on another level, churches are expressions of human community, and to the extant that this is what they represent, I am supportive.  Of course, we never get one without the other.

Leaving for now the completely irrational, our more general fear of Muslims is that they will not assimilate — that they will remain a separate society within our own.  Of course, there is truth in this, particularly among immigrants.  But this has always been the case with any immigrant population to one degree or another.  I calm myself from this fear with the fact that it is generally the second generation that become, truly, “American”.  That transformation performed, to a great extent, by the nearly irresistible appeal of our consumer society.

We are now, and have always been, a mix.  The conservative strain in our culture seems to have been forged mostly in the southern states, based on a shared Scots/Irish root system that was traumatized by the disaster of the American Civil War (not to mention earlier dislocations and humiliations in the “old” country).  So that even among these that think of themselves as true and historic Americans, there is a certain communal isolationism that is distrustful of modernity and dismissive of the “elites” of New York City, Washington, D.C. and, well, the rest of the planet.

History has a power that is largely unrecognized in our daily lives, and issues like the (so called) “Ground Zero Mosque” bring all sorts of historic memory to the surface.  Not just the recent memory of 9/11, but even our ancient human tribal nature that distrusts and violently rejects the “other”, the “outsider”.  We like to think that we live, now, in the age of reason, but I am reminded time and time again that our thin veneer of modernity rests upon the impulses and instincts of ice-age humans.  As Chrisopher Hitchens likes to say, our problem is that “Our adrenal glands are too large, and our frontal lobes are too small”.  To put it another way: we shoot first and ask questions later.

I spent a bit of time this week in a running argument on Facebook with a conservative friend (and his friends) because I thought they should stop believing things for which there was no evidence.  Of course they just called me a socialist, changed the subject, or referenced sources that were more factories of make-believe than repositories of evidence.  They felt politically attacked, but my point was the more basic one I keep making: that we can’t have a reasonable discussion of an important issue if one side or the other is ready, willing and eager to say whatever is in their mind that is not supported by evidence.

Of course a great source of the anti-science, anti-intellectual force in our society is the conservative, religious right, rooted in the American South which was not only defeated in the Civil War, but also humiliated and marginalized by the same “East coast elites” that the conservative movement criticizes today.

As I ponder the power of history, I realize that there are consistent parallels between the personal and the cultural: we are comfortable with what we are born into, and it is only through effort (a willingness to abandon the cherished falsehood for the better answer) that we progress as individuals and as a species.

In “America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism” by Anatol Lieven (reviewed this week), the author offers a quote from 1963 by Daniel Bell:   “What the right wing is fighting, in the shadow of Communism, is essentially ‘modernity’ — that complex of beliefs that might be defined most simply as the belief in rational assessment, rather than established custom, for the evaluation of social change.  But it is precisely those established ways that a modernist America has been forced to call into question.”

We see this same struggle against “modernity” in the Muslim world.  The major difference between “them” and “us” being that the American religious right is stuck in the 19th century, while Islam appears to be stuck in the 12th.

So the question becomes this: how do we all move together into the 21st century?

t.n.s.r. bob