As We Sailed Into The Mystic

Jonah Goldberg at The Corner:

Thanksgiving is actually my favorite holiday. I’ve discussed this a bunch of places. But here are the bullet points of why I love Thanksgiving:

• It’s not commercialized because there are no gifts. Kay Jewelers has not yet figured out how to pimp-out American womenfolk for Thanksgiving (“every drumstick begins with second-base” never caught on as a slogan).

• It’s America’s only nationalist holiday. The Fourth of July, President’s Day, and even Veterans’ and Memorial Day are celebrations of the nation-state created by the American founding. In short, our other holidays are about patriotism, not nationalism. Thanksgiving meanwhile celebrates a pre-constitutional relationship with the Almighty. I wouldn’t quite say it’s a pre-modern or blood-and-soil holiday, but it is about Providence and the great gift being here, in this place, is. A little mystic nationalism is a good and healthy thing because it provides the emotional sinew that helps us hold onto our patriotism. This country is great and good for many reasons. But one reason for its greatness,  too often forgotten, is that it is ours.

Will Wilkinson:

I strenuously disagree that a little mystic nationalism is “a good and healthy thing.” But I heartily agree with what I take Jonah to imply: that patriotism has little emotional substance without mystic nationalism.

Here’s your good and healthy:

Pascal-Emmanuel Gorby at The American Scene on Wilkinson:

Well, that’s just great.

Will, I heard you like capitalism, so I put some capitalism in your capitalism and here’s what capitalism looks like:


The great thing about the internet is that if you caricature an opponent you win, and if you can prove that something can sometimes have bad consequences, you’ve proven that thing is always bad.

Oh, wait. That’s not actually how it works! How it works is that you argue in good faith, come to reasonable disagreements, don’t call each other names, and maybe, every once in a while, convince the other guy or let yourself be convinced. In short, you behave better than 8 year olds in a schoolyard. At least, that’s how it should work.

But of course this is unlikely to happen when one (or both) protagonist(s) is convinced that they are the only ones who are objective and reasonable (ahem).

So yes, I agree with Jonah, I do think that a little “mystic nationalism” is a good and healthy thing because the union of the national polity around a common identity is the necessary precondition of its health.

And patriotism does have an irrational side, like most everything else we flawed creatures come up with. Of course the bad impulses of nationalism must be checked, as with the bad impulses of democracy, of free enterprise, and of everything else that we consider good and healthy.

How great it must be to be so enlightened, so above the morbid miasmas of irrational attachment, to be able to view the whole world unmoored from belonging. How irrational, how icky it must seem to be actually attached to something so quaint as one’s country. How coarse must be the dark bread of patriotism when one can feast on the fine brioche of enlightened cosmopolitanism. Let the world eat brioche! Cosmopolitans of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains!

I’ve long meant to pen here an elaborate defense of so-called “national greatness conservatism” intended for libertarians and conservatives who view every stirring of government as a threat (a generally healthy instinct to be sure but, like all instincts, one that must sometimes be checked).

The thrust of my argument would probably be this: that a strong national polity, cemented by a common identity, is the yin to democracy’s yang. Democracy is not about a ballot box, or even only about fundamental human rights. Democracy, at its core, is a national community choosing the rules and values that it wants to live by. And it is a great and wonderful thing that there are hundreds of nations, each different, each with its own specific quirks, ideas, and thoughts. And the fact that, in time, hopefully, each of these nations will secure for its members a universally shared set of human rights, will not mean that they can or should be subsumed in a globalist glob.

Conor Friedersdorf at TAC:

Mr. Wilkinson and PEG, for all their disagreements, seem to regard patriotism as beyond reason, and nonsensical without nationalism, but is it? The colonists of 1776 managed to begin a rather intellectually rigorous Revolution. I won’t pretend that everyone who fought in that struggle coldly reasoned things out, or delve into the many reasons that soon-to-be Americans rebelled against the British, but it is certainly the case that even after their victory, the generation that fought thought they owed primary allegiance to their states, and drew up the Articles of Confederation as a democratic expression of their values. That wasn’t a document of nationalists or National Greatness Conservatives! Indeed, the Constitution of 1789 stopped far short of what Weekly Standard national greatness conservatives would recommend for our polity.

5) In recent years, when patriotism has been used as an explicit argument for some policy or other, disaster has been the result far more often than any other outcome, and it is difficult to think of a particular good that it’s brought us. I’d argue that is explained by the fact that since 9/11 we’ve seen a perversion of patriotism.

If loving the United States of America means admiring, upholding and defending the values found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, patriotism is a good thing indeed, even if that intellectually driven love is bolstered by an emotional attachment to our community, our friends and our culture. That is my feeling, and I therefore consider myself a patriot. But if loving the United States of America is severed from admiring, upholding and defending those values — if America is supposed to be some ill-defined thing, and I am supposed to lend my support to whatever the person elected as its president decides — then patriotism is better guarded against than embraced.

Daniel Larison:

This is a lot of nonsense, which is just what we should expect from Wilkinson on this topic. For Wilkinson, patriotism and nationalism are virtually indistinguishable, so it suits him to accept Goldberg’s mistaken “mystic nationalism” line when he can use it to indict the former. In fact, patriotism has considerable emotional substance that nationalists have exploited for centuries. “Mystic nationalism” in itself is usually the product of a simplistic retelling of history mixed with a hefty dose of self-congratulation. It is the antithesis of patriotism as much as anything can be.

Goldberg is utterly, laughably wrong when he says that Thanksiving is “America’s only nationalist holiday.” There is nothing even remotely nationalist about Thanksgiving. Nationalism elevates the nation and, in its later manifestations, the nation-state to a position of virtual religious sanctity. Few things are capable of greater impiety than nationalism. To the extent that it has any political dimension, Thanksgiving is the negation of the arrogance, presumption and self-absorption that nationalism teaches. The celebration of Thanksgiving is supposed to be a recognition that all things are owed to God’s Providence, and that without Him we can do nothing. Nationalism is an obsession with our own virtues and a boast of our own strength. An act of thanksgiving is an acknowledgment that we are utterly dependent on God for everything.

If nationalists have since tried to hijack the story of the Pilgrims, who were as far removed in spirit from ideas of national greatness and power as possible (as they were both religious dissidents and political exiles), that has nothing to do with Thanksgiving. It is a reminder that nationalists have no respect for history, and that they will distort the past in whatever way they can to advance their cause.

UPDATE: Ilya Somin, here and here.

Goldberg responds

Wilkinson responds to Goldberg


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