Sunday, July 20, 2008

Renan & the nation

What is a nation? John Laughland asked this question recently at Brussels Journal, and gave an impressive answer; he did exactly what needs to be done, which is to intelligently examine the liberal principles on which the modern order is based:

“What is a nation?” Ernest Renan famously asked in 1882 and concluded that it was a group of people who had decided to live together. The definition has stuck because it encapsulates the most cherished belief of all liberals, which is that human life is essentially about individual choice ...

Even Renan’s definition, however, contained a fudge – a fudge which was essential to prevent his idea from descending into obvious absurdity. He said that a nation was a group of people which had done great things in the past and which wanted to do more in the future. The use of “wanted” was essential to preserve his key notion of choice, but his reference to the past made a nonsense of it.

The people who have done great things in the history of the nation are not the same people (not the same individuals) who are alive now. It is therefore wrong to elide the two uses of the word “people” into one. A people cannot be defined by choice: if members of a nation find or believe that their country has a glorious past, then that past is precisely something inherited and not chosen, like one’s parents. One’s parents determine an individual in a way the individual has not chosen and cannot control.


Laughland has put this well. Liberal autonomy theory is based on the idea that to be fully human we must be self-creating, self-determining individuals. This means that we must be "liberated" from whatever impedes individual choice. This sounds nice, but has drastic consequences. As Laughland points out, it undermines a traditional national identity, as this is "something inherited, not chosen".

But does liberal autonomy theory describe reality? Are we really uninfluenced by inherited forms of identity? Do we really make choices as autonomously as the liberal theory hopes and claims we do?

Laughland observes the situation in England today and concludes not. He writes of the young white people who marched against the violence currently sweeping England that:

their unspoken choice – their instinct – to rally together reveals a good deal about the nature of human action. It reveals, in particular, that choice and forms of behaviour are, in fact, partly determined by ethnicity – very often without people being aware of it.

The Renanian attempt to carve out a sphere for the liberal ideal of free individual choice is therefore doomed to failure. Just as Joseph de Maistre said that he had never met “a man” but only Frenchmen, Englishmen and so on, so our free individual choices are in fact influenced by factors we have not chosen. These include our parents, our nationhood and our ethnic background. They form part of what we are as individuals – we are all members of various human groups – and the human condition is unthinkable without them.

A nation, in other words, is not a “community of values” or an impersonal social construct governed by certain laws. A nation – as the word suggests, derived as it is from the verb ‘to be born’ – is a family.


But what of the opposition? What about those who strongly support the liberal view? There's a forum called Debate and relate which recently debated a statement by the former Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, namely that:

An Australian is someone who chooses to live here, obey the law and pays taxes.


Hawke is following autonomy theory logically by stating that to be an Australian all you have to do is choose to live in Australia. It seems, though, to empty the concept of an Australian identity of meaning. A commenter at the forum made the obvious objection that:

According to Hawke, Australians have no distinct ethnic or cultural identity. In fact, they have absolutely nothing to define them as a people - no history, traditions, ancestors, customs or heroes. To be an 'Australian' is not to belong to a distinct national community; it simply means you live here and pay tax.

In short, it seems that Hawke is saying that 'Australians' don't really exist in any meaningful sense.


Hawke, though, found a defender. One commenter thought that Hawke's position on a national identity was the morally right one:

To say it is just 'to live here, obey the law and pay taxes' is opening up the door for the individual to create his own identity. To say we have 'distinct identity' is to indoctrinate people into a 'social/cultural straightjacket'. But because you're a right-wing redneck retard, you'll maintain that everyone ought to act just as you say; because you have psychological fascist tendencies. Who knows, maybe one day you'll grow up and respect other's decisions to live a life they choose.


Autonomy theory has led this person to see any kind of meaningful communal identity in negative terms as a restriction on individual choice (a "straitjacket"). He takes a defence of a distinct identity to be an act of disrespect toward others; he explains it as an assertion of power over others by those who are psychologically authoritarian.

There are a few things to say in response to this. First, it's obviously hopeless to try to uphold an existing national tradition when people follow autonomy theory in this way. That's why John Laughland is right to take the argument back to first principles and to explain why autonomy theory is misconceived.

Second, the above quote is a good example of how liberalism in practice is anything but neutral on important issues. To even assert the existence of a distinct identity is damned as illegitimate in the quote. So even though we are supposed to be granted free choice by liberal autonomy theory, in practice much is put entirely out of bounds (including much that is most significant in our lives).

Third, the quote suggests the insincerity of the ideal of multiculturalism. The liberal commenter hates the very thought of identity; don't tell me then that he is motivated by an appreciation of ethnic culture. Presumably, if he does support diversity it's because he doesn't want any particular culture to predominate and to form an obvious source of identity for individuals.

23 comments:

  1. An interesting post. A few thoughts:

    - I think Laughland's (and presumably your) critique of the left-liberal conception of "nation" is spot on. To me, the dictum "birds of a feather flock together" is explanatory enough. For evidence, I need only look around me in America. My country is chock full of national subgroups based on racial-ethnic identities. The only exception is European whites, who are largely not allowed to admit to a bond with other whites based on ethnic or racial heritage. Often I get the distinct impression that this racial-ethnic identity supercedes the "American" one, particularly for non-Europeans.

    - This brings me to my second thought. I've seen it written that Americans are unique among countries in that to be an American is defined by allegiance to a piece of paper. This would be the ultimate expression of the left-liberal POV that we "choose" our national identity. Personally, I think this identity yields under stress to more concrete, more easily observable and verifiable bonds of common culture and skin coloration. I don't think that the civic religion is enough to bind people who look and act significantly different from one another together.

    "But because you're a right-wing redneck retard, you'll maintain that everyone ought to act just as you say; because you have psychological fascist tendencies."

    Perhaps it is different in Australia than in the States, but the people who busy themselves dictating the actions of others are the left-liberals, not the "right-wing redneck retards".

    "...the quote suggests the insincerity of the ideal of multiculturalism. The liberal commenter hates the very thought of identity;"

    Not quite, he just hates the idea of a European identity. All other cultures are valued more than a Western, European culture.

    Identity based on ethnic or racial lines is the default position of humanity. Left-liberals who claim that choice drives identity are deluding themselves; what's more, if they bothered to look at the data they'd see that mutliculturalism decreases cohesiveness and precipitates higher crime rates.

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  2. A people cannot be defined by choice: if members of a nation find or believe that their country has a glorious past, then that past is precisely something inherited and not chosen, like one’s parents.

    And this is precisely why all rightist identity politics, all nationalist fervour and xenophobia, are just so much imbecility. Founding collective identity on the basis of an empirical accident (such as ethnicity) is logically not a whit different to founding identity on the basis of the day of the week on which one was born.

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  3. Whatever your point of view on the 'nation' issue is, it cannot be denied that the rights of traditional English people in England (over migrants) trump the rights of Anglo Australian's over migrants in Australia.

    Simply because the defender of the national English character is 'indigenous' whereas the defender of white traditionalism in Australia is a colonialist.

    This differentiation is never mentioned in this blog, nor in any other blog.

    Savvas Tzionis

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  4. And this is precisely why all rightist identity politics, all nationalist fervour and xenophobia, are just so much imbecility. Founding collective identity on the basis of an empirical accident (such as ethnicity) is logically not a whit different to founding identity on the basis of the day of the week on which one was born.

    An unfathomably stupid comment.

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  5. daThere is a lacuna in western social psychology where a positive identity once existed. By a positive identity I mean a set of unchosen beliefs and values which used to give meaning to individuals' lives and unite them, on a psychological level, with the rest of society. I would say that classical liberalism, or the Enlightenment more generally, undermined this unchosen identity, which consisted of (1) religion,
    (2)ethnicity, (3) social class and (4) gender.

    Modernism has been a process of coming to terms with the undermining of these sources of identity. I state this idea not because I believe it to be original (it could hardly be less so), but because I think we need to lok carefully at what precisely it is that we wish to defend against the further incursions of liberalism.

    I would contend that a positive social identity has become problematic for conservatives as much as for liberals, insofar as at least some of the traditional sources for it have obsolesced irrevocably. Whatever anyone says, religion is dying a slow death in the West, and will continue to do so because humanity has outgrown it. Social class no longer means what it did in the pre-modern world, and there are not many people who would wish to see the individual so circumscribed by the accident of his birth as he was for most of human history. Ethnicity, taken as the foundation for national identity, is problematic because what it refers to is the coextensive pairing of race and culture. To base one's conception of national idenitity on the former is arbitrary (not to say racist), while to base it on the latter is problematic, since culture is largely the combination of the other factors under discussion. All of this leaves Gender as perhaps the only meaningful form of unchosen identity (which perhaps is why you, Mark, bestow such a lot of attention on it!); however, it is obvious that gender has little or nothing to do with the concept of nationality.

    As Kant said, "Enlightenment is man's liberation from his own self-imposed minority." Once this has occurred, we cannot logically go back to a state of innocence which, assuming it ever existed, would to the modern subject be merely another lifestyle choice. Like it or not, we now exercise choice in all the aspects of our lives from which conservatives think we should construct an "unchosen" identity. It is self-contradictory to say that an unchosen indentity can be chosen; yet that seems to be exactly what you urge the readers of this blog to do!

    Of course, the problem is almost as old as Englightenment itself. Burke argued in favour of the established constitution of Britain on the grounds that it embodied the wisdom of ages. but to do this, he had to prove that it did not embody the folly of ages. Thus even he had to descend from the unreflective sense of tradition (what he called "predjudice")to the ground of first principes (the "social contract" he posits as existing between the living, the dead and the unborn).

    But now more than ever, as tradition increasingly fragments, to declare oneself a defender of "tradition" becomes problematic. It is always possible to defend the status quo, but beyond that, which tradition are we to CHOOSE for our own? will it be, for example, the Laissez faire individualism of Adam Smith and his ideological descendants? Or will it be a form of socialism tracing its pedigree back to the Chartists and before? Which of these two radically different political philosophies one should adopt cannot be settled by an appeal to tradition.

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  6. Savvas Tzionis: "Simply because the defender of the national English character is 'indigenous' whereas the defender of white traditionalism in Australia is a colonialist."

    The English are primarily descended from the Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic tribes that migrated from mainland Europe into Britain following the end of the Roman occupation, with admixture from later migrants such as the Vikings and Normans.

    So, one could argue that the English aren't indigenous either.

    Does that mean the English are less entitled to preserve their nation than, say, the Greeks?

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  7. Mark,

    Another article with the same title that you may find of interest.

    What is a nation?

    The author, a Canadian, observes:

    "... the collapse of the British Empire as a meaningful entity in the 1950s, and the attenuation of British identity in Britain itself from about 1965 onward (sometimes called “the abolition of Britain”), have left English Canadians with a permanently undermined sense of identity, which some commentators have called “the permanent cringe.”

    Ironically, today’s WASPs in Canada are probably their own worst enemies, when considered in relation to what English Canada traditionally represented. Many of them seem to have almost naturally cleaved to the most intense extremes of political correctness. In some cases, this could be explained as self-interest allowing them to live extremely materially comfortable lives, but on the other hand, some of them seem to be genuinely enthusiastic about being massively self-hating. Doubtless, there are elaborate mental gymnastics, which could be the basis of extensive deeper scholarly study, and which allow the typical WASP to not face up to just how culturally self-hating he or she is. One supposes that one way out is to embrace environmentalism, which is certainly prima facie among the most attractive-seeming philosophies that is considered to be on the Left today."


    Sound familiar?

    It seems that Anglos do have an identity after all - one based upon self-loathing.

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  8. Jal, race isn't really abitrary as a category as it marks a group of people who share a common ancestry. These people are related to each other and they can easily identify with each other as belonging to the same tradition spanning generations.

    This doesn't mean that a traditional identity is formed around race alone. In reality, identity is usually ethnic: it is based on some combination of race, language, religion, culture, manners and so on.

    That's why we think, say, of the Japanese in terms of a range of characteristics, not just their race.

    It is actually more arbitrary to attempt to form human societies by gathering people randomly from around the world. Why should the Somalian living next to the Iraqi living next to the Chinese be put together in the one society? On what basis are they thrown together? They are not more closely related to each other than anyone else would be; nor do they share any aspect of a cultural tradition.

    A traditional ethnic community, in other words, is non-arbitrary: it is based on a degree of relatedness and on a shared tradition.

    It is the modern form of community which is arbitrary, as it randomly selects a group of individuals to form a particular society.

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  9. In the past or now, the great majority of people in a given region have not chosen their path to settlement according to the more philosophical terms being discussed here. Economics, both personal and broader scale, has more to do with such movements and arrangements.

    In terms of where we are heading as nations, we must assess the nature of those who form the leading edge of our "social progress" and where we find it wanting or deleterious, actively influence it by whatever suitable means. Societies are better leavened through an "organic" process by responsible citizens where the state is not omnipotent. Tradition must develop in this way and not from any particular party or elite class (I'm not suggesting anyone here has advocated this). How to awaken millions from their consumerist and/or socialist slumber is another matter.

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  10. It's scary that there is so much self-hatred here in the west. We should be much more nationalistic. In fact, everybody should be proud of their country, unless you come from a Muslim country or something.

    But I don't understand leadpb's comments about 'consumerism'. I think this is more socialist self-hatred too. Jesus would have wanted us to be wealthy, and consumerism helps that, by feeding our economy.

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  11. Anonymous (21 July 8:25), thanks for linking to the Mark Wegierski piece from The Social Contract. It's very good - well worth the read.

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  12. kevin,

    I meant the sort of mindless consumerism that has taken root in recent decades. It is one of the more conspicuous substitutions for the personal and communal goods that Mark refers to frequently.

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  13. Re. "Why should the Somali living next to the Iraqui living next to the Chinese be put together in the same society?" I guess the question I keep asking myself is why, in good faith, should they not? You use words like " Tradition," "culture" and "identity" as if they meant something; but I am questioning what that something can be for a modern subject to whom such allegiances don't come naturally. Have I left something out of the analysis of traditional identity given in my last post?

    Let's take the Japanese. What does their culture consist of? I don't deny that Japanese are recognisable by their psysiognomy, their language and their dietary habits, as well as by any number of other indicators; but I ask, is all of this sufficient to define them? You speak of a shared sense of history, but being able to recite facts and dates learned in school would appear to be neither necessary nor sufficient to confirms one's ethnic identity. Must we add to this a biased valuation of such data? Must loyal Japanese, for example, be proud of the Rape of Nanjing? And what if one is objective enough to admit that the history of one's own people is not, taken as a whole, particularly praiseworthy?

    The biased perspective I speak of is that of ideology, or wish-fulfillment on a social scale.
    The reason, in other words, that I distrust nationalism is because I think it is just another form of utopianism--only projected backwards.

    Or to take a more problematic example, what is an Australian? If I don't observe Anzac Day or other national holidays, do I qualify as one? I know you will say that it depends on my ethicity, on my membership in an extended "family." But isn't that just another piece of untruthful ideology? Do you really feel somehow closer to a stranger of Anglo-Saxon descent than to one of Chinese descent? More able to ask for help should you find yourself in need?

    The reality, I think, is that we live in a society of strangers, and that group membership is growing elusive quite regardless of the influx of immigrants from different cultures who, with the exception on some Muslims, are just as deracinated as we ourselves.

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  14. "Do you really feel somehow closer to a stranger of Anglo-Saxon descent than to one of Chinese descent?"

    In short, yes.

    People generally have an affinity for people that resemble them.

    As Steve Sailer writes:

    I wrote an article in 2001 entitled "Immigration and Welfare" recounting a study done by Frank Salter (the sociobiologically-oriented political scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany) on Moscow beggars. Some were Russians, just like the vast majority of the pedestrians. Other panhandlers were dressed in the distinctive garb of Moldova, a small former Soviet republic that gained independence in 1991. Finally, some of the beggars were darker-skinned Gypsies (also known as Roma), who are visibly of South Asian origin.

    "Unbeknownst to them, the beggars were being monitored by a team of ethologists (students of the science of behavior). The researchers counted each time a passerby gave money to a beggar. A pattern soon emerged. The Russian pedestrians preferred to give to their fellow Russians, with the Moldavians, their fellow Eastern Europeans, as their second choice. The Asiatic Gypsies were so unpopular that they had to resort to a wide variety of tactics to scrounge spare change, ranging from singing and dancing, to importuning tightwads, to dressing up their children in crutches and eye-patches."

    This wasn't an anomaly. Salter has compiled a broad array of evidence (summed up in his new book Welfare, Ethnicity, and Altruism: New Findings and Evolutionary Theory) indicating that people tend to be more generous to those more closely related to themselves genealogically.


    As an Australian of Irish and Polish descent, it's fair to say that I have much more in common genealogically and culturally with the English than I do with the Chinese. That is not "another piece of untruthful ideology", it's a genetic and historical fact.

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  15. "Have I left something out of the analysis of traditional identity given in my last post?"

    You seem to view "traditional identity" as some sort of imaginary construct, ignoring that the need to identify with others like oneself, and to be with one's own kind, is a major component of human nature. Throught history, ethnic identity has been a powerful force in human affairs. Group members have "ties of blood" that make them distinct and different from outsiders. This is why patriotism is almost always seen as a virtue and a logical extension of family loyalty. It also explains why ethnic slurs or remarks so easily incite group outrage. Culture builds on genetic similarity and is bound together by it. In most historic national communities, patriotism is preached in kinship terms. Nations are thus known as the "motherland" or the "fatherland" and unions and churches refer to their members as "brothers" and "sisters."

    The historical view of a nation as an extended family was not a fantasy, but a genetic reality in most cases. Even settler societies such as Australia, the United States, Canada, Argentina etc. were founded around a core ethnic group.

    The reality, I think, is that we live in a society of strangers, and that group membership is growing elusive quite regardless of the influx of immigrants from different cultures who, with the exception on some Muslims, are just as deracinated as we ourselves.

    Not true. Most non-European immigrant minorities in Australia still define themselves as groups with interests distinct from those of the whole and work openly for group advantage. It's only old-stock Anglo-Celtic Australians who have forsaken their group interests for individualistic liberalism.

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  16. Jal, I've been thinking about your comments, and what strikes me about them more than anything else is that they define politics in a way that ensures a loss from the outset.

    In other words, if I adopted a politics as defined in your comments, then I as a conservative would have conceded defeat even before I had stepped into the political arena.

    The odd thing is that conservatives have a habit of doing just that. They accept so much of the liberal definition of politics that they lose a principled basis for opposing the trends they dislike within modern society.

    I'm determined not to repeat this mistake and I hope to persuade other conservatives to make a more decisive and principled break with liberalism also.

    Jal, I wonder what you are left with at the end of it all? You seem to have accepted a deracinated status and a place as an individual in a society of strangers. You seem to have no problem with being thrown together with any assortment of people.

    What is going to motivate you to make sacrifices for such a society? And if you refuse to make sacrifices, then how will the society progress in the long term? And what is going to shield the individual in such a society from anomie and alienation?

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  17. Jal, I'd like to respond more specifically as well to one of your points. You wrote:

    The biased perspective I speak of is that of ideology, or wish-fulfillment on a social scale.
    The reason, in other words, that I distrust nationalism is because I think it is just another form of utopianism--only projected backwards.

    Or to take a more problematic example, what is an Australian? If I don't observe Anzac Day or other national holidays, do I qualify as one? I know you will say that it depends on my ethicity, on my membership in an extended "family." But isn't that just another piece of untruthful ideology?


    This misunderstands a traditional nationalism. Such a nationalism has little to do with ideology or utopianism or public holidays.

    In fact, one of the benefits of ethnic nationalism is that it is not defined in terms of the formal beliefs you hold or the formal observances you make. Either you are born into it, or else you assimilate successfully into it.

    Therefore, if you are born in Japan as an ethnic Japanese, you can be left-wing or right-wing; you can recognise the past misdeeds of your nation or ignore them; you can enthusiastically attend national festivals or stay at home and watch trash TV - but you are still Japanese.

    That's why the problem of modern deracination is not as insurmountable as you claim. As long as people are allowed to live together as part of their own ethny, then you have the conditions for such deracination to be overcome.

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  18. You completely ignored Jal's points.

    I'm an Australian. I define myself as Australian, though, as any Australian knows, this category means more when you're overseas. So, my background is Italian-Irish Catholic, and my other half is Hungarian Jew.
    By your definitions, my partner and I should have nothing in common, and should stick to what's safe. Well, I think people can seek identifications other than the ethnic, and I think that ethnic identifications are for imbeciles, those for whom more meaningful identities are too elusive for their empty souls. It is truly the empty of soul and empty of head who need an ethnic identity to shore up their pathetic sense of self. Real men with real identities are capable of withstanding some fluid boundaries and, moreover, life.

    I pity you.

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  19. thr: oh, now we are all enlightened! Thank you!

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  20. "It is truly the empty of soul and empty of head who need an ethnic identity to shore up their pathetic sense of self."

    If anything, the opposite is true. The weaker the bonds of ethnic identity, the more people retreat from community life and into themselves. This has been shown by a number of studies (and I'd be glad to supply the references).

    I suppose you could say we're in a transitional stage. We haven't yet adapted to the new reality of post-national societies. Perhaps. But isn't this the same tune we used to hear from the Marxists? Just give us more time. Soon the New Socialist Man will be born ...

    If you really wish to experiment with human nature, why not do it on a small scale? That way, if things don't turn out as expected, you won't screw up life for the rest of us.

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  21. Thr, you don't have to be a "real man" to take your position - you just have to go along passively and obediently with a modernist orthodoxy.

    And it is very odd that you should think of the individualistic position - in which we have no connection to an enduring tradition - as the spiritual one. It is the cut off, individualistic position which seems empty to me.

    In fact, the whole modernist trend is to claim that our beliefs and values are to be regarded as mere "constructs" and that what counts as real are simply individual acts of will and desire.

    So how you get to the claim that there is a spiritually rich form of identity in the modernist view is beyond me. There is just you and your desires and your acts of will. There are no objectively given sources of value or meaning.

    Finally, I was a little bemused to read your appeal to masculinity and spirituality.

    Have Marxist leftists now given up their strictly materalist world view? Have they abandoned their criticism of masculinity as a false essentialism and as an oppressive social construct?

    It reminds me of the time a feminist complained that my unwillingness to give up a fatherhood role, in favour of a gender neutral parenting one, was "unmasculine".

    Was I supposed to take her criticism seriously and in good faith?

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  22. "It is truly the empty of soul and empty of head who need an ethnic identity to shore up their pathetic sense of self."

    Fine, go down to Chinatown, set yourself up a little soapbox and by all means don't hold back, brother! I'm sure they'll REALLY appreciate your perspective. There are literally billions of people out there who have yet to be reached by your wisdom.

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  23. Just a quick note to round off my intervention on this topic.

    For the record, I know of no good arguments FOR mass immigration, but of many (social, economic and--yes, even cultural) against it. I won't rehearse these here, since I am sure you are all aware of them. I am therefore, despite the impression I may have given, an immigration restrictionist.

    Also, I retract my rash comment on the equally "deracinated" nature of both Anglo- and other Australian communities. Wasn't it only recently that the Chinese community here showed us where their true loyalties lie, over the issue of Tibet? The causes for the deracination we experience, and which makes it so difficult to identify with our own ethnicity, are primarily the heritage of Western Liberalism.

    In parentheses, though, isn't another word for "autonomy theory" "individualism"? And isn't that supposed to be one of our defining values as a Western culture? I recently read a foolish book on this subject: Suicide of the West (Koch and Smith), which lamented the decline of cultural confidence in the West, while uncritically lauding Western individualism. It should be obvious to readers of this blog that there is a contradiction here!

    Re. Mark's last intervention, I admit that there is no possibility of founding a conservative politics on a rejection of traditional identity. I suppose I should conclude by pointing out that my tone here has not been polemical, but merely sceptical.

    When it comes to taking sides, however, I admit that I am horrified at the thought of an Australia in which English is one language among many; where the European cultural heritage is only one syllabus among many at schools and universities, as well as by the social, economic and environmental impact of mass immigration.

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