Sunday, June 06, 2004

Nationalism & the double standard

If you're a liberal and you believe that the great good is for everyone to follow their unimpeded individual will, you are left with a considerable problem. If everyone follows individual desire won't there be a chaos of conflicting wills?

Not so, said the classical (right) liberals. The free market regulates things so that the pursuit of individual desire is balanced to create prosperity for all.

This is why right liberals focus on people in terms of their economic activity: they see individual free enterprise as achieving not just economic goals, but as solving the larger philosophical aim of human freedom and progress.

Left liberals reject this approach to the basic problem of liberalism. They see the free market as creating an entrenched inequality which itself forms a kind of impediment to individual will. Left liberals prefer a higher level of state involvement in the economy to overcome this, and they are unimpressed with the right liberal conception of "economic man."

You can see this opposition at play in the debate about local content on Australian television. At the moment, there are free trade discussions between Australia and the US. Some left liberal commentators are worried that the Australian local content laws for television will be abolished as part of a free trade agreement.

For instance, Thomas Keneally, the well-known Australian author, has complained in an article for the Age (27/5/03) that,

There are commentators in Australia who think any defence of Australian content, say, or any government intervention on Australia's cultural behalf, is a fatuous, jingoistic, old-fashioned interference with global economic forces ...

The impulse to maximise the market is obviously better served if there were just one popular culture on earth ...Our concern that globalisation might lead to a single and not a diverse world culture is well founded. This concern might mean little to the prophets of the market, who often pride themselves on not being sentimental about things like regional culture, and who deride as artificial attempts to preserve traditional language from Scotland to New Guinea.

So is the left-liberal Thomas Keneally a fine defender of the Australian national culture? Unfortunately not. Left-liberals these days are nearly always internationalists. They seek to deconstruct their own national culture because they want to be self-defined by their own reason, rather than by an inherited, established national tradition.

So Keneally's defence of Australian culture is very limited: it only applies when he is opposing right-liberal economic globalisation. Usually he takes the line of a left-wing internationalist deriding those who wish to preserve their own national culture. For instance, in an interview for the Age a few years ago he spoke darkly of those proposing immigration restrictions, claiming that,

The arse-end of a sense of identity is the fear that someone is going to penetrate that organism and change it from within ... There is a constant theme in all xenophobia ... there is a strange, perverse comfort in the feeling that you are an embattled garrison ... We live in a world of constant flux, everything constantly changes, but what we want to do so that we feel secure is say, this is what an Australian is or this is what an American or Japanese or German is ...

The double standard being applied here is even clearer in the case of Australia's preeminent left-liberal, Phillip Adams. Adams was a signatory to Project True Blue, which sought to keep "Australian faces and Australian stories on our screens" as "part of our power as a nation to define and express our culture." In fulminating against global corporations Adams has even complained that,

While information, data and money are instantaneously transferred, so are allegiances. Nationalities can be changed like surnames. And soon the notion of citizenship will start to disintegrate under the battering of globalism. (Australian 4/7/98)

When economic globalisation isn't the issue, though, Adams reverts back to being a left-wing internationalist, having stated plainly that "national borders ... are fairly silly and should be laughed at"; that "I love Australia, but don't like it"; that Australians are a "little people" with the "racism of nice people who live in nice houses; and that the "bulk of the population" of Australia have succumbed to the "malignancies of fear and bigotry spreading through the body politic".

In a sense, Adams and Keneally want it both ways: when it suits their politics they want to be defenders of a distinctive national identity, but mostly they want to attack nationalism with the usual accusations of racism, xenophobia, fear and so on.

Conservatives have no need to apply this double standard. Like left liberals we have no deep philosophical commitment to free trade, and so can readily agree to regulations, such as local content laws for television, which are designed to protect distinctive national cultures.

At the same time, unlike left-liberals, we have no reason to reject inherited forms of self-identity and so can consistently support the existence of a stable, traditional national identity.

(First published at Conservative Central 31/05/03)

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