Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Jay's conservative nationalism

I always like finding examples of genuinely conservative thought in history. It makes a nice change to be able to present these gems, rather than to be always a critic of liberalism.

So I was pleased to find the following piece of writing by John Jay, who was a Founding Father of America and the first Chief Justice of the United States. Jay wrote that,

It has often given me pleasure to observe that independent America was not composed of detached and distant territories, but that one connected, fertile, widespreading country was the portion of our western sons of liberty. Providence has in a particular manner blessed it with a variety of soils and productions, and watered it with innumerable streams, for the delight and accommodation of its inhabitants. A succession of navigable waters forms a kind of chain round its borders, as if to bind it together; while the most noble rivers in the world, running at convenient distances, present them with highways for the easy communication of friendly aids, and the mutual transportation and exchange of their various commodities.

With equal pleasure I have often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people - a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.

This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous and alien sovereignties.

Jay is very clearly upholding the benefits of an ethnic nationalism. For him it is important that people be "united to each other by the strongest ties" which include having the same ancestry, language, religion, manners and customs, form of government, as well as a shared history of sacrifice. Jay considers it a providential blessing that America is to be ethnically, as well as geographically, connected and bound together as a nation.

What went wrong? Jay's traditional understanding of nationalism did not survive the inroads of liberal ideology. Liberals believe that to be fully human we must be free to create ourselves by our own will and reason. Therefore, they don't like the idea that something as important as national identity should depend on an inherited ethnicity, which is something that lies outside of individual will.

Hence the liberal hostility to ethnic nationalism, and hence the liberal preference for forms of identity which are "fluid," "complex" and "diverse" (since fluid, complex and diverse forms of identity can be "individually negotiated").

For a little sample of the way that academic liberals talk about such matters, consider Michelle Lee's assertion that "identity must be seen as much more fluid and as crossing boundaries rather than being defined by them" or Mary Kalantzis who claims that,

Instead of a nation as it might be represented through some 'distinctively Australian' essence, the essence of a postnationalist common purpose is creative and productive life of boundary crossing, multiple identities, difficult dialogues, and the continuous hybrid reconstruction of ourselves. This is the new reality of Australian identity, multicultural and multilingual.

Note the great phrase "continuous hybrid reconstruction of ourselves." It sounds like academic gibberish, but it encloses an important meaning for liberals: that our identity has to be kept open to an active, individual self-creation. And this is exactly what John Jay's conservative vision of a people unified by a common ethnicity (understood in the broadest terms) does not allow.

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