A Preposterous Review

(Mike Segar/Reuters)
A response to Charles King

A   Georgetown University professor named Charles King has reviewed my new book The Case for Nationalism for Foreign Affairs, and his review is a train wreck.

It is worth dwelling on, not only because the review contains most of the lines of attack against my book, but because it is extraordinarily shoddy and dishonest.

Bear with me while I detail at some length how this is so.

I’ll roughly categorize his points in what follows into a couple of legitimate disagreements, rank distortions, and truly bizarre counterpoints. (Even though this piece is quite long, I couldn’t get to everything; if I pass over any of his points, it shouldn’t be taken as assent.)

First, legitimate disagreements. King believes that my book exemplifies what the British historian Eric Hobsbawm said about nationalism: “that it,” as King puts it, “requires too much belief in what isn’t so.”

King dissents from a key claim of my book, which is that America has a cultural core central to our national identity. He cites one passage: “English is a ‘pillar of our national identity,’ he writes. Christmas, not Yom Kippur or Cinco de Mayo, is a ‘national holiday,’ which reveals the Christian inheritance at the heart of American life.”

King then replies that “many American citizens are perfectly capable of being multilingual without also feeling seditious.” Well, yes. My point is that a common national language is an indispensable cultural glue, not that anyone who learns to speak French is committing treason.

He further objects, “Holidays are national only if a government — a state, not a nation — declares them to be. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day wasn’t a national holiday until it was.” Well, yes. The nation-state creates national holidays. But they inevitably reflect the culture and history of the nation. The creation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, for instance, was a belated recognition of how central the struggle for African-American rights has been to our history.

Charles King disapprovingly notes passages in the book about our continental expansion: “There was ‘basically no one in California to have a popular will’ when white pioneers arrived, Lowry writes, and in any case, people brought into the United States by war and conquest still ‘got political stability, democracy, the rule of law, and a prosperous economic system.’”

The California line comes in a section about the U.S. war with Mexico and refers to settlement from Mexico. People have taken great umbrage to this statement online, but it’s indisputably true. Mexico never managed to populate California. The late historian of the state of California Kevin Starr wrote, “Few people wished to come, and so, in desperation, Mexico began to treat California as a kind of Botany Bay for wayward soldiers. The non-Indian population of Mexican California never exceeded seven thousand, and of these only one thousand were adult males.”

As for political stability, etc. in the lands we took over, consider, for instance, the fate of Florida. If it had forever remained under the control of Spain (a European imperial power, by the way), it would have been the possession of a country that didn’t even become a stable democracy until the 1970s. Would King have preferred that? Why?

King continues quoting from the book: “The more ‘underhanded and brutish’ episodes in U.S. history, such as the near eradication of Native Americans, were cosmically necessary, since they paved the way for the ‘stupendous boon’ brought by continental expansion.”

A couple of things here. Obviously, our treatment of the Indians was abysmal, and I say so repeatedly. I write that what we did was duplicitous, cruel, and a stain on our national honor.

But I also say it was inevitable that Native Americans were going to get overwhelmed, at least culturally, and that our expansion across the continent was a boon to the United States.

What usually happens in this discussion is that critics underline that what we did to Native Americans was terrible — again, it was — without refuting or even addressing the other two points.

To take California as an example, we treated the Native Americans there horribly, but so did the Spanish and Mexicans, who had held it before us. If we hadn’t ended up spread over territory stretching across the continent to the Pacific Ocean, someone else would have — the Canadians or the Mexicans, or some European power, or a combination of all of them.

I’m open to an argument for why this counterfactual would have been better for the future of the United States, but no one ever offers one.

Near the end of his review, King says that nationalism depends on “a large, modern state” to manufacture it: “a language standardized by state-approved grammarians, an origin story taught in publicly funded schools, a set of symbols protected by law against defilement, and a reverential song that comes with its own required body position.”

He says that what “purports to be rugged individualism and spontaneous community is in fact the product of astonishingly intrusive governance.”

It’s certainly true that the nation-state buttresses, or should, certain practices and symbols that create a sense of national cohesion. But that function doesn’t require the New Deal, or the Great Society, or a sprawling EPA. You can get, say, the Pledge of Allegiance without any of those. In fact, in the medium term, it’s quite possible that we will lose the Pledge of Allegiance at the same time that the state grows ever larger and more intrusive.

Also, such pillars of our culture as the primacy of the English language and the festival of Thanksgiving arose spontaneously prior to the advent of an American nation-state. The culture led the way, not government.

All of the above are, as I said, legitimate disagreements, even if the points King makes are obtuse and not terribly convincing. Next, let’s turn to his distortions, which are numerous and shockingly blatant, in fact, dripping with self-discrediting malice.

King says that, in my view, “even slavery was not so much a foundational sin as a regrettable example of anti-nationalism: the slaveholding South, with its emphasis on states’ rights, had to be defeated to allow ‘national institutions and the enhancement of national authority’ to flourish.”

This is flatly wrong. As I write in a passage about the end of the Civil War that King must have read, there was “an effort to extend rights to blacks, whose racist repression was the country’s great original sin” (emphasis added).

By the way, the power and ambit of national authority was indeed an enormously important issue in the run-up to the Civil War (and its aftermath) because the South feared a stronger national government would move against slavery.

According to King, my book has an invidious anti-woman bias: “Women are almost entirely absent from Lowry’s national past and present. By my count, fewer than a dozen or so women merit a mention in his book: Queen Elizabeth I and Joan of Arc are among them, along with a bevy of current-day intellectuals such as Amy Gutmann and Martha Nussbaum, who are there to be argued against.”

This is ridiculous. It’s not my fault that the leaders and generals of the past were largely men, or that U.S. presidents have all been male. Nonetheless, I don’t just “mention” Joan of Arc and Queen Elizabeth I, I devote extensive and admiring passages of the book to them. As for attacking female intellectuals, I plead guilty to citing and disagreeing with female writers I disagree with. If we are going to play this stupid bean-counting game, King should have noted that I cite Liah Greenfeld of Boston University repeatedly and always favorably.

King also attacks me on another front: “When he uses the term ‘we,’ it almost always refers to white people of Anglo-Saxon heritage, or at least people who are not Native Americans, Latinx [!], or recent immigrants. That is how Lowry can speak of ‘our dealings with the Indians and Mexicans,’ or the fact that ‘the Indians fought us, to try to stop our advance and to defend their civilization.’”

This is also profoundly silly. I refer to the American nation as “we” because I’m an American. To attribute racial significance to this is an outlandish smear. Here is a passage that King could never bring himself to quote: “Despite the worst efforts of white majorities over the centuries, despite the repression, dispossession, and segregation of blacks, we are one people, inextricably bound up together and so profoundly influenced by one another we might not be fully aware of it” (emphasis added).

King continues: “Lowry’s orientations are also on display in his proposal for how to revive American nationalism: better breeding. In Lowry’s view, ‘racial and ethnic intermarriage’ will ultimately ‘break down tribal group loyalties.’ But the examples he adduces are census data showing that over time some Hispanic respondents stop identifying as ‘Some Other Race’ and start identifying as ‘White.’ In other words, cross-racial marriage will in due course produce more white people.”

This is an absurdly hostile and stilted rendering of my point. The datum about an increment of people identifying as white is an example of the fluidity of racial categories, which I consider a good thing in and of itself. In the very next sentence, I say that I’d prefer that the government not categorize people by race at all.

I also cite this Pew Study for the variability of racial categories. “The U.S. Census Bureau finds that, in 2013, about 9 million Americans chose two or more racial categories when asked about their race,” it reports. “The Census Bureau first started allowing people to choose more than one racial category to describe themselves in 2000. Since then, the nation’s multiracial population has grown substantially. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of white and black biracial Americans more than doubled, while the population of adults with a white and Asian background increased by 87%.”

I believe that this trend is something to celebrate. Consider the alternative: Would King rather have fewer interracial marriages because interracial marriage leads to the unwelcome effect of more people not having firm racial identifications and switching around among categories? On what grounds should people not intermarry? Because some of them might identify as white? For the sheer sake of racial purity?

In the same vein, King continues, “Lowry’s other proposals ensure that only the right admixtures take place: U.S. immigration policy is ‘imbalanced’ because there are too many newcomers ‘from Latin America.’”

This, yet again, implies a racial motive where there is none. What I say is that the wave of European immigration in the early 20th century involved a variety of different nationalities speaking different languages, so no one foreign language dominated and that this isn’t the case in the current wave.

King alleges that I look “back fondly on a time when there were more ‘Germans, Italians, Russians, Poles, Canadians, and British,’ who more readily married each other and enabled quicker assimilation.”

This, too, is wrong. What I spend time explaining and praising is the machinery of assimilation that worked to absorb this wave of immigration, not the wave of immigration itself. And the point about intermarriage (which King, again, strangely seems to look askance at) is that when ethnic enclaves weren’t replenished, it encouraged immigrants to marry outside their groups.

“Few of Lowry’s statements would pass muster with historians who have been to an archive or tried to write about the past in ways that admit complexity,” according to King. “‘Ancient Egypt constituted a unified state, ruling an ethnically homogeneous people with a distinct culture, for thousands of years,’ he claims. ‘The same was true of China, Korea, and Japan.’ Sweeping assertions like these are legion, and to any serious thinker they should be an embarrassment.”

I confess that this is a thumbnail statement that would have included more complication and nuance had I expanded on the point at length, which I didn’t because I wasn’t writing a book about Egypt, China, Korea, or Japan.

But what of the basic contention? I was curious to learn from King that no serious thinker could make such points, given that the Tel Aviv university scholar Azar Gat made them extensively in his book Nations.

Maybe you don’t believe Gat, or don’t believe that he’s a serious person. Well, how about this? The aforementioned British Eric Hobsbawm, whose authority King clearly accepts, has written that China, Korea, and Japan are “among the extremely rare examples of historic states composed of a population that is ethnically almost or entirely homogenous.” Does Hobsbawm, too, now flunk King’s seriousness test?

Let’s, finally, move on to the completely bonkers things that King says.

After a bad and dishonest first two-thirds of his review, the wheels really come off. King writes of American nationalism: “It is a line of thinking and a political program that includes John Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, and Andrew Johnson, all of whom saw themselves as the inheritors of the American founding and considered white supremacy the natural order of American society.”

John C. Calhoun? Really? One of the more portentous developments of early- and mid-19th-century American politics is exactly that Calhoun switched from being an American nationalist — a so-called War Hawk supporting a strong military and internal improvements — to a zealous South Carolina patriot advancing a swollen, bogus version of state rights to protect the institution of slavery from the national government.

There’s obviously a related problem with Jefferson Davis — namely his central involvement in an effort to tear apart the American nation-state. The so-called Southern nation he served wasn’t fundamentally distinguished by a different language, different Founders, or different history (see Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address on this theme). It was a contrivance to protect slavery — again, from the national government of the United States of America.

Then, King says, the American nationalist tradition “winds through George Wallace’s inaugural address as governor of Alabama in 1963, with its evocations of the Anglo-Saxon legacy and the foundational right not to be forced to amalgamate into ‘a mongrel unit of one.’”

This is whiplash-inducing, given that King attributes nasty intentions to me for supporting the intermarriage that Wallace inveighed against.

King needs to pick one: Either support for intermarriage is wrong, or opposition to it is wrong. That he gets confused on this point shows an inability to hold together a coherent counterargument for even several hundred words.

King is just warming up. He says my nationalism is essentially the same as that of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, among other international rogues, and bears a resemblance to Italian and German philosophers of the 1920s or the 1930s. This is simply grotesque.

The American nationalist political tradition runs through Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt (none of whom King bothers to mention). It has as its sheet-anchor the U.S. Constitution (also unmentioned), which gave us a strong, capable national government, but also a limited one with strong guarantees of individual rights. It has been a source of unity throughout our history and reflects a national identity that is distinct, yet open — and fundamentally different from that of Russia or China.

It is telling that King can’t distinguish his own country’s tradition from those of illiberal states abroad. I guess that’d be too small-minded of him. He finds “nothing special about solidarity that comes wrapped in a national flag” and is skeptical even about attachment to our own civilization. “It is, after all,” he writes, “an empirical question whether a deep affinity for one’s own ‘civilization’ is very important at all to a country’s well-being.”

If progressives like him get their way, we will surely find out.


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