Poor David Gelernter. I suppose he just cannot see the difficulties in his own argument, as exposed by his own argument. He cannot see that what is right in his argument overturns what is wrong. He cannot see that his most compelling polemics may be easily applied to him. He cannot see, in short, that he is arguing against himself.
The Democrats are not unpatriotic, but their patriotism is directed at a large abstract entity called The International Community or even (aping Bronze Age paganism) the Earth, not at America. Benjamin Disraeli anticipated this worldview long ago when he called Liberals the “Philosophical” and Conservatives the “National” party. Liberals are loyal to philosophical abstractions — and seek harmony with the French and Germans. Conservatives are loyal to their own nation, and seek harmony with its Founders and heroes and guiding principles.
This is certainly true. The derailment of patriotism by ideology is one of the more prominent features of our age. Men delude themselves that ideas are countries, or countries ideas, and thus that patriotism is merely a sincere commitment to philosophical abstractions. But when Gelernter gets around to telling us how we should oppose the Liberal ideology, how to counter the derailment of patriotism, he can only offer another ideology:
Americanism is the set of beliefs that has always held this country together in its large embrace. Americanism calls for liberty, equality, and democracy for all mankind. And it urges this nation to promote the American Creed wherever and whenever it can — to be the shining city on a hill, the “last, best hope of earth.” Ultimately, Americanism is derived from the Bible. The Bible itself has been a grand unifying force in American society, uniting Christians of many creeds from Eastern Orthodox to Unitarian, and Jews, and Bible-respecting deists like Thomas Jefferson — and many others who respect and honor the Bible whatever their own religious beliefs.
So really the charge against the Democrats is not their mania for abstractions, but that they adhere to the wrong ones. Their abstractions are not ambitious enough.
Gelernter rages against pacifism, appeasement, and globalism — a kind of unholy trinity of false abstractions. One is inclined to cheer him on in this, but the trouble is that his theory is particularly vulnerable to the derailment he detests. The substitution of ideology for patriotism will always expose this vulnerability. Not matter how vigorously he resists it in his case, ideology is inevitably subject to the whims of ideologists. His “Americanism” may be grounded in our “Founders and heroes and guiding principles,” and above all the Bible, but since it is still a mere “set of beliefs,” still primarily a matter of abstractions, it need not stay grounded in those admirable things. It can be captured by other abstractions. It can be hollowed out by miseducation. It can hijacked by intellectual fashion. It can be undermined by subversion.
There is an analogy that might help illuminate the problem. Early in Christian history a priest named Marcion was convinced that numerous excrescences on Holy Scripture were corrupting the faithful. He sought to reduce it to what he regarded as the pure gospel, undiluted by the narrative jumble of the Old Testament. According to the great historian Jaroslav Pelikan, Marcion’s object was to narrow the Christian Scripture down to a version of St. Luke’s gospel and St. Paul’s epistles. Above all he sought to remove the Judaic influences from Christianity. Encyclopedia Britannica 1911: “His undertaking thus resolved itself into a reformation of Christendom. This reformation was to deliver Christendom from false Jewish doctrines by restoring the Pauline conception of the gospel, — Paul being, according to Marcion, the only apostle who had rightly understood the new message of salvation as delivered by Christ.”
Marcion was excommunicated, labeled a heretic, and resisted with great vigor, by Christian thinkers from Justun Martyr to Tertullian to Clement of Alexandria. His heresy was defeated, though occasional attempts to revive his doctrine reach us now and then. His opponents recognized the danger of a purely intellectual Christian doctrine, a theology narrowed to its purest abstract essence and detached from the narrative history of Israel, and from the sacred polemics of the prophets. It is the danger of ideology, the danger of ungrounded speculation, of a faith fit only for intellectuals. (Indeed, Marcion himself soon became ensnared in tangled speculations, eventually positing that the God of the Old Testament was a mere demiurge, the author of creation and of evil, and that Christ came to free us from his tyranny.)
Not for nothing are the narrative portions of the Bible often the most beloved, especially by simple men bereft of a taste for heavy theology. Christianity is perfectly inconceivable without them. They save us from the treachery of the human intellect; they provide ballast against the winds and waves of false abstraction.
Where do we find such ballast in the American tradition? We find it in our communities, in our neighborhoods, in our churches, in the beauty of our land; we find it in our laws and our history; we find it even in our prejudices, or assumptions, in the questions we have closed and the others we stubbornly insist on keeping open. We find it anywhere but the field of political speculation and abstraction. We find it not in a creed but in a way of life, a living tradition made not by intellectuals but by men and women living their lives in light of how their fathers lived theirs. We find it in America’s “democracy of the dead,” whereby we have refused to submit to that arrogant oligarchy of those who just happened to be walking around, but rather give votes “to that most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.” “All democrats,” continues Chesterton is his famous passage, “object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.”
Gelernter tries mightily to embrace this sort of thing, a living tradition, but since his theory hinges eternally on abstractions, it must always remain an ideology. There is no real America in Americanism; it is America the abstraction. A mere “set of beliefs” cannot long hold a country together in this age of ideological fashion. We need more than that.
Our Liberals offer us their pitiful globalism, a universalism of pure platitudinous abstraction; but our right-Liberals, the “authorized” opposition, counter only with a variation on the same. It is globalism, alright, but led by Americans and informed by an abstracted abbreviation of our tradition. As Christopher Caldwell once wrote, letting the cat out of the bag as it were: “Some time before the end of the Iraq crisis, it will become clear that the US differs with Europe not over the need for post-national structures but over how those structures should be built. A nasty shock could be in store. By the time Europeans realise they do not have a monopoly on multilateral thinking, the US may already have come up with a more serviceable blueprint for a post-national order.” Namely, Americanism.
For the rest of us, a “post-national order” appears as what it always has to Conservatives: a monstrous tyranny in embryo. Over the past few years I have witnessed a really astonishing spectacle. North American politicians gather in negotiation to prepare these “post-national structures” here, most of the economic-integration variety; populist Conservatives react with some annoyance; and mainstream right-wingers sneer at them! Quite as if the object lesson of the European Union were not right in front of our faces. In Europe, thanks to those grand post national structures, it is basically illegal to argue against Islam. A demonstration against the Jihad, scheduled for September 11, was first proscribed and then put down with brutal force. Statements like the following sentence have landed men in the dock: “Islam is a dangerous religion, and we ought to work actively to weaken it.” Such is the fruit of the Post-National Global Order.
In my reading, constitutional government, that is, real limited government, with efficacious mechanisms to check the aggrandizement of the state over the individual, and which perseveres in the face all the rapacious schemes of the sophists and radicals, is a peculiarly evanescent achievement. In the modern age, outside of the British Isles and North America and a few other isolated places, it has hardly ever existed; in ancient times it was even rarer. Now, as the modern age comes to its miasmic and disordered end, we have influential people, many of them near to centers of power, who seem to fancy that this precious commodity, this delicate achievement assembled on a mass of human knowledge and wisdom astonishing in its range and profundity, can be simply imposed, following the effacement of that troublesome structure the nation-state, on the globe from the lofty heights of a world government. It does not strike me unreasonable to reply that such a project will merely mean the demise of constitutional government.
“The real American is all right,” wrote Chesterton. “It is the ideal American who is all wrong.” Mr. Caldwell’s vision of a post-national order, with Mr. Gelernter’s ideology as its guide, is an attempt to remake the world in the image of that ideal American. It is noteworthy that in this Post-National Global Order there is no room for patriots, only ideologues. Patriotism rooted in home and hearth, in actual places and actual people, in particular things rather than tedious abstractions — patriotism of this sort will be crushed. Men who fancy themselves conservatives regularly repeat the mantra that one may become an American by assenting to certain ideas about democracy, thereby making American patriotism contingent on a democratic ideology. It is no longer enough that a man simply loves his country. He must embrace an ideology.
Well ideology is the handmaid of tyranny. America was long blessed by the absence of ideology; and it is no accident that she has thus abhorred tyranny. Our creed arose out of a living tradition, not out of the conjectures of intellectuals. Even our Founders were most of them working lawyers, farmers, businessmen, not intellectuals; and in any case the Republic was informed by a tradition much larger than any of them. That tradition cannot be abstracted and fashioned into ideology without fatal violence to it.