Sunday, July 06, 2008

How Relevant Is Patriotism? Go Ask France

On the blog of my Right Honourable Fellow blogger and personal friend Cookie I found a piece, written by Thomas Sowell, reprinted there in the spirit of July 4th, which struck as grossly out of character for an author otherwise known for his often original and varied thinking, deeply steeped in empiricism. That's assuming the Thomas Sowell quoted by said blogger and this Thomas Sowell are one and the same. I can't be sure of it because although I don't agree with a lot of Sowell's thinking, it's always struck me as well-researched, well-reasoned and underpinned by empirical evidence (the interpretation of which often remains nonetheless more a question of historicism than actual objectivity). So it came somewhat as a surprise to find Sowell presenting a piece on patriotism that's frankly as self-serving as any other piece of propaganda and is on the whole extremely selective in its choice of presented evidence and selected arguments. An uninterrupted version of the entire (and relatively short) piece can be found here. Here I'll comment on various blocks from the essay.

How Relevant Is Patriotism? Go Ask France

The Fourth of July is a patriotic holiday, but patriotism has long been viewed with suspicion or disdain by many of the intelligentsia. As far back as 1793, prominent British writer William Godwin called patriotism "high-sounding nonsense."

Right from the off, Sowell completely fails to recognise that patriotism, much like any other idea or ideology, can indeed be grossly misused and that most of his essay would not have been written if Nazi Germany's own monstrous manifestations of nationalistic and patriotic pride hadn't brought Europe to the brink of oblivion. And all throughout Europe's long and bloody history, frequent eruptions of nationalistic and patriotic fervour were the cause of perpetual, almost endless bloodletting.

Internationalism has long been a competitor with patriotism, especially among the intelligentsia. H.G. Wells advocated replacing the idea of duty to one's country with "the idea of cosmopolitan duty."

In one short paragraph Sowell relegates an entire movement, inspired rightly by Europe's belligerent past and the sheer misery it rained upon many of its peoples, to the dustbin, painfully ignoring the root causes of 'internationalism and pacifism'. Conservatives, even if economists or wannabee historians, were never that good with root causes (which they would probably dismiss as 'root-causism').

French soldiers in World War I's Battle of Verdun went from heroes to victims after pacifists got a hold of the history books.

Here the piece takes on a veritable cartoonesque quality. Sowell, eager to get his presumably mainly conservative audience on board, brings up the French, in the full knowledge that rife populist US francophobia will prick up ears and make attentions focus.

Perhaps nowhere was patriotism so downplayed or deplored than among intellectuals in the Western democracies in the two decades after the horrors of the First World War, fought under various nations' banners of patriotism.

At last, a fleeting glimmer of insight as to why this alleged pernicious internationalism and pacifism came about: as a reaction to the horrors of the Great War. Well, I'll concede that half-point because it's true that in the wake of World War I, when on every cenotaph on the European continent the words "Never Again" (or words to that effect) were carefully chiseled in stone, there was indeed a feeling of having reached a turning point in European history. What Sowell conveniently fails to mention is that that feeling is rather the sum total of revulsion at Europe's history of internal and external belligerency, imperialism, colonialism and brutal rivalry and warfare. And I put it to American readers of this post that if only a tenth of blood and treasure spilt on European soil during its entire history had been spilt in America's relatively short history and most importantly on its own soil, American patriotism and glorification of its military would be nothing near what it is today...

A bad British joke refers to the Americans as 'always late for the war'. But both these British wannabee-comedians and people like Sowell should understand that it was the all too fresh memory of massive sacrifice of American blood and treasure during the 1914 - 1918 war that made Americans barely 20 years later understandably reluctant to join yet another European fray...

In France, after the First World War, the teachers' unions launched a systematic purge of textbooks, in order to promote internationalism and pacifism.

Books that depicted the courage and self-sacrifice of soldiers who had defended France against the German invaders were called "bellicose" books, to be banished from the schools.

Textbook publishers caved in to the power of the teachers' unions, rather than lose a large market for their books. History books were sharply revised to conform to internationalism and pacifism.

Here Sowell resorts to very selective use of evidence, combined with over-simplification and use of loaded terms like "purge" and "revised". But that many in French society, and not just French teachers - in Sowell's piece essentially code for 'lefty US state school teachers', sought to point out the atrocity of the first large scale mechanised war in world history is correct and they were right to do so.

The once-epic story of the French soldiers' heroic defense against the German invaders at Verdun, despite the massive casualties suffered by the French, was now transformed into a story of horrible suffering by all soldiers at Verdun — French and German alike.

At this point one wonders when Sowell wrote this: in modern day eyes Verdun can only be seen as a horrible massacre and a rather futile one at that. Most modern Nation states are equipped to learn the lessons from Verdun and to ensure that, even in the midst of military confrontation, this kind of massive, wholesale and futile slaughter can be avoided.

In short, soldiers once depicted as national heroes were now depicted as victims — and just like victims in other nations' armies.

Children were bombarded with stories on the horrors of war. In some schools, children whose fathers had been killed during the war were asked to speak to the class, and many of these children — as well as some of their classmates and teachers — broke down in tears.

In Britain , Winston Churchill warned that a country "cannot avoid war by dilating upon its horrors."

In France , Marshal Philippe Petain, the victor at Verdun , warned in 1934 that teachers were trying to "raise our sons in ignorance of or in contempt of the fatherland."

Ah oui, le bon Maréchal Pétain, that lovely fellow, after WW II convicted and sentenced to death for treason, which was commuted to life imprisonment. A true example of a patriot...

But they were voices drowned out by the pacifist and internationalist rhetoric of the 1920s and 1930s.

Did it matter? Does patriotism matter?

France, where pacifism and internationalism were strongest, became a classic example of how much it can matter.

During the First World War, France fought on against the German invaders for four long years, despite having more of its soldiers killed than all the American soldiers killed in all the wars in the history of the U.S. put together.

But during the Second World War, France collapsed after just six weeks of fighting and surrendered to Nazi Germany. At the bitter moment of defeat, the head of the French teachers' union was told, "You are partially responsible for the defeat."

The fact that the French teachers' union (read 'leftard US state school teachers') were told this of course must actually make it true.

Never mind the fact that finger pointing, general hysteria, confusion and knee-jerking always run rife in national post-debacle circumstances - see also the US's own disastrous decision to wage war on Iraq on false pretenses in the wake of their very own National disaster - 9/11. Or was it just oil - I get a tad confused at times...

Never mind the fact that European armies were indeed no match for Nazi Germany's war machine and their innovative approach of massive mechanised troop movements and use of heavy weapons up front, colloquially known as the Blitz Krieg.

Never mind the fact that French troops did fight very bravely when securing a relatively secure perimeter for Dunkerque, thereby averting the disastrous retreat of the British Expeditionary Force becoming a wholesale massacre.

Never mind the fact that if it hadn't been for the channel, German tanks would have rolled into London virtually unopposed shortly after the fall of northern France, as Britain was as ill-prepared for war as was any major (and minor) European country. I guess we'll have to blame British teachers' unions for that, eh Sowell? But you wouldn't do that to us, would you? Special Relationship and all that. Better (safer at least) to pick on the Frogs instead...

Charles de Gaulle, Francois Mauriac and other Frenchmen blamed a lack of national will or general moral decay for the sudden and humiliating collapse of France in 1940.
At the outset of the invasion, German and French generals assessed French military forces as more likely to gain victory, and virtually no one expected France to collapse like a house of cards — except Adolf Hitler, who had studied French society instead of French military forces.

Yawn... Lack of national will... general moral decay... blahdiblah...

And Hitler, mediocre mind, poor military strategist, general coward and self-aggrandiser of his petty role (of a bicycled messenger boy) in WW I, deeply superstitious, seriously interested in the occult, a deeply irrational character and anti-Semite supreme... studied "French society", not "French military forces" (and of course not wholesome English fellow Anglosaxons - in Sowell's book above reprieve just for speaking English).

Did patriotism matter? It mattered more than superior French tanks and planes.

Which superior French tanks and planes? Superior to Nazi Germany's??? Which, pray, tell... Does Sowell feel it was lack of 'moral fibre', rather than lack of firepower that made France fall?

Most Americans today are unaware of how much our schools have followed in the footsteps of the French schools of the 1920s and 1930s, or how much our intellectuals have become citizens of the world instead of American patriots.

Our media are busy verbally transforming American combat troops from heroes into victims, just as the French intelligentsia did — with the added twist of calling this "supporting the troops."

Be scared, very, very scared: the 'librul mejuh', the intelligentsia and assorted leftards are trying to do a 'Frenchie'. Following in the frog's webbed pawmarks can only lead to ruin!

Let those who advocate nationalism, patriotism and indiscriminate flag waving realise how many times in past human history these have lead to massive bloodletting. Let them perhaps read Benedict Anderson's excellent Imagined Communities and see for themselves how flimsy the rational basis for nationalistic thinking actually is.

The author, in stark contrast with previous writings of his that I've read, in this piece shows himself essntially as a bought pamphleteer.
Sowell, with this piece of boring and inaccurate agitprop you've lost a lot of respect and credit in my eyes...


At 6:41 PM, Blogger Cookie..... said...

First off Gert, welcome back to regular blogging. You have been missed.

In your long absence, I had forgotten a few things about reading your posts. Like the fact that although I once thought that I had a relatively good handle on the English language, I had forgotten that when reading your articles, I need a complete and unabridged encyclopedic dictionary in one hand, and the other to scratch my head with. Reading your articles is most certainly a good lesson in humility for me, but, you being English most probably explains your mastery of this media.

The next point is that I always find it exceptionally difficult to debate or refute the various points you make, because (here comes some more humility), I simple do not know as much as you do pertaining to certain subject matter(s). But, here's what I do know on a personal and experiencial level....

Using myself and my life experience as a comparison (and that of others of my generation and age groups), I see a HUGE difference between what I learned from my teachers, parents, sibling, neighbors and peers, and what my 6 Grandchildren( ages 9 to 20) express and talk about.

They appear to have very little national pride, patriotism if you will, and know very little about the good things America has done over the years. Their knowledge of American history is appalling, and skewed to the negative, part of which I blame on our educational system. The remainder of the blame I place on their parents (my kids), and myself, for not informing them from an earlier age of all the great and good things accomplished by our great nation. It should be noted that I firmly believe they should learn of all the mistakes and negative things as well, but with a balanced and honest perspective.

One of their teachers once asked me in a conversation about Pearl Harbor, "Well, what was the United States doing in Hawaii in the first place? If we hadn't been there trying to conquer the Hawaian Islands and people, the Japanese wouldn't have needed to liberate them!" WOW!

In that I see such a difference in how I was raised to understand, love and feel about our country, I found the Sowell article thought provoking and interesting because within my own family, and within 2 generations of it, I see a loss of national pride, honor and an erred and biased understanding of certain times in our history, and it greatly saddens me.....

I could go on, but you get my point, and I know that you could probably cite hundreds of negative things about our nation and government, and on some of them you'd be very correct, but I can only reveal and express my personal observations and feelings about what I see happening...

At 7:09 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Hey Cookie!

That was quick...

Now stop the unneeded humility: your comment was well written and there's little I want to refute in it. Loss of collective memory, both of the positive and negative aspects of one's own nation's historical heritage is something that I deplore too. But it's a real fact of life that how certain historical are viewed changed with passing time.

In the aftermath of military victory it's customary to airbrush the actual events a little. In the British nationalistic (and populist) narrative of the War, one could easily be led to believe that is was all a cakewalk, back in time for tea and medals sort of thing. The fact however that Britain almost lost the battle for air supremacy (somewhat nationalistically referred to as the Battle of Britain) and that land forces had to wait till El Alamein to score a victory over the Axis, are facts I'd also like my children to be taught, in the interest of accuracy, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Thanks for your comment.

At 12:55 PM, Blogger Mad Zionist said...

I loved Sowell's column, and think he has beautifully articulated why Americans by-and-large so disrespect Europeans.

We do think we are better, we do think our values are superior, and we do think the Euros have become effete cowards. We also see in our own leftwing popinjays a Euro-envy that is the antithesis of what it means to be an American, and that's why those of us right of center look down on them for being immoral and painfully naiive.

That said, I enjoyed reading your different take and am happy to see you have returned to blogging. I get bored speaking only to people that agree with me, and find you to be one of only a very small few on the other side who intelligently engages those you disagree with.

At 2:01 PM, Blogger Gert said...


What's with the changing avatars and nicknames? Is there something I should know (LOL)?


Post a Comment

<< Home