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Monday, February 10, 2020

Populist Nationalism – Charlemagne, Brexit, And The Preservation Of Cultural Identity

The world is becoming a smaller place, and the tide of cultural integration, for better or worse, cannot be turned back.  However, many countries in Europe are feeling what they consider an erosion of historical national identity. The EU has facilitated cross-border travel, residence, and economics; and the laws of the Union have been constructed deliberately for this purpose.  Those who envisaged a Europe-wide community saw the eventual dissolution and disappearance of individual nations; and given the region’s history of aggression, violence, and territorialism, a common market and unified cultural union could only be a good thing.  Nationalism, it was thought, was an old-fashioned, discredited notion which was at the root of international conflict.  If nations relinquished their xenophobic ambitions and instead adopted a more cooperative and mutually beneficial approach to international affairs, the region and the world would be a better place.

Of course such radical integration has a downside. The French are not particularly happy with the erosion of their language, pushed aside and corrupted by English; nor are they happy that their premier place in Europe, the country which has always been the center of Western civilization, arts, and culture; the country which brought civilization to its African colonies – is being forgotten.  France has become a place of employment, of finance, and of trade; and its unique culture eroded by Eastern Europeans, North and Sub-Saharan Africans, and increasingly religiously fundamental immigrants from the Middle East.

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France carries the legacy of empire, kings and kingdoms, art, literature, and music – much of which is derived from Christian tradition.  The cathedrals of Notre Dame, Chartres, and Rouen were ‘the stone books of the Middle Ages’, created as monuments to Christ.  Every element glorified him and told the story of his birth, life, passion, death, and resurrection. The naves were high and vaulted to symbolize the heavens, the stained glass windows to depicted the lives of the saints, the vast interiors reflected the power and glory of God and his kingdom. Bach’s cantatas and fugues were religious in origin as were the paintings of Giotto, Botticelli, and Fra Angelico. The Vatican is not just the seat of Catholicism, but the home of God’s representative on earth. 

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Christianity is not just a religion in Europe, but the living legacy of a storied past. To say that France is a Christian country because most of its residents are Christian misses the point entirely.  France is Christian to its core, calls itself fille aînée de l'Eglise because of Roland and the armies of Charlemagne which defended Europe from the infidel, and it is no surprise that it defends its Christian identity without reserve.

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Of course the new immigrants have little interest in France’s cultural and religious history.  They are simply happy to be in a more economically congenial country than the ones they left and see it as a neutral residence, a place where they can profit from its economic well-being while being left alone to continue to practice their own religion and follow the dictates of their own culture.  France is becoming more and more a cultural patchwork – individual ethnic communities separate and separated from ‘La France’. The maxim “We are all French” doesn’t apply to them.

Traditional ethnic French see this facile dismissal of French history and culture as disassembling.  France might itself disappear.  They are concerned, angry, and frustrated at government’s indecision and pusillanimity. It may have taken a stand on headscarves, a small effort to assert French secularism, but has done too little to stem the tide of immigrants from non-EU countries, those with little cultural affinity and hardline religious and cultural beliefs.

France is not alone in its concern about ‘inclusivity’.  Even Scandinavian countries which have always prided themselves on their tradition of liberalism, tolerance, and welcome have begun to question what their compassionate open-door policy means.  Is it not the first chink in the wall? The first breech of cultural borders? The first threat to national identity?

Of course European progressives like their American counterparts see no threat whatsoever.  What is culture, after all, they ask?  It is not a fixed, historical entity.  There is no such thing as a permanent zeitgeist or an irreplaceable cultural core  A culture is no more than the collective expression of those who live within it. If France becomes Muslim, mosques replace churches, and strict, fundamentalist traditions replace more accommodating Western ones, so be it.  There is nothing inherently valid about Christianity, French cuisine, haute couture, or language.  The writings of Montaigne, Rabelais, Descartes, and Voltaire, say radical Deconstructionists, are nothing more than expressions of the cultures in which they were written.  They are no more valid or permanent than the African European or Muslim French writers writing today. If traditional French culture disappears, so be it.

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Most others dismiss this argument out of hand. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and the Church are not simply incidental thinkers, interpreters of secular times, insignificant characters on history’s assembly line.  Without them the civilizations that have created the modern world, contributed to intellectual insight, science, economics, and political philosophy would never have existed.  As importantly, the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the diptychs of Cato the Elder; and the Bible have not been replaced by post-modern texts and they never will be.

Brexit was about legitimate populist nationalism – a term which have been interpreted by the Left as pernicious xenophobia, but which is anything but.  Leaving the EU was both a political statement – voters wanted to be independent of what they saw as the EU’s restrictive laws and legislation, rules that neutered UK independence – and a cultural one.  British voters, like their counterparts in France and Scandinavia, had a concern about the erosion of culture.  While cultural transformation cannot be stopped, it can be controlled.  There are ways to welcome newcomers without conceding national identity.

The case of the United States is different.  We have no long cultural history.  We have been a country more defined by procedure – our laws, Constitutional rights and responsibilities, legislative procedures, and economic system – than culture.  We are inheritors of the Church and Martin Luther not originators of religion.  We are descendants of the Enlightenment, not philosophers.  We are a country of artists and musicians, but our earliest painters and writers are held to no higher or more universal standard than any today.  Culture for us follows the same ethos of procedure – what ever comes, comes, is recognized for its temporary value, and shelved.

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So why does immigration raise the same hackles here as it does in Europe?  If we are a nation which has no real culture to be eroded or destroyed; and more importantly a nation which respects process and procedure more than any inherent cultural values, then why should we be upset if Spanish is replacing English, or black culture replacing white?

Those who dismiss American culture in this way do so with a modern, progressive bias.  The culture of the Enlightenment; of Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, and Adams; of entrepreneurship, individualism, and religious faith all combined, is culture.  America took the democratic revolution of France and the civil traditions of England but rejected theocracy, the divine right of kings, nobility, aristocracy, and autocracy.  It is because of both European underpinnings, and rugged frontier individualism that we are the unique country that we are.

So traditionalists who view the new culture of diversity, inclusivity, and identity as dangerous and corrosive, threatening to the culture of America, are as concerned as Europeans, but in their own way.  Similar sentiments, different situation, same reaction.

Populist and nationalism are not dirty words, for they express important cultural sentiments – sentiments which reject the idea of cultural relativism.  Western, Japanese, Chinese, and Persian civilizations are indeed more remarkable than others and represent the highest and best expressions of human intellect, ambition, and creativity.  The preservation of the essential philosophical principles underlying these cultures and a respect for the human expressions made possible because of them is normal and necessary.

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