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The question that won't go away

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted May 17, 2010

It was supposed to end with a showing of the moral colors. The government of Arizona, not to mention the state itself, was widely excoriated. Boycotts of Arizona were announced; mass protests were fielded. The Phoenix Suns basketball team proclaimed that they would wear "Los Suns" jerseys in order to express umbrage. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder threatened to have it overturned by the Supreme Court. It was quite a round of dudgeon.

And yet, the ordinary folks seem unmoved. The law remains popular, and a few other states are planning to introduce similar legislation. Somewhere, something went screwy.


The typical American who wants to "criminalize illegal immigration" is careful to make clear that illegal immigrants should be hustled out. Nevertheless, it's a position that's easy to characterize as nationalistic. People who are otherwise disposed to nationalism tend to support it. The stereotypical liberal position, as of now, is that nationalism is reactionary. The fact that Prince Metternich, a tireless anti-liberal, saw liberalism and nationalism as brothers doesn't deter that characterization. Times, after all, change.

What's quirky about this liberal vision is that it's essentially a vision of yesteryear. Since it's too tempting to call one's own likes "progressive" and one's dislikes "reactionary," common sense has settled upon the linear model. Progress means improving on the present, for richer or better. The path that led the past to the present, after getting rid of any morally objectionable baggage, is the prologue for the future. If wages rose, then progress means wages going higher still. If wars are becoming more limited, then peace is progressive. [Needless to say, it wasn't when World War 2 got rolling.] If government grows with the economy, them bigger government is progressive. If authority is becoming more centralized, then further centralization is progressive.

Given this linearity, which is basically a dispute-settling and hobby-horse-shelving compromise, the claim that world government is progressive seems a little quaint. As a matter of linearity, it had the most resonance a hundred years ago. The nineteenth century had seen a diminution of wars; the number of sovereignties was shrinking. It was easy to imagine the empires of the world settling their differences, banding together and forming a common government that would evolve into a world government. If the British Empire can do it, then why not a world government?

The trouble is, as we now know, the British Empire couldn't do it. Nor could the French, nor could the Germans, not could the Belgians, nor could the Soviets. Ever since World War 1, the number of sovereignties in the world have been multiplying. Devolution pressure, although intermittent, still pops up. To the linear view, it's closer to today's conditions to argue that splintering authority is progressive. That's the way the path's running.

There are others who peg nationalism as reactionary, but for reasons that few liberals would like. According to James Dale Davidson and William Lord Rees-Mogg's The Sovereign Individual, nationalism is reactionary because the nation-state has become big and unwieldy to the point of obsolescence. Smaller government and smaller sovereignties are in tune with smaller firms, smaller scales of production, individuation and the growing placelessness of the Internet age. With this vision, not only formalized collective action but also good citizenship is held to be obsolete. I think anyone would be hard-pressed to discover a liberal who'd sign up for it, not to mention the other side of the divide.

Middle Class Up In Arms

The more difficult movements to understand are those from the middle class aimed at protecting the middle class. Seeing how the middles join with the lowers to go after the uppers is easy – so easy, the typical teenager understands it. In fact, an informed teenager could teach it.

More difficult to understand is middle-class movements that aim to defend the middle class against both uppers and lowers. The most known example, putting theological and political aspects aside, is the Protestant Reformation. It was pro-middle class in two ways: getting the millstone of the Catholic Church off the necks of the ambitious, and getting the poor to work if they could. It wasn't until Protestantism came along that the poor were divided into the deserving and the undeserving. When the Catholic Church was the Universal Church, the poor were part of a single category: the blessed. "Blessed are the poor" extended to anyone without money; it was held as unGodly to ask why except in the service of caritas. Protestantism, with its middle-class orientation, meant that to be poor was no longer to be automatically virtuous.

America has had movements of the middle class, by the middle class, and for the middle class. They're easy to spot. Just look at a period that the liberal intelligentsia consider to be a dark terrible time in U.S. history, and you've likely got one. Case in point: McCarthyism. In terms of spillover, it wasn't just about Communist subversion of the government. It also consisted of bashing the upper class from a middle-class vantage. It was held that America was being subverted into Soviet Amerika by a threatening combination of riff-raff and "limousine liberals." "Parlor pinks" were leading America's middle class to the slaughter. Although some pegged the red-horsey set as useful idiots, there were others who intimated that the socialists of the mansion hoped to become America's branch-plant nomenklatura.

The reason why characteristically middle-class movements are hard to understand is because they arise when the middle class feels squeezed between uppers and lowers. It's impossible to understand unless you can see a crowding aspect to noblesse oblige and see how it can be pushed too far. Both are counterintuitive, and are hard to explain in patois intellectuel. Look at the bad rap the middle class get in the chattering circles.

Although the demands for a crackdown on illegal immigration are largely issue-confined, it does tap in to other things making the American middle class mad. That's why the issue has such reach. As a matter of linearity, it's likely to be linked with other characteristic middle-class issues such as welfare reform, law and order, the breakdown of the family and the state of the merit system. If the cloth coats are unfurled, then the libertarian-inspired critique of the Fed will be part of it. It's too easy to make a connection between fee-collecting "banksters," "Washington insiders," and "loan shirks." ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is currently watching The Gold Bubble.






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