In response to:

The New Old Nationalism from the May 26, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

A reply to Tony Judt’s “The New Old Nationalism” [NYR, May 4, 1994].

While nationalism was generally overlooked until the mid-Eighties, bon ton now dictates that it should be acknowledged but in derogatory terms, usually in reference to the atrocities in Bosnia. Tony Judt seems to have followed this line in his critique of my book Liberal Nationalism. He seems to have little time for any form of nationalism, except that of the evil variety, and finds fault with my arguments as well as with my style.

Judt finds the style of the book “disappointingly dry and abstract” and lacking detailed examples. Good and solid theoretical arguments, however, do not draw their justification from examples. True, bad arguments may seek support in heart-rending and moving examples, but I see no reason to recommend this strategy, which abuses the tendency of individuals to be carried away by feelings obscuring judgment.

A dry and careful analysis of the concepts he uses would have prevented Judt from adopting, following Greenfeld, the unreasonable definition that “nationalism is what nationalists do.” Let us disregard the disquieting question of how to define who is a nationalist which, obviously, cannot be answered by reference to the actions of individuals lest we end up with a circular definition. It is still tempting to ask whether nationalism consists of every single act nationalists perform—making love, driving, drinking coffee? Probably not. Consequently, we need criteria to define the type of action counting as nationalist, and these criteria cannot be the identity of the agents performing them. What, then, would such criteria consist of if not dry and abstract principles, exactly of the kind Judt finds unappealing?

Judt claims that, as my analysis does not depend on examples, “everything hinges on the logic and consistency of the concepts,” as it indeed does, “and here I feel that her avowedly optimistic account makes two mistakes.” One could wonder how an account of the logic or the consistency of concepts might be described as avowedly optimistic. This phrasing seems slightly careless. I assume Judt meant that my theoretical conclusion that liberal nationalism is possible, and that there are ways of balancing different national claims is optimistic. This assertion confuses two claims. The first is that a certain set of principles yields a valid inference, and the second that this conclusion can easily be implemented. My book makes only the former claim. Were it possible to define this claim as optimistic, then every theory offering valid justifications of virtue, justice, rights, freedom, or democracy would merit this label.

Judt claims that my analysis does not give a good answer to the need to protect the rights of minorities and solve inter-communal conflicts, as it deprives individuals of their ability to enjoy the protection of “the legitimate coercive powers of the state.” This claim is rather strange because the main source of oppression for minorities, as Judt probably knows, has been the state. My theory claims that, analytically as well as practically, the move from the centralized nation-state, anxious to present itself as representing a homogenous nation, to regional or international organizations explicitly multi-national, may ease the pressure on minorities and help to ensure their rights. In fact, it is presently the case that such institutions are frequently called in to intervene in order to protect minorities from “there state.”

Judt also views my neo-Rawlsian attempt to “imagine compatible intersecting nationalism” as too brittle. This claim rests on two arguments. The first is grounded in a misunderstanding, or perhaps worse still, ignorance, of the details of Rawlsian theory (were they perhaps too dry and abstract?). The second argument rests on a misconception of the role of political theory.

Judt fails to see that the purpose of the Rawlsian thought experiment is not to restructure world order from the beginning, but to find the most just and desirable way to rule our world in light of a given set of shared values. The parties, then, must be aware of basic facts about this world that are relevant to their moral judgment. The role of the veil of ignorance is to conceal from the parties only those facts that are morally irrelevant and can bias their judgment as self-interested individuals. According to my theory the abstract fact that individuals are members of nations is morally relevant. The veil is thus used to conceal, as it should according to Rawls, only actual facts about the status, size, wealth, and power of the particular nations the parties belong to, as this morally irrelevant knowledge might bias their judgment and prevent them from achieving a desirable agreement. Hence, Judt’s claim that the veil in my theory “isn’t hiding anything significant” as it is not concealing from the parties the abstract fact that they are members of nations is simply false.

Judt’s second claim is that, had my theory provided a “plausible account of our world then liberal nationalism would indeed be an elegant solution to its problems. But if it were a plausible account, then liberal nationalism would be redundant since the problem it sets out to address would not exist.” This expectation distorts the role of political theory. Unlike historians or sociologists, the concern of political theorists is not to give “plausible accounts of our world” as it is, but as it should be. In fact, political theorists are motivated to formulate their approaches because of their unease with the reality they face. Hence, such theories are, to some extent, always subversive, conveying discomfort with things as they are and calling for change.

Were such a theory to be fully implemented one day, however, and were our world to become a just and peaceful haven, a theory would still be needed. Its role would now be different; rather than offering a mode of change, it would set the ground for the education and constant restructuring of a society seeking stability. Theories can be more or less valuable, but the valuable ones are never redundant.

Yael Tamir
Department of Philosophy
Tel-Aviv University
Tel Aviv, Israel

Tony Judt replies:

I appreciate Dr. Tamir’s close reading of my discussion of her book. I am only sorry that she did not give the same careful attention to the rest of the review. The thrust of my arguments was that we should indeed pay serious attention to nationalist sentiment; it tells us something important about human needs and cannot be ignored in any account of the modern world. On this, I think we agree.
Application of the “Rawlsian” thought experiment to contentious political choices may or may not be a useful procedure; on this reasonable people can disagree. But if we are seeking common first principles from which to build a more just society, it does seem a bit odd to posit as given “the abstract fact that individuals are members of nations.” That is neither an abstract proposition nor a piece of “morally relevant knowledge” about all human beings. It is a very particular, contingent, partial, and variable historical condition. To assume it in an argument whose purpose is to construct the case for nationalism would seem to beg the central question.

It may well be that political theory is under no requirement to tell a plausible story about our world as we now find it (though it is not clear to me why it wishes to be thought of as political theory if it refuses to do so). But in order for even the most hypothetical of social orders to be minimally convincing it must speak to real human interests and possibilities. Dr. Tamir’s thoughts on these matters would thus be a lot more convincing had she acknowledged in some detail the political as well as the methodological impediments to her admirably well-intended moral constructs; it is for this reason that more examples and illustrations from contemporary history might have helped (is this really such an offensive suggestion?—there are numerous eminent precedents within her own discipline). Of course, none of this matters much if Tamir’s goal was simply to paint logically compelling pictures about imaginary worlds. But why then go to the trouble of invoking so conflicted and culturally circumscribed a topic as nationalism as the vehicle for one’s ruminations?

This Issue

June 23, 1994