I watched Glenn Loury’s address at the second National Conservatism conference around the time of the event with great interest. Since then, I’ve also seen the print version of it in First Things.
You can view the video of the speech below:
If you’d like to read it, you can over at First Things.
Hope and a Way Forward
At this point I’m on record as finding some utility in the concept of “whiteness” as it is used in the academy, particularly in the work of Willie James Jennings, a theologian currently working at Yale. That being said, one problem with the concept is that it is a confusing term that easily veers toward an essentializing of “white” people in ways that both guarantee a backlash and that leave us with nowhere to go constructively.
Loury raises both issues in his speech:
An ideology dominated by the terms “white guilt,” “white fragility,” and “white privilege” cannot exist except also to give birth to a “white-pride” backlash, even if the latter is seldom expressed overtly—its expression being politically incorrect.
There is a reaction against “whiteness” rhetoric for the same reason that there is a strong reaction to a lot of anti-masculinity rhetoric: If you yourself are white or a man and feel as if something inextricable or essential to your sense of self is regularly attacked and criticized, made out to be inherently wrong, then you may well be drawn toward a counter movement that tries to address the criticisms by inverting the identity into something positive and good.
Simply put, people do not like feeling attacked, they especially do not like feeling attacked for something over which they have no control, and so when they feel that sense of attack they will, understandably, react against it.
The heart of his speech, however, seems to be here:
I wish to make the case for unabashed black patriotism—for the forthright embrace of American nationalism by black people. The currently fashionable standoffishness characteristic of much elite thinking concerning blacks’ relationship to the American project—exemplified by the New York Times’s 1619 Project—serves the interests, rightly understood, of neither the country nor of black Americans. The “America ain’t so great, and never was” posture, popular on campuses and in liberal newsrooms, is a sophomoric indulgence for blacks in the twenty-first century. Our birthright citizenship in this great republic is an inheritance of immense value. Our Americanness is much more important than our blackness.
We Americans, of all stripes, have a great deal in common, and our commonalities can be used to build bridges, undergirded by patriotism, between black America and the nation as a whole. We all finally want the same things. We want a shot at the American Dream. We want each generation to do better than the ones that came before it. We want to feel secure in our homes and in public. We want to live in clean and orderly communities with good services. We want the government to work for us, not the other way around. We want to be treated fairly by society and our institutions. We want personal freedoms so that, with reasonable restrictions, we can do as we please, including the right to fail. The list of our commonalities goes on. Connections among various groups in America could be stronger if we focused more on the things we have in common than on the things that divide us. Those who make their living by focusing on our differences believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with America. They’re wrong. We should resist their divisive rhetoric. It is easy to overstate the racial problems facing our country, and to understate what we’ve achieved.
Because of the actual realities of race in America, both historical and contemporary, our divides can feel insurmountable and this can lead to a sense of hopelessness. What’s more, because of the discourse surrounding race right now, there can often be a sense that any attempt to address injustice will be fruitless and so we remain trapped in a deeply unhappy position in which no one is pleased and no one has any hope of things changing.
Loury looks at all of this and wants to draw attention to things that have improved, identify points of contact that transcend racial divisions, and build a prescriptive vision for hope and even patriotism through that appeal. Attempting to identify commonly held values and concerns is not a trivial thing in a society as divided as our own. So much of what Loury is trying to do here is, I think, admirable. We need some commonly held desires to unify us as a nation. Loury wants to draw our attention to such desires in hopes of providing a way forward out of our present quagmire.
The Under-Determined Nation
I do not think he succeeds in his remarks. The specific way he fails is telling as to the problem facing our current political discussions in this nation and particular the problem facing the American right. The commonalities that Loury draws our attention to and that he believes bind us together are, in short, that we wish to be safe, left alone from unwelcome attention or meddling in our own affairs, we wish to make enough money to live comfortably, and we wish to be treated equitably.
In other words, what unites us is a commitment to a primarily negative, primarily individualized conception of freedom. Freedom is chiefly defined by the absence of certain undesirable things and it is chiefly experienced by individual people. This is, unfortunately, not much of a basis for building a nation. Essentially, Loury sees what unites us as basically being a desire to make money off of one another and then to be left alone so that we can live as we desire.
His liberalism, then, is broadly procedural: Government exists to offer physical security as well as certain procedural norms that serve citizens and shape interactions between neighbors. But it doesn’t offer any sort of positive prescriptive vision for where neighborly interactions ought to lead or of how people ought to use the wealth they acquire in those interactions.
Thus one of the jarring things about Loury’s speech is the juxtaposition between the liberalism of his speech and the venue in which the speech was made: Loury offered a vision of America that sounds much like that of David French to a room full of Ahmarists that, indeed, included Ahmari himself.
Given that, it seems reasonable to ask if America’s national identity includes specific ideas about, say, natural law and morality or does it not? In other venues, the national conservatives have argued quite forcefully (and rightly, I think) that it does and that, apart from such a vision, America will flounder and ultimately fail (this, again, seems quite correct to me). But I see little room in Loury’s proposal for such a move since it would inherently involve a more positively stated conception of freedom and a more communitarian experience of it than Loury’s small-government conservatism would allow. Loury’s vision of national identity would seem to foreground individuals acting in the marketplace, going as far as their own talent and ability will take them. The vision of the national conservatives has usually envisioned a much more communitarian vision of the nation and has, indeed, frequently attacked Loury’s sort of market-oriented, individualistic conception of the nation.
We might put the problem this way—and here I’m borrowing this particular framing from a friend: America likes to tell two different stories about herself.
On the one hand, we’re a Christian nation with specific legal traditions, customs, holidays, ways of living, and so on, rather like many of the nations of old European Christendom. You can look at specific practices, public celebrations, ways of living, and even architecture, and identify it as “Italian,” or “British,” or “American.” In this framing, America is a fixed thing that can be positively identified by what it is.
This is the vision that tends to be favored by the nationalist conservatives and it has much to offer. Yet precisely because of the thick internal sense of shared national identity that this vision tends to produce, it also tends to be deeply suspicious of immigrants and perceived outsiders as well as quite hostile toward innovations around how society structures itself, how families function, how children are educated, and so on. Indeed, it is not at all difficult to argue that this tradition is in large part responsible for the persistence of slavery and many other racial injustices that blight our nation’s history. It took direct federal-level action over and against the apparent “identity” of America to route out slavery and, 100 years later, to end Jim Crow. It was, in both those cases, deference to custom and tradition that preserved gross injustices.
On the other hand, we also like to tell ourselves that we are a nation of immigrants where anyone can come and succeed if they’re willing to follow their dreams, defy the people who tell them they can’t do something, and imagine and then create a different world for themselves.
While nationalist conservatives tend to favor the former story, in Loury’s speech it is the second that is most prominent. That isn’t surprising though. In many parts of the US, thick national or regional cultures “thrived” only after people of color had been subordinated. The “culture” of my home state of Nebraska came to exist only after we had destroyed Native cultures and dislocated or killed the Native peoples that had lived here for centuries. The “culture” of my wife’s home state of Alabama came to exist in large part because of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, white flight, and much more. It shouldn’t surprise us that the black conservatives tend toward a right wing version of the second story centered around market economics and maximal individual opportunity. The consistent outcome of the first story has been horrible for people of color.
To be sure, there is room for today’s nationalists to try and articulate a vision of the American nation that is neither proceduralism nor a racialized nationalism. Indeed, in one sense it should be quite thrilling to see that people on the right favoring a thicker national identity are also seeking to revise their tradition in ways that address racial injustice. I take Professor Hazony’s frequent denunciations of racism as well as the invitation to Professor Loury to address the conference and Professor Loury’s own remarks at the conference to all be reflective of the fact that they don’t want their thicker western nations to be defined by racial prejudice and injustice and, indeed, they want to address the problem of race head-on.
But, then, that’s precisely what makes Loury’s speech somewhat odd: When the National Conservative conference addresses race, it suddenly stops sounding like the Ahmarist version of conservatism that most of its speakers support and instead begins to sound very modest, minimalistic, and David French-like. And the question that raises for me is what that implies about the American right.
The problem is that I’m not sure the American right has an alternative. It seems to me that conservatives wishing to address America’s history with race have three already established options in front of them:
- They can embrace conservative proceduralism and champion the cause of black conservatism
- They can embrace a national greatness model and all that that entails historically.
- They can try to avail themselves of more radical black voices and the post-colonial movement, which is obviously associated with the left.
It is possible that today’s national conservatives might find a fourth approach, of course, which isn’t proceduralism, isn’t white nationalism, and isn’t post-colonialism. Indeed, I would cheer on any effort to articulate such an option. But if that is what they are interested in, it’s curious that they would ask an obvious proponent of proceduralism to give a significant address at their conference.
To lay my cards on the table, I think we need to listen to the post-colonial critique of the west and incorporate that into a broader natural law argument about the historical and contemporary failures of the western world. Indeed, there is already really excellent work being done on natural law in the black intellectual tradition. This is one of the reasons I do not think I’m really a conservative anymore. I think Willie Jennings’s historiography is correct, I think Malcolm X was more right than wrong, I think Kwame Nkrumah was more right than wrong and so was Julius Nyerere. And all of that forces me toward a more radical critique of the west than I think many in the national conservative crowd wish to make.
But, I ask, what other options do they have? It seems to me they only really have the first two I listed above.
If they adopt the first option, it would seem to entail repudiating common good conservatism—and for many of them also offering an apology to David French.
If they adopt the second, it would seem to entail rejecting Loury’s minimalism and will necessarily involve a sober encounter with the racist legacy of many older forms of western nationalism—or simply embracing that legacy, as I think some in the coalition will likely do within 8-10 years or even sooner.[notes]One option for them may be to try and lean more into their anti-interventionist foreign policy interests: If you look at the 1890s and the debate in the US over imperialism, it may make sense for the national conservatives to make a more full-throated critique of imperialism along the lines of the anti-imperialists of the late 19th and early 20th century. That gives you strong nationalism, anti-colonialism, and a quite robust constitutionalism. It also allows you to count Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, and William Jennings Bryan as allies, which is an odd but perhaps interesting coalition. But so far I have not seen anyone really trying to make that case. And even so it may not actually be a unique fourth option. It’s still anti-colonial and so you’d need to do some work to detach late 19th century anti-imperialism from mid to late 20th century post-colonialism.[/notes]
And so we are back to the same problem everyone is currently arguing about, which is what does unite America together as a coherent political society, if not a naked desire to make money off of one another? So far there are no satisfying answers on offer. The National Conservative vision has much to commend itself, but it becomes suddenly tentative and hesitant when questions of racial justice arise, which to my mind is an enormous problem given how central problems of race are to the history of the west and, especially, America. A national conservatism that truly sought to make use of post-colonial critiques of the west as well as black nationalist critiques of the same would be quite interesting, I think. I’m just not sure if it would still be “conservative.”