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In Response to Sumpter on Ethnicity and Polity

December 30th, 2022 | 29 min read

By Susannah Black Roberts

Toby Sumpter has written a thoughtful response to my Theopolis piece on Wolfe’s Case for Christian Nationalism. I wanted to delay responding till post-Christmas (YES, I KNOW, it is still Christmas till Epiphany, calm down) to avoid generating Discourse, which is too often the opposite of Christmas cheer. I urge you to read his piece, and mine, for full context. It’s a conversation I welcome, and I could easily imagine going back and forth with responses to each others’ responses. I didn’t mean to write a new piece. This was meant to be a Twitter thread. Ah well.

One thing to bracket here is that I’m not that interested at this point in discussing what is in Stephen Wolfe’s heart or even in parsing exactly what his book says. I’ve come to conclusions about the job the book is intended to do; it’s up to each person to use his best judgment about that. I think the things that are important here are the subjects Wolfe addresses, and I’m more interested in Toby’s ideas, and the ideas of others, about these things. In other words, what’s interesting is a conversation about the reality the book seeks to address, not relitigating the book. We need, now, to be building, not tearing down.

I’ll address several different aspects of his critique of my piece. As is common in this kind of exchange I’m focusing on areas of disagreement as a way of seeking what is true. Anyway, here we go:

I: On Multiethnic Friendship and Community: How We Live Now

Sumpter seems to me to collapse together several different kinds of unity: political unity, such as is experienced in the sharing of political common good in a polity; Ciceronian pursuing-the-highest-good-together friendship; familial unity; and what you might call gemeinschaft unity: the village-ish community that is between a relatively limited number of people and/or in a relatively small place, who, whether or not they are related, have known each other for their whole lives and share a common culture on a very deep level and have done so over generations. I want to flag this, because I think these can be quite different from each other, though they are obviously related.

Sumpter describes a world in which it is very uncommon – and requires special supernatural grace – to truly be friends, highest-good-seeking friends, Ciceronian friends, with people of different ethnicities. He thinks that my own experience of having, and living in, a community that is multiethnic and being friends with people who are of different ethnicities is inaccurate: that I may have mistaken vaguely friendly non-enmity for true Ciceronian friendship or for community. “It seems to me,” he writes,

That one of the problems (there are of course many) with modern multiculturalism is a fairly sentimental and romantic notion of the very concept of friendship, community, and common life. We think because we had a lab partner in college from India, and we occasionally ate lunch together and maybe even still exchange Christmas cards, we are “friends.” Because we “get along” fine with many different people from different backgrounds, we are experiencing a multiethnic community. But this is likely wrong from at least two angles: the first is simply examining the nature of the “friendship” or “community.” How deep is it really? Is it really that higher love among the loves classically understood as “friendship?” – the sort that Jesus said would lay his life down for his friend? Or is it a pleasant acquaintance or affection?

My disagreement with Sumpter here is based on three things:

First, no one I know of in the classical or Christian tradition has ever argued that one can only be Ciceronian/highest-good friends with someone of the same ethnicity, and many of our sources describe crucial friendships which are across ethnicities (I’ve just been on a deep dive into the Hellene/Trojan inherited guest-friendship relationship of Diomides and Glaucus).

Second, it is extremely common for people to have the experience of very close personal friendship (and marriage, for that matter) across ethnic lines; many or most of my readers will have had this experience, I imagine; it seems to happen basically whenever people are given the chance to get to know each other or do common projects at all, though of course not every friendly interaction between people of different ethnicities is Ciceronian friendship or real community.

Third, it is my own direct experience and is common to my friend group and family. I think probably it is simply that Sumpter has not had this experience, and it is more uncommon in his social circles. Sumpter’s assumptions about what is normal (your only “interethnic friendship” is, for example, the Indian guy who you shared a lab bench with in college, and you should realize that this isn’t real friendship) are quite foreign to me: my mother, though she was born in New York, grew up in India, and one of my adopted uncles, who currently lives in my house (though he’s actually at the moment in Mumbai visiting his ninety year old mother), is the son of my grandfather’s best friend from those heady post-independence days in Delhi doing vaguely anti-communist/international development/distressingly postcolonial-globalist things. Many of those Indian, Anglo-Indian, and American families have stayed extremely intertwined, not to say enmeshed. My parents are not of the same ethnicity (dad’s Jewish, mom’s WASP); I married a man of a different nation (Alastair’s English); one of my best Cicero-friends was born in Delhi; another is Appalachian; others are English and German and so on; one godson is half black and half West Indian; another is Canadian; I have sisters-in-law who are half French half Vietnamese, half German half American, Brazilian of Italian descent, and American of Irish descent, etc etc.

This kind of thing is extremely normal in my experience; this is experientially just how the world is, and it is a good and beautiful world. It does not feel like an alienated one or a lonely one. I’m not by any stretch of the imagination deracinated: I have an enormous weird family and live in my great grandparents’ house; the family have been New Yorkers for five generations, and my Revolutionary War ancestor enlisted just a couple of miles from the family’s Connecticut summer house (though that was a coincidence, or Providence.)

The main “you are not like me” things I experience are matters of education and class rather than ethnicity. This doesn’t mean that I dislike people who are different along those lines, but that experientially that’s what feels like a more salient difference. I think probably Sumpter simply has had a different experience. If your actual experience is that the only “friendship” that you have with people of different ethnicities is casual friendly acquaintance/non-enmity, and all your kith (those bound with family-like affection) and all your Cicero-friends are of your same ethnicity, I can see why you would think that that is normal and universal.

Everyone has the tendency to think that his own experience is the normal human experience; I of course do too. If you’re trying to figure out what’s real, an important thing to do is not to let yourself be too captivated by your own experience as the only reality. But while my experience is not universal or normative (if the only people you are in a position to be friends or kith with are of the same ethnicity, there’s obviously no vice in only being friends or kith with people of the same ethnicity: “love the ones you’re with” is the only way to live), it certainly gives the lie to the “you have to be on a Ring of Power-related quest and have extra amounts of supernatural grace to have genuine community and friendship with people of different ethnicities” hypothesis. Of course grace is involved: grace is always involved. But it’s not like… a healing miracle or something. It is not universal to have close friends of different ethnicities, but it is extremely normal. Many people in the US and across the world and across time have experiences like mine.

One way to get around this very common human experience while still maintaining Wolfe’s (Sumpter’s? I’m not sure) framework is to claim that every time these friendships in fact occur, a new ethnicity is formed. But this seems to me to be an awkward post-facto work around, in violation of common sense and the common way we use words and ideas. I don’t think that the fact of being intertwined families with a New Delhi clan or being Ciceronian friends with a guy from Delhi and an Appalachian chick or marrying an Englishman means that the people groups from which we all are drawn are becoming a new ethnicity. I think the more straightforward read is that it’s actually pretty normal and natural to become friends with people of different ethnicities; it certainly has happened throughout history every time people of different ethnicities have the opportunity to work on projects together/go to school together/be in the military together/do business together/live in a city together. It’s one of the ordinary ways to live, though it has historically been something of a minority way. That’s fine.

Of course, the “general American” white-ish ethnicity, in as much as there is one, is (despite the wails of the wignats) also becoming less exclusively European, as it had already become less anglo by the middle of the 20th century. And again, it just is not the case that we Americans have (most of us) a very simple or straightforward single ethnic identity, and it’s not the case that whatever ethnic identity we have is our only social identity. We also have political tribes, collegia of various kinds, possibly strong senses of attachment to a multiethnic place like a city, attachment to institutions like the military and to particular groups with whom we’ve had formative experiences, vocational guilds and companies that are multiethnic, often families that are multiethnic, etc.

That’s ok. You can thrive while being complicated. What you can’t do is thrive without actual family and friends. What you can’t do is thrive without attachment to specifics – real specifics like people and places, not abstractions like an ethnic identity.

II: On Multiethnic Friendship and Community: How We Lived Then

If what Sumpter believes is what Wolfe believes – that there is an ought here; that we ought almost exclusively to seek to befriend, socialize with, and marry people of our own ethnicity, so as to solidify its borders and its political selfhood and thus its ability and will to act politically for itself, and that as our natures are restored by grace, we will increasingly want to do this and increasingly not want to marry or socialize with those who are not of our ethnicity – he will have to contend with, among other things, the Bible, and specifically the witness of the church just after Pentecost.

It is not reasonable to think, if this were true as he describes it, that the Church’s first exuberant flowering after Pentecost would be specifically characterized by Jewish and Greek friendship and marriage, and that the tendency to social separateness on an ethnic basis would be specifically noted and condemned by the Apostle. How could God have permitted his young bride to defile herself this way, if it is a defilement?

The churches in the different cities in the New Testament do have their own characters, good and bad, as communities. Some are fairly monoethnic; some are multiethnic. Some are more Greek, some more Hebrew, some a mix, some with “Italian” Romans as well, some with Roman citizens who are not European, some with non-citizens. It’s not that these cities don’t have their own characters and cultures; it’s that those characters and cultures aren’t really “ethnic” in any way that is recognizable.

If they are “ethnic” it’s the “ethnicity” of somewhere like Marseille today – Mediterranean pick-n-mix with plenty of people from farther afield, as was the case with basically every economic, intellectual & religious organization that existed around the Med from then till now. Even individual people that we know of, let alone couples, do not belong to simple “ethnicities.” What is Lydia? A Romanized Greek (or Turk) from Asia Minor living in Philippi on the island of Thasos, working for a company based in what is now Turkey. Is her “ethnicity” Greek? Is it an emergent “Philippian” ethnicity?

The thing is, difference and different cultures are good; they are part of the good variety of the world; even Pentecost was not a full reversal of Babel, but a transformation of it: people heard the Gospel in their own languages, rather than having everyone suddenly speak Hebrew or Greek. But I don’t see any evidence that God wills us to police the boundaries of ethnicities or cultures – of the many, many things that one can do which God would really rather you didn’t, socially mixing with those of different ethnicities is not one of them (I also don’t think God cares about cultural appropriation, to be honest; in as much as it is part of human creativity I think he probably likes it).

Different cultures are good – but they are not tidy, and they simply never have been, and we are not bound to try to keep them tidy through limiting friendship and marriage. If we were so bound, if this were a true moral obligation or a necessary part of the good human life, we would surely see some evidence of that in the Bible. We see, instead, in the record of the early Church, if anything a version of the reverse: don’t hold yourself socially apart from your fellow Christians who are of a different ethnicity is a pretty big deal in Galatians.

One might say “well, this has to do with spiritual things, not worldly ones; that’s a church thing, not a political one.” But how on earth is one supposed to live that way? How could one be a whole person? What would such a divided life look like, with a “Christian self” behaving one way and a “political self” behaving another? The unity that Greek and Jew are meant to have is the unity of the table, of eating together at dinner parties, as well as at the Eucharist.

If we interrogate our desires in order to find out what is natural and thus good, we find a variety of desires: those for the cozy and familiar and people “like us” ethnically are only one set of good desires. We also have desires for people who are “like us” intellectually and aesthetically and in sensibility. We also have desires for difference and novelty too: there is a delight in the familiar, and there is a delight in seeing human nature persist in the unfamiliar too. People often desire each other in friendship and love and across ethnicities; because people have historically usually not traveled very far, the majority of friendships and marriages in history have been with people of the same ethnicity. The majority still are. That is fine.

But every time people do travel, or mix, or have the opportunity in any other way, you just can’t seem to stop them from forming friendships and falling in love. Good friendships and good marriages simply do form across ethnic boundaries all the time – ethnicity simply is not the only form of the “likeness” that is their basis.

III:  On Loving the Given, and the Temptation of Coziness

Sumpter goes on to argue that my claim that the political-philosophical tradition has both universalist and particularist strands which both need to be kept in play

assumes that nation building is primarily a sort of ethical balancing act, like gathering wealth. But what if nation-ing (and yes, I’ve just verbed that noun) is more like love, more like friendship, and building and cultivating families… The focus on finding a spouse, cultivating friendship, and building a family by nature require focus on particulars.

A man who cannot decide between asking Woman A or Woman B out on a date should not be encouraged to keep in mind balancing his love for all women with the love of one particular one.

This is a strong argument, and contains an important truth: one can’t allow universal benevolence to hamstring one from particular affection, to quench the will to choose this woman over all others. But it does not ultimately hold up. While being part of a polity is like choosing a wife in some respects, it isn’t like choosing a wife in others. Primarily, one doesn’t usually choose it. One is given it, usually, unless one immigrates and changes citizenship, or ends up like Cicero did with Arpinum and Rome, with one being his perpetual hearth-home-of-the-cozy-affections alongside the other commonwealth-home-of-the-search-for-justice. (1)

One is born into a particular time and place and political community, under whose laws one’s parents were (ideally) married and whose police and army and garbage men and sewage workers made one’s safe and healthy childhood (ideally) possible.

Toby might have been born in a polity that was largely mono-ethnic and quite small and more like one of the city-states that Althusius and Aristotle favored, but he was not. God, providentially, gave him this country, with these people, multiethnic as they are, as his people. That means that his political experience, if he seeks to engage in the public life of his actual polity, is going to be significantly less cozy and small than it would be if God had put him elsewhere.

In politics, especially among postliberals (I am one, to be clear), I have often observed something that might be called the temptation to coziness, politics as hygge; I’ve written about it here and here, in (appreciative) criticism of the postliberal hyperlocalism/family-government focus of Andrew Willard Jones, Marc Barnes, and Jacob Fareed Imam, my co-editors at New Polity.

Localism is good, but it is (it’s right there on the tin!) limited, and assuming that the affections that move Bill Kauffman (I love Bill Kauffman) are all one needs to govern the United States, is a mistake. And it’s a mistake as well to understand the experience of the political common good as the same thing as the hygge that can obtain in an extremely gemeinschafty village. That gemeinschafty coziness is a good human experience and it is a common good, but it’s not the same as the political common good, because a village is not a complete community, does not provide for the full range of human experience.

Sumpter claimed that I, in my understanding of friendship and community, was being “fairly sentimental and romantic.” Here, I think he is being sentimental and romantic in his idea of politics. The political common good tends to be more austere, less a matter of cozy affection: it is the experience of living in justice and civil friendship under just laws. If the gemeinschaft common good has as its characteristic architecture the thatched cottage, the political common good is a thing of classical and neoclassical marble pillars and imposing facades. It is not, characteristically, cozy.

Sumpter doesn’t get to choose his national people. Americans are his people, and not all of them are of his ethnicity (or assimilated as much as he would like to his own culture,) and not all of them are Christian, and not all of them are Trump voters. If he wants to be a political guy as opposed to a partisan/movement guy – i.e. to be the good guy in Washington’s Farewell Address instead of the bad guy, making factions – then he will have to deal with that.

I believe he did actually move to Moscow, Idaho from elsewhere, as a kind of ideological or theological migrant, so he did actually choose his fellow-citizens, in that sense. If he wants to be a political guy on a local level, he will have to aim at the good not just of the Doug Wilson/kirk faction in Moscow, but at the common good of all of Moscow’s citizens, at seeking to govern them justly and to form them into a mutually-regarding and mutually-respecting body politic. Because it is a smaller place than the United States, it seems possible that it, like other smaller places, might have more of a gemeinschaft-cozy feel to it, although I’ve never been there so I don’t know what that might be like. I think the best way in general to approach places is to help them become what they are – rather than to try to make them into something that reflects you, to find out about them and about all the people there, and to help a place become more characteristically itself.

This will, at a minimum, entail not being at enmity with the people who were there before the Doug Wilson migrants arrived, even though they are not of Sumpter’s ideological tribe. Seeking the political common good of an actual place and actual people, not just of a movement or ideological tribe chosen from among those people, is a challenge; common-good politics, the politics of the statesman, is harder than ideological movement building, or the leading of a faction (factions are generally understood to be destructive of political order.)

If Sumpter does not want to do politics like this, that is his choice, but it does mean that he has self-selected out of being suitable for active public life in this polity. That’s because people who choose to participate in active public life in any polity, whether by attempting the cursus honorum to end up as a magistrate, or by seeking to influence such magistrates or, because we are a democratic republic, by seeking to influence voters, must, in order to do the job well, seek to govern people who share in one law justly.

All of them, not just some of them. Not just the ones they vibe with or feel comfortable with. That is one thing that justice means: not favoring one’s favorites. This is why politics is a matter of reason rather than, primarily, instinct and sentiment, and why a good family man may not be a good magistrate. (But even a good family man must seek to love all of his children, and not show unjust and unloving partiality and neglect. And this is another way in which politics is not like marriage: you do not choose just one person to rule or govern, forsaking all others; rather, you must rule justly all those who are subjects, govern all those who are citizens.)

Magnanimity is what allows and inclines one to be expansive and generous with one’s favor: to do good not just to one’s clientes or one’s friends, but on a broader scale: to the public, across favored groups, across tribe and clan and family, to the whole of the commonwealth.

A nation is like a family: well, yes, in certain ways. And some real families are monoethnic, and some are massively and rather characteristically (hello, Habsburgs) international. That doesn’t mean that all must be. But one can’t say that a family in which each sibling married a woman from a different nation is less of a real family. Different families, different nations, are different. The USA is a nation which has, since its inception, been a place that different kinds of people come to; that has only increased over its history. That’s who we are, who our history has made us. To wish that not to be is to wish us not to be: to wish you had different parents, a different country, a different time.

The truth is that actual Americans, while they love the United States, love with the kind of local affection that Sumpter promotes something smaller: their home. I passionately love New York, and feel protective of the place that it is: it is my home. To make it be monoethnic would be to make it be a different kind of place. I don’t need all of the United States to be like New York, but in order for it to contain places like New York, it cannot be a monoethnic nation.

IV: How’s That Multi-Ethnic Society Going?

“How’s that multiculturalism working out for you?” he asks. He mentions abortion, sexual chaos, increasing crime rates, socialism, instability, and tension. I am passionately pro-life, it is the issue I care about the most, and so I’ll focus on it and then talk about some of the other issues he raises. Sorry for this data-driven excursus, I got curious and did some googling.

I can’t say I see the link between America being a multiethnic country and its having high abortion rates. According to the WHO, the countries with the highest abortion rates as of 2022, per 1000 women aged 15-44 per year, based on available statistics, are Russia, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Estonia, Belarus, Romania, Ukraine, Latvia, Cuba, and China; rates range from 53 abortions per 1000 women per year in Russia to 24 per 1000 women per year in China. The countries with the lowest rate is Mexico, at only one abortion per ten thousand women per year; the nine others that are lowest are Portugal, Qatar, Austria, India, South Africa, Greece, Croatia, Switzerland and Belgium, with rates ranging from .2 to 7.5 per 1000 women per year. America was, in 2020, at around 14.4 per 1000 women/year, down from a 1981 high of 29.3 per 1000 women/year. (2)

Let’s just talk for a second about Iceland, for reasons which will become apparent. It’s one of the most ethnically uniform countries in the world. With a population of 350,000, the size of Corpus Christi, Texas, almost all Icelanders are descended from the Norse and Celtic settlers who first began arriving on the island in the 700s and 800s. Not that many people have moved in since then. Around 2/3 of the population live in and around Rekyavijk. You are probably going to be related to most people you walk by on the street. Conveniently, and as a matter of necessity, the country has a national database, drawn from genealogical record books going back 1200 years, containing records of 720,000 Icelanders. What it’s mostly used for is to check to make sure that people don’t marry people too genetically close to them.

(Yes, there’s an app for that. It is named “Sifjaspellsspillir,” which translates as “Incest Spoiler.” How it works is when you’re at a bar, chatting with someone, you each get out your phone and “bömp” them together. If you’re too closely related, you’ll get a little ping alert. At which point presumably you shake hands and try again with the next guy or gal down the bar.)

It’s so gemeinschafty that in 2016 when the soccer team went to the Euro Cup, 99.8% of the country watched the game on television, around a quarter of the country saw the team off at the airport, and 8% of the country – 27,000 people – WENT TO FRANCE to cheer them on at the game.

65% of the population belong to the established Lutheran church. The fastest growing religion, however, is Ásatrú, a cobbled-together version of Norse paganism, the worship of Odin and Thor and so on.

Iceland converted late, though only about three hundred years after the island began to be settled, with conversion happening by parliamentary vote in the year 1000, under political pressure from King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway. In the nineteenth century, in the spirit of other nationalist movements, Icelandic nationalists started getting interested in their Pagan heritage. When they gained full political independence from Norway in 1944, this interest grew, and by the late 1960s, a nationalist poet called Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson had launched a full pagan revival movement.

In 1973, over the strenuous objections of the established Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland, the Ministry of Religious Affairs granted Ásatrú recognition as a state-supported religious organization. During the discussions, Reykjavik was plunged into darkness when a massive lightning strike took out its electrical system. This event was interpreted… variously. Today, Ásatrú is eligible for public funding through a religion tax, and has full authority to conduct weddings and funerals.

Iceland, famously, also kills essentially 100% of its children who test positive for Down syndrome in the womb.

Ethnic uniformity, gemeinschaft, nationalism, and formal though apparently unenthusiastic church establishment (I’m in favor of establishment, to be clear!) are not enough to protect a country from the culture of death and the worship of the old gods. Conversion, discipleship, virtue, and good philosophy are, though.

We are moving on from Iceland, you will be pleased to hear. Time for socialism!

Sumpter cites “socialism” as something that is also promoted by having a multiethnic society. I’m not sure what he has in mind. I’m in favor of national health care and a strong social safety net, especially focusing on women who might otherwise be tempted to have abortions.

I have no strong feelings about, say, Amtrak becoming de-nationalized, though I don’t see how it could get worse. I think probably state and municipal ownership of water and power utilities are a good idea. I am deeply fond of the American culture of small business entrepreneurship and because of that, I tend to be suspicious of the big box stores and large corporations which drive small business out of the market, though I am as bad an Amazon shopper as anyone. One of the reasons I am in favor of national health care is that I suspect it will enable more people with a small business dream to take the plunge, quit their corporate jobs, and become entrepreneurs.

I don’t know how Sumpter sees all these questions as relating to the presence of many ethnicities within the United States.

When it comes to crime, murder and other violent crimes have gone down fairly steadily in every European city where they’ve been measured since the Middle Ages. Homicide rates in London in 1300-1350 were at 20 per 100,000 residents per year. In 2021 the rate in London was 1.4/100,000/year.

The thing that seems to have done the trick is A) the massive fall in violence among elite men as these societies transitioned from honor culture to dignity culture, and B) the universal adoption of professional civilian police forces after they were pioneered in London in the 1830s by Sir Robert Peel. Also people drink WAY less than they used to.

Violent crime seems to have reached an all-time recorded-history low in big cities in Europe and America around 1960; it is now (speaking very, very generally) back up to around 1910 levels, but has gone down again in some places. US wide murder rates were around 8/100,000/year in 1900, 10/100,000/year in 1935, down to to a low of 4 in 1960, back up to 11 in 1990, down to 6 now. In 1800, murder rates in NYC were around 7 per 100,000 people per year, in 1820, around 12, in 1840, around 2; in 1865, around 17 (draft riots); in 1965, 4.6; in 1985, 9.5; in 1993, the worst year since the draft riots, 13.3. After a sharp drop, in 2019 rates were down to 2.9/100,000 per year, and post-COVID plus terrible public policy from de Blasio & Adams during COVID, in 2021 it was back up to around 4. (Some of these numbers are me eyeballing charts.)

I’m not being Steven Pinkerish about this. First, I’ve seen statistics that seem to show that broadly speaking one of the things that tracks most closely with general crime rates is “sense that the government is legitimate” and “sense of social solidarity,” though it’s impossible to tell what’s cause here and what’s effect. And very high rates of immigration without assimilation perhaps can (this seems like a common sense assumption, though I don’t know of any data on it) affect this subjective sense.

But the numbers just aren’t straightforward. Generally over the past five centuries there has been a steady fall in interpersonal violence, with the most recent dramatic things being ten years of world-historically low crime in the 50s, ten years of relatively high crime in the 80s/90s, and a rapid fall again in the 2010s.

Second reason I’m not being Steven Pinkerish: in London in 1350, to kill a guy you had to stab him or shoot him with an arrow. It was inefficient. Now, we can nuke cities, gas large portions of ethnicities, drone weddings, fly planes into buildings. I don’t think this is better. Putin might launch a global thermonuclear war tomorrow. But if what you’re worried about is street crime, I’m not sure the data shows what Sumpter thinks it does. But then again, I’m not sure what he thinks it does show. You’re definitely less likely to be challenged to a duel. (I suppose I should not be sad about this.)

Weird data driven/Icelandic excursus over. Sorry.

V: On Nationing and Governing and the Difference Between Them

Sumpter might think that massively slowing immigration to the US and deporting those here illegally is the best course of action to take to govern those who are citizens. This is a legitimate opinion to have, though of course he would, as a policy advisor or politician, also have a duty of care to those here illegally, simply because he would have physical power over them. He would have to consider what the course of justice is with regard to them, and it would behoove him to not forget all the Bible’s urgings towards care for those who are migrants and in politically precarious situations. (I don’t think that these urgings mean that we are obligated to have open borders; I do not myself favor open borders. I do think they mean that if you have physical or political power over someone you are obliged to use that power for his good. That’s what power is for. )

But what Sumpter can’t do is wish away the existing citizens of this commonwealth of ours, or of Moscow, Idaho. He can’t wish American history other than it is, or vote in a new people. If he would prefer to govern an Anglo America, with perhaps a population of kidnapped African slaves and displaced Natives and a disturbingly large contingent of German immigrants as the “immigrant problem” to solve, he would need a time machine to around 1795. If he would prefer to govern an Anglo America with no Germans or African slaves or Natives, or an America where all non-Anglo immigrants have already been fully assimilated to Anglo culture, where all parts of the country are ethnically and culturally the same, where there are no big cities with many cultures living alongside each other, he would need a pocket universe.

If he would prefer to govern or live in an America where the commonwealth has broken up into a set of smaller polities based on ideological or ethnic lines, I suppose he has the ability (though not the right) to attempt to do this: to break up this country whose military protects him, by whose laws his parents are married and he is legitimate.

(Well, I guess marriage law is by state and so Socrates’ point doesn’t quite work here, but you see my point: the United States is his country, the one he has been given, and to which he is called to be loyal. To seek to break it up is something we call treason.)

He goes on to say,

For a man who sees weakness and fracture in his family, while there are universal principles to remember and consider, the primary problem is not likely to be failure to love the mailman, the neighbor, or various online acquaintances. The problem is almost certainly a failure to love the particular members of his own family well. And as C.S. Lewis and others have pointed out, it is actually these particular loves that prepare us and teach us how to rightly love in broader, more universal ways.

He applies this to the nation: the nation is like a family, so the problem is not to be solved in loving others (foreigners, i.e. the mailman or the neighbor) well but in loving your actual wife and children well.

And here is where the disconnect really lies: he is not talking about the political task as it has been understood by the pre-romantic/classical tradition; that is, the task of governing a given polity made up of subjects or citizens under one government whose policy one seeks to influence, through the operation of practical wisdom, in public life. If he were, the set of actual specific people with whom to be concerned would be the actual citizens of the United States, or of Idaho, or of Moscow, Idaho.

Instead, he is talking (he takes this from Wolfe) about a romantic “nationing” task, something very 19th century indeed, something that is, in characteristic 19th century sense, very gemeinschafty, with the gemeinschaft expanded from the village to the nation. This was something that was done deliberately by 19th century nationalists to encourage people to feel the kind of affection and instinctive “us”-ness towards these big new things, Germany and Italy, these nations, which they felt towards their actual gemeinschaft-villages. It is, and was, a matter of affections and instincts, rather than the classical idea of ordered love governed by reason.

If Sumpter is following Wolfe, his self-understood task would involve discerning on a gut level, using his instinct, who among the US citizens or the citizens of Idaho or the citizens of Moscow are “of him,” of his people, and who thus really have the right to be citizens, and then taking power, and then seeking to govern on their behalf, because he regards them as the true ethnos in that 19th century sense, rather than governing on behalf of the whole of the commonwealth.

My concern is that this task is by its nature unjust: it is governing on behalf of a part, the part you feel closest or most familial – in his terms, “national” – about, rather than the whole. But classically, it is part of the task of the magistrate precisely to suppress such family or tribal feeling and legislate and judge impartially, for the sake of the common good, not for the sake of the good of his own political faction or social class or clientage or family or tribe. Yoram Hazony talks about the importance of this in his own work on nationalism: the good of the comfortable tribe must be transformed into the good of the nation. Where this is not the case, where government is on behalf of the magistrate’s own faction or family or tribe, we call that tyranny.

This is a difficult task: this is why the spirited horses of thumos and eros must be harnessed to our reason, rather than being given their heads. You cannot feel and will your way to justice, though there can be no justice without feeling and will.

There are other polities that are not the US that are small and monoethnic, though there are to my knowledge no polities that don’t call for this suppression of partiality by the magistrate, in order to judge justly. If Sumpter aims to take up (or describe) the classical task of just government, or of advisor to a just governor, he must rationally love and seek to care for what is: to start from this place at this time, not from the year zero, from an America with no complex and messy history of immigration and internal migration. He must start from the people he has been given, not with the nation as those he chooses, the romantically discerned community, whose discernment is a personal task, a kind of collective self-actualization.

This nation-as-those-you-vibe-with is attractive, but it leaves out reality. It leaves out the millions in the US, the thousands in your own town, perhaps those in your own family, who you don’t find it as easy to vibe with, or who you vibe with but disagree with politically, but who are, nevertheless, yours.

Finally, Sumpter says that

the problem in America is not primarily a failure to balance particular and universal loves. The problem in America is a wildly careening universal love that is so disconnected to particular loves that it is nearly meaningless in every way.

I agree that the second sentence is true, that this is in fact a problem with many, many sections of America – we do frequently lack specific attachment to place and people, though this is not something that New Yorkers tend to exhibit: we are disgustingly attached to and chauvinistic about our rat-infested metropolis. This is not the case everywhere in America, though, and I think he’s right that that unmooredness is a problem. Sumpter describes something real.

But the first sentence is not accurate. What the second sentence describes is precisely a failure to balance particular and universal loves: we have a lack of attachment to place and family that is painfully destructive of human flourishing. As a damaging attempt at counterbalance, we have an extraordinarily abstract set of identitarian political movements, mediated through the internet, that are focused on other abstractions, though they disguise themselves as particulars: race, ethnicity, political tribe.

VII  On Practical Wisdom, and What to Do, and How, and Why

In my view, the solution to an imbalance in the truth that is understood and acted on – an imbalance in practical wisdom – is not to push as hard as possible in the other direction in order to hope to end up balanced, but to seek actual balance, and to seek it first – this is Plato’s whole point; the Republic is about soulcraft – in your own soul and your own everyday practical activity, beginning with the family and the actually local, with people you can name and point to, and going from there.

I think that the appeal of ethnonationalism in these conversations lies in its identification with “acting with manliness and energy for yourself, engaging politically with appropriate and energetic self love.” And I think that it is good, indeed necessary, to act with manliness and energy for yourself, engaging politically with appropriate and energetic self love. I just think that identifying this self love with a single thing – one’s somewhat imaginatively discerned ethnicity – limits one’s vision of how one actually experiences the world: you almost certainly actually do have a sense of “my people” that is not uniquely and exclusively confined to, for example, American white people. You probably have a bunch of venn diagram overlapping “my peoples.”

You might decide to project that sense of “us” exclusively onto the group of “American white people,” or something, and then seek to bring that group into political self-awareness, but that’s a decision. And I think that it’s an unwise one, because it ignores many aspects of who you are, as well as what our country is. It does not, in both the colloquial and technical senses, do justice to either you or to your countrymen. You are more complicated than that, and so is America.

You must act with wisdom and manly energy – and you must love what really is, not an imagined movement-based Anglo America that rejects what God has made of the place (and what most Anglo people in America think it is and want it to be – ethnonationalism is after all not a popular position among American WASPs.) God has made it an incredibly varied and strange continent-sized commonwealth, with many places that are very different from each other, and many people groups that are very different from each other, and some places that are quite ethnically uniform (not all of these Anglo or white) and some which are ethnically pluriform. Love it or leave it. (I’m not giving up my citizenship, personally.)

If in response to the excess of abstract universal cosmopolitanism one seeks to exclusively emphasize the local and familial and kin aspects of community, one will not end up with a good balance, but with personal and, if you are successful, cultural and political imbalance on the other side, which will then cause another universalist reaction and more imbalance.

The only way to seek wisdom is to seek all of it. If I seek complete wisdom, then both the universalist and cosmopolitan aspects of wisdom and the particularist aspects will be given to me. If I seek only the universalist aspects, or only the particularist aspects, then even those aspects which I tried hardest to grasp will be taken away.

This is the skill of the pilot, tacking his way into harbor without running aground because he overcorrects. This is the skill of the charioteer, who makes the turn correctly precisely because he leans somewhat but not to much into the turn, and does not allow the pendulum-force of his bodyweight to overcorrect as he straightens again, spilling him out onto the racecourse, the team untethered and disappearing into the distance, the chariot smashed up in the packed dirt.

And this skill in living simply is the skill that we must, if we seek to live well and sanely in our private and public lives, cultivate. Again, what Chesterton said of theology is true of political philosophy:

To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

This can be thought of as balance, and as such the word to apply to it is sophrosyne. It can also be thought of as wholeness, and it is the urgent task of this generation to be wholly human, to fight for this complete humanity. To be Christian is to have one’s ability to live out one’s complete humanity restored, to have the opportunity to live out the good humanism which has Christ as its exemplar, to live out the love of the particular and the universal, to live with kith and kin, to live with the magnanimity that we are called to as sons and daughters of the King.



(1) Or as Atticus did, with one home/commonwealth and one adopted place of perpetual interest and friendship; he was born in Rome, but was perpetually back and forth to Athens for slightly nerd-orientalist reasons. One thing to note is that this kind of divided loyalty, which truly is loyalty, along with intermarriage between nations/ethnicities, is in every age more common in upper classes and educated classes: those with international family ties, who have been away at institutions of higher learning at key parts of their young adulthood to form lifelong true friendships and sometimes marriages with people not from their hometowns; those who can afford to travel or have business or intellectual interests in different places. This is much more common now because many of us now have the means for this kind of education and travel, and there is apparently a human-nature thing, related to philosophical wonder, that often sends us adventuring, when we are able to. 

(2) I suspect, however, that the drop in numbers of abortions is at least in part due to the increasing use of Plan B. Because I believe that humans begin to be people at conception, I don’t think that this is better. The invisibilizing of killing is not an improvement in general.

Susannah Black Roberts

Susannah Black Roberts is senior editor at Plough. She is a native Manhattanite. She and her husband, the theologian Alastair Roberts, split their time between Manhattan and the West Midlands of the UK.