“All are Welcome,” declare my neighbors’ yard signs brightly. But then there is a long addendum professing the homeowner’s belief that Black lives matter, science is real, women’s rights are human rights, all means all — the list goes on and on with additional tenets. This suggests that all are not in fact welcome, despite the happy colors and children’s hands. The commandments debar those who might reject these beliefs, such as the neighbors across the street, perhaps, with their “Trump Won” and “F*ck Biden” signs. Inclusiveness is tricky. It sometimes requires its opposite.
This is hardly news to western liberals. Their commitment to tolerance, open-mindedness, and the free exchange of ideas has been tested before, requiring what seems like hypocritical backtracking. Political freedom? Tell that to the communists liberals purged from government and academia in the name of preserving political freedom. Defending tolerance and openness can turn liberals into the intolerant censors they oppose.
This dynamic is at the center of a new book called Masochistic Nationalism: Multicultural Self-Hatred and the Infatuation with the Exotic, by Swedish sociologist Goren Adamson. A self-declared liberal, Adamson is really ticked off by western multiculturalism and white antiracism, which he argues are psychological phenomena that are assumed to be liberal and progressive but are really as illiberal and censorious as their purported opposite, hyper-nationalism. He supports this argument with an analytical framework that maps what he calls “positive nationalism” (xenophobia and super-patriotism, represented by Trumpists, Orban, and Brexit) onto what he calls “masochistic nationalism” (xenophilia and self-hatred, represented by the UN, EU, The Guardian, and New York Times). His “data” is a series of anecdotes from Sweden and Europe showing how a large segment of the educated white population sanctimoniously criticizes its own culture and history, while lavishing praise and empathy on minority cultures. While conventional wisdom frames resurgent nationalism as a reaction to globalist overreach, for Adamson that is only half the story. What he is interested in is how a certain segment of the globalists have come to resemble the most extreme nationalists in their fetishization of “culture” and attempts to control thought.
Adamson cites George Orwell’s “Notes on Nationalism,” which observed that internationalists (of the 1930s and 1940s) pretended to be unprejudiced, enlightened globalists, but had actually just shifted their sentimental, nationalistic feelings onto some foreign nation, dismissing their own nations as if to signal to all their open-mindedness. Adamson updates this observation, noting how educated Swedes today condemn Scandinavian culture as materialistic, shallow, and based on a myth of civilizational superiority, while lauding the rich cultures and achievements of Arabs, Turks, and other minorities. A certain kind of Swede is quick to honor Muslim holidays, while disparaging Lutheranism. The European press highlights crimes committed by white Europeans against minorities, while ignoring crimes committed by minority individuals against white Europeans. European internationalists condemn ultra-nationalists’ devotion to tradition, but defend minority groups’ attempts to preserve and restore their identity and culture against “appropriation” and assimilation. Both ultra-nationalists and oppressed minorities want to maintain cultural purity and boundaries, but “masochistic nationalists” condemn one while celebrating the other. Similar behavior exists in the U.S. as well.
These examples illustrate the phenomenon Adamson seeks to analyze, which is the moralistic rejection of one’s own problematic national culture and the projection of lost innocence on the beatified “other.” Adamson sees this trend as problematic for two reasons. The first is the coercive pattern that emerges as an educated elite attempt to control the narratives around what we now call “diversity.” Diversity describes the changing ethnic and racial makeup in Europe and the United States over the past half-century due to immigration and the political empowerment of people of color. It also describes the recent integration and acceptance of once stigmatized “identity” groups such as gays, lesbians, and others. As an educated white elite embraced diversity as a positive good, a step forward, a welcome toppling of walls and borders, they have also tried to normalize this view, “educating” those unaware of diversity’s benefits and requirements, correcting language and comments that betray ignorance or recalcitrance to the new view. Ten years ago this was called “political correctness.” More recently, we know it as “cancel culture.” As a liberal, Adamson is disappointed that a kind of coercive social control typically associated with conservatives is now routinely practiced and promoted by so-called progressives—of all people!
The second and related problem for Adamson is that the romanticization of the Black and brown “other” betrays a guilt-ridden, emotional sentimentalism that rejects the rational analysis of social problems. The heart of modern liberalism, as developed in Europe and the U.S. since the mid-19th century, was a clear-eyed, scientific approach to social problems and the human condition. Liberals hoped to liberate human beings from the moralism of the church and the authoritarianism of the State by revealing the mythologies and language that upheld these power centers. Nineteenth-century liberals like Bentham, Thoreau, and Mill showed how bigotry and close-mindedness inhibited change and foreclosed growth, how nationalism and jingoism fueled wars. They may have been trapped in the racial and gender systems of their times, but they nonetheless pushed against the social conventions and hierarchies that stifled creativity and dissent. They paved the way for future generations of social scientists, who continued the excavation, or deconstruction, of the myths and discourse that upheld social hierarchies, especially in terms of race, class, and gender.
Now what we see, according to Adamson, is social scientists, journalists, and other culture-shapers forgoing that dispassionate objectivity and actively creating new myths that comfort white peoples’ guilty conscience and promise redemption. “Empathy,” passion, and feelings have replaced sober analysis and “the cold hard truth.” In critiquing the structures of power created and maintained by white men, masochistic nationalists embrace the humble powerlessness of downtrodden populations of color as a positive, more authentic, more human condition. In so doing, Adamson writes, “[they] shun knowledge in its own right. Cult of power as well as cult of powerlessness are both saturated with political romanticism.” Masochistic nationalists dwell on historical wrongs of their own nation the way ultra-nationalists dwell on historical glories. Mythmaking, all of it.
Like a good liberal, Adamson wants to offer a practical path out of the situation he has painted for readers. That path turns out to be a return to “classical liberal values ,” circa mid to late twentieth century. Adamson wants liberals and social democrats to “create broad democratic alliances against extremists on either side.” He wants those interested in diversity to stop fetishizing and politicizing “the other,” to see people, regardless of color or immigration status, as individuals. He wants sociologists and historians to remember that all people — whether they are people of color or white elites— have a genuine need to celebrate their roots and traditions without being subjected to derisive epithets. He wants “history” to be an objective academic discipline that neither boosts national egos nor demands national repentance. Indeed, the only way out of what he sees as the current misuse of history is “to learn how to forget, let go, and forgive in order to live and act in the present and in the future.”
My empathetic, feeling side is totally with him. I, too, long for a world bound by rules and standards that can nonetheless accommodate political, racial, and ideological pluralism in an orderly and just way. I, too, want to banish the extremes that create chaos and intolerance. But Adamson’s analysis and solution completely miss the ways that “classical liberal values” are to some extent the cause of the phenomenon he analyzes.
Adamson argues that a shared propensity to censorship makes “masochistic nationalists,” who are progressives, the equivalent of ultra-nationalists, who are conservatives. But conservative censorship has typically relished and relied on state power to curb dissent and shape behavior, whereas progressives, who come out of the Euro-American liberal tradition, have always eschewed state censorship – and (contra Adamson) mostly continue to do so. Adamson’s examples of progressive “censorship” all arise from cultural and social arenas – the media, universities, schools, museums, corporations, and the younger generation. “Cancel culture” can be suffocating and have a chilling effect on speech, but it is not state-directed censorship.
Moreover, it is precisely their attempts to avoid censorship that lead liberals and internationalists to embrace the kinds of peer pressure, virtue signaling, and social coercion that Adamson condemns. Using social and cultural pressure rather than state power is a feature of “classic liberal values,” not a rejection of them. Liberals have long used rational argument and “education” to persuade others that racial and ethnic diversity is a social good. Since the 19th century, they have encouraged (in the abstract) tolerance and respect for cultures, nations, and ideas different from one’s own. Such open-mindedness was not just morally correct, but also fed discovery and innovation, while avoiding conflicts that led to war. Transcending artificial borders, whether geographic or racial, and overcoming age-old prejudices was essential to the vision of human progress that would eventually lead to peace and plenty.
What liberals never figured out was how to address the resistance to such openness and inclusion in a pluralist society. Most thought humans would outgrow their prejudices and intolerance. Resistance could be eliminated by education, technological progress, and material well-being. As opportunities opened up and people became more economically secure they would let go of their fears of “the other.” Sure, liberals relied on government – the state – to make laws that addressed the result of racism, such as discrimination, but they avoided laws that censored racism per se (until recently with hate speech laws, which are not Adamson’s focus). They also enacted policies, such as affirmative action, to incentivize inclusion and integration. After all, economic and political opportunities for excluded minorities made them into loyal customers and voters. Win-win. As long as liberal, internationalist ideas dominated western politics, these rational arguments and policies were politically viable, even as they ultimately proved ineffective in addressing the impact of racism in the West.
The problem is not “masochistic nationalism,” but rather the erosion of western liberalism and the “classic liberal values” Adamson thinks are the solution. The problem is resurgent ultra-nationalism, explicit racism, and belligerent partisanship in modern, diverse, and social media-driven democracies. In the face of the irrational and combative politics of Trump, Brexit, Marine Le Pen, and others of that ilk, reasoned argument and educational programs have little purchase and indeed serve to inflate and inflame the illiberal voices, becoming easy targets for right wing media outlets. Nor does it help the situation that so many pro-diversity liberals and progressives promoted and benefitted from neoliberal policies that have created the greatest increase in economic inequality since the Gilded Age. Meanwhile, the sorts of liberals and progressives Adamson describes become ever shriller as they try and fail to meet the demands of people of color with totally ineffective “DEI” programs.
We do not live in a world in which “classic liberal values” are a viable solution. We live in a world created by twentieth-century liberalism’s inability to overcome its many contradictions.
A review of Gören Adamson, Masochistic Nationalism: Multicultural Self-Hatred and the Infatuation with the Exotic (London: Routledge, 2021).