Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Who We Are; Why It Matters

Winter 1995

Michael Lind
The Free Press, 1995, vii + 436 pp.

Michael Lind's book contains one excellent idea, and several well worth discussion. But these are enmeshed in a bizarre collection of arbitrary assertions. Lind thinks in pictures, and the products of his hyperactive imagination here take the place of argument.

Lind effectively challenges the historical basis of a view about America held by "universalists" like Ben Wattenberg. In their opinion, America is not a nation in the traditional sense: it need not consist of specific ethnic or linguistic groups. Rather, the people of the United States are unified by their acceptance of common ideas. The universalists look to Lincoln's reference in the Gettysburg Address to a "nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

Against them, Lind maintains: "A nation may be dedicated to a proposition, but it cannot be a proposition this is the central insight of American nationalism, the doctrine that is the major alternative to multiculturalism and democratic universalism. To the question, Are we a nation? the American nationalist answers with a resounding and unequivocal Yes" (p. 5, emphasis in original).

As the universalists whom Lind opposes conceive of things, acceptance of a certain set of propositions suffices for membership in the American polity. Unlike citizens of other nations, Americans need share no common culture. "The United States, according to universalists, is not a nation- state at all, but an idea-state, a nationless state based on the philosophy of liberal democracy in the abstract" (p. 3).

Lind convincingly shows that the American republic was not founded on these views. During the period 1789 to 1861, which Lind terms Anglo-America, the American people were overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon in origin; blacks, of course, constituted the biggest exception. White supremacy was the unquestioned presupposition of politics, as much in the North as in the slave-holding South. Thomas Jefferson's statement in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" did not interfere with his vigorous adherence to, and promotion of, Anglo-Saxon hegemony.

Both Jefferson and Madison looked with favor on schemes to repatriate blacks to Africa; ideally, they had no place in a white commonwealth. Although some of the Founding Fathers, such as Alexander Hamilton (whom Lind much prefers to Jefferson) held somewhat more liberal views, none brought white hegemony into question. Even Abraham Lincoln, the universalist demigod, favored black emigration. "Shrewd Republicans like Seward and Lincoln saw the need to fuse the Whig national-development program with the kind of pan-white racism that had traditionally been a monopoly of the Democrats" (p. 51).

And white dominance did not abate during what Lind terms the period of Euro-America (1875-1957). As immigration from Europe grew, the ethnic basis of the nation became extended from Anglo-Saxons to European whites as a whole. "White working-class racism was critical for the structure of white supremacy, which in turn was a central element of the second republic of the United States [the period of Euro-America]" (p. 64). Whites of various backgrounds might become Americans through acceptance of a common way of life. But the "melting pot" beloved of Theodore Roosevelt, a great favorite of our author, was for whites only. Blacks were still "hewers of wood and drawers of water," and Asians faced discrimination or total exclusion.

Lind writes not as an advocate of white supremacy quite the contrary. Instead, he raises his historical points in order to undermine the universalists. To what extent is he successful? He has proved to the hilt his thesis of white hegemony during most of American history. I found especially insightful his portrayal of Jefferson. "Bizarre as the idea seems today, for an Anglo-American like Jefferson, the American War of Independence was part of a greater historic effort by Anglo-Saxons . . . to restore the ancient constitution of the Saxon race" (p. 354: Lind could have here strengthened his case even further by reference to J.G. Pocock's The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law).

But gaps in his argument undermine his assault on the universalists; if he fills these gaps, his argument threatens on other grounds to collapse. Suppose a universalist replied to Lind in this way: "Granted you are right that in the past America has been an ethnic nation; why should that matter now?" Lind might respond in two ways. First, he might raise an argument from tradition: the fact that America has been an ethnic nation itself gives reason to preserve it as one. Second, he might claim that a nation cannot exist at all, or at least not as well, absent a unified race and culture. Such are lessons of history.

Aside from a few stabs in the direction of the second suggested argument, Lind essays neither course, nor does he offer some other response I have failed to imagine. He leaves himself completely vulnerable to a "so what?" response; he appears to think that his vivid depiction of the past suffices to dispatch his universalist opponents. But, if I may be allowed to reiterate what seems to me a vital point: why does a description of the past, with no further premises added, dictate what should now be done?

And there is yet another gap in Lind's argument. Suppose that he is right that a nation cannot exist without a common race and culture. Then, his universalist adversaries must exit the scene: in thinking that a nation can subsist entirely on a shared set of beliefs, they err. Lind must now meet the challenge of another group he opposes: those who reject nationalism altogether. Multiculturalists do not, like universalists, postulate a new non-ethnic vision of the American nation. Instead, they wish each ethnic group to concentrate on its own members. They might say to Lind: "If a nation as you characterize it does not exist, what of it? You appear to be arguing from definition: you say a nation consists of thus and so; lacking the listed ingredients, there is no nation. But you have given us no reason why we should care about this."

Lind's principal response to the multiculturalists deals with a point of fact: he contends that they have underestimated the extent of cultural unity that now exists in the United States. (He has another argument against them, but this will concern us later.) Even if Lind is right, he has not made good his case: He still needs to show that nations as he conceives of them should be maintained. Lind utterly fails to see the need to set out some sort of justification for what he wants: for him, a description of what is or has been suffices to tell us what should be.

But let us for a moment set aside the multiculturalists and confine the discussion to nationalists. What if Lind's argument were supplemented in the ways I have suggested? That is to say, let us assume that he can show that the United States ought to be an ethnic nation. Then, Lind would have to face a challenge from another group he opposes, whom he terms "nativists." They maintain that Lind is insufficiently nationalistic and believe that America is, and ought to remain, controlled by its white majority. Could this group not deploy against Lind exactly the same arguments he uses against his universalist and multiculturalist opponents?

Thus, Lind contends that a nation rests on a distinct ethnic group. But, on his own showing, for the great part of its history America has been under the dominance of men of European heritage. Adhering strictly to nationalist principles, should one not support the nativists as against the mixed-race state with a common culture that Lind favors? Is not Lind a modified universalist, who substitutes his own ideology for the firm ground of race? Lind's argument threatens to undermine itself.

I intend the foregoing remarks, not as a defense of either universalism or nativism, but as a criticism of Lind's failure to argue for his views. Too often, he merely announces his own preferences, as if a list of his likes and dislikes gives reason for others to conform. Lind is an extraordinarily willful writer; and this flaw pervades his book.

Thus, he contends that America is today dominated by a white overclass, which "is the child of the former Northeastern Protestant establishment, produced by marriage (not only figurative but literal) with the upwardly mobile descendants of turn-of-the-century European immigrants and white Southerners and Westerners" (p. 143). This group, the first truly national overclass, holds most of the positions in the "institutional elite." To promote the interests of its members, the overclass supports multiculturalist movements among minorities and favors affirmative action and racial quotas.

In doing so, the overclass acts with great cunning. Support for affirmative action is but a new version of divide et impera: Minorities caught up in their own particularisms are blocked from a united struggle against the overclass.

Lind has come up with an interesting hypothesis, but his willfulness once more betrays him. To make his case, Lind needs to show that the overclass acts to secure its own interests, at the expense of the good of the majority. And this is exactly what he does contend. The overclass supports a reduction in taxes on the rich, as well as such nefarious ideas as free trade, private schools, and reductions in social welfare programs.

Here the fatal flaw is manifest. Lind of course needs to argue at this point that the policies mentioned, which comprise what he terms "the revolution of the rich," do indeed benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. He utterly fails to do so.

The issue I wish to stress here is not that his economic policies seem to me dismally wrong: it is hardly a surprise that the socialistic policies he endorses do not find favor at The Mises Review. It is rather that he fails to see the need to present reasoned justification for his views. He does not prefer Keynes to Mises (bad enough though that would be); he fails to confront the theories of any economist at all.

Once the class interests of a position have been unmasked, that is enough for our author. Thus, the arguments of Schumpeter against the welfare state need not be met; it is enough to lump him among "the callous masterminds of laissez-faire economics" (p. 203). He declares himself a pragmatist in economics, which I am afraid means someone who does not think at all.

I noted a few mistakes: Thomas Paine was not an atheist (p. 32); the Illuminati were not "a branch of Freemasonry" (p. 32), though indeed most members of the Illuminati were also Masons; and the validity of Ricardo's theorem of comparative advantage does not rest on the "iron law of wages" (p. 203). But the failing of this book does not mainly lie in Lind's history. He has an excellent historical imagination. But he has little idea of what an argument is, or how to construct one.


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