Last month I posted a rather incoherent item saying: (a) I thought some important tectonic plates were shifting with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Ukrainian resistance to being reabsorbed into a post-Soviet Russian empire; and (b) it might somehow provide a context for writing up some of the historical research I’ve done in recent years on the Swedish-American Lutheran synod and immigrant subculture in the 19th and early 20th-centuries.
I called it “For the futures file? Another look at ‘Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden’ in light of new circumstances,” and it’s linked HERE. In it I quoted myself (in a debriefing HERE of my October 20, 2021 presentation on the subject:
In later years, Swedish-Americans would pride themselves on how rapidly they assimilated [to American cultural norms]. But in actuality, the process was more complex. I would argue that in their ethnic congregations of the 1850s, the Swedes created hybrid forms, that “put things together in new ways,” in [influential cultural anthropologist] Ulf Hannerz’ words, and brought something new into the world. Like so many other immigrants throughout history, they rejoiced with [postcolonial novelist] Salman Rushdie in mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that. Seeing their experience through the lens of acculturation and creolization offers us a more nuanced picture of how American culture evolved and how it might evolve in the future.
I also wondered aloud if French jurist Mireille Delmas-Marty’s idea of “reciprocal creolization” — which I take to be a matter of negotiating differences among different cultures to ensure cultural diversity in a global world — might factor in here.
In March I didn’t come to any firm conclusions, but I asked myself: “Authoritarianism [is] on the upswing, both at home and worldwide with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, aided and abetted by Purin’s cheerleaders on Fox News; [are they] two sides of the same coin?”
Now comes Francis Fukuyama, who predicted the “end of history” and the rise of liberal democracies back in the 1990s; he says yes, they are two sides of the same coin. In a lengthy interview of Channel 4, he addresses some of these issues. He doesn’t talk about creolization per se, but he does bring up the tension between national identity and diverse populations in a global world. Channel 4’s YouTube blurb:
Francis Fukuyama is a political scientist and professor at Stanford University. (Subscribe: https://bit.ly/C4_News_Subscribe) Francis is known for his books, The End of History and the Last Man, but he recently published a new book ‘Liberalism and its Discontents’. He joins Krishnan to talk about the war in Ukraine, liberalism and whether democracy is under threat in today’s world.
Also an article in Foreign Affairs:
__________. “A Nation of Their Own: Liberalism Needs the Nation,” Foreign Affairs, May-June 2022 https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/ukraine/2022-04-01/francis-fukuyama-liberalism-country.
Verbatim excerpts follow. (I can’t begin to summarize it — this is one of those things I’ll have to print out and study away from the computer. But here are some snippets I thought especially germane to what I’m trying to say about 19th-century Swedes:
In each of these cases, nationalism has powered the rise of illiberalism. Illiberal leaders, their parties, and their allies have harnessed nationalist rhetoric in seeking greater control of their societies. They denounce their opponents as out-of-touch elites, effete cosmopolitans, and globalists. They claim to be the authentic representatives of their country and its true guardians. Sometimes, illiberal politicians merely caricature their liberal counterparts as ineffectual and removed from the lives of the people they presume to represent. Often, however, they describe their liberal rivals not simply as political adversaries but as something more sinister: enemies of the people.
The very nature of liberalism makes it susceptible to this line of attack. The most fundamental principle enshrined in liberalism is one of tolerance: the state does not prescribe beliefs, identities, or any other kind of dogma. Ever since its tentative emergence in the seventeenth century as an organizing principle for politics, liberalism deliberately lowered the sights of politics to aim not at “the good life” as defined by a particular religion, moral doctrine, or cultural tradition but at the preservation of life itself under conditions in which populations cannot agree on what the good life is. This agnostic nature creates a spiritual vacuum, as individuals go their own ways and experience only a thin sense of community. Liberal political orders do require shared values, such as tolerance, compromise, and deliberation, but these do not foster the strong emotional bonds found in tightly knit religious and ethnonationalist communities. Indeed, liberal societies have often encouraged the aimless pursuit of material self-gratification.
Liberalism’s most important selling point remains the pragmatic one that has existed for centuries: its ability to manage diversity in pluralistic societies. Yet there is a limit to the kinds of diversity that liberal societies can handle. If enough people reject liberal principles themselves and seek to restrict the fundamental rights of others, or if citizens resort to violence to get their way, then liberalism alone cannot maintain political order. And if diverse societies move away from liberal principles and try to base their national identities on race, ethnicity, religion, or some other, different substantive vision of the good life, they invite a return to potentially bloody conflict. A world full of such countries will invariably be more fractious, more tumultuous, and more violent.
There is considerable overlap between nationalists and religious conservatives. Among the traditions that contemporary nationalists want to preserve are religious ones; thus, the Law and Justice party in Poland has been closely aligned with the Polish Catholic Church and has taken on many of the latter’s cultural complaints about liberal Europe’s support for abortion and same-sex marriage. Similarly, religious conservatives often regard themselves as patriots; this is certainly true for the American evangelicals who formed the core of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement.
The substantive conservative critique of liberalism—that liberal societies provide no strong common moral core around which community can be built—is true enough. This is indeed a feature of liberalism, not a bug. The question for conservatives is whether there is a realistic way to turn back the clock and reimpose a thicker moral order. Some U.S. conservatives hope to return to an imagined time when virtually everyone in the United States was Christian. But modern societies are far more diverse religiously today than at the time of Europe’s religious wars in the sixteenth century. The idea of restoring a shared moral tradition defined by religious belief is a nonstarter. Leaders who hope to effect this kind of restoration, such as Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, are inviting oppression and communal violence. Modi knows this all too well: he was chief minister of the western state of Gujarat when it was racked by communal riots in 2002 that left thousands dead, mostly Muslims. Since 2014, when Modi became prime minister, he and his allies have sought to tie Indian national identity to the masts of Hinduism and the Hindi language, a sea change from the secular pluralism of India’s liberal founders.
Nonetheless, the difficulty of forging a common identity in sharply divided democracies should not be underestimated. Most contemporary liberal societies were built on top of historical nations whose understandings of national identity had been forged through illiberal methods. France, Germany, Japan, and South Korea were all nations before they became liberal democracies; the United States, as many have noted, was a state before it became a nation. The process of defining the American nation in liberal political terms has been long, arduous, and periodically violent, and even today that process is being challenged by people on both the left and the right with sharply competing narratives about the country’s origins.
Liberalism would be in trouble if people saw it as nothing more than a mechanism for peacefully managing diversity, without a broader sense of national purpose. People who have experienced violence, war, and dictatorship generally long to live in a liberal society, as Europeans did in the period after 1945. But as people get used to a peaceful life under a liberal regime, they tend to take that peace and order for granted and start longing for a politics that will direct them to higher ends. In 1914, Europe had been largely free of devastating conflict for nearly a century, and masses of people were happy to march off to war despite the enormous material progress that had occurred in the interim.
The world has perhaps arrived at a similar point in human history: it has been free from large-scale interstate war for three-quarters of a century and has, in the meantime, seen a massive increase in global prosperity that has produced equally massive social change. The European Union was created as an antidote to the nationalism that had led to the world wars and in that respect has been successful beyond all hopes. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine augurs more disarray and violence ahead.
At this juncture, two very different futures present themselves. If Putin is successful in undermining Ukrainian independence and democracy, the world will return to an era of aggressive and intolerant nationalism reminiscent of the early twentieth century. The United States will not be immune from this trend, as populists such as Trump aspire to replicate Putin’s authoritarian ways. On the other hand, if Putin leads Russia into a debacle of military and economic failure, the chance remains to relearn the liberal lesson that power unconstrained by law leads to national disaster and to revive the ideals of a free and democratic world.
[Published April 3, 2022]