The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 19 No. 3 (Fall 2017)

Why Nations Matter

Wilfred M. McClay

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2017

(Volume 19 | Issue 3)

The end of history prophesied by Hegel and announced by Francis Fukuyama has been indefinitely delayed in its arrival. Like a storm-beset airliner, it circles and circles in the thick clouds over its destination, as suspicion grows that it will not be able to land there at all, but will instead quietly spiral away into the foggy realm of the might-have-been.

Why is this happening? The problem is that, although the liberal-democratic regimes that have been nominated to represent history’s apex have persisted and even grown in number around the globe, the West’s commitment to the intellectual and moral premises that have upheld the development of liberal democracy has been steadily weakening, and now seems feeble indeed. Hence, what many intellectuals of the left and right now are willing to dismiss as “the Enlightenment project” is in serious trouble, a development that has implications far beyond the seminar rooms and academic conclaves where such matters are discussed.

The very existence of liberal-democratic institutions depends upon an unwavering prior commitment to ideals of individual liberty, rational inquiry, religious toleration, constitutionalism, representative government, freedom of speech and thought, and a whole basket of other institutions and practices, many of them the fruit of early-modern and Enlightenment thought. Signal institutions, such as the free press and the modern university, would be reduced to shams in the absence of such ideals (a proposition that our universities seem ominously prepared to test). In turn, the characteristic political form in which these things have flourished, the nation-state, has been under steady assault.

That the modern nation-state has many inherent problems and dangers we all know. Indeed, we probably know it too well. Belief in the nation-state’s unique propensity to legitimate violence, ethnocentrism, and almost every other form of collective arrogance and bad behavior has become a conviction approaching an article of faith among educated people in the years since World War II. It is a conviction that has become so one-sided as to drive out nearly all complicating factors. John Lennon’s plaintive song “Imagine” expresses a vivid if excruciatingly naive version of that conviction, but it is not far from representing the conventional wisdom. More generally, there is a widely shared belief, one of the enduring metanarratives of high modernity, that understands the nation-state as the principal source of the last century’s immense bloodshed, and supposes the world to be evolving steadily, even inexorably, toward the breaking down of all provincialities and particularisms, toward greater and greater integration of economics, culture, and political governance.

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Wilfred M. McClay is G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty and director of the Center for the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 19.3 (Fall 2017). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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