If you haven’t gotten the memo yet, nationalism is a dirty word. Pride for one’s country, its distinct culture and its historic values — particularly in Western nations — is terribly outdated. Some find it an embarrassing idea, or even dangerous.

Historian Howard Zinn has called ardent nationalism a “scourge” and depicts it as nothing short of fascism. “Is not nationalism — that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so fierce it engenders mass murder — one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred?” he wrote.

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Zinn isn’t alone among academics. Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities,” among the most cited academic books on nationalism, presents nationalism as a social construct that goes down a polluted wormhole to turn a country into one of fabricated identities and illusory borders. To believe in the rightness of the American or British way of doing something has become in many circles, a byword harkening to a racist and backward past — magnolias in the moonlight. President Joe Biden suggested as much in his Sept. 1. Philadelphia address when he berated some Americans for holding on to the past.

Yoram Hazony has been quietly fighting these arguments for decades. Through his books “The Virtue of Nationalism” and “Conservatism: A Rediscovery,” among others, and work as chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation, he is one of the leading voices promoting nationalism worldwide.

“The nationalism I grew up with is a principled standpoint that regards the world as governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference. This is opposed to imperialism, which seeks to bring peace and prosperity to the world by uniting mankind, as much as possible, under a single political regime,” he wrote in “The Virtue of Nationalism,” published in 2018.

Since then, the push for imperialism has accelerated, and he believes liberalism is a form of it. In a book excerpt published in National Review, he wrote: “Western elites, whose views are now being aggressively homogenized in conformity with the new liberal construction, are finding it increasingly difficult to recognize a need for the kind of toleration of divergent standpoints that the principle of national self-determination had once rendered axiomatic. Tolerance, like nationalism, is becoming a relic of a bygone age.”

Ahead of the National Conservatism Conference (NatCon3), which meets in Miami Sept. 11-13, Hazony spoke with Deseret about the conservative tradition, challenges to liberalism and how nationalism is informed by Jewish scripture.

This conversation was edited for clarity and length.

Yoram Hazony, left, speaks with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in 2019, in a photo provided by the Office of the Prime Minister of Hungary. | Office of the Prime Minister of Hungary

Ari Blaff: Why do you think believe the concept of nationalism has been so vilified and misunderstood?

Yoram Hazony: All of these terms — “conservative,” “Christian,” “Jew,” “traditionalist,” “God fearing,” “Bible reading” — every single one of these things has been damaged by the furious attack on all nonliberal things which begins with the Enlightenment rationalism. It begins with René Descartes. But it reaches a climax after the two World Wars when Americans and Brits and Europeans kind of said, “Look, that’s it. We’re advancing. We’re shifting gears to a strict Enlightenment-liberal constitutional order which doesn’t allow any place for inherited traditions or inherited ways of doing things.”

That began a cultural revolution which has definitely done some admirable things. But as a general matter, this rolling cultural revolution, which was initiated after the Second World War and is struggling to reshape the societies in which Western people live in — the damage has been tremendous.

AB: You grew up in the U.S., but are now based in Israel, and you’re influenced by Jewish traditions and wisdom. Does that give you a unique perspective from which to talk about nationalism and conservatism.

YH: For sure. People who grow up in nationalist or religious environments have access to traditional knowledge and traditional concepts that people who grow up under liberalism don’t have.

I don’t think it’s surprising at all to see that Israelis or Brits or Poles or Hungarians or Indians often look at what’s happening in the United States with a much more intuitive understanding of what human beings are, of how human societies work and function, in ways that Americans don’t.

I grew up in the United States, and that means I was taught liberalism as the foundation for how you think about politics — first in high school, and then later in college. And then again in graduate school when I was doing my doctorate.

The questions that somebody from India or Israel would ask are: Where are your national traditions? Aren’t you overlooking them? How can you be describing everything on the basis of universal reason, which probably doesn’t exist? Why don’t you know anything about the political and religious traditions of your country?

As soon as you ask those questions, you can start looking. 

Many even on the right in the United States have never actually seen a description of the English conservative tradition which is what I present in the first chapter of my book. Even professors who teach political theory have simply never encountered a discussion of who the prominent figures are, what their political theories are, and how they are connected to scripture and to Christianity. How (this tradition) made England free and great. 

These are things that we should have learned in college, certainly in graduate school, but we didn’t. And the same thing is true with the American founding, which is almost universally taught as though there were not two political parties. It is constantly discussed as though the American founding fathers belonged to a single party with a single worldview — as though they were all Jeffersonians — and that’s not true.

But you can discover what the fights between liberals and conservatives were about during the American founding. You discover them by beginning with this intuition: that there is no such thing as a “national politics” where everybody agrees. There’s always one party that is more conservative than the other. And yes, my book is part of a larger project that I’ve been conducting with Jewish and Christian friends for some time, literally rediscovering the sources of conservatism.

Yoram Hazony, chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation.
Yoram Hazony, chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation. | Picasa

AB: Your early work was about Judaism and Zionism. How did this turn into your focus today on nationalism?

YH: Well, “Conservatism: A Rediscovery” is informed by Jewish scripture. There’s no way to talk about Anglo American conservatism without talking about Jewish scripture because the roots of the common law are in the Hebrew Bible.

When Alfred the Great creates the first united English kingdom, he issues a legal code, large sections of which are taken directly from Hebrew scripture. So, the English view themselves as the heirs to Israel, and their understanding of themselves is as an independent nation distinct from all other nations in the way that Israel is.

It’s a common theme throughout English history and through Scottish history. And from those and other sources, it comes to America. So if you are Jewish and you’re interested in how Hebrew scripture — and later, Jewish sources — were received among the nations, there’s no more astonishing case than Britain and America. You literally find the common lawyers in the 1600s writing commentaries on the Talmud. This is an accepted part of public life. It’s an astonishing and unusual thing, but the English tradition and the Jewish tradition are tied together in all sorts of interesting ways.

AB: How have your personal life experiences contributed to what you believe today?

YH: The last chapter of the new book is about me and my wife deciding to take up a conservative life and becoming Orthodox Jews when we were in college. And the reason I put it in the book is because the book makes a lot of demands on the readers. It calls on people, not only to adopt a conservative public philosophy — which would be a very big change for America — but it also pushes the readers to examine their own lives and ask whether a conservative life, personally, would not be much more gratifying and helpful and meaningful and real than the liberal life that that most people are leading.

Both my wife and I came from broken families, which unfortunately is extremely typical today. Neither of us had a whole family growing up, but both of us also had relatives who lived traditional religious lives and were able to maintain life lifelong marriages while raising many children and remaining committed to their their communities and nations. 

We had the opportunity, not in our own homes, but in the homes of relatives, to see what that’s like. And by the time that we met as undergraduates we were able quickly to figure out that we were looking for some kind of restoration of family life in our own lives — family, life, congregational life. We knew we didn’t want to do what our parents had done.

AB: Some American conservatives are appreciative of Viktor Orbán’s vision for Hungary. Is what is happening in that country a possible new model for American conservatives?

YH: Hungary is interesting because it’s a functioning, conservative democracy. However, it’s not the only one. Israel is also, in many respects, a conservative democracy. Americans came to a watershed moment in their history in 2020 when the hegemony of liberal ideas, which had dominated America since World War II, effectively collapsed.

At this point, there’s a major and very successful effort by a new ideological construct — this woke neo-Marxism — to replace liberalism as the dominant ideology in American public life.

On the right, we are definitely seeing a scramble, by many people who understand that something’s gone terribly wrong with American liberalism, to figure out what can be strong enough to replace it now that it’s clearly on the way out. 

This has led many conservatives to take an interest in democratic societies that are much more conservative. Not just the society itself, but how the governments operate on much more conservative principles.

So Orbán is an interesting case because he is aware of this, and, for several years, has been actively reaching out American intellectuals and cultural figures to try to get them to understand what’s going on in Hungary.

I think that many Americans are probably more comfortable learning conservatism from, say, Britain or from Israel. But there certainly is this phenomenon of trying to look at models that could replace what has been lost.

AB: What do you see happening in the coming year or two?

Hazony: What’s disheartening is to see that the superstructure of liberal ideas, which we all grew up with, has collapsed. This is definitely a moment of opportunity. It’s a time when it’s possible to make big changes because everything is in motion, and people can see that things are going really, really wrong. But, it’s also a scary time. Any crazy thing can happen.

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I am involved in an international movement which is called national conservatism, or NatCon. The NatCon conference is basically a meeting place for nationalist conservatives and traditionalist conservatives to come together, develop ideas and meet students.

There’s lots of students who come every year to form a vision of where America and the other Western nations can go from here. Two months ago, we issued a statement of principles for the first time. It’s a direct challenge to the liberalism of the last 60 or 70 years in America. And it’s very exciting to see people rallying around it. It was signed by 75 very prominent American and European intellectuals and activists. 

I believe that’s the direction that things are going to go. There are certainly some political leaders who are on this wavelength and have been involved for years working on these things. And it’s good to see them advancing, but I don’t think it’s just going to be those particular people.

I think that we have come to a moment of crisis. We have passed a watershed, and it’s just not a time for politics as usual. I’m hoping and expecting that many political figures are going to find their way at this time to national conservatism because it really is — I think the only game in town unless you want to see your country become something other than a woke Marxist pile of rubble.

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