More and more, I’m amazed at how leftists (especially of the white male variety) assume that, by sheer will and intellect, they transcend the social order. The recently commemorated September 11th is a prime holiday for such displays, which usually get expressed in moral-equivalency arguments about empire, imperialist violence, etc. This year I noticed a new wrinkle, a leftist aspiration to define the border between legitimate victimhood and illegitimate:
On this twelfth anniversary of 9/11, I’d like to point out the pathology of coveting traumas, especially when you’re merely a spectator, not an actual victim. As someone wrote with total seriousness not too long ago, “If you were in the tri-state area on 9/11, you are a victim.” No, you’re not (and note the present tense). You’re just hankering for victimhood — and an easy mark, in that self-righteous and unearned state, for any scumbag who’d like to use that event to further his or her own agenda to go kill and crush some other group of people. Not my kind of memorial for mass murder. But do what you like.
Even though I agree with some of this, it’s really annoying on an analytical level, especially in its willingness to designate the proper victims. I lived in New York at the time of the attacks, and I sympathize with the revulsion at using the tragedy as a pretext for war (and the legal and extraterritorial architecture that went along with it), especially considering that most of the time New York is not really considered part of the nation.
But it’s precisely the contingent, partial inclusion of New York–and that other hotbed of anti-American activity, Washington, D.C.–that nationalism makes possible. There is nothing irrational or even surprising in this. The author–a disciple of Chomsky’s, to give an idea of the general politics involved–completely fails to understand, or pretends not to, the passions of nationalism that give rise to “victimhood,” of how nationalist solidarity is often founded on trauma and tragedy. It’s precisely those negative foundations that enable the creation of the not-national, the outsider, the enemy. Nationalism always operates by a differential inclusion. All the author has done is engage in a different kind of national-border drawing and drawn the circle a little tighter, all while assuring us he sees through the bullshit.
However, such distinctions are only available to the enlightened, or those that should know better. It would never be said by the author that, say, Afghans in Kandahar are victim-mongering if they are affected by a U.S. drone attack in Helmand, just as discussions of chavismo ignore the revolution’s segmentations and focus on its macro economic stats or its social processes. Difference doesn’t hold there.
Especially annoying about the above is that it contains an implicit critique of nationalism, but it’s a completely moralistic kind of critique, one that’s designed to allow the author to both escape implication in the response to September 11th and pathologize those who think differently. It treats nationalism as a choice (for some at least) rather than a social bond. It’s crap antinationalism, at a time when critiques of nationalism’s material and quotidian functionings are urgently needed and being vigorously tested on the ground.