Post Modern Navel Gazing
Why the West risked burying its head in the blood and soil of the Russia-Ukraine Crisis
On February 21, 2022 Vladimir Putin invoked ancient notions of blood and soil in a fiery speech meant to justify his planned invasion of neighboring regions of Ukraine. On February 24, 2022, Russia launched an illegal war against Ukraine. That night, I was greeted by the following tweets:
Ukraine shouldn’t fight back. No one should. Let it go.
If Ukraine fights back it will be devastating and the outcome won’t be any different. They can’t fight Russia on this, no one can. Best to let it go for now and use democracy in the future. Don’t kill yourselves. Seriously
How did we come to this place, where free and educated Westerners believe that democracy is some form of natural right that will continue to exist even if we allow authoritarian states to extinguish it by force? The geopolitical world order, established following World War II and solidified by the end of the Cold War trembles, and some of us not only think that the West should stand idly by, they think the Ukrainians should as well!
There is no single and definitive explanation of how we got here. There are, however, narratives—and one of them runs through the West’s ongoing Post Modern navel gazing. We, and by we I mostly mean America given its importance in promoting and establishing Western values on the global stage, have been preoccupied of late with our failure to perfectly embody the values we espouse and our reckonings with such failings. There is a place for that—it may even make us a better, fairer, and more just society given time—but it must not erode our faith in Western values, in the importance of liberty and democracy and the belief that human rights are for everyone. That faith provides us with the fortitude to stand up for our values, and in order to regain it we must place our recent polarization and tendency towards self-flagellation into a broader perspective than navel gazing allows.
I. From Nationalism to Modernity to Post Modernism
From a low-resolution perspective, it would be easy to view human history as military history. Tribes skirmished, nations rose and battled, and territory was established and contested. The cultures that survived centuries of conflict were those that had a deep seated sense of tribal unity, which we now refer to as nationalism. This shared bond, of blood and soil and history, allows a people to coalesce—sometimes for their mutual defense but all too often to conquer. From this perspective nationalism is not a moral good, rather it is a historic necessity. Every state that exists today exists in part because it had the will to fight for its existence. Nationalism is a spear one can only put down only if everyone else does. And for most of human history, power has been determined by who best wielded that spear. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it, “[w]ar is the price we pay for living in a state. Before you can abolish war you will have to abolish all states. But that is unthinkable until the propensity to violence and evil is rooted out of human beings.” We’re a long way from any such utopia, so the spear of nationalism must still be wielded, despite all the harm it causes.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Age of Enlightenment began in the West, signaling an eventual shift away from the primacy of nationalism. For sure, wars continued, and nationalism was still wielded—often to devastating and tragic effect. But from the foundation of nationalism began to emerge a belief in transcendent values. In liberty, democracy, and equality. Such Modern values imperfectly and inexorably transcended and transmuted nationalism. The individual became paramount, embodying rights which the state was not permitted to infringe without just cause. This was a seismic shift in human understanding, the echoes of which have shaped the world we inherited.
No country embodies the nobility of such concepts, and the human failings of those who try to live up to them, better than the United States, which came into being by declaring that it was self-evident “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Those lofty ideals, penned by a slave owner at a time when voting was largely limited to land-owning white males, perfectly embody Modernity. We have never, not then and not now, fully lived up to those words—but our progress in their pursuit has been nothing short of miraculous. Those ideas changed the world for the better, but not on their own. They had to be fought for, and that struggle, which continues into the present day, gave birth to Post Modernism and Post Structuralism, which I will refer to jointly as Post Modernism.
Post Modernism posited an important rejoinder to the “self-evident” truths provided by Modernity. Just because we proclaim that everyone is equal, does not make it so. An awful lot of harm has been caused by people pursuing “noble truths,” and perhaps we would be better off being skeptical of grand narratives and claims of universality. That is a critical and important development in our thinking. It allows us, for example, to view with skepticism the claim that all Americans are equal under the law, and take a hard look at how different people are treated by our justice system. It provides a counterbalance to our faith in our ideals, and the framework for critical inquiry into how we can improve our society. That is, in principle, a good thing, and an evolution of thought which is to be celebrated.
II. Post Modern Navel Gazing
Unfortunately, Post Modernism has been allowed to cannibalize Modern-nationalistic values. Healthy skepticism for grand narratives and tradition has devolved into out-and-out rejection. On the far left, pundits confuse Russia’s authoritarian state with fertile ground for the socialist utopia they imagine will supplant corrupt capitalism, while on the far right, skepticism of the importance of promoting Western Values has metastasized into callous isolationism.
Such positions are, unfortunately, the natural consequence of normalizing Post Modern navel gazing. From a Modern-nationalistic perspective, the West has an obvious interest in preventing autocratic states such as Russia from expanding their spheres of influence, and every incentive to promote Western Values by extending aid and protection to states such as Ukraine. Post Modernism, unchecked by such values, provides a different and destructive perspective.
For the unthinking Post Modernist, there is no truth, and are no values which are better or worse than others. There is only power, and their well-intentioned desire to avoid causing harm. On the far left, this manifests as knee-jerk rejection of Western values. Those values were, they claim, promoted by the historically powerful to benefit themselves, and have been used to oppress marginalized groups since their inception. Accordingly, they don’t believe that there is any reason to promote such values abroad, much less fight for them—and many even draw a moral equivalency between Russia and the West. The fact that such pundits would mysteriously vanish if they expressed their brand of politics in Russia is of no consequence to them. They live in a vast-fortified city, protected from harm by invisible walls built from the values they disparage—while complaining bitterly about the privileges they enjoy. From that lofty vantage, they cannot even imagine what it would be like to be Ukrainian today, with Russian spears pounding on the gate.
On the far right, navel gazing takes a different form. If there is no truth, and no higher value to ascribe to, then why not look out for number one? If society is just an expression of power, then it is better to be the powerful. From that perspective, hoarding power for ones tribe is a worthy goal that can be furthered by retreating into isolationism and allowing weaker states to fend for themselves. Gazing directly into their navels, they regress into old-fashioned nationalism, forsaking the West’s moral obligation to spread and defend Modern values.
Both types of navel gazers fail to put their Post Modern beliefs in the proper perspective and allow their politics to obliterate their commitment to Western values. This is a catastrophic failure of imagination, and the worst form of moral cowardice.
III. A Way Forward
It is possible to hold more than one idea in one’s head at the same time. One can be critical of the current state of the West and committed to making it a better place, while simultaneously understanding that freedom is better than tyranny. Tweeting Post Modern hot takes on one’s iPhone—while protected by freedom of speech, living in the fairest and most democratic region of the globe, and in the most free and just period in human history—is an extreme form of ingratitude. Everything we love about our lives rests on the foundation of nationalism, as interpreted by Modern values. A healthy skepticism is fine, but you deconstruct that foundation at our peril.
We need nationalism, it may look like a walking stick today, but it is the spear that keeps us safe. We need Modernity and Western values, without which I wouldn’t be able to write articles like this one. We need to be reflective—constantly seeking to improve instead of resting on our laurels. These layers of values can and must coexist. Do no accept navel gazing as a substitute.
Ryan C. Mullally
Educator, Lawyer, Husband, Father