March 4, 2018 by John Bruce Leonard
Europe and Europa
Note: The following essay was written in the early days of October of the previous year, during the initial troubles in Catalonia. That issue is somewhat aged by now; but the questions which are addressed in this essay, the author hopes, retain sufficient immediacy to justify its republication.
THE EMBATTLED VOTE on Catalan independence in Spain has turned the thoughts of many to the spiny problem of peoples and fatherlands. This is a subject, of course, which frequently touches our discourses in the New Right. It is fitting this should be so, given the weight we tend to put on “identity,” “sovereignty,” “nationhood,” “peoples,” and like concepts.
I am largely ignorant of the Catalan situation, and thence I shall not speak of it. But I find echoes of Catalonia in the land where I live. Sardinia, like Catalonia, is legally part and parcel of a European nation, Italy. The Sards, like the Catalans, are very arguably a unique people with a distinct history and tongue (by the judgement of competent linguists, Sard is not a dialect of Italian like Neapolitan or Sicilian, but a distinct neo-Latin language with pre-Latin roots), and because Sardinia is an island, its geographical borders are totally uncontroversial. The Sards have their own traditions which are clearly distinct from those of the Italians—so much so that the Italians themselves sometimes regard the Sards as almost foreign elements. A plethora of historical, cultural, and geographical pretexts for Sard identity could easily be furnished to support their secession from Italy, and there is indeed a long-standing Sard independence movement—though for a variety of reasons it does not seem likely to me that it will soon gain even so much ground as the Catalans have lately done.
The specific question of Sard independence can only be of passing interest to the New Right as a whole. But consideration of the plight of such peoples as the Sards, the Catalans, or any number of other distinct but stateless peoples throughout Europe today, might give us the basis for a wider consideration of the question of unity versus dissolution in the European context. It would be impossible, of course, to provide final conclusions on so complicated an issue in the space of a mere essay. I offer rather a number of meditations on some of the salient aspects of this theme, using Sardinia as my point of departure. I write much less with the desire to provide any answers to this question, which I do not possess, than to provoke conversation about it, which is absolutely indispensable for the New Right in this moment.
One enters such questions by unexpected doors. My most recent point of entry was a bottle of beer.
The beer in question, unfiltered Ichnusa, bears the antique name of the Sard island, and its label is the Sard flag. As I gazed upon this bottle I found myself comparing this banner to the Italian. And it occurred to me that no clearer indication of the difference between the larger and the smaller societies could be given, than in the comparison of their respective standards.
The Italian Tricolore, the national flag, is composed of three vertical stripes of color: green, white, and red. It’s most characteristic feature, one is tempted to say, is its impersonality. (This is a charitable judgement; the noble Prince of Salina in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, whose judgement on such matters is above reproach, called the Tricolore an “ugly geometric sign,” an “aping of the French,” a “rabble of colors.”) For any non-European it is easily confounded with the French flag, the Irish flag, perhaps even the Romanian and Belgian flags. The significance attached to its colors is somewhat controversial, and a number of interpretations are in currency. Yet it is highly likely, given the explicitly Enlightenment basis of the the Italian Unification, that the three colors of the Italian flag originally were conceived, precisely as the tricolors of the French flag, to represent the Enlightenment, indeed Masonic, notions of liberty, equality, and fraternity (or some variant thereof). The Italian national flag thus can be taken to represent “universal” and “rational” ideals, applicable in principle to any people whatsoever. The flag’s intellectual origin and ecumenical intent are surely not unrelated to its general blandness.
The Sard flag, on the other hand, could not be of a character more distinct. It features a cross of scarlet on a field of white, dividing the space into four equal quadrants; and in each of the quadrants is a black human head with a white blindfold. The color of the heads is not random: the flag itself is known as the “four Moors.” Although some scholars have claimed that this flag was imported into Sardinia rather passively from Spain—where indeed the theme originated, in memory of a series of Aragon victories over the Saracens (read: Muslims) during the eleventh century—this totally disregards the fluidity of symbols, and their ability to be infused with new meanings in diverse contexts. It is clear that the flag was traditionally accepted by the Sards as a reference to the four judicados (from the Sard judikes for “judges”), meaning the four kingdoms which existed during the singular period of Sard self-rule extending from the ninth to fifteenth centuries. The four black and blindfolded heads represent nothing but the Sard victories over the same Saracens in Sardinia, which victories led to the final expulsion of the Muslims from the island, thus securing one of the prime preconditions for the emergence of the judicados.
And thus we have two utterly different emblems: the national Tricolore, with its Enlightenment roots, its insipid quality, its curious aloofness from the history and the character of the very people it is meant to represent; and the vibrant Four Moors, with its distinct references to one of the most glorious historical periods of the island, with its connections to wars and to victories, with its implicit memory of a people’s pride and animosity. One flag is as forgettable as the other is memorable—and the reasons for this are not merely “aesthetic,” but are eminently historical and cultural.
Flags historically grew out of the field standards which were employed militarily to rally the troops in battle. Their significance even in their earliest use went beyond the merely pragmatic question of organization in the chaos of melee; they were symbolic manifestations of the cause for which one fought—the crown, the people, the land, which one stood and potentially died for. I propose then a thought experiment, anachronistic though it be: how if these two flags we have been discussing were waving over some battlefield?
For which one would a man more willingly fight?
For which one would a Sard more willingly lay down his life?
The answer in the majority of cases is so clear, I think, that it is not necessary to articulate it. But then, we are forced to ask: is there not something about the very contemporary idea of “nation” which is in some fundamental sense abstract, crippled and void? And when the “nations” in question spring, not from the blood, the history, the life of a specific people, nor from those virtues that it most dearly cherishes, but from any number of bloodless and disembodied “principles,” equally applicable to any people under the sun, or to none at all—is it not entirely to be expected that such a “nation” will do nothing more than dilute the innermost qualities of all peoples, leading them farther and farther from their unique heritage and their special virtues, and more and more into the grey realm of anonymous “humanistic” homogeneity?
More yet: if upon our hypothetic battlefield one set, beside these two flags, the European standard also—well? Who could ever expect anyone to shed his blood for such an abstraction (not to say aberration!) as that? For truly—what does blood have to do with that vapid ring of stars, and in what possible sense does one’s life flow from it, such that one might risk the same in order to preserve it?
It is the pretense of our contemporary politics, particularly in Europe, that large modern political forms (most obviously, the European Union, but also the individual nations which compose it) preserve the possibility of local differentiation and identity, while offering the clear economic, military, and social advantages pertinent to larger political units. Yet the trends of all of modernity have clearly given the lie to this claim.
The concept of nationhood in modernity has historically been connected to ethnicity. The work of determining the boundaries of any given ethnic state is extremely precarious and complex, but one of the primary indicators is rightly taken to be language. Sard, as any number of underrepresented tongues throughout Europe, has been proclaimed an endangered language by UNESCO. I am not surprised. I have lived here for many years, and while I speak Italian fluently, I sadly have nothing but a passing acquaintance with Sard. One does not need to know Sard to live and work in Sardinia; one must know Italian. Italian is the language of business here, of commerce, of government. The television speaks Italian; city hall speaks Italian; the marketplace speaks Italian; schools and businesses speak Italian. Novels, films, and music are predominately in Italian. This is not an accidental consequence of the birth of the Italian nation; it is the necessary concomitant of Italian unification. A single nation requires a single language. Despite certain identitarian attempts to resuscitate Sard, it is becoming a largely private mode of communication; but that means it will grow increasingly peripheral in the vital life of the people, and if it does not vanish altogether, it may well become the specific heritage of small towns particularly toward the interior of the island. And though the death or marginalization of a language is not identical to the death or marginalization of a people or a culture, it is surely strongly correlated to the same.
One can countenance the decline of specific cultural identities, so long as the energy which is stolen from them is redirected into a larger culture, a wider sense of community, which perchance gives greater possibilities for the production of political, artistic, cultural, or religious forms. Thus the Etruscans were absorbed into the glory of Ancient Rome; thus the various Gallic tribes united at length into the Franks, which formed the ground from which France sprang; thus numerous specifically European ethnicities flowed together to produce that American identity which is really only now beginning to arrive at adequate self-awareness. Few if any of the thinkers of the New Right would lament these particular historical developments, nor countless similar events in the long unsettled course of European history. The question is, as ever, one of cultural economy: the question is what one gains for what one has lost.
For this very reason, contemporary independence movements to a certain extent ought to be taken on a case by case basis. It may be that the New Right in determinate situations and for determinate reasons must remain at least skeptical about certain of these attempts. But the overriding question is always the trend, and, as it is highly likely that we will be seeing more and more of these movements in coming years, it would be well for us to contemplate what we desire from them in general.
There is at present a degree of disagreement in the New Right on this question. The pith of the disagreement might be described as ethnonationalist identitarianism against Pan-Europeanism. The first position holds stalwartly that if a given people desires its independence it should be given its independence, while the second believes that a quantum of consolidated and inalienable state power is, beyond being desirable in and of itself, absolutely necessary to master the current challenges facing the West today. (There is perhaps an interesting parallel in this dispute between the love of Ancient Greece and its city-states on the one hand and the love of Ancient Rome and its Imperium on the other.) These views are necessarily deeply divided on issues like Catalan independence. If one supports the right of every distinct people to determine its own destiny then this will almost certainly sooner or later mean breaching the political or economic unity of that geographical accident called Europe. If one longs for Europa as an organic whole, on the other hand, one necessarily wills the slow going under of individualistic popular identities, toward the development of a new and greater European race.
Any even halfway adequate comparison of these visions would require a dedicated work much longer than the present essay. Let us then restrain our scope. There is broad consensus on a single point in this argument, to which almost everyone within the New Right will agree: no one on either side of the question would see Europe return to its state of internal feuding and petty squabbling for land and power which characterized so much of European history. Both sides, in one way or another, promote a vision of a unified Europe, though the specific political constitution of that unison, and the specific path by which it might be attained, remain the matter of much dispute. And both agree that the “European Union” as it stands today is far from the union we would seek, and is in fact detrimental to that union.
Put in the terms we have introduced above, the European Union—and, it may well be argued, even the nations that compose it—is as a vampire upon the better energies of its constituent peoples. For it sucks their will and their best longings into the vortex of its own materialistic and globalistic whirlpool, making of men mere consumers and producers, decaying any higher vision, abasing any nobler yearning, rendering impotent all cravings but the most carnal, crippling any sovereign idea of Occidental Man or Occidental Destiny. Some among the New Right would attempt to use this European Union without dismantling it, effectively proposing that we strive to commandeer extant political structures for our own ends. Others argue that a rebirth of the true idea of Europe cannot come without a preparatory dissolution, which necessarily must be disturbing and hazardous and potentially even violent. I for one am largely persuaded by the view that we cannot attain more than very modest goals from within existing political systems, because everything within them is governed by very modern principles and the very specific aims of the powerful, secretive, super-affluent individuals who guide them. Verily, one can redirect the flow of the river; but if the waters be poisoned, one must surely begin one’s labors far upstream.
Yet the prospect of dissolution is troubling. Quite beyond the obvious and inescapable pragmatic difficulties involved—the settling of borders, the managing of dissidents, the establishment of new governments, the reworking of internal and diplomatic equilibria, to name but a very few—dissolution almost necessarily brings about a weakening of the political fabric. The echoes of the age-old dangers will still be felt in Italy especially: Italian unification was conceived of as long ago as 1500 by none other than Machiavelli, who considered it the unique means of interrupting the seemingly endless cycles of internecine wars and invasions which afflicted Italy throughout long centuries of her existence. Larger political forms like nations provide stability within and protection without. It is by no means to be taken for granted that Europe has enjoyed internal peace since the close of the Second World War. But peace at all costs is the strangled plea of the Enlightenment, deriving from an ignoble Hobbesian overestimation of the value of merest breath. Well might it be asked, paraphrasing the Evangel: what shall it profit a people, if it gain the nation but lose its soul?
The alternative, of course, need not perforce be a relapse into the old debilitating wars, and it need not be an crumbling of our present polities into an anarchy of jostling regimes. There are forms of federalism, for instance—indeed, one sees shadows of them, most intriguingly, in the old European empires—which might truly preserve local differences while providing a degree of overarching stability. The great goal of our metapolitics at present is to make such unity, such Occidental brotherhood possible, and the great question before us, which events like the Catalan independence referendum constantly and most fortuitously recall to our attention, is whether or not we may achieve our ends by means of the orders now extant. Can we promote our vision of Europe while preserving those structures which have been founded on Enlightenment ideals and subsequently and thoroughly co-opted by globalist powers?
I permit myself to doubt it. Useless is it to make of the warehouse a cathedral; if one would forge a proper dwelling for one’s gods, one must raze the building altogether, and start aground. Well might we wish for this to happen as gently as possible, for our war at present is truly another and more exigent one. But the love of one’s own, which we seek to infuse anew in the hearts and the spirits of our fellow Occidentals, is much more easily and much more powerfully aroused at the local level than at the national or super-national. Even as one plows the earth before one seeds it, so it may be that Europa is in urgent need now of a breaking apart.