R.R. Reno, Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism and the Future of the West, Gateway Editions, 2019, 208 pp., $23.33 (Hardcover), $12.99 (Kindle)
Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West is typical of many conservative books. It analyzes the disease, but is afraid of the cure.
Russell Ronald Reno III writes that the modern West created an anti-fascist, anti-imperialist, and anti-nationalist order in response to the world wars. Both the mainstream Right and Left joined in declaring their opposition to what Mr. Reno calls the “strong gods” of nationalism, traditional religion, and other ideas that assert an objective truth or a collective goal. Strong gods unite men. They’re what inspire “men’s love and devotion, the sources of the passions and loyalties that unite societies.” The “postwar consensus” instead favored weak gods, namely deconstructionist movements to build an “open society” of fully liberated individuals.
Yet R.R. Reno himself doesn’t break decisively from the postwar consensus. He is editor of First Things, the same magazine that recently attacked Sam Francis. In this book, one of Mr. Reno’s objections to the “open society” is that it inspires white nationalism.
“The perverse gods of blood, soil, and identity, cannot be overcome with the open-society therapies of weakening,” he writes. “On the contrary, they are encouraged by multiculturalism and the reductive techniques of critique. In its present decadent form, the postwar consensus makes white nationalism an entirely cogent position.”
Why are the “gods” of “blood, soil, and identity” perverse? Few Americans before World War II would have thought so. Few Americans who fought in World War II would have thought so. They would have taken a love of one’s land and people for granted. Strong, exclusive Identity is not perverse; it is a universal human need.
Mr. Reno is correct that “white nationalism” is cogent in the current era of identity politics and race-driven interest groups. He deserves credit for saying this. Racial double standards are everywhere, and naked power and repression prevent whites from acting openly in their own interests.
Cultural elites have a way to rationalize these double standards: They define “whiteness” not just as skin color, but as an oppressive, illegitimate, and inherently immoral state-of-consciousness that all whites share. The double standard is thus justified because “white identity” is built upon oppression, whereas other identities are reactions against oppression. “White nationalism” is uniquely evil, while Jewish nationalism, black nationalism, and Chicano nationalism are fine.
Mr. Reno dismisses white identity as merely “the brute force of shared skin color.” He doesn’t like racial identity because it does not require “human agency” to create a “shared love” or a “common flourishing.” In other words, because it comes naturally. Why is this a weakness? The almost universal tendency for people to prefer their own race suggests this is a stronger basis for a “we” than some clever abstraction that requires “human agency.” Mr. Reno condemns identity politics partly because it has reduced “so much to biology,” to the point that even “white nationalism” makes sense.
He’s wrong. Cultural elites don’t reduce us to biology. They tell that “race doesn’t exist,” even though whites are still collectively guilty of “white privilege” and other invented crimes. We are at the bottom of an emerging caste system justified on ideology, not biology.
This caste mentality is ingrained in ordinary Americans, even conservatives. It’s almost unconscious, which is why thought experiments like inserting the word “black” or “Jew” in anti-white media headlines is so jarring.
Mr. Reno also a prisoner of this mentality. He grants that the “descendants of slaves in the United States constitute a ‘we,’ ” but American whites do not. Once again, we have a conservative telling us black identity is legitimate, but white identity isn’t.
Yet whites worldwide are undergoing a collective awakening. It is only whites who are suffering replacement migration, government and corporate repression, and cultural deconstruction. Will this give rise to a collective identity? Nothing produces a sense of “we” more than shared struggle and victimization.
“White” is too abstract an identity for many of us, but things are changing. A white Frenchman has more in common with me than he does with his non-white “fellow citizens” from the banlieues. I share more with him than I do with the people of East St. Louis. This is why there is such a feeling of mutual recognition when whites from around the world meet at conferences like that of American Renaissance.
Mr. Reno writes about the need to create a shared sense of “we.” He writes movingly about the human desire to pledge loyalty to “strong gods worthy of love’s devotion and sacrifice.” However, what he specifically proposes is unclear. He vaguely refers to the hope of a Christian revival. He quotes St. Augustine’s definition of “we” as “an assembled multitude of rational creatures bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love.”
This sounds like the “social contract,” which is supposed to bind people together and “create” a state through mutual agreement. States don’t form that way. Irrational impulses, power relations, blood ties, stories about divine ancestors, heroic myths — these are the forces that give rise to states and kingdoms, not lawyers sitting around a table. You don’t “think” your way into becoming a people. Even those who created the United States had a sense of racial identity and a consciousness of being a distinct people. Their “we” excluded the “them” of the American Indians and black slaves who lived among them.
To be meaningful, a concept of “we” cannot be too broad, and Mr. Reno recognizes this. He writes that he’d be “more likely to sacrifice my life for my blood relations than for someone outside the family circle, however equal he may be in the eyes of God.” Yet within the same paragraph, he claims “the miracle of the ‘we’ ” can “overcome genetic differences, which is to say nature herself.” He wants shared loves to be stronger than shared blood.
I’ll concede that this sometimes happens. However, most of the time, shared loves and shared blood go together. Mr. Reno cites marriage as a shared love, but most marriages are within races, and the divorce rate of same-race couples are lower. Children in interracial adoptions struggle with questions of racial identity.
On a larger scale, even powerful collective common experiences are secondary to blood. Untold thousands of Indians fought for the British Empire in the world wars, but still wanted independence when the wars were over. Blacks who have been in America since before the Revolution are less assimilated than the white descendants of European immigrants who arrived just a few generations ago. At the very least, shared blood contributes to shared loves. The feeling or myth that a people descends from shared ancestors is central to most nationalist movements.
Mr. Reno speaks of the importance of his own patrimony, yet says it “came by accident.” That isn’t true. From the beginning of the universe, every single occurrence had to happen exactly as it did for Mr. Reno to exist. If something had changed, if anything had changed, Mr. Reno wouldn’t be who he is. He wouldn’t exist; there would be someone else. The seeming assumption that pre-formed souls are floating in the ether, waiting to be inserted into random bodies, is wrong. It has consequences. It encourages the belief that genetics, race, and patrimony are arbitrary or incidental, rather than the core elements of who we are at the deepest level.
None of this is meant to dismiss Mr. Reno’s book, which is well worth reading. However, his proposed solution — a vague religiosity and an appeal to unspecific “shared loves” — are not serious. They reflect an obvious defensiveness about race.
Racial identity may not be sufficient to define a people or build a nation. Yet it is clearly necessary. If we banish blood and genetics, all we are left with are abstractions, ideas, and theories with which to define ourselves. Mr. Reno wrote an entire book to tell us why that isn’t working. It’s time for what works. It’s time for white identity.