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Longing for lost worlds won’t convert America

When young radicals gathered in the streets of Paris in May 1968, Régis Debray was nowhere to be seen. As his friends playacted at revolution, he sat in a jail cell in Bolivia. He had been arrested in 1967 and sentenced to a 30-year term for his involvement in a guerrilla group led by Che Guevara, with whom Debray had written a handbook for revolution.

No member of the French intellectual scene had gone as far as Debray in living out radical rhetoric. For him the “Third-Worldism” so popular in Paris was more than a pose. He not only praised foreign militants but also joined in their bloody labours.

So when Debray later renounced Third-Worldism, he spoke with special authority. “In the Sixties the politicised young looked for their demigods abroad: Lenin, Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Minh,” he wrote in 1990. “The more ruthlessly we exposed the imposture behind every legend in France, the more trustingly we took the legends in the Third World.”

“For quite some time,” he confessed, “I was a Third-Worldist … and held the Gaullists around me to be ignorant simpletons.” De Gaulle had been too close-up to admire. It was easier to idealise distant men whose crimes were visited upon foreign peoples. But Debray came to see that the hated General de Gaulle was a far greater man than Mao or Castro.

Debray urged his fellow leftists to drop their attachment to other lands and adopt a non-chauvinistic attachment to their own. He admired de Gaulle’s “certain idea of France”, distinct from both blood-and-soil nationalism and the cold contractarian abstractions of civic nationalism.

Notwithstanding their occasional enthusiasm for Franco’s Spain or Orban’s Hungary, men on the right are less prone than leftists to identify with other lands. But they sometimes succumb to a parallel vice, typified not by revolutionary tourism but by nostalgia.

Anyone who has had the misfortune of spending much time among brainy right-wingers will have heard someone say, “The only government I could support is the Habsburg Empire”, or “Politics has become impossible since the rise of the nation state. We must return to the reign of Louis IX”, or “The only worthy political venture on the continent died with the conquest of Catholic Quebec.”

Such thinking is not confined to awkward young men. It exists as well in the books they read. In Dependent Rational Animals, Alasdair MacIntyre states that the common good he envisions “can be realised neither in the forms of the modern state nor in those of the contemporary family”. For a model of real community, he writes, we must “look at the history of some fishing communities in New England over the past 150 years.” We might also “examine the history of Welsh mining communities”, or “farming cooperatives in Donegal, Mayan towns in Guatemala and Mexico, some city-states from a more distant past.”

Invocations of lost worlds – medieval kingdoms, Catholic empires, homogenous working-class towns – have become the Third-Worldism of the right, a way of championing any people, any polity but our own. Nostalgia has important uses. It helps us hold up a mirror to our society’s deficiencies. But the task then is to remedy those blights, not idly long for what no longer exists and perhaps never did, while despising the reality around us. This is the vice of Lost-Worldism.

Converting America begins with love, not contempt. We should cherish our nation’s variegated traditions, its multi-racial people, its habits of piety and liberality. Anyone who presents America as irredeemably “commercial”, “Protestant”, “liberal” or “decadent” has conceded the territory for which he should contend. Those who dream of defending the Church against 20th-century Spanish anti-clericals should be equally eager to protect her rights in 21st-century America. Those who lament the fall of Austro-Hungary should also resist those who would tear apart the United States.

Recently a distinguished friend who thinks I am insufficiently liberal suggested that I move to Liechtenstein. There, he assured me, I could find a regime in line with my own ideas of tradition. I have nothing against Liechtenstein, but it is not my country. I prefer R&B to the Radetzky March. When I imagine a better world, I refrain from building castles in Spain.

Our nation has a place in the designs of providence. It too is subject to grace. The Lost-Worldists of the right should learn from Régis Debray. It may be easy to idealise what is unseen, but it is more important to love and cherish what stands near to hand. The attraction of lost worlds should move us to preserve and improve the world we have and may yet lose.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things