Seeing the world as a social scientist vs. as a nationalist

When mass protests against corruption and economic privation began erupting in Venezuela last year, followed by brutal police crackdowns and the disappearing and killing of protesters by government forces and government-backed militias, I naively thought the American Left might take an interest in the protesting side. After all, they were mainly young people upset at the system that was failing them, and the protests seemed to have evolved organically throughout large parts of the country. It didn’t seem to matter how the American Left had approved of Hugo Chávez, cautiously in pockets and enthusiastically in other pockets, for 15 years. After all, Chávez was dead, and it wouldn’t have lost them too much face to declare that his successor, Nicolás Maduro, had betrayed the revolution. Killing peaceful protesters is usually enough to establish bad guy status. Though Maduro was a Chávez disciple and largely continued his policies, it didn’t seem to be asking much to say that some kind of tide had turned.
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But no, where there was a reaction at all it was to point out that one of the major opposition figures, Leopoldo López, was alleged to have links with the CIA. (It is difficult to confidently pinpoint exactly what these links involved, but I am not disputing the major theme.) Thus the argument implicitly ran that what appeared to be an organic social movement was secretly being orchestrated or at least manipulated by the CIA and thus was not eligible for sympathy or support. López turned himself in to avoid being labeled as the mastermind and tarnishing the rest of the movement, and he remains incarcerated at present.
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Though my frustration with the Left continues, I should have been prepared for the disappointment. After all, this phenomenon has happened time and time again. Orwell began his essay “Notes on Nationalism” with
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Somewhere or other Byron makes use of the French word longeur, and remarks in passing that though in England we happen not to have the word, we have the thing in considerable profusion. In the same way, there is a habit of mind which is now so widespread that it affects our thinking on nearly every subject, but which has not yet been given a name. As the nearest existing equivalent I have chosen the word ‘nationalism’, but it will be seen in a moment that I am not using it in quite the ordinary sense, if only because the emotion I am speaking about does not always attach itself to what is called a nation — that is, a single race or a geographical area. It can attach itself to a church or a class, or it may work in a merely negative sense, against something or other and without the need for any positive object of loyalty.

By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. …

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In this case, of course, the “nationalism” I refer to is loyalty and emotional attachment to the global “progressive” movement, many of whose goals I share. Because Chávez was considered (by many) to be part of this movement and Maduro is his handpicked successor, the attachment extends to the Venezuelan government of 2014–2015, i.e. the regime that is still causing economic disaster and beating, disappearing, and killing protesters.
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But why is it that so few people seem to be capable of nuance or complexity in politics? It is entirely possible for one to believe, for example, that Chávez did a lot of bad things while with the other hand doing a lot of good things. One can also believe that the CIA is generally up to no good and hence its support of López taints him while also believing that López might locally be considered a legitimate political leader who is preferable to Maduro. This mindset makes sense to me, and it’s not unfamiliar to most people in the US, where the majority of this blog’s readers reside. Take Thomas Jefferson. Most of us can agree that (a) Jefferson had a lot of good, important, insightful ideas about how governments should be run, and at the same time that (b) his advocacy of and personal involvement in the system of chattel slavery are completely despicable, especially given that he seemed in his more lucid moments to have known better. Why is applying this framework to current events and people so uncommon?Clearance Oakley sunglasses

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  • Ryan Safner

    I think that people latch onto specific instances of issues that are tainted with some moral shades of gray – in this case, an opposition leader that was tainted by CIA presence. It creates a more costly signal for Chavistas and far-left supporters to signal loyalty to their in-group by hand-waiving past the their guy’s faults, and so they jump on the opportunity just as vociferously as anti-Chavistas jumping at the abuses of Maduro’s regime (who can signal loyalty to their in-group). Maybe if it weren’t for the CIA presence, all sides would generally be like “hey yeah, killing protesters is bad, what’s up with that,” but it commands less attention and in-group signalling value.

    Relevant (and one of my favorites) Slate Star Codex: