One of the ideas which has, perhaps more than any other, led to war and suffering in the modern age, is the idea that countries should have clear ethnic/national identities which define their borders. This is something that we in the the US, which has been heavily defined by immigration and thus lacks a distinct ethnic national identity, but it is something which comes into stark relief when we look at conflicts in other parts of the world.
Of these, the one that gets the most press is, of course, the conflict over the Holy Land, where different factions insist that the same ground should belong to either a Jewish State or a Palestinian State. This leads to strife because obviously if the state in a given area is specifically intended to belong to one ethnic or cultural group, then members of other groups must either leave or see themselves as living in someone else’s country.
This would work very well if various ethnic groups had spontaneously generated from the soil of different regions, but this is not the case. (After all, if you trace it back far enough, we’re all Africans.) Recorded history is one long story of migrations, conquests and assimilations. Continue Reading
Nationalism, a hydra of a term which in this case I am using in the sense whereby it refers to the idea that “a people” of unified ethnic, cultural and/or religious heritage have a “right” to their own nation state which expresses their identity as a people, is a force which has been at the root of a great deal of suffering since it burst upon the world scene — arguably via the French Revolution followed by Napoleon’s empire. As such, it has a fairly well deserved negative reputation these days. And yet, like many intellectual vices, it is often denounced even by those who hold it dear.
Case in point: Can one seriously claim to be against nationalism if one believes that the Palestinians have a natural and human right to their own nation state in which they are the dominant ethnic and cultural force?
For a couple decades, the “Palestinian” territories were parts of Jordan and Egypt respectively. For the last 50 years, they have been controlled by Israel. If one is truly against nationalism, is either of these situations a problem? Or the the problem only when whatever governing authority controls the West Bank and Gaza Strip fails to provide equal political rights and privileges to the residents of those areas who are Muslim or Christian Arab in background?
I was talking with a relative recently who was telling me about an incident a while back where the maintenance staff at the building he worked at had gone on strike and were picketing the building. Emails had gone out from the building management telling people not to get into arguments or cause incidents with the picketers, and it became a source of quite a bit of topic around the office. My relative was amused to hear expressed several times the sentiment, “That’s what makes our country different from the rest of the world. Here, they have the freedom to hold a protest like that.”
It if, of course, true that they have the freedom to picket their employer here. However, that’s not necessarily a contrast with the rest of the developed world. They could do the same in thing in Canada, or the UK or France or Germany, etc. There is, as my relative pointed out, a tendency at times for Americans to assume that because our country was very consciously founded in order to secure certain freedoms, that this means that people who don’t live in the US don’t have the same freedoms. Obviously, some don’t. One’s freedom of political and economic expression is severely limited if you live in North Korea or China or Cuba or some such nation. But there are many other countries in which people enjoy basically all the same freedoms that we do.
This American tendency to assume that we are the only ones to enjoy the freedoms outlined in our Bill of Rights is something which very much annoys many people who consider the US to be dangerously nationalistic, or who would prefer that we see the US as just one other region, not better or worse than others. Continue Reading
There has been an interesting discussion going on that began with a little mockery of Obama’s propensity for offering collective apologies around the world for various things out of the American past or present. I am a big proponent of apologies- but they must be prudent and truly repentant- not some mixed-motive posturing like former President Clinton seemed inclined. A great Catholic example of what I am seeking is found in a great book entitled “Guatemala Never Again!”. This is no Leftist diatribe, this is (REMHI) the Recovery of Historical Memory Project. This is the Official Report of the Human Rights Office, Archdiocese of Guatemala. Let me quote from the back cover:
One of the books I’ve been reading off and on over the last year has been Avi Shlaim’s The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. Shlaim is a one of the Israeli New Historians, which is essentially a “post-Zionist” revisionist school of Israeli history, who criticize the “old historians” of Israel of being too personally involved in the 1948 war and its aftermath, and thus writing history which is essentially apologetics for Israel.
There are places where I get the feeling Shlaim is leaning too hard in the other direction (for instance he spends a good deal of time on the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel in 1948, but glosses over the expulsion of Jews from surrounding Arab countries.) However, given that you know where his leanings are, it’s a fascinating read because it’s closely based on documented sources, and it focuses on the very real problem of Israel’s relationship with the Arab world. Among the things it made me realize, however, was how alien the modern sense of nationalism is to citizens of the US.
This may seem a strange conclusion at first,