Tag: ethnonationalism

On the “Reality of Nations”

This is a guest post by Peter S. Henne. Peter is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University. He formerly worked as a national security consultant. His research focuses on terrorism and religious conflict; he has also written on the role of faith in US foreign policy. During 2012-2013 he will be a fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia

Are some nations more real than others? Does it matter? Wednesday on MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe,” Joe Klein was a guest, discussing the current showdown over Iran’s nuclear program. Klein is a smart and reasonable man, and most of what he said made sense. But he made a few almost throw-away comments about ‘real’ versus ‘fake’ nations thatóin my mind at leastówere a bit disturbing.

The segment is available here, and the two comments are 8:35 and 9:40 (counting down on the MSNBC video player). In explaining why we shouldn’t attack Iran over its nuclear weapons, he said it is a ‘real’ country unlike many others in the region, with a strong sense of identity and history. When the conversation turned to Pakistan, he contrasted it with the real-ness of Iran in explaining why its possession of nuclear weapons is more concerning than Iran’s.

Again, I don’t necessarily disagree. The people of Iran are not rabid America-haters, and its leadersówhile ideologically-drivenóare not crazy. Moreover, Iran has a long and proud history, going back to the Persian Empire. Likewise, Pakistan has had a difficult history due to its multiethnic composition and often-poor leadership, as I’ve noted before. What got me was the real-versus-fake distinction. To be fair, he meant that Iran existed as a political entity before the modern era, while Pakistan was formed through post-colonial demarcation and the efforts of political figures like Muhammad Ali Jinnah after World War II. But the extension of this argument is that countries with a pre-modern existence will likely be more stable and friendly to the United States, while those of more recent genesis will not.

Whether or not Klein meant it, he interjected himself into a long-running debate over the origin of nations. The classic view of nations as eternally-existing entities is, while prevalent in popular discussions, not in line with contemporary scholarship. Gellner, Anderson, Kedourie and others demonstrated how nations emerged from various processes of modernity, such as industrialization, the spread of vernacular languages or political manipulation by elites. In Gellner’s words, many nations do not have a navel; they emerged fully-formed from modernity, not pre-modern social groups. Of course, many disagree with this, most prominently Anthony Smith, who argues that pre-modern ‘ethnies’ set the stage for modern nationalism. But both sides agree that whether a contemporary nation arose from pre-modern social groups or the disruptive processes of modernity, once established none are any more ‘real’ than others; nations are based on the intersubjective beliefs of their members, not objective characteristics like land or genetics.

Just to recap: Klein’s implication was that some nations are ‘real’ by virtue of pre-modern existence, and others are not as they emerged more recently. The latter group is more likely to experience instability and violence. In discussion of political reform in the Middle East, or plans to resolve the post-invasion chaos of Iraq, the supposed ‘fake-ness’ of countries in the region factored into assessments of what will happen and what to do about conflicts there. If the countries are ‘fake,’ then can a stable political system ever arise? Should we just help create new countries that are somehow less ‘fake?’ It’s actually an interesting corollary of the ‘ancient hatreds’ argument; some groups have been fighting for thousands of years, and try as we might to resolve their conflicts with shiny democratic institutions, there’s nothing we can do. In this case, the argument is: if some nations were never meant to be, then we can never really expect them to develop into stable democracies.

Now, again, to be fair, Klein made these comments on a morning show. He’s a smart guy, but was giving a blurb on TV, not an academic lecture. And as an academic, I admit I share academia’s often-irrational irritation with pundits who simplify scholarly debates. But Klein’s attitude, which I’m sure is shared by others in the punditocracy and policy community, is potentially dangerous. Multi-ethnic states born of modernity can work out well, like the United States. States with ancient histories can be disruptive internationally, like Iran. And the fact that Pakistan is less than a hundred years old doesn’t mean ‘real’ Pakistanis don’t exist.

I guess it’s a little much to expect pundits to peruse Imagined Communities before appearing on the morning talk shows, but it would be nice.

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Outrage Blogging Continues: Aliya Mustafina

Andrew Sullivan’s blog has been running a series of reader reactions on the subject of the Olympics and nationalism. A recent entry:

Gabby Douglas’ gold medal is being hailed all over the place as a first for an African-American gymnast. But I believe it’s actually much more than that: Gabby is the first black athlete from anywhere to win the title, and one of very few to compete for it. I’m a good liberal, and all for the term “African-American” in its proper context, but in this case it seems to shrink the scale of Ms. Douglas’s first – and America’s. (Afro.com covers it here.) The fact that our country, while imperfect, is one where a traditionally elite (and still of course expensive) sport is open to anyone with the chops to win, gives me enormous pride. Seeing our multi-hued team of talented, determined young women – their families must have originally come here from all over the place – take apart the monochromatic, over-made-up, bawling Russians – that’s where I get my Olympic jingoism on. America f[–]k yeah.

Monochromatic? I guess “they” all look alike, eh? The Russian team captain, Aliya Mustafina, as her name makes clear, is ethnically Tatar. Recall that the Russian Federation is a multiethnic political community. Indeed, the Tatar’s faced significant discrimination and oppression during periods of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and continue to face hurdles outside of the Republic of Tatarstan–although, I should note, Mutafina’s father and sister are also successful elite athletes.

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Scenes from the National Museum of Scotland, Part the Second

In my previous post I mentioned the recent broadside against Brave for its anti-Pictish discourse and representations. I’m not being fair, of course, as its author, Melissa McEwan, doesn’t use the term “Pict” any time during her essay. Which is interesting, insofar as Brave is saturated with Pictish symbols. As an astute commentator notes:

The Scots are represented not as a homogeneous group but as a diverse people, including ethnic differences from Pictish, Celtic, and Viking ancestries. While you may choose to see this as an Othering, it is a step above the kind of racial elisions that tend to happen with Native Americans in films (since that got mentioned.)

Regardless, the original post and subsequent exchanges illustrate nicely what happens when there’s a kernel of truth heaped beneath the crazy, but the crazy emerges triumphant.

Of course, one persons’ serious of ethnic slurs is another’s nationalist myth making. Hence I was not terribly surprised to learn that the National Museum of Scotland has embraced Brave wholeheartedly.

So while McEwan (who, naturally enough, admits to never having seen the film) complains about the stereotyping “Scottish people” as using “silly instruments,” the embedded link makes clear she has bagpipes in mind.  Bagpipes, which I hardly consider “silly,” are in Brave. But I first thought, rather naïvely in retrospect, that the discussion was sophisticated enough such that she was referring to the carnyx (the rightmost picture above), which makes a prominent appearance in the film.

Listen to a Carynx.

But to return to my main point, about how one person’s ethno-chauvinist mockery of a not-so-oppressed American minority is another person’s nationalist myth-making, let us return to the National Museum. There, a significant chunk of the symbolic repertoire on display in Brave finds itself presented at the cultural origins of the Scottish nation. Lest their be any doubt about that, consider the sign pictured below.

In conclusion. Meh.

A postscript: I enjoyed Brave and all that, but for a series that combines excellent narrative, strong characterization, moral ambiguity, excitement, suspense, deep research, and the kind of exoticicizing of white ethnic “others” that would make McEwan’s head explode, check out Nancy Farmer’s Sea of Trolls series. 
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“Is there something wrong with some seven year-old Muslim-American kid believing he or she could be President?”

Forget Powell’s endorsement of Obama. The most noteworthy part of his remarks was his public denunciation of those members of the GOP who have engaged in a sickening pattern of Muslim-baiting over the last year or so.

Powell’s short, but powerful, defense of Islamic Americans earned back, at least for me, a lot of the prestige he squandered during the campaign to sell the Iraq War.

His remarks on the subject start around 4:30.

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