Monthly Archives: January 2006

Bad Governments and Their Enabling Ideologies

Fareed Zakaria puts the latest Palestinian elections in broader context in a Newsweek column headlined Caught by Surprise. Again.

Rulers like Anwar Sadat and Jordan’s King Hussein often used Islamic groups to discredit the secular opposition. Decades of repression, incompetence and stagnation ensured that citizens got increasingly unhappy with their regimes. And the only organized, untainted alternative was the Islamic movement.

Consider Hamas. It was founded as a sister group of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Initially it was a “quietist” group, accepting Israel’s occupation of the West Bank as a fact and simply working to improve the conditions of Palestinians within it. Both Israel and Jordan tacitly supported the group during that period, because they saw it as a way of dividing the Palestinians. They also probably believed it could never come to power. But they worked tirelessly to destroy the PLO and its successor, Fatah, a secular, Soviet-styled revolutionary outfit. (Remember that in the 1970s, even the United States thought that conservative Islamic groups were allies against left-wing revolutionary ones, which is why we funded the mujahedin in Afghanistan.)

But the man who truly opened the space for Hamas was Yasir Arafat. Arafat created one of the most ill-disciplined, corrupt and ineffective organizations ever to be taken seriously on the world stage. Despite the pull of loyalty in tough conditions, Palestinians were losing faith in Fatah through the 1990s. Hamas, meanwhile, became more political, radical and organized. It provided health, education and other social-welfare services. And it stood up for its people.

Such problems extend far beyond the Middle East. To my mind, the central problem in the world today is bad government, ranging from relatively mild ruling party inertia and corruption in countries like Canada and Japan (to pick two who recently voted for reform), to hopelessly failed states like North Korea or Zimbabwe. At least democracies have the potential to clean house periodically. But elections don’t guarantee the next government will be any better.

A lot of the real dirtball regimes are hangovers from the Cold War, still riding the turbid waves of their enabling ideologies, while their backers keep lowering the bar while telling themselves things could be even worse. In their days, at least Arafat, Assad, and Nasser were secular. At least Ceausescu, Hoxha, and Mao were anti-Soviet. At least Kim Il-sung, Ne Win, and Pol Pot were anticapitalist. At least Papa Doc, Pinochet, and Somoza were anticommunist.

And we’re still doing that today. People console themselves that Kyrgyzstan’s Bakiyev, Tajikistan’s Rakhmonov, and Uzbekistan’s Karimov are at least anti-Islamist (and so is Turkmenistan’s Niyazov, though he may be his own kind of autotheocrat). Others applaud Castro, Chavez, and Evo Morales for at least being anti-American. Until accountability matters more than ideology, we’ll never make any progress toward inducing bad governments to clean up their acts.

(Yes, I know, it’s not just enabling ideologies, it’s also enabling vital resources–oil, natural gas, diamonds, whatever–that provide excuses for others to tolerate unconscionable behavior by oppressive governments.)


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Protestant Paranoia in Poland in the 1700s

As committed as they may have been to the [Polish-Lithuanian] commonwealth, Protestants remained keenly insecure about their place within the state. They regarded radical Catholics as the greatest threat to their well-being, perceiving in them a tremendous capacity for intolerance and cruelty. The depth of their fear emerges time and again in the journals the Lutheran community maintained. Some entries soberly record improbable hearsay information about Catholic excesses, which the author obviously regarded as factual. During the period of the Confederation of Bar‘s insurrection, for instance, the chronicler lamented the purported plan of the confederates to deliver all Protestants, Jews, and Orthodox Christians “into lifelong slavery to the Turks.” In a subsequent entry the chronicler recorded the case of a certain Malachowski, a monk from a nearby discalced [i.e., barefoot] Carmelite monastery who abandoned cloister life in 1768, fled to Berlin, and converted to the Reformed faith. When Malachowski returned to the Poznan area a year later, the Carmelites supposedly seized him, spirited him off to a monastery, and walled him into a tiny basement cell, providing only a small hole for air and minimal sustenance. He would have suffered there indefinitely had not a contingent of Russian troops under General Roenne passed by the monastery. Hearing foreign voices, Malachowski cried out in French for help and was saved.

This story is difficult to verify, but it illustrates aspects of the Protestant sense of place in Poland. They saw themselves surrounded by a religion as mysterious and towering as the churches and monasteries that Catholics built. Although most Protestants knew little about what actually went on within such churches and behind monastery walls, they were quick to believe the worst. The story also highlights the geopolitical perspective of Poznan’s Protestants. They had long placed their faith in neighboring non-Catholic states to keep the commonwealth’s Catholic establishment in check. Just as the Russian general Roenne had freed Malachowski, so had Poland’s neighbors helped secure greater religious freedoms for minorities. In the eighteenth century Russia, Prussia, Sweden, and Denmark had all pressured the commonwealth in this regard. At the same time Protestants also shared a measure of the Catholic population’s ambivalence toward neighboring states. During the Confederation of Bar rebellion, Russian troops occupied Poznan on more than one occasion. They committed numerous excesses against the civilian population, thereby dampening Protestant enthusiasm for their supposed defenders. The Lutheran chronicler took a dimmer view of Prussia. The author identified Prussia’s successful attempt to destabilize the commonwealth’s economy in this period as a “second confederation,” comparing it to the loathed Confederation of Bar.

SOURCE: Religion and the Rise of Nationalism: A Profile of an East-Central European City, by Robert E. Alvis (Syracuse U. Press, 2005), pp. 38-39

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Language Hat on Mother-in-Law Talk and Fieldwork

I should have mentioned earlier that the always enlightening Language Hat has been running a series of excerpts from R.M.W. Dixon’s Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker. His two-part post (here and here) on the special “mother-in-law” language employed by speakers of the Australian language Dyirbal takes me back to my grad school days in linguistics, including more than a few “Eureka!” moments that compensated for the drudgery, discomfort, diseases, and social frustrations of fieldwork (and college classrooms, for that matter).

The many-to-one correspondence between Guwal [everyday language] and Jalnguy [“mother-in-law” language] vocabularies was a key to the semantic structure of Dyirbal. If one Jalnguy word was given as the equivalent for a number of distinct Guwal terms, it meant that the Guwal words were seen, by speakers of the language, to be related. For nouns, it revealed the botanical and zoological classifications which the Aborigines perceived. For instance, bayi marbu “louse”, bayi nunggan “larger louse”, bayi daynyjar “tick”, and bayi mindiliny “larger tick” were all grouped together under a single Jalnguy term, bayi dimaniny.

It could be even more revealing with verbs. The everyday style has four different words for kinds of spearing, and also such verbs as nyuban “poke a stick into the ground (testing for the presence of yams or snails, say)”, nyirran “poke something sharp into something (for example, poke a fork into meat to see if it is cooked)”, gidan “poke a stick into a hollow log, to dislodge a bandicoot”. All seven of these Guwal verbs are rendered by just one word in Jalnguy: nyirrindan “pierce”.

After I returned from doing fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, the three of us who had spent most of 1976 living in little villages along the north coast of New Guinea were invited to share our experiences at a Q&A session for other linguists. At one point, we were asked how our linguistics training had helped prepare us for our fieldwork experiences. I answered something along the following lines: “Well, it substantially increased my boredom threshold, and that proved extremely useful in the field.”

UPDATE: Part III, the exciting conclusion here.

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Chile’s Remarkably Unremarkable Election

Cuban-born columnist Carlos Alberto Montaner remarks in the Miami Herald on the remarkably unremarkable election of Michelle Bachelet (interviewed last night on the NewsHour) as Chile’s next president.

Michelle Bachelet and Sebastián Piñera carried out good election campaigns, both colorful and modern. Shortly before Election Day, the pollsters made their predictions: Bachelet, a 54-year-old socialist physician, multilingual, former minister of health and defense, should win by about five percentage points….

By now, of course, the news is not who won the presidency but that, in the electoral field, Chile behaves as a developed and predictable nation. This allows us to make the following observation: Chilean society happily has crossed the threshold of common sense….

The Left that rules Chile is the Left of Tony Blair and Felipe González. It is a Left that, instead of nationalizing the sources of production, stimulates private enterprise and adopts measures to facilitate the functioning of the market. A Left that signs treaties for trade openings with the United States, the Mercosur, the European Union and South Korea because it has learned that Chile’s growing prosperity depends, in large measure, on those intense exchanges. A Left, in sum, that governs honestly with the ideas of the Right — which explains why it is so difficult to defeat it.

What is that desirable “threshold of common sense” and how can it be reached? In essence, the threshold of common sense is that point in history when a decisive percentage of the ruling class agrees on the diagnosis of the ills that plague society and the measures that must be taken to excise them.

In Spain, for example, that point was reached in the late 1970s, after the death of Francisco Franco, when the Right and the Left agreed to respect the basic, successful economic rules of the capitalist model tried out by the dictator, beginning with the reforms of 1959. To those rules they added democracy as a way to form a government and make collective decisions.

Something similar happened in Chile in the early 1990s, during the administration of Patricio Aylwin, the first democratic government post-dictatorship, when the Christian Democrats had the good sense to not renounce the good aspects of Pinochet’s economic policy and to add to them the component of a liberal democracy.

That is why the Coalition for Democracy repeated its election victory for the fourth time: Chileans view Bachelet as a moderate and trustworthy person who will [not?] imperil with extravagant experiments the relative prosperity that Chileans have managed to achieve.

This is not to say that the Chile Bachelet will govern doesn’t face serious problems. Yes, Chile in its 16 years of democratic rule, and continuing a previous trend, reduced poverty from 42 percent to 18 percent. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to further reduce those levels of misery and to bridge the enormous gap that separates the poor from the rich.

In contrast, Montaner has nothing good to say about Cuba after 47 years of Castro.

At this point in history, only two interesting questions remain about the failed experiment staged by Castro on that poor island:

• First, why has a man as eccentric and absurd as he — capable of carrying out feats as improbable as the destruction of the centenary sugar industry, multiplying by 10 the number of prostitutes, executing or eliminating 16,000 people, and pushing into exile 15 percent of the Cuban population — lasted so long in power?

Nobody doubts that his administration is the worst the country has ever endured, incapable for the past half century of allowing Cubans to have drinking water, electricity, food and shelter in minimally reasonable amounts. [But what about the health care?]

• The second question also is obvious: What will happen when he disappears? After all, we’re talking about an ailing 79-year-old man with Parkinson’s disease who exhibits very clear symptoms of senile dementia and has been struck by several cerebral ischemias that have affected his ability to communicate. He mumbles, repeats himself, becomes incoherent and confused, and displays aggressively bad temper at the slightest contrariety.

He can still talk for eight consecutive hours without the slightest concern for his listeners’ bladders. What’s important is not his staying power but the content of his speeches. He is a pitiful man who never stops uttering nonsense, to the embarrassment of a ruling class that has been trained to obey a charismatic and presumably infallible leader and now doesn’t know what to do with this addlebrained and neurotic old geezer who just as blithely designs pygmy cows as he expounds on the unfathomable scientific secret of pressure cookers.

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Gaps in China’s Great Firewall

Mark Leonard, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform, offers an optimistic perspective in today’s Telegraph on China’s attempt to censor its web content.

China is 60 times the size of Saudi Arabia, and most experts agree that the sheer volume of traffic would be impossible to police. But Beijing has risen to the challenge, throwing people, money and technology at the problem. The more lurid accounts talk of an e-police force of 100,000 people employed to scour the net, blocking sites and checking e-mails. The numbers are exaggerated, but analysts agree that teams of computer scientists run a firewall with at least four different kinds of filter.

Second, look at what the Chinese are censoring. Much of the commentary suggests that China is an iron-clad Stalinist state, shielded from global events by the “great firewall of China”.

But analogies with Russia and eastern Europe in the 1980s are misleading. The governments of the Soviet bloc looked on powerlessly as their grey world of propaganda was eclipsed by Technicolor images of a better life in the West.

But China is already part of the capitalist world. It is awash with information, products and all the baubles of the consumer society. With every year that passes, the number of people with access to these goodies grows.

What Google has been asked to censor are perennial political taboos: articles on Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square and Falun Gong – as well as pieces criticising the Communist Party’s rule. But this kind of censorship is relatively subtle, aimed not at shutting China off from the world, but zeroing in on political controversy. Google estimates that less than two per cent of internet searches will be affected.

The third lesson is the most profound. What worries China the most is not information coming in from outside. It is Chinese people talking to one another. China’s laws on the freedom of assembly are Draconian. Charities, trade unions and religious groups are kept under close surveillance and regularly banned. The ferocity with which the Communist Party suppresses the herbivorous and mild-mannered Falun Gong has puzzled many outside observers. But Beijing is not afraid of the content of their meetings; it is afraid of them meeting at all….

But however impressive the Chinese mastery of the internet has become, it is hard to see how the profusion of information circulating around China can fail to leave its mark on the country’s politics. The great firewall is already springing leaks….

Many Chinese are also taking refuge in the world of digital images, which can be sent between mobiles or e-mailed as attachments, escaping the filters of the censor. Finally, there is the ingenuity of the Chinese people, who often write to each other in coded language (using stories as allegories). This has led many cyber-pundits to predict that, although Google’s avant-garde credentials have been tarnished, the dream of a democratic China has not been deferred.

via Google News

Rebecca MacKinnon’s RConversation blog is among the best English-language sources about censorship and the Chinese blogosphere.

I wonder how many people incensed at Google’s compromises with the Chinese government are equally incensed about the myriad of much nastier compromises routinely tolerated by the multitude of NGOs, news reporters, and “peacekeepers” trying to make a small difference under conditions of far deadlier tyranny and chaos around the world.

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Poland on the Brink of Final Partition, 1793

Evaluations of the state of affairs in Poland in the late eighteenth century have conflicted sharply. Up through the Second World War, German authors tended to regard the situation in Poland as dismal. They emphasized the dysfunctional nature of Poland’s political order and the stultification of its culture. In German circles, the phrase “Polish economy” (polnische Wirtschaft) long signaled a ludicrous oxymoron. Such assessments were used to justify, directly or indirectly, Prussia’s role in the partitioning of Poland. If it can be argued that Poland was a failing state, then Prussia emerges as its redeemer, introducing stability and the flowering of civilization to the territories it absorbed.

Polish authors usually offer different readings. While quick to admit the many problems besetting the country, they tend to emphasize the great strides made during the final decades of the eighteenth century. According to this view, Poland was solving its problems and evolving into a strong, progressive, constitutional monarchy. Its very success, in fact, led to its demise. Because reactionary, autocratic neighbors feared that Poland’s transformation could destabilize their own regimes, they crushed the experiment.

Both perspectives can draw comfort from the historical record. Certainly Poland, or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, as it was known at the time, was burdened by enormous challenges, and the process of reform ignited bitter conflicts that threatened to rip the fabric of the state apart. At the same time, it made some impressive strides forward. In the twilight of its existence the commonwealth, long a study in torpor, displayed uncharacteristic vitality. Driven by the very real threat of dissolution, its leaders undertook bold measures. Its residents, suspended between despair and hope, persevered as best they could….

For all the noise of this tumultuous period, life in Poznan proceeded in large measure according to long-established patterns…. Its population was fragmented into dozens of insular communities with few occasions for generating an overarching sense of communitas across the urban area, let alone wider expanses. Regarding nationalism, the climate of late eighteenth-century Poznan was not conducive to such forms of identity. Its inhabitants continued to find meaning and their widest sense of social belonging within the confines of their locale, caste, and confession.

SOURCE: Religion and the Rise of Nationalism: A Profile of an East-Central European City, by Robert E. Alvis (Syracuse U. Press, 2005), pp. 1-2

Hmm. I wonder why this sounds so familiar.

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How Secular Was European Nationalism?

[Religion and the Rise of Nationalism] examines the relationship between religion and nationalism in Poznan from 1793 to 1848. Currently located in western Poland, Poznan long has ranked as one of the largest cities along the linguistic and cultural borderland that separates the German-speaking regions of Central Europe from the Polish-speaking regions to the east. Relations among the city’s ethnic populations were never exactly warm. They grew more strained over the first half of the nineteenth century, a period in which German and Polish Poznanians developed strong attachments to their respective national identities. I explore how religion influenced this process….

The modernist argument has dominated the study of nationalism for good reason: its adherents have marshaled an impressive body of evidence in its favor. In this study I have found many aspects of the modernist argument to be especially helpful in making sense of Poznan’s changing social order. Where I part company with many modernists is over the supposedly secular quality of early European nationalism. It is indeed true that many high-proflle nationalist leaders from this period were avowedly secular, and the fiercest opposition to their agendas often came from religious sources. One can cite the struggles between the Jacobins and the Catholic Church in France, or between Giuseppe Mazzini and the Papal See on the Italian peninsula. But nationalism mattered in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries because it resonated with large numbers of people and manifested itself repeatedly in mass movements of no small revolutionary potential. Yet Europe’s population of secular urban sophisticates remained rather limited; secularization was only beginning to take its toll on traditional religious practice. In other words, most of the Europeans who rallied behind early nationalist appeals still maintained their traditional religious affiliations.

This work develops a nuanced and variegated portrait of the relationship between early European nationalism and religion. While many early nationalists were in fact estranged from organized religion, it was not uncommon for adherents of this new ideology to remain faithful to their religious traditions and to draw from these traditions in articulating their nationalist visions. Religion and nationalism could peacefully coexist and fruitfully interact with one another on a number of levels, as I demonstrate through a detailed study of one fascinating case: the city of Poznan in the first half of the nineteenth century. During this time Poznan emerged as an important center of Polish and German nationalist ferment as residents explored their heritage and agitated for a new political order based upon their nationalist assumptions. These processes culminated in an uprising during the “Springtime of Nations” in 1848, a period of revolutionary enthusiasm across the continent that stands as a touchstone of early nationalism. In Poznan in the years leading up to and including 1848, calls for greater political enfranchisement and national self-determination routinely intersected with the symbols, offices, and concerns of organized religion….

In exploring the relationship between religion and early nationalism, this book also contributes to an understanding of the evolution of nationalism. To account for the developmental trajectory of nationalist movements, historians long have drawn binary distinctions between early nationalism and its later manifestations. In its early phase, commonly reckoned as extending well into the second half of the nineteenth century, nationalist movements typically were spearheaded by liberal bourgeois elites, whose political interests and values set the tone within such movements. Sometime around 1870, however, the tenor of nationalism started changing. Conservative political establishments across Europe, long opposed to the revolutionary principles associated with nationalism, adopted new strategies vis-a-vis the phenomenon. Rather than resisting nationalism, they co-opted it and made it serve their reactionary ends. In this later phase, the rhetoric of nationalism demonstrated a greater sympathy for premodern values and institutions. It tended toward chauvinism as well, highlighting the virtues of the nation by disparaging ethnic or religious outsiders such as Jews, minority groups, or foreign workers. Such tendencies tapped into the xenophobia of the masses, gready expanding the popular appeal of nationalism.

An influential example of this typology can be found in Eric J. Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (1992). Hobsbawm describes the years from 1830 to 1880 as the “classical period of liberal nationalism,” when nationalism was viewed by both its supporters and detractors as a new and progressive force closely associated with the liberal ideology that had emerged during the era of the French Revolution. But in the decades following 1880, nationalism changed considerably. Most notably, it “mutated from a concept associated with liberalism and the left, into a chauvinist, imperialist and xenophobic movement of the right.” In his recent study of Polish nationalism, Brian Porter reiterates this same progression. Early Polish nationalism, he argues, was an inclusive movement focused on the emancipation of Poland and the rest of humanity from oppression of various forms. In the 1870s and 1880s, though, a much narrower conception of the nation emerged that was defined by a conscious hatred of outsiders. This animus was employed to promote the disciplined adherence to national values in the face of outside threats and to buttress established hierarchies of power. [Some have suggested that liberal internationalism is now mutating along the same lines in the face of threats to its established hierarchies of national and international power.–J.]

I do not deny the utility of generalizing about the differences between early and later forms of nationalism, especially when theorizing on a grand scale as Hobsbawm does. It is important, though, to consider counterpoints that remind us of the gap between the ideal type and historical reality. The actual development of specific nationalist movements routinely violated the explanatory models later developed to describe them. As my study demonstrates, the attempt by conservative establishments to commandeer nationalist movements was not strictly a late-nineteenth-century phenomenon. The Prussian regime and conservative nobles sought the same goal before 1848. Likewise, early nationalist leaders employed a rhetorical range that extended well beyond calls for equality, self-determination, and international solidarity. Events in Poznan make clear that Polish and German nationalists understood how the demonization of ethnic and religious outsiders could motivate core supporters….

I agree with the majority view that nationalism is a distinctly modern phenomenon whose origin is tied to political, cultural, and socioeconomic development unique to the modern era. And yet I dissent from the current vogue, inspired in particular by the postmodern approach of Benedict Anderson, of seeing national identities as raw inventions. Nationalisms have been capable of invoking intense passion in part because they lay reasonable claim to preexisting ethnic identities and historical and cultural legacies that are of genuine, compelling substance.

SOURCE: Religion and the Rise of Nationalism: A Profile of an East-Central European City, by Robert E. Alvis (Syracuse U. Press, 2005), pp. xiii-xxi

See also Robert E. Alvis, “A Clash of Catholic Cultures on the German-Polish Border: The Tale of a Controversial Priest in Poznan, 1839-1842,” The Catholic Historical Review 88 (2002), pp. 470-488 (Project Muse subscription required)

UPDATE: Nathanael of Rhine River, who knows a thing or two about mixed identities, middle grounds, minority cultures, and the uses of nationalism and religion, comments:

I’ve never found the dichotomy of nationalism and religion convincing except in a few cases. A better way of looking at the problem is how nationalists ‘nationalize’ religion or religious issues, such as with the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and the Kulturkampf, or how pro-Church movements came to defend democratic rights (like the Catholic Liberals or Zentrum.)

I forgot to add a couple questions about the role of religion in contemporary European nationalism: Was Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla more a religious or a national leader? To what extent did he remain a Polish nationalist even after he became Catholic Pope John Paul II?

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