Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Recent writings on democracy by Phil Paine

While I was more or less away from my computer for the holiday, Phil Paine, my sometimes collaborator on the history of democracy, wrote some interesting posts.

One, which was written just before the Canadian election, does not suffer from being "overtaken by events." It talks about how citizens in a democracy should think about elections, any elections anywhere, and it catches why even the prospect of a win by the saner presidential candidate in the United States leaves me uneasy. The hankering so many people have for "strong leadership" is all that much more evident when it comes to foreign policy especially warmaking. Every time I hear American politicians talk about the future of foreign policy I feel like they are trapped in a dream world, and that they will inevitably be led astray by fantasies they seem to share with most of the population. (Canada is hardly immune from this kind of thinking; a call to "support the troops" closes down sensible debate most of the time.) Phil's piece, his Seventh Meditation on Democracy, is here.

Phil is very good at locating specialized works that shed an interesting light on general human problems. Two such works are featured in his blog at

One, Hélène Claudot-Hawad's “Éperonner le monde” ― Nomadisme, cosmos et politique chez les Touaregs is a study of the Tuareg, the Saharan people, which serves to confirm in Phil's mind conclusions he drew from personal experience of this culture, a quarter century ago. You'll have to read Phil's whole review to see why I think it's worthy of notice ; but it's not long.

The second, Nancy M. Wingfield's Flag Wars and Stone Saints: How the Bohemian Lands Became Czech, shows how an ideological classification, embedded into a change in one bureaucratic document, can make a tremendous difference in the life of the community, and not a good one. Here I will quote from Phil's review somewhat extensively:

Ethnic nationalism is one of the most diseased and obnoxious ideas contrived by human beings, rivaled only by Marxism and religious fanaticism in its potential for creating human suffering. The stage was set for the horrors of the twentieth century by the passionate ethnic hatreds of the 19th century. It was in this era that collective loyalties among Europeans shifted from obsessions with God to obsessions with Race and Nation. And it was in this era that most of the "national identities", which now seem so fixed, were concocted.

This book deals with the process of manufacturing "national identity" in Bohemia, a process which involved the co-opting and polarizing of people who previously felt no special collective "oneness". For example, language seems to have been regarded as nothing more than a convenient medium of communication in most of Bohemia, until the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy turned it into a critical qualification for political and social status. In 1880, the Hapsburgs' imperial census demanded that everyone in the empire identify themselves by language, of which they could only choose one.

Millions of people who were bilingual or multilingual, who might use Czech to gossip with a neighbour, German at work, Hungarian to talk to a brother-in-law, and Slovak in bed with their spouse, suddenly had to define themselves like a species of insect by one, and only one of these languages. A Jewish shopkeeper might speak Yiddish at home, Moravian with his Customers, and read German newspapers and books. Czech nationalists insisted that he be considered a German, and German nationalists insisted that he was not. His rabbi claimed him as neither. The only opinion that carried no weight was his own. Up until then, in most of rural Bohemia, a given person would have said, "I am from such-and-such a village", not "I am Czech" or "I am German". Most Bohemians lived in this multi-cultural and multi-lingual reality, and had done so for centuries, but the census demanded that everyone be labeled ethnically under a single language, assumed to be identical with some inherent biological species.

To intellectuals and political activists, the resulting statistics and manufactured ethnicities became the tools for power struggles. National Defense Leagues, and parliamentary power-blocks used them in the pursuit of advancement, usually with blatant economic motives. The Nationalist mentality demanded not only the advancement of one's "own" schools, celebrations, statues, and job opportunities, but the extermination of everyone else's. Infantile vandalism, violence, and riots over statues, beer brands, and songs characterized life in late 19th Century Bohemia. Mobs attacked theatres that dared to perform a play in the Other language. The founding of a Czech-language university in Brno met violent opposition. Mobs of Czechs destroyed stores with German signs in their windows. Germans demanded boycotts of beers brewed by Czechs. History was rewritten into absurd fantasies of heroes and villains exemplifying the "superior" culture of Us and the perfidy and barbarity of Them. The old religious issues were not forgotten — they were merely re-shaped and twisted to amplify ethnic ideologies. And, of course, the age-old hatred of Jews thrived in such an atmosphere, and was used as strategic leverage.

So it was that when the Republic of Czechoslovakia emerged from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, after World War I, ethnic nationalism acted as a slow poison to weaken and corrupt a society that initially offered considerable hope.

Definitely one for my must-read list.

Image: a self-identified alpha male. (See Phil's Seventh Meditation.)

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