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Spring 2015

Ethnicity Matters

book cover imagePandaemonium: Ethnicity in International Politics
by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Oxford University Press, 1993.
Hardcover, 221 pages, $110.

Eamon Moynihan

In 1947, Solomon Bloom, a student of Marxism and nationalism, published an article in Commentary entitled “The Peoples of my Home Town,” about his youth in Romania. It used Pandaemonium, the capital of Hell in Milton’s Paradise Lost, as a metaphor for the nationalist furies that were unleashed in the wake of World War I. In 1993, the late Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan adopted this metaphor, with due acknowledgement, to reflect on the importance of ethnicity in world affairs, writing against the backdrop of the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the time, Francis Fukuyama had already published an article on “The End of History.” Samuel P. Huntington would soon publish an article on “The Clash of Civilizations?” In the ensuing years, the books derived from those two articles would come to dominate discussion about what was then being called the New World Order and later globalization.

In the process, the more temperate and cautionary insights of Moynihan were largely eclipsed. As current events demonstrate, that is highly unfortunate, especially as it relates to the Middle East, which is now being convulsed by a number of clashes within a civilization. The wisdom dispensed in his 1993 book, Pandaemonium, deserves renewed attention.

Since we live in the age of full disclosure (or not) I will state at the outset that I am hardly an unbiased observer. Senator Moynihan was my uncle. But as economists like to say, incentives matter, although as economists typically ignore, incentives are not always monetary. Precisely. Moynihan begins by emphasizing that ethnicity, nationalism, and statehood are distinct concepts and historically have rarely occurred in tandem. Thus he quotes Eugen Weber to the effect that about half of the people in France coming of age in the last quarter of the nineteenth century considered French a foreign language. Moreover, “It is a commonplace of American immigration studies that most of the ‘new’ immigrants who began to arrive from Eastern and Southern Europe in 1880 or thereabouts learned of their previous nationality only after settling in the United States.” And then, “As of 1967, when Albania declared itself to be the world’s first officially atheist state, 27 percent of the population was Christian.… The rest was Muslim, divided about equally between Sunni Gegs and Sunni or Bektashi Tosks.” Stability, it turns out, is sometimes lacking: “There are just eight states on earth which both existed in 1914 and have not had their form of government changed by violence since then.” On the collapse of the Soviet Union: “The most important factor in this breakup was the disinclination of Slavic Ukraine to continue under a regime dominated by Slavic Russia.” And that is just the Introduction.

Moynihan then turns to the subject of ethnicity as an academic discipline. “It is no accident, he writes,” that ethnicity as a subject has tended to be slighted, if not ignored.… This is perhaps especially an American view. Ethnic identities were seen as recessive, readily explained by immigrant experience, but essentially transitional.” But not American alone. According to the Marxists, “Ethnicity would give way to ‘proletarian internationalism,’ and that was that. Decreed. Folk-dancing might persist, even language differences, but these would be, in Stalin’s celebrated phrase, ‘nationalist in form and socialist in content.’” In this context, reality was sometimes hard to discern. Quoting Richard Hofstadter, “‘[p]robably the most widely read contemporary book in the United States before Uncle Tom’s Cabin was Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures, an account of debauchery and worse in a Montreal nunnery.’” The term “melting pot,” he notes, was coined by British playwright Israel Zangwill, who in time became a Zionist. The intellectual Daniel Bell is quoted from 1947, dismissing the prospects for bi-nationalism in Palestine. Bell wrote, “If nationalism is still the key to political action, then a policy of national alliances may be necessary for survival. This would involve an effort toward closer affiliation with Great Britain or the United States.” In reference to his tenure at the United Nations, Moynihan surmises that the reason the Soviets “master-minded” the resolution declaring that “Zionism is a form of racism” was “because a mass movement had formed within the Soviet Union to go there.” He concludes: “In short there was no new Soviet man.”

Next comes “On the ‘Self-Determination of Peoples.’” Oh my! This, Moynihan says, was an American specialty. “Dr. Johnson got it just right when he asked in 1775: ‘How is that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?’ So much for Thomas Jefferson. So much as well for Woodrow Wilson, who was attended by slaves during his Virginia youth, and whilst the greatest friend of the Azerbaijanis of the world, sent a segregated American army to Europe to fight for such freedom.” The expression E pluribus unum, we learn, comes from an early Virgil poem about a rather tasty sounding salad. Of the Civil War, “That should have taught a lesson; it did not. The lesson that minorities not infrequently seek self-determination for themselves in order to deny it to others.” Wilson’s Secretary of State Robert Lansing is quoted from his diary, “What a calamity that phrase was ever uttered! What misery it will cause!” From Hitler on Czechoslovakia, “[A]t last, twenty years after the declaration of President Wilson, the right of self-determination, for these 3,500,000 [Germans] must be enforced.” On this basis, Foreign Minister Molotov asked for sixteen votes for the Soviet Union during the negotiations over the UN Charter. James Reston, it turns out, neglected to mention this in a long series of articles in the New York Times. Oh, what else? There are 6,170 languages spoken in the world today.

After emphasizing the role of the United States in these matters, Moynihan devotes a chapter to the Marxist experience. We find ourselves at the First International, where they are discussing the Polish Question. “The issue was placed on the agenda by Marx himself,” he notes. Its purpose was, according to the assembled, to “annihilate the growing influence of Russia in Europe.” As it turns out, the mix between nationalism and socialism was somewhat difficult to implement in practice. “The workers and peasants were first to be divided among separate nations, thereafter to join hands as the Workers of the World. The peasants were to be given land, thereafter to be taken from them and given to the collective.” Moynihan also quotes Stalin from his book Marxism and the National and Colonial Question. “What is to be done with the Mingrelians, the Abkhasians, the Adjarians, the Svanetians, the Lesghians?” Apparently Stalin was equally quizzical on the subject of “two national peculiarities.” One was the Shakhsei-Vakhsei, a festival of self-flagellation among Shi’ite Tatars to commemorate the death of Husain at Karbalah; the other, the vendetta as practiced in Georgia. Moynihan questions how much he knew about the former. Of the latter he writes, “Stalin raised this local custom to the level of an international institution.”

A short chapter is then devoted to some of the consequences of the fall of empire after World War I. Of Iraq he writes, “The British proceeded to set up a government in Iraq ‘on nationalist lines.’ Of which there were none.” In reference to an essay by Elie Kedourie, who was Jewish and born in Baghdad, Moynihan says, it “describes the near permanent ethnic terror that settled onto Mesopotamia once ‘independence’ came to Iraq.” Continuing: “The Jews of Baghdad, familiar with conquest, having been in and about Babylon for some while, petitioned for British citizenship. They were turned down.” According to Kedourie, “bare thirty years sufficed to destroy this community.” Moynihan adds, “The Christian Assyrians fared no better.” The next time the British came to Iraq with the Americans, he writes, the Jews were now in Jerusalem, most of the Assyrians in Chicago. He then turns his attention to the former Austrian Empire. The names change, but the events are familiar.

Finally, Moynihan looks at the world more broadly, noting that these earlier issues remain unresolved. Of the UN, he writes, “The majority of existing states, notably the previous ‘colonies’, were willing enough to support the ‘self-determination’ of Italian Somaliland and British Guyana, but surely not Biafra, Kurdistan.…” Of the 1973 Paris Peace Treaty: “The United States government never for one moment expected the Communist government of North Vietnam to abide by this treaty obligation. And when it did not, the United States made no significant protest, the ‘decent interval’ having by then passed.” There is a particularly interesting discussion of India. “In the 1980s,” he writes, “the first seemingly sustainable opposition party emerged to challenge Congress, the party of independence, the Baratiya Janata Party.” Of the latter, he says, it “was distinctive for asserting what might be called a class interest, that of the merchant and business castes. To many B.J.P. activists, socialism clearly means Brahminism. A market economy would be in the hands of their castes.” Which raises an interesting thought: apparently the top-down coalition of the modern Democratic Party is not unique in the world.

In the last pages, Moynihan wonders if there are better ways to handle these matters. Perhaps. First, be aware of them. “Neibuhr warns of collective egotism, Auden of collective egoism; however termed, it readily enough becomes destructive. But there is nothing wrong—everything right—with an intelligent, responsible, self-respect, even self-regard. The challenge is to make the world safe for and from ethnicity.…” And elsewhere: “These tensions are exacerbated, as theory and practice predict, by spreading patterns of group preferences.” Earlier he had noted the practice “whereby government employs ethnic categories as a basis for distributing its rewards. Nothing was more dramatic than the rise of this practice on the part of the American government in the 1960s, at the very instant when such practice was declared abhorrent and illegal.” Currently, of course, we are witnessing the consequences of loose, chauvinist language as it relates to the police and public safety. The point of Pandaemonium is that ethnicity matters. Treat it with caution.  

Eamon Moynihan, a financial consultant, lives in New York City.

Posted: June 21, 2015

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