Politicians feed ancient sqaubbles
April 16, 2009
If it isn’t the Croats versus the Serbs, the Irish versus the British, the Hungarians versus the Russians, the Indians versus the Pakistanis, and so on and so forth endlessly, ethnic, national or other groups carping about each other based on ancient misconduct, ill feelings, and awful memories that have virtually nothing to do with people alive today, then it is their diplomatic allies that are being urged to keep the flames of the acrimony burning. Why? Because there are many political theorists who insist that “people belong to their communities" — their nations, ethnic groups, or tribes instead of each individual’s life belonging to him or her, independently of the ghosts of their ancestors.
I have brought this up before — the Hungarians had their truly gruesome conflicts with the Turks many, many moons ago. And for reasons that have made absolutely no sense to me some of them still hold a grudge, as if they had been victims or aggressors despite not being alive anywhere near the time of these conflicts. No matter. For some these feelings of hostility — or friendship — must be kept alive.
Why? Well, I can only guess that it has to do with the ancient idea of tribal loyalty, as if those Hungarians and Turks — or substitute some other warring collectives many moons ago — imposed obligations on today’s members to keep up the anger at each other.
I blame for all of this the widespread anti-individualism that has been promoted not only by politicians and others who feed off such warped loyalties but by numerous prominent political theorist — usually called communitarians in our day — who insist that everyone primarily amounts to some kind of eternal team member. That one’s identity consists of being a member of some such collective. And, of course, the membership is completely accidental — I certainly didn’t volunteer to be born in Hungary and might well have been born in Turkey instead! Or again, substitute some other relentlessly hostile groups.
This is why I consider identity politics such a curse. Who one is has very little to do with the group into which one was born. Sure, it has some meaning for most of us where we got our start in life, who were those near and dear to us back in those formative years. But it should amount to nothing of great significance, given that none of us had a choice in the matter.
Once this group membership is not just accepted as merely a trivial feature of our lives but made a great deal of by leaders and political thinkers, consider how impossible it is to get rid of it. It isn’t even like one’s religion, which if one were to learn that it’s insidious, one can abandon. No one can change the fact that he or she was born in Israel rather than in Palestine, in Ireland rather than in Britain, in Mexico rather than in California. These are incontrovertible facts and if one attaches to them obligations of loyalty and fealty, one is eternally stuck. No argument, no enlightenment can make a dent in these alignments. We are simply members of the groups and must bear the burden of their histories, be they nice or naughty or some combination.
President Obama swore during the recent presidential campaign that he would not let the Turks forget about what their ancestors did to Armenians and when he failed to bring up the issue during his recent visit to Turkey, a number of commentators, such as the erudite wordsmith Christopher Hitchens of Vanity Fair magazine, called him out on his breach of his campaign promise.
Well, I say that Obama should never have entered into this messy controversy about a widely contested genocide back in the early 1900s, never mind the emotions of unfortunately too many Turkish and Armenian Americans. Whatever bad deeds were committed were done by people long dead, so I say drop all this already. What matters, especially in America, is the kind of human individual you are, what you have chosen to believe and do in your life, not what your parents and grandparents, et al., believed and did. That is what justice requires.
Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at: TMachan@link.freedom.com