Religion and national “cohesion”

In his 2003 book Faith in Nation: Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism, Anthony Marx argued that polities in early-modern Europe took important steps toward national cohesion by excluding or mobilizing against religious and ethnic minorities. In the concluding chapter, he wrote: “At the very heart of liberalism is an ugly secret: Supposedly inclusive nationalism was founded on the basis of violent exclusion, used to bound and forge the nation to whom rights would then be selectively granted.” He suggested that the exclusionary process of nation-building that “the West” had gone through earlier was now, to some extent, being replicated globally: “Muslims in India, Tutsis in Rwanda, or Muslims in much of southeastern or Balkan Europe are the Jews, Moors, Huguenots, or Papists of our day. These and so many other groups have been sacrificed on the altar of collective solidarity, with their victimization central to the process of forging cohesion.” (p. 200)

But does India, for example, need to discriminate against or otherwise marginalize its Muslims in order to build national “unity”? Wasn’t the anticolonial struggle itself enough to establish that long ago? And didn’t India emerge from British rule in 1947 as a secular democratic state, at least in terms of its constitution and its ruling elite’s commitments? The answer to the last question, of course, is yes. So the political ascendancy of “Hindu nationalism” in India in recent decades perhaps is more of a puzzle than Anthony Marx’s quoted statements would suggest, or at least may have a different explanation.

Michael Walzer addressed the question of secular national liberation movements triggering “traditionalist” religious reactions in The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions (2015). Looking particularly at India, Israel, and Algeria, he argued that secular liberation movements were too rigid in their rejection of religion. Walzer thought that “Nehruvian secularism” had been “too absolute” in this respect: “It is the absolutism of secular negation that best accounts for the strength and militancy of the religious revival” (p. 109), though several pages later he suggested that it was the “demand for gender equality” that “pose[d] the greatest challenge to traditional religion and is probably the most important cause of revivalist zealotry….” (p. 115)

In any case, though he advocates some sort of “engagement” with “traditionalist worldviews” (p. 121), Walzer does not specify precisely how Nehru should have been more accommodating, and he ends up acknowledging that maybe no “engagement [with traditional Hinduism] was possible” at the inception of the independent state. (p. 123) And with the BJP now in power at the national level in India, the shoe is, to some extent, on the other foot, so to speak.


Thoughts on AI

Actually I have no thoughts on AI, at least not at the moment. But since the current readership of this blog is tiny, I thought the title of this post might drive some search traffic to the site. I believe this is known, in some unsavory parts of the commercial/business world, as bait-and-switch.

The “century of revolution”

From S. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (1968), pp. 314-15:

“Historians have called many ages the age of revolution. But the twentieth century is peculiarly the century of revolution because only in the twentieth century have revolutionary processes given birth to revolutionary institutions…. Every major revolution of the twentieth century has led to the creation of a new political order to structure, to stabilize, and to institutionalize the broadened participation in politics…. In contrast to all previous revolutions, every major twentieth-century revolution has institutionalized the centralization and the expansion of power in a one-party system. However else they may differ, this is the common legacy of the Russian, Chinese, Mexican, Yugoslav, Vietnamese, and even Turkish revolutions. The triumph of the revolution is the triumph of party government.”

Of the countries mentioned, China and Vietnam today are one-party regimes; Russia is in all but name; and Yugoslavia no longer exists. Mexico and Turkey have multi-party systems; in Mexico, the PRI lost a presidential election for the first time in 2000.

Ukraine: is there an “end game”?

A casual follower of news-media chatter will have noticed recently some discussion along these lines: European countries (and the U.S.) have pledged new weapons to Zelenskyy, and now the question is whether, in the coming counter-offensive, Ukrainian forces can use these weapons effectively enough to put Ukraine on the path to victory. (Added later: F-16s will be going to the Ukrainians though are not expected to be a factor on the battlefield until the fall, given the time required for training, etc.)

But what does “victory” mean? To Zelenskyy, it means Ukraine at its 1991 boundaries, with Russia kicked out not only of Luhansk and Donetsk but of Crimea as well. Are there any knowledgeable analysts who think this will happen? If there are, I’d be somewhat surprised. Russia has been in Crimea since 2014, and there is, I would think, a non-trivial possibility that Putin will use tactical nuclear weapons before he relinquishes Crimea. So perhaps the more likely definition of Ukrainian victory is Putin relinquishing Luhansk and Donetsk, even though Russia claims to have annexed them and claims they are now part of the Russian federation. (Zelenskyy also wants a Nuremburg-style tribunal to try Russian leaders on the charge of waging a war of aggression, but for purposes of this post put that to the side.)

There is another possibility: Russia leaves Luhansk and Donetsk de facto, but saves a bit of face by retaining a de jure status there. Now I know next to nothing about the region — when has that ever stopped any blogger before? — so I don’t know how practical a suggestion this is in this context. In theory, however, it’s not as wild as it sounds. There is historical precedent for this kind of arrangement. In medieval and early-modern Europe, there were even formal agreements whereby polity X had legal ownership of a particular piece of territory while polity Y was given control of it in the sense of being recognized as the one to extract resources from it, maintain some semblance of order, and administer day-to-day “justice.” How, therefore, did legal ownership actually benefit the owner? Who the hell knows, and who the hell cares? The point is, it was a way to avoid war over the territory in question.

In this hypothetical scenario, Russia would be able to claim that Luhansk and Donetsk are still “part of” Russia but its soldiers would be gone, the civil war that had been ongoing before the Feb. 2022 invasion would be tamped down, and Ukraine would actually “run” the territory: collect taxes, administer the schools and the courts and pick up the garbage and keep the water and the lights on, and so on. There could be a clause in the hypothetical agreement saying that Russia remains “sovereign” and delegates — a useful word — the day-to-day administration of the territory to Ukraine on condition of Ukraine’s agreeing to respect the rights of the Russian-speaking and Russia-aligned elements, in certain ways that would be specified. (Maybe this minority-rights aspect has been tried before here: I don’t know.) Would it work? Who knows, but faced with the possibility of a drawn-out conflict in which Russia continues to fire missiles at Ukrainian cities, occasionally destroying an apartment building and killing civilians, it may be that some “outside the box” thinking is called for.

Neither side would be altogether happy with such a deal. But the upshot might be a kind of Kashmir-like “frozen conflict” where neither side is fully comfortable with the status quo but at least people are, most of the time, able to go about their daily lives without wondering whether, when they turn in for the night, a missile will hit their dwelling at 4 a.m. and kill everyone in it.

ETA: When I mentioned the gist of this idea on another blog, someone brought up the case of Cyprus. I’m not sure it’s entirely apt, but…

Save the child or go to the opera?

This post’s title is, of course, tongue-in-cheek. I had not been aware until just now that in 2016 Peter Singer published a book with the same title as his famous 1972 article “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” That piece argued that the moral obligation to relieve a starving child from hunger ten thousand miles away is the same as the moral obligation to save a child who’s drowning ten feet away. The broader message, or one of them, was that you shouldn’t spend money on non-necessities when you could spend it instead on relieving suffering.

In his 2006 book Cosmopolitanism, K.A. Appiah disagreed, arguing that there is no need to feel guilty about, for instance, buying an opera ticket rather than giving that money to, say, famine relief. It’s been quite a while since I read the book so I don’t recall the details of the argument particularly well. (Singer and Appiah are both among the best-known living philosophers, both qualifying for the label public intellectual.)

Quote of the day

Over the weekend I was dipping into Aaron Friedberg’s The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895-1905 (Princeton U.P., 1988), a book that if I had an academic position I’d be a bit embarrassed to admit I hadn’t read. At one point he describes an intense exchange between the British Admiralty and the War Office as “a sort of bureaucratic Punch-and-Judy show with bitter and pointed memoranda taking the place of brickbats.” (p. 185)

James Bond versus Hamlet

In high art, heroes often die; in middlebrow art, they sometimes do; in mass art (a/k/a pop culture), they rarely do.

Consider James Bond.  Until recently, the audience for a Bond movie could be sure of at least one thing: Bond will not die, whereas his enemies will either die or be defeated, retreating to lick their wounds and concoct their next plot.  The logic of the sequel demands that the hero survive, and the logic of character demands that Bond’s suave exterior must repel whatever the villain throws at it.  The technological paraphernalia of a Bond movie – the fancy weaponized cars, souped-up helicopters, neat gadgets, and whatnot – can be viewed, in this light, as an extension of the hero’s person.  Paradoxically, even if Bond does die, as he does at the end of the cleverly titled 2021 installment No Time to Die (so Wikipedia informs me), he doesn’t.  There will be another Bond film, even though a different actor than Daniel Craig will be playing him.

By contrast, heroes in high art are, quite obviously, often doomed and flawed, with complicated interior lives. One of the archetypes, of course, is Hamlet. Claudius refers early in the play to “Hamlet’s transformation – so call it/ Sith nor th’exterior nor the inward man/ Resembles that it was.” (Act 2, sc. 2)  Neither the exterior nor the inward man: the Shakespearean hero, and Hamlet perhaps more than any other, has two dimensions, whereas James Bond, when you get down to it, has only one. (Stephen Greenblatt notes in Will in the World that Hamlet marks a culmination of Shakespeare’s “interest in the hidden processes of interiority” [p.300].)

Another difference: Bond acts; Hamlet dithers.  Hamlet’s inaction or indecision is an old, and by now probably trite, theme in Shakespearean criticism.  Hamlet wanders, so to speak, through the prison of his own mind, which, as he says of the world, has “many confines, wards, and dungeons” (II.ii).  Bond navigates the labyrinth that his adversaries construct, while Hamlet navigates the labyrinth of his own interiority.  The external labyrinth is more immediately menacing, but the internal one is more authentic, more existentially real, and thus, one might say, more dangerous.