We are seeing increasing tension in the world again. There were a few years, namely the 1990s, when the world seemed to be growing more closely together, overcoming differences and seeking understanding over division (with a few painful exceptions). Then, 9/11 happened, which brought new wars. The transatlantic alliance was put under strain, globalization brought out new players, strengthened older ones, and a slow shift began to recalibrate the power dynamics on a planet that in its current path towards global climate change could need cooperation more than antagonism. The West appears more fractured than ever in the last decades, China’s dictatorship is making gains, Russia, Turkey, Iran, India and Pakistan are flexing their muscles, and only in the Middle East are some signs of hope (how ironic!).
While a global pandemic is still out of control, and other challenges await, we are entertaining the luxury of having arch-enemies again. This is not how civilizations survive, it is how they end.
I grew up under Soviet rule. I have little patience for theoretical discussions over the value of real-existing socialism or communism. As a German, I deeply loathe and oppose any form of fascism and national socialism. There is no value in extremism – on either side, if those are even sides. Between the extermination camps and the killing fields, I fail to see the difference. But these were ideologies run amuck, and people and countries fell succumbed to their spell. Our fight is with the kind of ideas that want to radically remake the world politically, exert absolute power, and create the new man, to cast out the old in the process, mercilessly. But our enemy is not the people themselves, neither the countries.
I may have had to learn Russian at grade 5, which was the language of our Soviet occupiers. The Soviets, as needs mentioning, had a hand in defeating National Socialism together with the West, and in liberating the Germans from a toxic idea, sadly, enabling another toxic idea, but that does not take away from the Soviet sacrifices made to rid the world of Hitler and his ilk. The Soviet Union as an idea and organization also oppressed its people, and their ideas. When learning Russian, I learned about the people and their culture, and I know that without Russian music, I would feel majorly deprived.
We need to see people first, systems second. If we don’t, we enter the domain of arch-enemies and perpetual wars. France and Germany were enemies for so long that it seemed genetic almost, but European integration changed this unhealthy and deadly dynamic completely. This brings hope also to Israel and the Arab world, to Cyprus and Greece, to Armenia and Azerbaijan, to the Congo, to Kashmir, etc. Peace is possible, but it has to be made with great effort. It needs cooperation, shared institutional frameworks, and most of all, a shared conviction that your benefit will be mine also.
Surely, differences and problems need to be addressed. Dictatorships are wrong because they never work in the long run, as they never can allow the development of the full potential of their peoples. For that, it would need absolute free speech and free criticism, and dictatorships are intolerant of that. Once we can make clear that we want peace and cooperation, above all, and that – while we are prepared for war – we will never seek it unless in defense, and that we take a genuine and sincere interest in helping each other face the challenges of today and tomorrow, then things can change.
I have had students and colleagues from all continents, from dozens upon dozens of countries, from every race, color, gender and creed imaginable. We are all the same. I know that sounds preachy, hippie-esque, too optimistic, whatever. It has to be. Hope starts inside, and once we recognize each other, their face, their value, their humanity, their being alive, we can see that what divides us can be overcome. Read Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, and Martin Buber, I and Thou.
These days, any of our outdated conceptions of who an enemy is will stand in the way of saving the best parts of our way of life, saving our planet’s living beings, and ourselves. The stakes are high. We are also seeing new opportunities out there. A galaxy with more planets than ever thought possible. Sky’s the limit.
Maybe I have just watched too much Stargate. I just finished re-watching an episode dealing with Americans and Russians working together on interplanetary travel. It is a show from the 1990s. We could dream it then, and we should be dreaming it now.
Brexit is not possible. That is, Brexit in any meaningful sense of the word. Whatever meaning may have hidden in the idiotic phrases and jingoism of “Brexit Means Brexit”, behind empty cries for sovereignty, taking the country “back” to wherever, whatever the original intention: A complete and clean break with the EU is simply not possible without seriously bad compromises.
Let us remember. The promise of those promoting Brexit – the exit of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union – was that finally, the UK would be outside the influence of the allegedly ever-more meddling EU, and able to trade globally, use the money they would have sent to the EU for the National Health Service instead, and finally “take back control” over their national fate.
Let us also remember: Brexit started as a dare and was never something that was seriously presumed to happen. Prime Minister David Cameron wanted to play the old game that the UK has always played in the EU – be part of it but not too much – and used the threat of a Brexit vote as a scare tactic to demand concessions from the continent, reminding everyone that British EU membership was not a matter of deep political and historical conviction, but that it came about due to pressures from the United States, the ignoble end of the Empire, and the cost of not being part of the single market. It was a business deal.
To be fair, to most other European members of the EU, it is a business deal as well – but there are also historical, cultural, geographical and other ties that make the European project necessary. The EU exists, after all, as a correction to the rampaging nationalism that ended up in the ethnic cleansing and genocides committed in two World Wars. The containment of Germany as the main perpetrator of these crimes could and can only happen if the historical fallacy of borders alongside clean ethnic or national lines was corrected.
But British exceptionalism was about to have its day, and Brexit was it. Before the vote happened, in 2014, Scotland had its referendum on whether to stay in the UK – based on the assumption that the UK would stay in the EU. Scottish voters dutifully obliged, and were betrayed later by a referendum that should never have happened; after all, there had been a referendum before in 1975 when entering the EC, and subsequent treaty negotiations happened with the people’s support through the representative democracy. The 2016 referendum was a political ploy, and Cameron – who agitate against Europe before claiming to argue in favor of membership – is ultimately responsible. The referendum, after all, was non-binding, but Parliament decided to act on it anyway.
Theresa May knew Brexit was not possible and did what she could to prevent the greatest of damage. Labor, under Jeremy Corbyn – always living in the shadow of accusations of antisemitism and extreme left-wing radicalism – was no help either. It fell to the Boris Johnson, an assumedly well-educated politician who enjoys playing the clown, and who seems to enjoy games with the highest of stakes.
According to Johnson, Brexit means to take back control. But to what degree is that even possible?
Firstly, let us look at the Irish border problem. Ireland is in the EU, Northern Ireland in the UK. Without Brexit, the border had become meaningless. Membership in the EU is a key component to maintaining peace in Northern Ireland. If the rules in all three parts (Republic of Ireland (A), Northern Ireland (B), United Kingdom (C)) are the same, then we could simplify this as A=B=C. The Irish border problem is solved if A=B (rules in Ireland the same as in Northern Ireland). UK unity is maintained if B=C (rules in Northern Ireland same as in Great Britain). Brexit means that B changes, and that cannot anymore equal A. If Northern Ireland cannot comply by single market rules anymore, then there needs to be a border regime on the island – or Northern Ireland complies with rest of the island. Johnson has categorically denied any distance between the UK and Northern Ireland. It’s an equation that will prove to be impossible to solve.
There either is or is not a single market, and any fudge solution will not work. Ireland will become the English-speaking voice in the EU, and will immediately be receiving support from the United States. England keeps forgetting that it is not really the “mother country” to the US that it thinks it is. Amongst Euro-Americans, 14% identify with Germany, 10% with Ireland, 7% with England, 5% with Italy, 3% with Poland. Joe Biden is Irish-Catholic. The Supreme Court is largely Catholic-Jewish by now. England is fading in American cultural memory. If Brexit Britain wants to retain its special relationship with the US, that may work within NATO and the Five Eyes, but economically, the EU (meaning, Ireland) will be a more important partner for American business interests.
Secondly, as mentioned before, Scotland agreed to be part of the UK only because of EU membership. Contrary to the Ireland case, there might actually be a cultural desire to indeed have a border between Scotland and England emerge. If Brexit happens finally, Scotland can leave the union and apply to become a member of the EU as an independent state. This is categorically different from the Catalan case (which is often brought up as a scare tactic), and more in line with the Czechoslovakian case. Czechoslovakia split up into Czechia and Slovakia before applying for EU membership. Catalonia seeks independence from an existing EU member, and to – assumedly – stay with the EU as an independent member state. This is a completely different scenario than the Scottish case. Scotland is forced out of the EU by an act of Parliament (remember, the referendum was non-binding originally till its decision was accepted by Parliament), and it only seeks to maintain the status quo vis-à-vis Europe.
Thirdly, the dreaded promises. The NHS will not be receiving the money that used to be going to the EU; that promise (which probably was key to the success of the referendum) was canned already. Support for regions like Cornwall and the North will now rely on Westminster, not Europe. In global trade, the weight of the UK outside the EU will be significantly smaller, and its negotiating power reduced. The empire is gone, and outside England, Australia and New Zealand, memories of the empire are not necessarily positive.
In the end, Brexit will mean reliance on the EU without the possibility to shape EU policy. It will mean being at the mercy of rising global powers, of Ireland, and the US. It will mean the threat of secession not just of Scotland, Northern Ireland, but maybe even Wales and Cornwall. Maybe there is a solution here. If Brexit has to happen, England leaves and the rest stays. Maybe India will offer Britain membership in its union as a crown colony?
Let us come to our senses. The time for nationalism is over. We’re all interconnected, for worse, but also for better. Whatever will come out of Brexit will not be the magic solution to all the problems for which the UK government has successfully blamed the EU. Britain is not leaving the continent geographically. It remains where it is. Joining the EU was the logical choice in the past, and it will still be there once Brexit has been revealed for what it really is: an illusion of the outdated concept of national control in a global world.
Human beings are tribal. As described poignantly by Aristotle, we are animals that form political units, societies, towns, or in the Greek understanding, poleis. We are political animals in the sense that we are animals creating political structures – polis is the political aspect of the city, not the physical one (which would be (ástu). When forming societies, we are groupish, we connect with those we think of as related. This is primarily family first, typically extended family. All human societies do that. Family is primal, and relatives are central to original societies.
This is where Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society is dead wrong. He seriously misunderstood indigenous societies, and falsely understood them as relics of the past rather than living, modern societies. He underestimated the importance of family and relatedness, what Vine Deloria jr. calls an indigenous “theory of relativity.” If the foundation is wrong, then what follows is flawed as well, specifically Rousseauvian fantasies about “primitive peoples” and Friedrich Engels’s ideas about the origin of family and private property. Both authors can, of course, be forgiven, as they wrote in the 19th century and based their conclusions on much less data than available now. But in the meantime, we have been able to understand that family is not an epiphenomenon, but rather the original basis for all societies (see Jared Diamond’s Third Chimpanzee and Guns, Germs and Steel, and Charles C. Mann’s 1491 for more up-to-date and very readable descriptions of early societies as well as of indigenous civilizations).
The centrality of relatives, and thus of genetics, is contained in original conceptions of human societies. The idea of descendancy can be found in traditional stories from most if not all cultures. Groups are formed around cores of similarity, of belonging, whether truly genetic or through association. This is where our idea of ethnicity comes from.
Ethnicity is the concept that a group of people is more similar to each other by being in clear relation to each other mainly genetically. Just as a tribe is typically an extended family, an ethnic group is the assumedly supersized version of that. But “genetically” here – and this is where it becomes more complicated – is not really meant only biologically, but more in the sense of “being related to each other.” Typically, it is a combined package of having lived in a shared homeland (thus somehow a notion of autochthonous or even indigenous existence), speaking a language that directly originates from its related historical antecedents, having the same religion or a version thereof, having a shared historical experience, and demonstrating close cultural similarity in practices, values, beliefs, etc. Importantly also, ethnicities also demarcate territories against other rival ethnicities.
So much in theory. Now, if you applied a wide angle on Europe, most Europeans could be understood as related to the Germani. Germanic tribes conquered and succeeded Western Rome and founded the early states that would grow into the nation states we know today. Italy was conquered by the Ostrogoths and Langobards, Gaul by the Franks, England by the Angles, Jutes and Saxons, and later also by the Danes and Normans, Spain by the Visigoths, Suebi (and the Iranian Alans), and Vandals (alas “[V]andalusia”) North Africa by Vandals (see Peter Heather’s books, especially The Fall of the Roman Empire and Empires and Barbarians). Charlemagne was clearly a Frank, meaning a German, and functions as the founder of both France and the Holy (Roman) (German) Empire.
(But if you ran around Europe today, especially after two brutal German-led World Wars, calling the Spanish, French, British, Italians and Americans (via immigration) all versions of Germans, you would get into trouble, especially with the “British” Royal family of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha- Battenberg/Mountbatton, or more obscurely, Windsor – a family that has taken great pains to not be seen as German.)
Ethnicity may finally be a cultural construction, but it is constructed specifically on the idea of lineage and descendancy, specifically as regards a combination of rough family resemblance, territorial continuity, shared linguistic and cultural roots and practices.
This is what eventually led to the concept of the nation, as described by Benedict Anderson as an Imagined Community, namely that “the idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogeneous, empty time is a precise analogue of the idea of a nation, which is conceived of as a solid community moving steadily down (or up) history” (p. 26).
Thus you are typically seen as a German if your ancestors lived in Germany, you speak German, and occasionally participate in German-specific cultural practices. Recent or current immigrants and their descendants sadly oftentimes still experience a lack of belonging and identification as truly German by the majority because of this understanding of ethnicity (and nationality), but it is my belief that this will slowly fade as it has faded with all other immigrants in the past, like the Huguenots and the many Germans of originally Slavonic backgrounds.
“Ethnos” is typically translated as “natio” – and ethnicity and nationality are frequently seen as similar, but they are not the same. Ethnicity, contrary to the nation state, has no defined boundaries on the map, may predate, survive, or even transcend the nation state. There have been Germans before there ever was a Germany (1871), there have been Kurds without ever having a nation state (unless you count Saladin’s realm as Kurdish), and there are many Americans which – in addition to their American citizenship – claim a specific ethnic identity in addition to their American-ness.
There is thus a sense that while ethnicity surely is also culturally constructed, it is more primal than more political notions of nationality.
So what about race? As noted before, race does not exist as a meaningful biological category, or a category of genetic descent – it is mostly if not merely cultural. As I phrased it, race is not real, but racism is: Other than ethnicity (which is self-identified), racial identity in the sense it is used in America is ascribed by the outside. “Race” is something attributed primarily to you, not by yourself. You may choose eventually to buy into the racialist way of thinking, but that may happen more as an act of resigned acceptance of the way things are, rather than the way things should or could be.
“Race,” in the current understanding, is an outcome of two historical developments. First, the colonization of America and other areas of the world happened by selfishly and wrongly justifying that the original inhabitants were of inferior character and thus could not own the land, and the doctrine of discovery was presumed to grant Europeans the right to earn the land. “Race” thus has a colonizing function. Second, the early modern slave trade, conducted by Arab, African and European slavers, was tied into the colonization framework and transported African slaves to the Americas, with the justification that they were “racially” different or inferior. This also changed the nature of slavery, and created an inter-generational race-based system of discrimination with no or hardly any possibility for manumission. Religion was abused sometimes to justify these deeds, but it only found excuses for a merely practical business deal. “Race” was invented as a convenient tool to pretend-explain the exploitation of (1) whoever needed to be exploited and (2) who would not in principle be easily integrated into White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) culture.
As shown by Theodore Allen in The Invention of the White Race, and by David Hollinger in Postethnic America, the idea of race also bore out the idea of whiteness. Basically, whoever was not seen as fit to be fully American (on the entire continent) was considered non-white. Race has never been just about skin color, but about a combination of national origin, ethnicity, religion, skin color, other physical features, culture, and sometimes class. Irish, Italian, Jewish, and German immigrants were – at various times – not considered “white.”
This betrays the idea of “whiteness” as an ideological position, just as the idea of “nonwhite.” It’s the old grammatical distinction between “unmarked” (neutral, white) and “marked” (different, non-white). The Spanish “casta” system goes into more detail (and establishes an intricate race- and descendancy-based caste system) which may have some relevance in the United States as well, although not overtly. “White” skin is not white, it is piglet pink, and “black” skin is not black, but a shade of brown. American Indian / Native American populations are not “red” either, neither are Asians “yellow” (but Buddhist robes are; which may have been the inspiration). This shows race as a merely ideological disposition, and it may also point to the practice of elites in Renaissance times powdering their faces white, and wearing white wigs, that may have given the inspiration for the color “white” in the first place.
One euphemism for “white” is “Caucasian,” which typically describes populations within the ancient Indo-European ethnic group, speaking Indo-European languages. But Indo-European speakers from Iran, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh are typically not recognized as Caucasian. Here is where ethnicity and “race” are in direct conflict: All European populations (with the exception of Basques and Saami) – this includes Germanic-, Romance-, Slavic-, Romani-, Greek-, Baltic-, Celtic- and related speakers – are related, genetically, culturally and linguistically, with populations in the Asian countries mentioned above, and some more. Do they all count as white?
“Race” makes no sense, other than to describe it as a category of exploitation; as I have said, “race” is not real, but racism is.
Ethnicity may be complex, can also be shifting, can be transferred, can be genetic and cultural, or both, and is not easy to grasp sometimes either, but it can easily be mixed – dual- or multi-ethnic affiliations are possible (just as I, myself, would now identify with East German, American, and some other origins as well). It may not be perfect, but it is certainly real, and maps with the living experience of cultures all over the world, past or present, and certainly, future.
Maybe “race” can be transformed, eventually, into an ethnicity, which could reframe it from a term of horrible discrimination to a term of pride. In some ways, this seems to be happening. It certainly would help if we could finally stop using terminology typically associated with Nazis and slavers.
Now comes the point where I can use the title of this web log as a deus ex machina: This was an “erratic attempt”, and it does not have to tell the whole story. I am aware that this could become much more complicated, but it’s a blog, not a book. More to come if needed. Let me know if you want me to touch on a specific topic or aspect via e-mail.
Now in a major crisis, the European Union has a chance to lead. But how should such leadership look like, and how strong should such a union be?
It may well be understandable that currently, during the Coronavirus crisis of 2020, its individual member states are concerned about their own safety, and that they have seemingly fallen back on national thinking. But this would be a misleading conclusion that would fall in line more with those suspicious of the EU as an overreaching enemy of national identities.
But the European Union is not such a super-state, and it should never become one. The history of Europe teaches us two major lessons: First, without some form of unity, European states will defeat each other in their selfish quests for dominance. Many a war has been fought in pursuit of this, and it took several wars of global scope to demonstrate that point eventually. The Seven Years War, the Crimean War, World Wars I+II, and the Cold War have revealed Europe to be a danger to itself and the entire world that needs to be contained by some form of structure stressing cooperative and mutual success over selfishness and deadly competition. Yet second, history has also shown that national, regional, even tribal identities in Europe need to be respected as well, and that they need to also be recognized administratively.
Accordingly, the answer to European Integration can only be a form of supranational, very weak federalism. But this is not a weakness, it is a strength, and it is recognized already in the EU’s motto “united in diversity.”
Throughout history, many a charismatic leader has tried to unite the area that could be called Europe under a single ruler. The only stable approach to this has been the Roman Empire, but this was at a different time, under completely different historical circumstances that cannot quite be compared to our times.
Reasons for the failure of Rome are manifold, and always fun to discuss. There is no one factor to pinpoint. But maybe it helps to see that the great empires of antiquity – which would include Egypt, Persia, Seleucia, and Rome, acted as developmental drivers for the entire Mediterranean region. All these multicultural empires were enabling infrastructure, local development, science, and culture; but they eventually also enabled different regions to develop their own identity. While everybody focuses on the Germanic invasions later on as a cause for the breakup of Western Rome, it is more instructive to look at local independence movements in Gaul, Britain, Palmyra, and other areas. In the end, all subsequent attempts at unifying the entire realm by force would fail, thankfully.
The lesson here may be that large empires can be established when the provinces and regions are weak, but this is, of course, no sustainable economic model. Once provinces and regions grow stronger, centrifugal forces will keep creating division if the central authority is perceived as too strong. If there is any lesson history can provide us, it is probably that.
If we apply this to the European Union, we need to first provide the major caveat that the EU is of course not a structure created by force but voluntarily so. Its creation, however, was hastened by several factors, namely the legacy of World War II, the dangers of the Cold War, the external help from the United States, and finally, the legacy of Soviet oppression. If we simplify these forces, the lesson here is that democracy and freedom are drivers of unity, while authoritarianism is a danger against which European states will eventually rise up.
This reveals the following: Any attempt at European integration that aims for a unified super-state with state-like powers will fail. An all-powerful and intransparent central bureaucracy will kill the European project just as much as any authoritarian dictator will. Brexit surely was idiotic, but predictably so. In order to retain some form of European unity, some form of disunity will need to be tolerated.
There is this anecdote that on July 4th 1776, King George wrote into his Journal “Nothing is Happening Today.” These were the times without instant worldwide communications, and surely, he could not have known what had just happened in the American colonies. And as most such famous quotes go, it very probably is not true, just as most of these things aren’t. These historical “fake news” exist to show a person’s character, or rather, to reveal the lack of royal insight in this case.
It will be interesting what will remain of all of us for future generations. People like to ridicule how in the “Middle Ages” (whatever that means) believers would flock into churches to pray against the Black Death, and thus would unknowingly spread it, or that Native Americans would congregate in Sweat Lodges, only to unknowingly spread diseases as well. There are countless such examples from all human cultures throughout all of history, I would assume.
We are not much better now.
It’s quite depressing watching the news, but it’s also a strange social and political experiment, somehow. Each country, it seems, has found different ways to deal with the issue ineptly; if it weren’t so sad, it would be fascinating. Watching young people frolicking outside, either here or in Europe, is a strange sight to see. Fear can do many different things with the human psyche, I guess.
It is an outrageous assumption that human beings would have somehow evolved to be smarter now. We are now seeing the evidence to the contrary, once again.
The sinister regime in Communist China felt that their reputation was more important than the safety of the entire world. They lied, persecuted truth-tellers, refused to share information, and are responsible for what is happening today. They know, but in true Socialist-Communist fashion, the party is supposed to be smarter than reality. Reality, supposedly, can be bent to the social engineering of a hubristic utopian cult hell-bent on eradicating every trace of individuality in the name of the “perfect” state.
(Should anyone dare to misunderstand what I am saying, my criticism aims at the regime and all those supporting it, in thought, words, and actions; it is not aimed at the innocent people imprisoned, dominated and abused by a sadistic system run by sadistic people.)
What started in China, and was made worse by the Chinese government, has, of course, spread now to the entire world. In the Western World, reactions have been less than perfect, and the tragedy unfolding in Italy right now may hit other countries. We are not prepared for such a pandemic, but surely, we will survive it, and luckily, this is Corvid-19, which is clearly a dangerous respiratory virus, but it is certainly not the Black Death, Ebola, or whatever gifts nature may still have in store for us.
But this is a lesson for the future.
Globalization – always – has brought with it both immense riches and immense risks. It mortally wounded the Eastern Roman Empire, once the Black Death made it to the Mediterranean area. It killed off probably about 90% of the indigenous populations in the Americas, Australia, and other areas. Global Interconnectedness means also the global spread of diseases.
We need to learn from this. Health care systems and modern medicine need to be made to withstand whatever comes next. Every country needs to be able to make their own medicines. We cannot rely on rogue players for our own survival.
We are learning right now very unfortunate things. We are back, sadly, in Europe to each country being on their own. Maybe European Integration needs more coordination with regards to health care? In each federal system, be it Germany or the United States, we need more coordination between states.
But mostly, we need people to listen. This is dangerous. Follow instructions. This is how civilizations can end. You may believe you can shape reality in any way possible, but reality will laugh at you. Nature is stronger than us. Only together will we survive this.
But as usual, the response to all the admonitions, all the warnings, all the instructions, is a cynical, casual, superior snark of “nothing important is happening today.” Neil Postman was right that Aldous Huxley was right. We are choosing our own pleasure as the instrument of our suppression. This has happened before, and it will happen again.
Fear can produce the strangest reactions, and I guess denial is just human nature.