Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Construction of a Novel Racism

Bush is still promising victory in the Middle East, but just who it is we propose to defeat remains in doubt. To speak of Iraq alone, the enemy is sometimes the left-over Baathists, sometimes the Iranians, sometimes the radical Shia, sometimes the tribal Sunnis; and it’s a good bet that the Kurds will eventually also find themselves in the field of fire of the American blunderbuss. Small wonder, then, if the part of the public that still supports the President will be tempted to simplify things by simply hating every available raghead, including, apparently, the millions of Muslims who are neither Arab nor Persian, various Middle-Eastern groups that are completely secular, and even American converts to Islam. What’s occurring is the construction of a race, which I define as a taxon that arises from political contingencies but is retroactively understood to be a natural group unified by an unchanging essence. Traveling down the Mobius strip, the essence is then retroactively invoked to explain the political contingencies that called it into existence in the first place. No negitude without slavery. No world-wide Jihadi menace without Israel and petroleum.

In political history, age-old, intractable conflicts are often the last things to be invented. When normal institutions break down, new bases must be found for political identities, and an obvious place to look for such expedients is ancient history. We may be permitted to doubt that the Serbs were obsessing about the Field of Crows in 1950 or that Ossetian nationalism was smoldering beneath the bureaucratic crust during the Soviet era. Any stone is a weapon in a riot, including, depending on the circumstances, moldy old Eastern Orthodoxy or the long forgotten dream of the Caliphate. Which doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that a rapidly improvised Clash of Civilizations isn’t a real conflict or that it can be as easily dispelled as it was summoned into its eternal existence.

No comments: