24 October 2010

1641 Rebellion Goes Online

Irish national memory has long been haunted by the 1641 Rebellion and its aftermath when Oliver Cromwell cut a bloody swath through the country, reportedly slaughtering most of the inhabitants of Drogheda.

This past week, a new online archive of 8,000 depositions given by eye witnesses to the 1641 Rebellion went online. The archive includes 19,000 pages, spread over 31 volumes.

This collection is interesting from the standpoint of national memory, but is equally fascinating for the fact that it was launched by Mary McAleese, president of the Irish Republic, and Ian Paisley, former head of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland—a pairing that would have been completely unimaginable only a few years ago.

In a land haunted by memory, McAleese and Paisley were both anxious to address legacies of trauma. The Irish Independent reported:

[McAleese said] "They (the depositions) bring us deep into that dysfunctional and insane world where neighbour killed neighbour and where a ferociously harsh winter ensured that many more were to perish from the cold as they fled from the encircling violence."

"Let us hope that their voices and their suffering, far from driving us deeper into our sectarian bunkers, do the opposite and inspire us to keep on working to ensure an end forever to such suffering."

In giving his own reaction to the exhibition, Mr Paisley called on the public to "grasp the hand" of history. "Let us introduce these parts of our history in the right way to our children".

He added: "Trouble does not discriminate.

"Our fellow men and women of the 1600s knew trouble like, thankfully, none of us have ever experienced."

Quite a change from the bad old days of the Troubles.

10 October 2010

The Tea Party Goes Global

The Guardian newspaper published an article today that links the far-right English Defence League (EDL) with the American Tea Party movement. The author, Mark Townsend, reports that the connection between the two groups is based on mutual opposition to the "Islamification" of the west.

Townsend notes that "With the Tea Party said to benefit from millions of dollars of funding from conservative foundations, experts warn an alliance between the EDL and extremist elements within the US movement could allow the English group to invest in wider recruitment and activism." This possibility is disturbing given that the EDL has already led a series of violent marches in English cities.

This trans-Atlantic links story is certainly of interest from the standpoint of American politics. With mid-term elections looming in less than a month, one wonders how far voters are willing to support a group that evidently allies itself with race-driven nationalist politics? Assuming that most people who will vote for Tea Party candidates are moderate or right-leaning (as most American voters arguably are), how much will these voters willingly swallow? How far are they willing to go?

It is also interesting from the perspective of nationalist politics. I have always been struck by the degree of connection, at least emotional connection, between nationalist groups in often very different countries and circumstances. There is, for example, an entire wall of murals in West Belfast dedicated to celebrating non-Irish nationalist movements. While one might posit a variety of explanations for such connections, I am not aware of any systematic study of them. Such a study might provide very interesting information about how national identities develop and change over time.

Finally, is it not a little bit curious that the Tea Party celebrates memory of an attack on British economic and political domination on the one hand while throwing its weight behind a far right British nationalist group on the other? The topic of political memory in America certainly deserves future study.

12 September 2010

America's Debate Over Membership

The terrifying anti-Muslim rhetoric surrounding the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the proposed Islamic center near the New York World Trade Center site continues. New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof has written a worthwhile editorial entitled "Is This America?" Kristof writes about a disturbing blog post published in The New Republic. In that post, the author wonders "whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse."

Kristof replies:
Thus a prominent American commentator, in a magazine long associated with tolerance, ponders whether Muslims should be afforded constitutional freedoms. Is it possible to imagine the same kind of casual slur tossed off about blacks or Jews? How do America’s nearly seven million American Muslims feel when their faith is denounced as barbaric?

This is one of those times that test our values, a bit like the shameful interning of Japanese-Americans during World War II, or the disgraceful refusal to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe.
On the same topic, CBS Sunday Morning ran two worthwhile stories this morning. The first deals with the fears of self-described "patriotic" Muslims in middle America. The second is a heart-felt plea for an end to the "anger" that, according to 9/11 widow Nikki Stern, now pervades American society.

So continues the painful debate about who is covered by American foundation myths regarding freedom of religion and the guarantee of "liberty and justice for all."

06 September 2010

American Muslims: "Will We Ever Belong?"

At its best, nationalism unifies people and encourages them to build vibrant cultural, political, and economic traditions. At its worst, nationalism is exclusive. It creates insiders and outsiders, fueling violence, hatred, and worse. Or, at least, that is a dichotomy that apologists for nationalism often draw.

The current environment in America is nothing if not exclusive. Opinion polls show a growing distrust of Islam and events certainly reflect a growing threat of violence against Muslims. A small church in Florida plans to burn the Koran to mark the anniversary of 9/11—a plan that sparked international condemnation because the Koran is, for Muslims, literally the word of God. It is sacred. A Muslim cab driver in New York was recently stabbed. Right wing politicians such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin seem anxious to add their voices to the debate, roundly condemning what they view as extremism in the Islamic community. Whereas the overwhelming majority of American Muslims view themselves very much as Americans with a long and proud history in the United States, they increasingly find themselves defined as outsiders.

In a New York Times feature story, Dr. Ferhan Asghar, an orthopedic spine surgeon in Cincinnati commented “We worry: Will we ever be really completely accepted in American society? In no other country could we have such freedoms — that’s why so many Muslims choose to make this country their own. But we do wonder whether it will get to the point where people don’t want Muslims here anymore.”

In the same story, Eboo Patel, founder and director of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based community service program that endeavors to reduce religious conflict, said "I am more scared than I've ever been—more scared than I was after Sept. 11."

None of this is entirely new. Edward Curtis, an historian at Indiana University-Purdue University and author of Muslims in America: A Short History, told National Public Radio that at least some Americans have feared Islam since the colonial period (when the first Muslims arrived in the Americas). "Cotton Mather thought that Muslims were a sign of a Christian schism," the author said. "That kind of misunderstanding or negative view of Islam has been with us always. It's kind of come and gone in cycles."

Yet the current anti-Islam backlash is different, if only because there is now a significant Muslim population in the United States. Curtis added "I would say that until there was a significant population of Muslims here ... that kind of prejudice didn't lead into discrimination and hate crimes until really pretty recently."

Many commentators now point out that the anti-Muslim rhetoric has a striking resemblance to "what German media was saying about Jews in the 1920s and 1930s." [The Nazi-link is now made willy-nilly by anybody seeking a short-hand for "evil," but recent events do seem to resemble many instances when a majority community sought to exclude a minority.]

In recent days, a group of concerned Muslims decided to respond with an educational campaign, My Faith, My Voice, a series of web ads that challenge the more xenophobic ideas being voiced.

The entire debate raises an interesting question about nationalism: is it possible to have an inclusive nationalism or does nationalism necessarily have a disturbing and hateful underbelly?

I often cite Michael Billig's excellent distinction between nationalisms, noting that nationalism is most often banal. During such periods, nationalism can be inclusive. Yet in moments of crisis, which themselves might be as pedestrian as a sporting match, hot nationalism emerges with its often xenophobic fears.

For many Americans, this certainly feels like a period of crisis. Unemployment is high, many politicians seem anxious to raise the temperature of debate for their own ends, and the war in Afghanistan drags on. As a result, America's usually banal nationalism turned hot. The proposed Muslim cultural center near ground zero, still raw memories of the terrorist attacks, the on-going war against the Taliban, and a total unwillingness on the part of all too many public figures to clearly distinguish between Islamic (religious ideas premised on a desire for peace dating from the seventh century) and Islamist thought (an extremist and xenophobic political ideology dating from the twentieth century) made Muslims the logical target. Just as there was little effort by Charlemagne's regime to understand the "Saracens" battled in the medieval poem Song of Roland, so now many American nationalists strike out at a convenient "other."

Is it possible for humans to remain inclusive in a crisis or is the desire to assign blame simply too strong? Can educational campaigns reverse the slide toward fear?

SNP Changes Plans on Independence Vote

The Scottish National Party (SNP) has abandoned its pledge, first made three and a half years ago, to hold a referendum on Scottish independence later this year. According to the party, the move is necessary in order to "appeal over the heads" of Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Tory leaders who are expected to vote down any move to hold a plebiscite.

An SNP spokesmen told The Scotsmen: "Tactically, we are deciding whether to introduce a bill to allow the unionist parties to vote it down or rather to publish the bill and concentrate on canvassing public support.

"A new, re-elected SNP government will be in a powerful position to secure passage of the referendum, having successfully mobilised the people over the blocking tactics of the unionist parties."

Opposition parties responded with "derision" and attacked the SNP for "squandering" larger amounts of money on the abandoned vote policy.

The most recent polls show the SNP some 10-points behind Labour in Scotland.

ETA Announces Ceasefire

ETA, the Basque separatist organization, announced another ceasefire yesterday raising hopes of a renewed peace process.

The group previously declared a ceasefire in 2006, only to launch a bomb attack in Madrid nine months later. The attack killed two Ecuadorian immigrants. In total, more than 800 people have died during ETA's 50-year campaign to attain Basque independence from Spain.

29 March 2010

Suicide Bombing in Moscow

The Irish Independent reports that two female suicide bombers blew themselves up in a crowded Moscow subway this morning (29 Mar. 2010), killing at least 37 people and wounding at least 102 others.

The bombers are reportedly rebels from Chechnya, a breakaway Russian republic that started to fight for independence from Russia during the mid-1990s. The conflict began with a war that lasted from 1994-96—a conflict that Russia effectively lost following the death of some 70-80,000 people in the devastated city of Grozny.

The stateless-nation soon fell into chaos. Warlords took charge, unemployed Chechens were radicalized, and an assortment of groups, including Islamist militants, moved into the region.

This latest attack offers a reminder to those outside of Russia concerning the festering problems in the former republic. Nationalist struggles may have significant long-term effects that extend beyond the more localized fight for self-determination. It is worth learning a great deal more about the country and its terrible problems:

A Timeline of Key Events in Chechnya, 1830-2006
The Global Issues Website Chechnya page
The US Holocaust Museum's "Preventing Genocide" page
YouTube offers footage of the 1994-96 war
BBC News provides a useful information page on their website

11 March 2010

Greek Debt Crisis and the EU

American Public Media's "Marketplace" program ran an interesting story on the Greek debt crisis.

In an effort to prevent his country from defaulting on its debt, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou proposed a $6.5 billion austerity budget this week. Protests resulted. Workers, not anxious to see their pay or benefits cut, were enraged.

Some saw the problem as a European one. Liana Kanelli, a Communist member of the Greek parliament, blames the decision to join the Eurozone in 2001. "If you get in this Eurozone you abolish a very severe amount of your national sovereignty. So you see, we are not free!"

While Kanelli expresses a minority view, the Euro always threatened to undermine national identity. Simply put, money is one of the key ways that nation-states express themselves, putting national symbols on currency as a means of promoting identity. In this case, the compromise was to assure that each country released its own Euros, with nationally distinct symbols on one side of the currency.

Fair enough, but this did not stop a relatively widespread nationalist backlash. What strikes me, however, is that opposition to the EU comes from both left and right. So, the question is this. Will the current economic crisis promote growing resentment toward Germany (the dominant economic power in Europe) and toward the European Union?

The indications from Greece suggest that the answer is "yes." The Marketplace story finishes with the fact that "Greece has now broken the unspoken rule of European politics: don't mention the war. Over the past week or so the Greek airwaves have been awash with archive newsreel footage of German's least popular export. News shows have reminded viewers of Hitler's occupation of Greece."

For Kanelli, German domination of the Eurozone represents "another form of conquest." She states "That's why sometimes I and a lot of other people speak about an economic neo-Nazism that's going against European people."

Memory, nationalism, and economic turmoil always make interesting bedfellows. The Greek story is certainly one worth watching.

06 March 2010

More on the US Vote Regarding Armenian Genocide

The non-binding vote by the US Congress regarding the Armenian genocide sparked rage among Turkish nationalists. The Guardian has more...

05 March 2010

Legacies of Trauma and National Identity in Modern Turkey

René Dumont remembered the twentieth century “as a century of massacres and wars.” Isaiah Berlin recalled it “only as the most terrible century in Western history.” William Golding echoed these men by saying: “I can’t help thinking that this has been the most violent century in human history.”

If one considers the statistics, these reflections seem apt. Some 37 million casualties during World War I. Between 50 and 60 million dead during World War II—the largest human undertaking in history. Genocides in Armenia, Rwanda, Bosnia. Millions and millions dead in purges in Russia and China. The Vietnam and Korean wars. Horrendous killings in Argentina. The list goes on and on and on.

Given these terrible realities, it is hardly shocking that there are numerous legacies of trauma. In Germany, collective guilt is virtually a cornerstone of post-World War II national identity. In Austria, collaboration with the Nazis was carefully “forgotten” until the 1980s and 90s. In France, the need to forget more shameful chapters of the Second World War created what historian Henry Rousso called the “Vichy Syndrome.” Indeed, the first serious historical study of Vichy, written by Robert Paxton in 1972, resulted in hate mail and death threats. In Russia and China, unpleasant memories of mass death and all pervasive fear are submerged in nostalgic recollections of a previous age.

Against the great canvas of the twentieth century, the Turkish effort to forget the massacre of roughly 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1923 is hardly unique. During those years, the Ottoman government force-marched Armenians from their homes to horrendous camps, never supplying adequate water or food. [You can see a map of the various genocide-related sites by clicking here.] The experience represents the first genocide of the twentieth century, an ominous marker of what was to come.

The effort to separate modern Turkish identity from the Ottoman past started with the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk disdained the Ottomans. Historian Christopher S. Wilson, a professor at Izmir University of Economics in Turkey, quotes Atatürk saying: “The new Turkey has no relationship to the old one. The Ottoman government has disappeared into history. A new Turkey has now been born.” Wilson goes on to say that the new leadership

frequently described their Ottoman predecessor as old, outdated, inefficient, wasteful and disorganized. In contrast, their new democracy was to be modern, up-to-date, efficient, resourceful and well organized. This attitude of contempt for the new state’s immediate predecessor shaped the ideology and hence policies of the young Republic of Turkey.

Toward this end, the Turks did everything in their power to move on, right down to endeavoring to represent the new state through different architecture, symbols, and myths. Useful, pre-Ottoman sources were emphasized to give legitimacy to the new regime, while whatever came after was conveniently forgotten. There was certainly nothing helpful about remembering a mass murder.

Given the foundation story of the Turkish state, it is hardly surprising that efforts by the European Union and now the United States to demand a confession of the sins of the past is not greeted warmly by the Turks.

Turkish objections are so vehement that the country faces exclusion from the European Union and the passage of a non-binding Congressional resolution by the US Congress is raising fears that US-Turkish relations may be damaged at a time when the American government is dependant on Turkish good will in order to carry out its foreign policy in places such as Afghanistan.

Understanding the nexus of legacies of trauma, contemporary politics, and national identity, even in places that may seem as peripheral to many Americans as Armenia, is tremendously important. While it seems utopian to imagine, along with Armenian foreign minister Edward Nalbandian, that resolutions such as the one passed yesterday represent “an important step towards the prevention of crimes against humanity”—the endless repetition of “never again” in reference to the Shoah certainly has not stopped mass killing from taking place—the ongoing working out of memory does seem important. Especially if that memory work inspires a greater understanding of twenty-first century identities.

Work Cited:

Christopher S. Wilson, “The Persistence of the Turkish Nation in the Mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk,” in Mitchell Young, Eric Zuelow, and Andreas Sturm (eds), Nationalism in a Global Era: The Persistence of Nations (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), 93-114.

28 February 2010

ETA Leader Arrested In France According to Spanish Officials

Ibon Gogeascoechea, suspected leader of the Basque nationalist organization Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), as well as two other high level officials, were arrested in a rented cottage in Normandy today. The Spanish interior ministry told reporters that the cottage was rented using false identity papers.

Gogeascoechea was wanted on charges stemming from a 1997 plot to blow up the Guggenheim Bilbao museum at its opening. He is accused of planting 12 explosive devices. The plot was discovered before the bombs exploded.

ETA (translated "Basque Homeland and Freedom") was founded in 1959 with the goal of creating an independent Basque state in parts of northern Spain and southern France. The group is considered to be a terrorist organization and is held responsible for the death of 825 people in recent years.

ETA declared a permanent ceasefire in 2006 following the Madrid train bombing, but returned to violence within only a few months.

Roughly 30 ETA members have been arrested in the past year.

According to a New York Times report, experts "say the arrests of several of the groups military leaders in the past year by the Spanish and French police have put the group under pressure. Those analysts say they believe that the group has also been weakened by an internal struggle between hard-liners who want to continue the campaign of violence and those who want a political solution."

It is anybody's guess whether the most recent arrests will play a significant role in further defining this internal struggle.

SNP Support Slumps

With a UK general election set to take place within the next year, the latest poll numbers do not look good for the Scottish National Party. Scotland on Sunday reports that SNP support is down 17% behind Labour for the national election and 5% behind for the Holyrood election—a 30% drop since this time last year. The party's support is down four per cent since January 1st.

Even worse, Alex Salmond, SNP party leader, "now has a negative popularity rating, with the 36 per cent of Scots who believe he is doing a good job outnumbered by the 38 per cent who say he is doing badly."

Party leaders are doing their best to put a positive spin on the results. SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson MP, for example, argues that the numbers are climbing after hitting a low last week.

The next few months certainly promise to be interesting. While it still seems that Tory party leader David Cameron is set to be the next prime minister, his party saw a decline in support over the past two weeks with new numbers suggesting that Britain may face a hung parliament.

Whatever the result, Britons are less than bullish on their future prospects. The most recent polls show that 64% are convinced that things will not improve, regardless of the ultimate result.

15 February 2010

American History and Identity

The New York Times Magazine published a fascinating article concerning efforts by school board members in Texas to integrate conservative values into the school curriculum. Among other things, the activists hope to include intelligent design and history/social studies content that celebrates the rise of the religious right—pushing students to learn about the accomplishments of Pat Robertson (founder of the Christian Coalition), his protégé, Ralph Reed, Newt Gingrich, William F. Buckley Jr., and Billy Graham, as well as about organizations such as the National Rifle Association, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, and the "Contract with America" that ushered in a Republican congress in 1994.

One of the leaders of the effort to promote this agenda in the schools, Don McLeroy, proudly states that he is a "Christian fundamentalist" and "a young-earth creationist who believes that the earth was created in six days, as the book of Genesis has it, less than 10,000 years ago."

All of this is now fairly old hat in the United States, one of the only countries in the world where a substantial percentage of the population believes in creationism and feels that evolution is a lie.

What is interesting, especially from the perspective of nationalism studies, is the reading of American history that McLeroy and his supporters put forward.

"For McLeroy, separation of church and state is a myth perpetuated by secular liberals," notes the article. His narrative holds that the Founding Fathers were anxious to create a Christian republic. "Many of us recognize that Judeo-Christian principles were the basis of our country and that many of our founding documents had a basis in Scripture. As we try to promote a better understanding of the Constitution, federalism, the separation of the branches of government, the basic rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, I think it will become evident to students that the founders had a religious motivation," he says.

Of course, many prominent eighteenth century Americans were influenced by religious ideas—those of Deism. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, John Adams, and others, all steeped in Enlightenment thought, were Deists. This religion does have some overlap with Judeo-Christian thought, as it does with all major world religions, in the sense that there is a god (the "divine watchmaker"), we should all adhere to a common system of morality that forbids murder, theft, and other crimes which might lead to the breakdown of society, and there is life after death because our ideas live on long after our bodies are gone.

As noted elsewhere on this blog, national identity is defined by an ongoing dialogue about the nature of national membership. Put another way, McLeroy and his supporters are actively engaged in a process whereby Americans debate and discuss who they think they are. That many liberals respond in horror to the Texan's claims is simply part of the process. Ultimately, the give and take, no matter how heated, reaffirms collective membership in the community, however that membership is imagined.

At the same time, McLeroy is involved in a process of attempting to create traditions in much the same way that nineteenth century nationalists endeavored to construct festivals and/or common cultural markers that would prompt people to imagine a common identity. Just as education was essential to the nineteenth century nationalization of the masses, so too education is vital to efforts by those who want their version of the nation to attain dominance. It is no accident that Ralph Reed once noted that he would far prefer to control school boards than the White House.

Yet there is something else at play here as well: a xenophobic nativist ideology that substitutes a racial litmus test for true Americanism with a religious one. Advocates of immigration restriction in the 1920s looked to the 1790 census in seeking to establish national origins quotas favorable to persons of English descent in order to limit recent immigration which came largely from southern and eastern Europe. Activists focused their attention on the American Revolution, defining "American" in terms of who was or was not present in the country at the time of the Revolution (obviously ignoring people of African descent). Undeniably, religion played a role too, because the undesirable "races" tended to be Catholic and Jewish, while the "real Americans" of 1790 were overwhelmingly Protestant. Nevertheless, which races were present at the nation's founding was the primary focus of the restrictionists.

This new brand of nativist ideology put forward by McLeroy is simply the latest incarnation of a long-term tendency to look to the era of the American Revolution when defining what is or is not really American. Whereas American nativists in the early twentieth century looked to the period of the Revolution to define which races were most American, in the early twenty-first century we see American nativists evoking the Revolutionary era to claim that Christianity defines American identity.

11 February 2010

BNP's First Non-white Member?

The Guardian reports:

"Rajinder Singh is flicking through the Pakistani channels on his Sky box from his sofa in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. Dressed in a crimson turban, he sits a metre from the ­enormous screen, translating the odd phrase for my benefit. He's trying to show me why he's determined to join the British National Party – the only party he considers "brave" enough to "break out of the burkha called ­political correctness".

Last year, the Equality and ­Human Rights Commission forced the BNP to change its constitution on the grounds that restricting membership to ­"indigenous Caucasians" broke the Race Relations Act. A new constitution is expected to be agreed at a party meeting this Sunday, and if it's amended both Singh and the BNP think he would be ideal as the party's first non-white ­recruit. Communications and campaigns ­officer Martin Wingfield has personally endorsed him on his blog, calling for the party to "adapt and survive and give the brave and loyal Rajinder Singh the honour of becoming the first ethnic minority member".

Singh is a 78-year-old Sikh, a retired primary school teacher and a father of two, who left India for the UK in 1967. He says he's been loyal to the BNP since he first heard BNP leader Nick Griffin on television in late 2001. "He used the word 'Islam'. And I thought, 'He's brave, he has conviction,'" Singh says. "I thought, 'It's amazing what you've said: I've always been thinking that, since my childhood.'" He wrote Griffin letters of support and eventually provided him with a character reference at his 2005 trial for inciting racial hatred. Singh has voted for the BNP in every local and general election since discovering them. 'I couldn't keep away.'

It feels strange to hear these words from a man in a turban, but Singh ­admits he's only wearing it for my ­benefit. He's not a religious man and is clean shaven, but he wore a turban the first time he ever had "media exposure" – on BNPTV, the party's online ­channel – and has decided to do so whenever speaking to the media because "the message carries more weight" coming from a turban-wearing Sikh.

His "message" is simple and ­depressingly familiar: he fears that Britain is becoming an Islamic republic, and Islam is dangerous. "Most of them behave very nicely, but suddenly when they get together in the mosque and ­listen to the preaching, they acquire a collective identity that is formidable. It's the collective being that frightens me." [Continues...]

10 February 2010

Sri Lanka Faces Another Vote

The new Sri Lankan government dismissed the parliament today in preparation for new elections. President Mahinda Rajapakse is anxious to have a fully loyal parliament, especially after arresting and planning to court-martial Sarath Fonseka, the opposition candidate in recent presidential elections.

The poll should take place on April 8, the new session of parliament starting on April 22.

One wonders whether this approach is truly calculated to repair divisions after the long struggle with the Tamil minority, a conflict that continues to divide Sri Lankan society. Surely it makes sense to start trying to bridge divisions, not to make them still deeper.

Conservative Party Head Attacks SNP

The Scotsman reports that David Cameron, head of Britain's Conservative Party, made extensive comments about the Scottish National Party (SNP) and its leader, Alex Salmond, in "several newspaper interviews today."

Cameron argued the SNP's "dreams of an independent Scotland will remain dreams." He added that Salmond lives in "a perpetual episode of Braveheart."

Why is Cameron going after the SNP so aggressively? Most likely he is concerned by claims that a Tory administration at Westminster would speed-up Scottish independence, a fear that might turn away some voters. The run-up to the next general election is truly hotting up.

05 February 2010

Agreement Reached in Northern Ireland


A Deal In Northern Ireland?

This from the Guardian:

DUP leader Peter Robinson said he had won the full backing of his party in the Stormont assembly for the deal.

Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen, his Irish counterpart, were flying to Belfast early this morning to set the seal on an historic deal between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists to share full power.

London last night hailed the agreement, which will see policing and criminal justice powers devolved to Northern ­Ireland, as the final piece in the jigsaw after a search for peace lasting nearly 20 years.

The two prime ministers, who held three days of intensive talks at ­Hillsborough Castle, Co Down, with the parties last month, will jointly chair a plenary session this morning to formalise the deal.

The breakthrough came late last night when Peter Robinson, the DUP leader who has been involved in 10 days of talks with Sinn Féin, declared he had the full backing of his party in the Stormont assembly.

Robinson had faced the threats of ­resignations – and defections to the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party – from a core of members who balked at ­giving Sinn Féin a say over policing. Up to 14 members of the DUP's 36-strong assembly team were said to be opposed to a deal.

In a two-hour meeting with his party at Stormont last night, Robinson persuaded the doubters that he had secured assurances in two key areas. First, the parades commission, seen by many Unionists as biased against Orange parades, would be reformed. Second, that Sinn Féin would not be able to dictate to the new justice minister. David Ford, the leader of the non-sectarian Alliance party, is expected to hold the post for an interim period to reassure Unionists.

Emerging from the meeting at ­Stormont, as the clock in the Great Hall approached midnight, Robinson said: "We have a basis upon which we can go forward and recommend it [the deal] to our party, to the other parties in Northern Ireland and to the community. An essential ­element of the Democratic Unionist party's manifesto is the requirement for community confidence, we believe this can be the basis for gaining that confidence."

Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin president, said: "I believe that the assembly and political institutions can now proceed on the basis of equality, fairness and partnership. They also have to deliver for all citizens, that is the collective responsibility of all the political parties."

Shaun Woodward, the Northern Ireland secretary, hailed the deal as the final part in the jigsaw of the peace process. Power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Féin, launched in May 2007 in the final weeks of Tony Blair's premiership, had been unstable because the two sides were unable to agree on the final stage of devolution – handing powers on policing and criminal justice to the executive.

Sinn Féin insisted that handing over the powers was an essential part of the St Andrew's agreement of 2006 which paved the way for the May 2007 deal. The DUP insisted that such a major step could only be taken when Unionists had full confidence in the institutions.

The deal last night marks one of the most significant milestones in the Northern Ireland peace process. This dates back to April 1993 when John Hume, the former leader of the SDLP, took what was then the mammoth step of inviting Adams to his house in Derry for talks.

This sparked an intense process – involving London, Dublin and eventually the Ulster Unionist party – leading to the Good Friday agreement of 1998. But this was not stabilised – the former UUP leader served intermittently as first minister – until the deal between Sinn Féin and the DUP in 2007.

British government sources praised the DUP and Sinn Féin. "Peter Robinson has shown the most extraordinary leadership," one source said. The DUP leader only assumed the post of first minister this week after standing down last month after the disclosure of damaging details about his wife's financial affairs.

The source added: "Sinn Féin have been very patient."

27 January 2010

48 Hour Deadline

The saga in Northern Ireland continues. The major parties now have 48-hours to reach a deal. . . .

Mahinda Rajapaksa Reported Winner

State television reported that Mahinda Rajapaksa is the winner of the Sri Lankan elections. Apparently "hundreds of troops" now surround the hotel where challenger Sarath Fonseka and some 400 followers are staying. It is unclear why the troops are being deployed.

Some already question the results, which (unofficially at this point) give Rajapaksa 3,563,634 votes to Fonseka's 2,209,214—a 23 point difference. Prior to the election, results appeared too close to call, so the substantial gap between the candidates is interesting.

26 January 2010

Quick Updates

Northern Ireland
The situation in Northern Ireland is tense. Gordon Brown (British Prime Minister) and Brian Cowen (Irish Taoiseach) are engaged in intense negotiations in an effort to save the power-sharing arrangement in the north. You can learn more about the latest developments from the Guardian or the Irish Independent.

Sri Lanka
The voting in Sri Lanka went off largely peacefully (although bomb blasts were heard in the Tamil-dominated north of the country during the pre-dawn hours and there were some reports of voter intimidation)—this despite the violent and frightening lead-up which included suggestions that General Sarath Fonseka might use an 800-strong militia to disrupt voting. Not only was the voting mostly peaceful but the turn-out was exceptional: 70-80%. (When was the last time that so many Americans exercised their civic duty?) Pre-election polls were exceptionally close and it remains too early to declare a winner.

Still no word on how many Americans celebrated Burns Night by eating their first legal haggis in 21-years.

25 January 2010

Much Easier To Find Wild Harry Haggis In States

It is the 25th of January and that can only mean one thing: the birthday of Robert Burns, the Scottish national poet. Many remember Burns as a great Scottish cultural nationalist, a man whose poetry is celebrated and whose favorite dish, the wild harry haggis, is a staple of Burns suppers.

Sure, Burns Night is an "invented tradition," as Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger would tell you. But such things hardly undermine the fun of downing a few drams of good whiskey, devouring a few neeps and tatties, and savoring a lovely, aesthetically pleasing boiled sheep's stomach stuffed with sheep innards, oatmeal, suit, and pepper. Mmm, haggis! As Burns himself wrote:

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o' need,
While thro' your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An' cut you up wi' ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin, rich!

Then, horn for horn,
they stretch an' strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve,
Are bent lyke drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
"Bethankit!" 'hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi' perfect sconner,
Looks down wi' sneering, scornfu' view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him ower his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro' bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He'll mak it whissle;
An' legs an' arms, an' heads will sned,
Like taps o' thrissle.

Ye Pow'rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o' fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu' prayer,
Gie her a haggis!

For the past 21-years, however, this vital element of Scottish national culture, one might even say the very stomach of Scottish national identity, was savagely banned by the US government. Ex-patriot Scots, or simply Americans of Scottish descent, were strictly forbidden from importing a good Scottish sheep stomach. The result was bootleg haggis, vegetarian haggis, and illicit homemade haggis. The frustration among Americans was pronounced. As one would-be haggis-eater, Margaret Frost, told the Guardian: "We have had to put up with the US version, which is made of beef and is bloody awful." A travesty, to be sure.

Thankfully, perhaps as a result of a long-running campaign by the Scottish National Party, or maybe because of a new pudding-friendly Glasnost among American politicians, the ban is lifted. The haggis may run free in the States yet again.

Now we must sit back to see whether haggis-fed Americans are inspired to demand Scottish independence and to support the SNP in the same way that Irish-Americans supported various Irish groups throughout much of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Will this haggis have political legs—longer on one side of its body than the other, as is true of wild haggises that, according to legend wander Scottish hillsides either clockwise or counter-clockwise by gender when searching for mates—or will this new addition to the American diet simply inspire legions of Americans seeking to answer the immortal question: "Is it true that you are what you eat?"

Violence Fears Rising in Sri Lanka

The Guardian reports that allegations are spreading that the ruling party in Sri Lanka "is planning to stir up violence in a desperate attempt to cling to power." The paper reports:

"The increasingly bitter election campaign came to an end this weekend with final rallies for the two main candidates, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka, the former head of the army.

"The two men are widely seen as the chief architects of last year's victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). But since putting an end to one of the world's longest running insurgencies they have turned on each other in an escalating round of accusations and insults.

"On Saturday Fonseka warned of vote-rigging and suggested that the army might stage a coup if Rajapaksa loses. "The violence will reduce voter attendance, then the rigging will take place," he said.

"A government spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwella, denied the opposition's allegation. "They know that there is an imminent defeat and this is their usual excuse to cover up a humiliating defeat," he told the Associated Press.

"The run-up to the vote has already been marred by violence. Police say at least four people have been killed and hundreds wounded in clashes between the factions and on Friday the house of an influential opposition figure was bombed.

"Fonseka, who decided to challenge Rajapaksa after complaining of being sidelined, has dismissed the president as a "cardboard king". Rajapaksa's supporters, meanwhile, have portrayed Fonseka as a dictator in the making, comparing him to Idi Amin, the brutal Ugandan military leader. Amid the name-calling, there lurks the real fear that violence will escalate if the result is disputed."

Amid all of this, many Tamils hope that they can utilize the election, whatever the results, to increase their political clout going forward.

24 January 2010

Sri Lankan Election Tomorrow

Few places in the world are as marked by recent nationalist struggle as Sri Lanka. Last May, a military offensive ended the 26-year struggle by Tamil separatists to establish their own state on the island. Tomorrow two Sinhalese nationalists (Sarath Fonseka and Mahinda Rajapaksa) compete for the presidency. Each man claims to be more nationalist than the other. One, Fonseka, took out a full page ad to show off scars from a 2006 assassination attempt.

According to The Australian, the real irony is that the country's 2.5 million Tamils (12.6% of the population), the group who bore the brunt of the military struggle, may hold the balance of power in tomorrow's election.

They may have a difficult choice. According to Brahma Chellaney, a political analyst and professor of strategic studies, the two main candidates are little different. The Australian quotes him as saying: "Whoever wins, it will be more of the same. Both are Sinhalese nationalists so they're playing the Sinhalese nationalist card."

The Tamils enter the picture because the two candidates split the hardline vote, leaving the two men to fight over moderates: many of whom are Tamils and Muslims.

Fonseka has amassed a striking coalition of support that includes the two main Sri Lankan opposition parties—including the Tamil National Alliance, former mouthpiece of the Liberation Tigers. Despite this development, polls show the main candidates "neck and neck."

It will be interesting to see how the people vote and how Sri Lanka deals with the legacy of a quarter century of violence. The battle for self-determination for stateless-nations is never just about the struggle itself. When the fighting is over, it is still necessary to attain some kind of peaceful coexistence.

In this instance, violence seems to be in the past, but the legacies are clear to see. Just recently, Fonseka was compared to Idi Amin and Adolf Hitler by his rival—two of the major villains of the twentieth century. Can peaceful coexistence be established with rhetoric such as this?

Crisis Talks In Northern Ireland

The saga of power-sharing in Northern Ireland continues. According to the Guardian, Gordon Brown (British Prime Minister) and Brian Cowan (Taoiseach of the Irish Republic) will be meeting at Downing Street tomorrow to talk about the Northern Ireland Assembly.

As usual, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein are trading barbs. The DUP claims that Sinn Fein is missing meetings. Sinn Fein responds that the DUP does not approach talks openly, arriving with preconditions. Swirling around in the midst of it all is the parades issue, the annual march by members of the Orange Order through Catholic neighborhoods to celebrate historical triumphs such as the Siege of Derry and the Battle of the Boyne. The marches never cease to irritate Catholics.

Symbols have long been an issue in Northern Ireland. In the past several years, efforts were made to curb the problem. The government demanded that curb stones go unpainted, that flags be pulled down in neighborhoods. Stay tuned.

18 January 2010

Blame It On The Scots

Commentators have long suggested that Scots are 90-minute nationalists, avid supporters of all that is Scottish for the duration of any sporting match against England, then placid Brits again when it is over, at least until the next round. To my knowledge, nobody ever took the 90-minute claim quite as far as former England rugby hooker Brian Moore, though.

According to the Scotsmen, Moore’s new autobiography makes the claim that Scotland’s 1990 Grand Slam victory was the result, not of skill on the pitch, but of “hatred over the imposition of the poll tax by Margaret Thatcher’s government, as well as anti-English fervour.” Evidently bigotry was more powerful that the tackle. The great Scottish tactic, he claims, was to “use the home crowd to pressure us throughout the game.” [Quick Disclaimer: As an outsider to rugby, I find myself wondering whether there is anything out of the ordinary about using the crowd in this way—it is certainly commonplace in American football and in baseball.]

This claim raises at least three interesting nationalism-related issues that deserve our awareness.

First off, it is abundantly clear that sport often spawns a nationalist reaction. One of my students recently wrote a paper about the “miracle” on ice in 1980, for example, in which the American ice hockey team managed to beat the Russians for the first time in many years. Although I was fairly young in 1980, I certainly remember the excitement—not only about the hockey team, but also surrounding Eric Heiden’s five gold medals in speed skating. I myself was so thrilled by the strong showing of American cyclists in 1984 that I took up bicycle racing—a love affair that continues to this day.

According to social psychologist Michael Billig, the strongest nationalisms are usually “banal.” He writes “nationalism only strikes the established nation-states on special occasions. Crises, such as the Falklands or Gulf Wars, infect a sore spot, causing bodily fevers: the symptoms are an inflamed rhetoric and an outbreak of ensigns. But the irruption soon dies down; the temperature passes; the flags are rolled up; and, then, it is business as usual” (Billig, 5). Sport frequently provides just such a “special occasion.” The excitement on the pitch, the notion that it is “us” against “them,” rises to the surface. When two football clubs meet, regional, class, and sometimes even religious identities (note the Old Firm teams in Glasgow, Scotland) are spawned by the excitement. When two national teams confront one another, the same thing happens, but it is national identity that unfurls the flag.

Next, Moore raises the question of anti-Thatcher sentiment and anti-English bigotry. Let’s take these separately. It is doubtless true that Scottish fans were especially excited about the 1990 rugby Grand Slam. According to sociologist David McCrone, “the Thatcherite project was largely perceived north of the border as an alien, an English, political creed” (McCrone, 32). The poll tax was one of the great symbols of this alien invasion. Many Scots felt that Thatcher was testing it out on them—another attack on the Scots by a tyrannical English person. Thatcher was just another Edward (“Longshanks”) I. Some Scots probably even imagined that, should Thatcher die before leaving office, the “Abominable hairdo” would demand that her bones be stripped of flesh and carried before an invading army of poll tax collectors—not unlike Edward reportedly did in the early fourteenth century.

The claim that anti-English bigotry was to blame is a little bit more difficult to accept. Yes, it is true that the Anglo-Scottish rivalry goes back a very long way. After all, Scottish churchmen and nobles did produce one of the more poetic medieval letters to the papacy, the Declaration of Arbroath, which rather beautifully calls for Scottish self-determination. While not the example of modern nationalism claimed by many Scottish nationalists and a few scholars, the declaration certainly shows a strong sense of grievance among many Scots toward England. Similar anti-England moments arise quite often thereafter, even after Scotland joined Great Britain in 1707. After all, while the Irish Home Rule movement gets most of the press, the Scots, evidently inspired by Irish Party leader Charles Stewart Parnell, had one too.

But Moore is ahistorical if he is suggesting that anti-England sentiment was the same as anti-English sentiment. Sifting through piles of newspapers and other sources, one is hard-pressed to find much in the way of widespread anti-Englishness in Scotland before 1992/1993. Prior to that slightly later period, there were certainly localized concerns about incoming English “white settlers,” but it pushes things to suggest that most Scots had anything seriously against the English themselves.

Then something happened. Opinion polls suggested that the 1992 General Election would be a watershed. For the first time, Scots angered by far too many years of Thatcherite rule, were finally going to vote overwhelmingly for the Scottish National Party and for independence. Excitement rose to a fever pitch. Then Scots voted pretty much as they always had. A few districts voted for Tories, most voted for Labour, and the usual suspects voted for the SNP or for other parties. More extreme nationalists were outraged and, all at once, a new argument surfaced. The “white settler” argument was retooled, nineteenth century racial ideas about a hierarchy of white races were dusted off, and anti-English racism poured onto the pages of Scottish and English newspapers. Even the Scottish National Liberation Army, never before “racist” in orientation, launched a campaign against English “settlers.” Although anti-English racism was the purview of a tiny minority, the change in tone was notable. Yet, as I say, however, the 1990 Rugby Grand Slam was a couple of years before all of this took place.

In the end, Moore’s autobiography sounds more than a little like sour grapes—an aging sportsman anxious to cast his career in a brighter light, erasing the disappointment of 1990. Yet that having been said, his claims nevertheless raise issues that are very worthy of study by students of nationalism. The place of sport in national consciousness, the response to the political policies of dominant national groups by members of stateless-nations, and the issue of “ethnic nationalism” all deserve considerable attention.

Works Cited

Billig, Michael. Banal Nationalism (London: Sage, 1995).

McCrone, David. Understanding Scotland: The Sociology of a Stateless Nation (London and New York: Routledge, 1992).

16 January 2010

Link Between Hate Crime and BNP

The Guardian newspaper ran an interesting story this morning about the relationship between BNP council election victories and hate crimes. Evidently hate crimes are generally down, but in English wards where the British National Party won council elections, hate crimes spiked upward. Labour's culture and tourism minister, Margaret Hodge, currently in a tight reelection race, argues that the statistics "cast doubt on police assurances that there is no link between racially motivated crime and a BNP presence."

Those who suggest this link believe that "Voters have been emboldened in their racist views by seeing the BNP in power and that could have led to the increases in racist attacks in some areas."

There could be a link, of course, but it is more likely that the feelings of anger and hopelessness that prompt people to commit hate crimes are higher in areas where voters feel compelled to vote for the BNP.

Ethnic nationalism is all about context and the article really needs to delve more fully into the socio-economic make-up of the wards in question. The explanation for this up-tick in violence is probably more complicated than a direct causal link between the BNP and hate crime; the BNP is almost certainly a symptom, not a cause.