Reasons to be optimistic
If there has been one cause that has long inspired me above all others, it is the cause of small nations struggling to free themselves from oppression or domination by larger ones. Even before the outbreak of war in the former Yugoslavia made me interested in the politics and history of that region, when I was in still in school, I was greatly moved by the history of the Irish struggle for freedom and independence from Britain. I have long felt that the cause of freedom for oppressed nations has not figured as prominently as it should in progressive political thinking, and have always found national-chauvinistic ideologies that justify the suppression or forced assimilation of subject peoples to be uniquely horrifying. In the most extreme cases, such ideologies underpin acts of genocide – the most extreme form that national oppression can take. And for myself and kindred political spirits, genocide is the greatest evil humanity has produced.
Progressive thinking has, likewise, traditionally paid insufficient attention to the phenomenon of genocide. The inability of the Left to respond adequately to genocide was made abundantly clear by the events in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s. For some of us, this deficiency has been a catalyst to our disenchantment with left-wing politics in their traditional form. Not just because genocide-prevention has usually been assigned a lower priority than ‘class’, ‘anti-war’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ causes, but because it presupposes outside intervention, something to which a large proportion of ‘progressive’ opinion has traditionally been averse.
Yet for all this, an unprecedentedly large number of nations have achieved national independence since the early 1990s, and the cause of genocide-prevention has entered the progressive consciousness in a way it never did before. In the spirit of the Christmas season, I’d like to highlight recent developments in these fields that should give us cause for optimism; developments that I really should have written about more fully and promptly, if only one had unlimited time as a blogger…
1) While the youth of Greece is still battling on the streets for its social and economic emancipation, a quieter, but perhaps ultimately more significant movement for progressive change is taking place in neighbouring Turkey. More than 22,000 Turkish citizens have signed the following apology: ‘My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them.’
To apologise for the Armenian genocide should be, for Turkey, a matter of national honour. But it is also a matter of self-interest for any Turkish citizen who wants to live in a democracy. In Turkey, as in Serbia, Croatia, Greece and other South East European countries, national-chauvinist ideology is the single biggest enemy of democracy; the taunt of ‘traitor’ is used to silence dissent, while minority rights are trampled over in the name of the ‘nation’. Yet in the words of Cengiz Aktar, professor of EU studies at Istanbul’s university of Bahcesehir and one of the principal organisers of the Turkish campaign to apologise: ‘From now, anyone who speaks about the Armenian question will have to take into account this expression of consciousness. It’s a new element in the debate.’ Readers of this blog will be aware that I do not support the campaign for the US or UK officially to recognise the Armenian genocide, or any other historic genocide that has taken place in a foreign country, for reasons that I have explained in detail. The organisers of the campaign in Turkey likewise appear ambivalent about such campaigns in the US and elsewhere. It is only through a democratic campaign in Turkey itself that the country can gradually come to recognise what happened to the Armenians.
2) While progressive Turks are striking a blow against genocide ‘from below’, a blow has been struck ‘from above’, with the conviction and jailing for life of Theoneste Bagosora, the mastermind of the Rwandan genocide, and two of his collaborators by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Described by prosecutors as ‘enemies of the human race’, they were found guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity and war-crimes. The record of the war-crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia has been less than perfect, but in this instance, at least, justice has been done.
3) A new genetic study apparently proves that twenty per cent of the population of the Iberian peninsula has Sephardic Jewish ancestry, and ten per cent has Moorish ancestry. Another study proves not only that the ethnic origins of the Balkan nations are extremely mixed – which everyone knows, of course – but that the populations of Greece and Albania are genetically more Slavic in origin than the Slavic-speaking populations of neighbouring Macedonia and Bulgaria. Scientists have already proven the genetic kinship of Jews and Arabs.
The myth that ethnic differences are based on genetic differences remains surprisingly pervasive, not just among nationalists – of whom we expect no better – but among ‘educated’ opinion in general. Ethnic differences or identities that are disapproved of are frequently counterposed to ‘real’ ones in discussions about civil wars and other conflicts. Just as nationalists like to imagine their own group has been ethnically pure since Antiquity or earlier, so leftists are frequently fond of portraying ethnic differences as having been ‘invented by imperialism’, or some such nonsense. Yes, the modern nations of the world are largely the products of imperialism, colonialism and genocide, and many ethnic identities have been deliberately fostered by imperial overlords or other interested parties. So what ? All ethnicities are ultimately human constructs, with little or nothing to do with genetic differences. They are only as ‘real’ as their members or their persecutors feel them to be. The more that scientific studies undermine the disgusting, racist myth of ‘real’ ethnic differences, the better for human enlightenment and emancipation.
4) Kalaallit Nunaat, or Greenland, voted last month to increase its autonomy from Denmark, in what may be a step toward full independence. The Greenlandic independence movement is fuelled both by economic factors and by simple national feeling on the part of the predominantly Inuit population. I am fascinated by the Nordic world, not least because it has proven adept at managing the transition to independence of its constituent nations in a peaceful and civilised manner. It is up to the people of Greenland alone to decide whether they want to secede from Denmark, of course; nobody else can or should exercise a veto over this process. But should they choose to, the peaceful acceptance of their decision that Denmark will undoubtedly demonstrate should serve as a model for states all over the world, from Spain to India.
On this note, I wish readers a very merry Christmas and happy New Year.
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