Nationalism and Mythical Thinking

by Mark English

A lot of nonsense is talked about “destiny.” I’m referring here to the idea that individuals or groups can be seen to have some kind of pre-existing or pre-ordained path to fulfillment that they may discover and embrace.

Certainly, given an individual, say, at a particular stage of life, there are choices he or she may make – relating to profession or love life, for example – which will have consequences for his or her future happiness. But to talk of destiny is to poeticize and possibly metaphysicalize matters. There’s no harm in this, some might say.

I’m not so sure about this, being of the view that we make better life decisions if we try to free ourselves from certain kinds of quasi-religious and Romantic myth, which still maintain a grip on mainstream Western culture. My point applies not just to personal matters and individual “destinies” but also to the political realm – to notions of ethnic or national identity.

The idea of destiny goes back to the classical world, of course, where it was tied to religious and metaphysical ideas regarding fate (or Fate). But it was picked up and developed during the Renaissance and especially during the Romantic period, when it was repackaged in more modern form and applied in a wholesale way to nations and ethnic groups. National groups came to be seen as the bearers of some kind of group soul or “genius” and so to be subject to destiny in the same way as individuals are sometimes seen to be.

As this process occurred, local patriotisms gradually gave way (or at least ceded ground) to more active and activist forms of patriotism and nationalism. The much-anthologized sonnet “Heureux qui comme Ulysse…” by the 16th-century humanist Joachim du Bellay typifies the former approach and gives expression to the author’s deep emotional attachment to his native Anjou. A hymn to the French language and local culture, it is essentially untranslatable. [1] But it typifies the sort of natural attachment that people often feel to their childhood haunts and the culture and traditions associated with their early years.

In the wake of the Reformation and other disruptive forces, pan-European humanism, based on a sense of a common classical cultural heritage – which in no way precluded the sorts of local attachments to which Du Bellay’s writings gave expression – was gradually supplanted by a new, more narrowly political form of nationalism based on the (in my opinion) confused and dangerous Romantic myth of national self-determination.

Gradually the nuanced forms of patriotism which happily coexisted with various imperial and local political arrangements mutated into cruder nationalisms that have been associated with wars and revolutions in Europe and elsewhere over the last two or three centuries. In fact, this kind of Romantic nationalism was part of a package of political ideas (including Marxism/Leninism) that Europe exported to post-colonial Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia and which still drives politics in much of the world.

I am not saying we should reject the nation-state. Nation-states of one kind or another constitute the bedrock of the political and legal status quo. We can’t turn the clock back to some older kind of system or impose a new model willy-nilly. We have to work with what we’ve got. What I’m saying is that we will do so more responsibly if we see the flaws in the current system and, in particular, reject the Romantic twaddle which underlies much current political activism.

It may appear that there are inconsistencies in what I am saying, but I think any inconsistencies are only apparent. Readers who are aware of my previous (at least qualified) support for foreign policy realism and my critiques of the imperialist ambitions of American and British neoconservatives may be puzzled that I appear here to be questioning the pre-eminence of the nation-state (upon which realists base their thinking about foreign policy) and giving at least tacit or qualified support to older forms of imperialism. [2]

But my point about the problems of neo-imperialism and American exceptionalism was not predicated on an absolute rejection of ideas of empire or hegemony. Given that not all states are equal or equally viable, it is inevitable that certain states will become regional hegemons. A state or territory that is too small or too weak to defend itself or cope economically will come to some kind of arrangement, usually with a stronger neighbor or neighbors. Sometimes large blocs form which are tied to one powerful state: empires, in effect. And such empires can be global. During the 19th and 20th centuries we saw, first Britain, then the US playing (in their different ways) the role of global hegemon.

There are both good and bad aspects of imperial power. Empire creates order, even if it is an imposed order (Pax Romana, Pax Britannica, Pax Americana). Arguably, this is its main justification. My point about America in recent times is that its foreign military interventions have been disastrous failures and have contributed to instability, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. Likewise, NATO actions have increased tensions with Russia, the old Cold War enemy that elements of the political and security establishments seem single-mindedly intent on demonizing at every opportunity.

America is a fading economic force seeking to maintain the illusion of overwhelming wealth and power; in effect to deny current economic realities. The danger is that irresponsible ideologues – specifically, Washington neoconservatives – will be tempted to strike in a military way while the US still retains a military edge on its main challengers, China and Russia.

My approach here (and in my previous pieces on related topics) is critical rather than systematic. All I am really trying to do is to highlight the obvious mismatch between the ideological thinking of a certain group of American policymakers and analysts and current geopolitical and economic realities; to make more explicit a few things which are sometimes glossed over or overlooked.

What I am not trying to do is to present a plausible model of how the complex systems under discussion operate. Given the nature of these systems, this would be impossible. The systems in question are driven by a mix of factors, including economic and psycho-social factors. The precise nature of this dynamic lies beyond the scope of current science and, in terms of modelling and prediction, well beyond the scope of current, and possibly even future, methods.

These complexities make me very skeptical of the narratives of historians. And it is upon such narratives (or simplified versions thereof) that political myths are usually built.

Don’t get me wrong. I think we need myths, both personal and political, in order to live. We need to see purpose and meaning in our individual lives and in history. But some myths are benign and some are not. Sometimes a myth that may be benign (i.e. have good social consequences) at one time or in one situation will turn malignant as circumstances change. I’ve talked in the past about the way the myth of American exceptionalism (associated with neoconservative views of America’s role in the world) may once have had good consequences, but it has recently led to foreign policy disasters.

I am particularly wary of myths that retain or take on a metaphysical dimension – which are, in other words, seen to have a reality that goes beyond the psychological or psycho-social. The myth of American exceptionalism, for example, may be seen in very pragmatic terms; or it may be metaphysicalized (i.e. seen in terms of Romantic or quasi-religious ideas) to a greater or lesser extent. As a general rule, the more metaphysicalized a myth is, the more (on my reckoning) it is out of touch with reality – and so potentially dangerous.

I am not suggesting that there is a necessary correlation between the degree of metaphysical commitment and violence, but it must be admitted that when metaphysical and religious ideas enter the political sphere they tend to undermine and supplant more pragmatic approaches.

This can be seen, for example, in respect of the seemingly intractable problems associated with America’s policies regarding Israel and the Middle East, which are clearly complicated by ideological and religious factors. Pragmatic considerations (concerning oil, the petrodollar, etc.) certainly apply, but there are also deep politico-religious issues involved as well as secular Romantic ideas about nationhood, ethnic identity and self-determination. America’s close historical, economic and military ties with Israel further complicate the picture.

Zionism as a movement arose in the context of – and even now, in its secular dimension, owes more than a little to – European Romantic political thought. In his response to an essay by Hillel Halkin, Steven B. Smith emphasizes the Romantic roots of Zionism and, in particular the cultural Zionism of Ahad Ha’am which was “an attempt to maintain a distinctive Jewish identity – a national spirit – among Jews increasingly tempted by the dreams of assimilation to modern liberalism.” [3]

As Smith points out, these ideas have links with Romanticism and the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder.

… Herder … thought of each people as shaped by its own unique national spirit or Volksgeist. In this romantic vision, history presents itself as the development of a pleasing variety of such national spirits, each with its own distinctive, culture, taste, and tone. Thus, in “The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry” (1782-3), Herder regarded the Hebrew Bible as expressing the Ursprache or original poetic genius of the Jewish people – a thought certainly compatible with Ahad Ha’am’s formulation more than a century later of the Jewish national spirit.

Cultural Zionism, though it represents a very different approach from the pragmatism and technologism of Theodor Herzl, can nonetheless be seen to complement it. But how, asks Smith, “does such a vision … comport with the idea that Torah and Talmud are not simply the exfoliation of the Jewish national spirit but at root the product of a divine gift, of divine revelation?”

This is a crucial question at a time when religious parties in Israel are playing a significant role in political life and in a world in which movements such as Modern Orthodox Judaism and Religious Zionism, as well as more fundamentalist forms of both Judaism and Christianity, are flourishing. In many cases, policy positions and claims to territory are perceived as deriving from – and being justified in terms of – ancient scriptural sources interpreted in a religious and not just in a purely historical way.

Any such approach goes well beyond the sort of political myths I have been discussing and is clearly quite incompatible with modern Western secularism. To the extent that governments or other authorities rely on or give credence to such approaches, they move themselves out of the orbit of Western secular political thought.

Fundamentalist modes of thinking have always dominated in the Islamic world. What is particularly troubling is that this kind of thinking – characterized by literalist interpretations of scripture which are often applied directly to social and political questions – seems to be becoming more popular and widespread amongst both Jews and Christians. The influence of religious parties in the Knesset, for example, has grown in recent times. Such modes of thought have gained ground even in countries like the US which have a strong commitment to political secularism.

Mythical and magical thinking is, to a large extent, unavoidable. Romantic and other secular myths will persist, and will continue to affect how we think about many things, including nationalism. But fundamentalist religious ideas – whether Islamic, Christian or Jewish – are in an altogether different category. And, in today’s highly interconnected, heavily armed and polarized world, they pose an even greater threat than other forms of unreason – not so much in themselves, but at least in so far as they are applied to political questions.

NOTES

  1. Nonetheless, here are some translations – and the original.
  2. Here is my most recent piece on the general topic of foreign policy.
  3. https://mosaicmagazine.com/response/2016/10/ahad-haam-and-theodor-herzl-together-at-last/

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55 responses to “Nationalism and Mythical Thinking”

  1. Not entirely surprised to see the Zionist bogeyman trotted out here for special attention. Imagine those Jews wanting to have their own country and not be denied citizenship, accused of deicide, treated as pariahs, and casually subjected to brutal violence and murder across Europe. Must be “mythical thinking” and romantic nationalism.

    I mean they should have just assimilated into cosmopolitan Europe and joined the rational Enlightenment consensus. Oh, wait, they did that, and wound up having most of their population gassed to death by the Germans, Poles, Hungarians and other execrable peoples of Europe. My grandfather was still praising the Haskalah and waving his medals, earned from fighting for the Austro-Hungarian Empire in WWI, as the Arrow Cross shot him into a mass grave, outside of Kolozsvar. The rest of my mother’s entirely assimilated, “sold on the Enlightenment” family sat shivering in Bergen-Belsen. Good thing the Hungarian Jews were the last to be sent to the camps or I wouldn’t be here to write this rant.

    For someone who dislikes “mythical thinking” you really do love abstractions. Nationalism. Myth. Romanticism. Religious Fundamentalism. You might want to think about real history in a bit more of a concrete way. A lot of the things that seem so mysterious to you might become clearer. Like why the Jewish people might want their own country, for example.

    Below is why there is and must be a Jewish State.

    https://www.ushmm.org/lcmedia/photo/lc/image/77/77525.jpg

    (My mother and her sister are the two girls on the left, in the train, which had just arrived in Switzerland from Bergen-Belsen) (Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Museum)

    ———————

  2. Put much more briefly, less personally, and echoing your first line: “A lot of nonsense is talked about other peoples’ alleged nonsense.”

  3. I think there is a problem with limited reflexivity here. To draw on the psychologists etc mentioned, we all live in an imaginary world. No one is exempt, no speaking position is outside or above myth. Nations are just ideas about people who share a territory and nationalism just about how these people compare themselves with other such groups. Leaving aside some particular aspects of the discussion, I find the main difficulty for me is the apparent adoption of a speaking position outside history by the author. Much else I like, just that it doesn’t go far enough. But I am unwilling to go the whole postmodern thing. There is a sense in which the notion of realism can be useful. See the early Wittgenstein, or Alasdair Macintyre for the way intellectual traditions produce a set of language games which mediate our relationship with experience, always concealing as well as revealing, always defining what can and cannot be said. But there is a sense in which these games still involve a relationship with experience, even if there is no unmediated experience, no pure pragmatism (just views not mediated by the dominant cultural imaginary.
    Regards
    Inigo

  4. davidlduffy

    Eric Schliesser has posted a number of interesting thoughts on the history of liberalism and nationalism eg
    http://digressionsnimpressions.typepad.com/digressionsimpressions/2015/12/on-herzls-non-liberalism.html

    One strand of the EU movement seems to be a funding and support for small area “nationalism”. Chatting with South Tyroleans (from the northern half) they (unsurprisingly) expressed feeling of belonging to the province or region rather than to the country.

  5. Dan

    I get what you are saying, but I think that your comments misrepresent what I am saying. I am just putting out some ideas. I have some knowledge of European intellectual history and I am just trying to apply that to some of the things I see happening today. Israel was on my mind because it is relevant, even central, to American Middle East policy. I think it’s good to talk about these (often sensitive or awkward) questions. What I say in the OP seems to me quite reasonable, but *it doesn’t purport to give a complete picture*.

    I am talking about two different things here: secular and religious myths. Though I am critical of both, I explicitly accepted that we can’t avoid a degree of mythical thinking.

    What I was highlighting in respect of Israel was 1) the fact that Zionism (and especially cultural Zionism) owes a debt to Romanticism; and 2) the dangers of applying religious modes of thinking – and especially literalist or naive interpretations of scripture – to political questions. The former point is historically sound, I think. It doesn’t imply that there is no truth or value in this way of thinking. The latter point, on the other hand, does involve a strong personal judgment on my part. In fact, I think you would agree with me on this to a large extent.

  6. Inigo

    “… we all live in an imaginary world. No one is exempt, no speaking position is outside or above myth.”

    Am I claiming I am/mine is? I explicitly said that mythical thinking (of one kind or another) is unavoidable.

    “… I find the main difficulty for me is the apparent adoption of a speaking position outside history by the author.”

    Well, I’m sorry if that’s how it comes across. That’s just how I talk. I certainly don’t *feel* myself to be outside of history!

    “Nations are just ideas about people who share a territory and nationalism just about how these people compare themselves with other such groups.”

    I always have the etymology of ‘nation’ and its cognates in the back of my mind.

    “Much else I like, just that it doesn’t go far enough. But I am unwilling to go the whole postmodern thing. There is a sense in which the notion of realism can be useful.”

    Hear, hear!

    (I think I’m *more or less* with you on experience, language games etc..)

  7. David

    “Eric Schliesser has posted a number of interesting thoughts on the history of liberalism and nationalism…”

    Thanks for the link. I had a look at it. Dan thinks I am tangled in abstractions, but actually I don’t take these abstractions too seriously. I think perhaps Schliesser takes them more seriously than I do.

    “… Chatting with South Tyroleans (from the northern half) they (unsurprisingly) expressed feeling of belonging to the province or region rather than to the country.”

    I’m sure we’re going to see much more of this.

  8. Mark: It strikes me as rather odd to have an entire section of an essay devoted to Zionism and not make one mention of the brutal anti-Semitism Jews suffered in Europe. Or to praise Enlightenment rationalism, as opposed to “romanticism” and not mention the fact that Jewish assimilation and embrace of the Enlightenment ideal did nothing to protect them from mass murder at the hands of their neighbors.

  9. Mark,
    while you make important and substantive claims here – many of which are true – the remarks by DanK reveal a fundamental weakness. Your Enlightenment based realism is not terribly realistic given the many substantial sources of nationalistic feelings.

    I am here impelled to a response that I have contemplated for several weeks, and which, if completed, will seem to come from the outfield – but that’s as should be. Human aspirations and senses of community are simply *not* be reduced to some of the easy categories you suggest here.

    People are just as they are. We would want them otherwise and argue for this; but as Whitman reminds us, “Logic and arguments never convince.”

    We’re probably a doomed species. But nobody (well, no secular thinker) ever guaranteed we would last forever.

  10. Hi Mark, ok so I liked your essay. Then again I didn’t see you making the claims/arguments others are attacking. If anything the takeaway seemed to be: choose your myths carefully.

    A factual weakness (to me) was that it seemed to place the concepts you discuss as coming from Western sources (emerging from the West). I don’t disagree with your description of sources/events driving them in a Western historical context, but certainly they existed in the Far East before major Western influences arrived.

    A theoretical weakness is that I think the nation-state should be abandoned. While it would/will be hard, eventually I think that is where we are going to end up. That’s because regional identity on those mass geographical scales is hard enough to hold together, and with increases in migration/expatriation it will only get harder. And with the mass anti-austerity campaigns at the federal level of so many nations, citizens may soon find their answers back where gov’ts started: the local city-state. I don’t think that means an end to realism, but a redefining of its parameters.

    To avoid some of the commentary, maybe it would have been better to explore more or different examples, but as a short explanation of a position it seemed sufficient.

    As a added note on Pax Americana, Trump replaced Mike “We’re putting Iran on notice” Flynn with another general: HR McMaster. Not sure if you know much about him. The difference between McMaster and Flynn is night and day, and a huge relief as far as I’m concerned. The guy is calm, clear-headed, and well-spoken. He has a PhD in history and does not seem to be a neocon, or into military adventures. That said, it seems he doesn’t want to give up the idea that the US should be active in controlling world events. If not Pax Americana, or the US as world’s policeman, he still views the world as a collection of semi-superpowers that are exerting strength past their borders, and which the US has to be active in restraining. Thankfully, this activity would be in alliances and with the intention of keeping the political ends in focus/obtainable. I watched an interesting talk of his from last year, addressing the role/function of the army in the future, and he made a good case for the US being somewhat pro-active against moves by Russia and China, though not in any way thoughtlessly aggressive.

  11. Hi DanK, aren’t you addressing a separate issue in your response?

    Whether Jews had/have a rational reason to want a separate state (which is what you just gave evidence for), is not what Mark addressed.

    It is uncontroversial to point out that Zionism began before the holocaust, and by focusing on historical/religious aspects as the basis for such a state, rather than immediate practical concerns, it arguably involved “mythical thinking.” This should not be surprising as other people were engaged in the same kind of thinking during the Romantic era, which helped drive anti-semitism (since they *wrongly* felt Jews were not part of their nation).

    “I mean they should have just assimilated into cosmopolitan Europe and joined the rational Enlightenment consensus. Oh, wait, they did that, and wound up having most of their population gassed to death by…”

    Of note, they were gassed by non-Jewish nationalists following their own “mythical thinking” propped by Romantic Era concepts. Mark’s essay would constitute a criticism of the underlying thought and consequent actions of the persecutors, not the Jews (among others) who were just trying to survive.

    “Like why the Jewish people might want their own country”

    That’s true of many minorities, especially those who have faced or are facing persecution within their country of birth, and across the world. That is not hard to understand. The US was built from that. I have great sympathy for this concept and wish (in similar fashion) I could get a state (or separate planet since the Abrahamic faiths seem to have locked this one up) for my “people”.

    The question raised here was about the ideals (and nature of such a state) founding Zionists held, as well as those underlying the current policies of the state that emerged. His criticism was (rather explicitly) fundamentalist religious forms of “mythical thinking” that have arguably not helped in the past, and certainly are making things worse now. We can talk about what drove Jews to want a homeland, but that is rather irrelevant to what forms of thinking are least useful, arguably causing harm, at present.

    And while other examples could have been used, Israel/Zionism hardly seems an arbitrary or irrelevant subject, given what is going on in the world, and the recent change in policy signalled last week by Trump in his meeting with Netanyahu, who certainly backs “mythical thinking” which many Israelis, Jews, and most of the world, disagree with.

    Indeed, I’m afraid that Trump et al are all about joining into the shared delusion held by fundamentalists within the US and Israel: that Israel is the Jewish state and the US is the Christian state. Israel has been getting much backing from US fundies who hope to see Israel emerge, and forced into a war with Islamic nations, to bring on Jesus. Amazingly, modern Zionists are allowing this travesty to occur as long as they get the money and support they need for expansionist goals for Israel (according to Jewish religious interests). Which is the devil in that deal is hard to say.

    If you think that all sounds good, ok. But I would say that isn’t really helpful and ought to be called out.

  12. Dwayne: Anti-Semitic violence in Eastern Europe was at its peak in the 19th century. The Holocaust merely confirmed that no amount of assimilation, according to the Enlightenment, rational ideals Mark champions, could protect the Jews from their gentile neighbors.

    Far from seeing it as “irrelevant” I see it as central. And as I said to Mark, I find it very odd to read someone talking about Zionism, with no mention of the brutal treatment of the Jewish people in Europe, since the beginning of the diaspora. Indeed, as an example of nationalism built on mythical rather than rational thinking, Israel strikes me as about the worst example you could give, which then makes me wonder why it is being singled out, among all the nation states one could talk about, all of which were based on far less rational grounds than the Jewish State.

  13. Dwayne:

    I must tell you that I find this portion of your comment quite offensive. The American Revolution was a tax rebellion. And why the scare quotes around ‘people’ at the end?

    ——————————————————————————————————————-

    “Like why the Jewish people might want their own country”

    That’s true of many minorities, especially those who have faced or are facing persecution within their country of birth, and across the world. That is not hard to understand. The US was built from that. I have great sympathy for this concept and wish (in similar fashion) I could get a state (or separate planet since the Abrahamic faiths seem to have locked this one up) for my “people”.

  14. I also find the contrast between romantic and rational thinking here quite crude and somewhat ahistorical. Romanticism was, in many ways, a reaction to what were seen as the negative effects of the excessive rationalism of the Enlightenment. To attribute the Nazi genocide to Romanticism strikes me as far too quick. One could just as easily argue that the highly bureaucratic, administratively organized, industrial mass murder through which the Holocaust was effected was a product of Enlightenment, not Romantic modes of thought. The “banality” of Eichmann’s evil was not that of the Romantic villain but of the rational middle manager.

  15. On the anthropology side of things, Arjun Appadurai has quite a lot to say about imagined geographies- given that I’ve recently read his stuff and it’s rolling around in my head all the time, I’m interested in (if I’m reading correctly) your support for the idea of the nation-state, but not for mythical nationalism. Taking Appadurai’s arguments about imaginary borders, and the social/national imaginary, the nation-state ultimately is a(n imagined) wall between two undifferentiated pieces of land (or a river, in which case the border is maybe slightly less imaginary). The only thing propping up the wall is the social imaginary, which relies on nationalism. If there was no national(istic) imaginary, the purpose of having borders at all would be up for debate. I see nation-states as requiring an element of mythologized nationalism for their own survival, and vice versa. It’s hard for me to imagine (no pun intended) the existence of a nation without some element of definition “against” whatever is outside the borders (=nationalism).

    I’m also interested in the dividing line that I may be reading into your writing, which is the messy, unclear, difficult difference between religious mythology and religious fundamentalism. I read this like as the difference between “I am a Christian” and “I am a Christian and you must also be a Christian” (or, for that matter, “you are Jewish,” and “you are Jewish and now I’ll send you to Bergen-Belsen”). One seems sustainable, even in a globalized society; the other is clearly not. The problem, maybe, is the porous boundary between the two.

  16. Hi DanK, yes I know there was an increase in anti-semitic violence in the 19th century, I mentioned that. This coincided with the stirrings of nationalist feelings during the Romantic Era, which was as you pointed out was a reaction to excessive rationalism.

    Yes, no amount of assimilation can protect a minority group from the rise of intolerance against that group, based on irrational thinking. In this case, long fomented by religious doctrine against Jews by Christians, not enlightenment era scholarship on rationalism. Mark’s argument was critical of the kind of thinking behind the rise in their persecution, and I saw no argument from him that if you are rational, everyone else will be.

    He gave the reason for using Israel as an example, and I explained why it seemed appropriate. I agree he could have expanded this to more, but don’t see why it was necessary within the confines of his argument. Isn’t Israel important within the MidEast, the MidEast central to many important events right now, and the predominance of fundamentalist religious belief in its national policy something worth talking about?

    Moving on from Mark, I have no idea why you were so offended by what I wrote. You only mentioned two things (which were hardly anything)…

    “The American Revolution was a tax rebellion.”

    I said and I quote “The US was built from that.” I didn’t say anything about the reasons for the revolution. You know that many of the founding colonists, and many coming to the US after its inception, left their nations to avoid persecution as minorities and set up life for themselves according to their own interests… to have a place of their own.

    “And why the scare quotes around ‘people’ at the end?”

    Not every set of quotation marks is a *scare* quote. I wasn’t sure what to use as a term for the minority group I’m a part of. Demographic, community, people? So I went with people and put quotes around it. Why would it be something offensive if it is supposed to refer to a group I’m a part of? It’s like saying I’m hanging out with my “gang”, or it’s just me and “the boys”.

    “I also find the contrast between romantic and rational thinking here quite crude and somewhat ahistorical…”

    This is interesting of course. I’d agree that the worst outrages of the 20th century (now rolling into the 21st) are often a combination of Romantic Era nationalist ideals combined with efficiencies and capacities of Enlightenment Era rationalism. And indeed, there is also the non-idealistic, yet crushingly brutal “indifference” to the effects one’s policies have on others. That is almost certainly the result of Enlightenment rationalism (scientific efficiency), combined with a nihilism or perhaps utilitarianism (in which the minority and the individual disappears).

  17. Dwayne: “I wish I could get a state for my peeps” in response to an account of why the Jewish people need a country, in the wake of near total extermination strikes me as flip at best. Hence the offence.

    Unlike you, I am not against the nation state, so we probably are not going to agree on much in this discussion. I am happy that there is an Ireland and Irish people, an Italy and an Italian people, etc., not unhappy. And I don’t think there is anything by way of “romantic myth” involved, and certainly nothing toxic of the sort Mark seems to suggest, although he also says that he is not anti-Nation state.

  18. ejwinner

    “… impelled to a response that I have contemplated for several weeks, and which, if completed, will seem to come from the outfield – but that’s as should be.”

    I take it that what you’re saying is that your view of the world is very different from mine at a fundamental level. I think you are right. Unfortunately fundamental differences are difficult to discuss directly.

    “Human aspirations and senses of community are simply *not* be reduced to some of the easy categories you suggest here.”

    I don’t see myself as even attempting to describe “human aspirations and senses of community” much less as reducing them to “easy categories”.

    “People are just as they are. We would want them otherwise and argue for this; but as Whitman reminds us, “Logic and arguments never convince.” ”

    I am just articulating my (evolving) thoughts. I think that these kinds of exchanges can be valuable as they often change, in subtle and sometimes unpredictable ways, how we think about the topics under discussion.

    I was going to say, This is enough for me. But it does frustrate/disappoint me when those fundamental differences get in the way, and further discussion is blocked. But I realize that you’ve just got to accept that there are these (often unbridgeable) gulfs between people’s ways of thinking.

    “We’re probably a doomed species. But nobody (well, no secular thinker) ever guaranteed we would last forever.”

    About the future, we can only guess.

  19. dbholmes

    “A factual weakness (to me) was that it seemed to place the concepts you discuss as coming from Western sources (emerging from the West). I don’t disagree with your description of sources/events driving them in a Western historical context, but certainly they existed in the Far East before major Western influences arrived.”

    My knowledge is mainly of Western traditions and I was explicitly writing about them, and European political thought. Perhaps you are referring to the claims about Western ideas being “exported”. They were, certainly Marxism and also certain nationalistic ideas. But I don’t know enough about non-Western traditions to talk about them. I am not making claims about them.

    “A theoretical weakness is that I think the nation-state should be abandoned. While it would/will be hard, eventually I think that is where we are going to end up. That’s because regional identity on those mass geographical scales is hard enough to hold together, and with increases in migration/expatriation it will only get harder. And with the mass anti-austerity campaigns at the federal level of so many nations, citizens may soon find their answers back where gov’ts started: the local city-state. I don’t think that means an end to realism, but a redefining of its parameters.”

    “Should be abandoned” sounds a bit too strong (and prescriptive). But I agree that changes are occurring.

    “As a added note on Pax Americana, Trump replaced Mike “We’re putting Iran on notice” Flynn with another general: HR McMaster. Not sure if you know much about him. The difference between McMaster and Flynn is night and day, and a huge relief as far as I’m concerned. The guy is calm, clear-headed, and well-spoken. He has a PhD in history and does not seem to be a neocon, or into military adventures. That said, it seems he doesn’t want to give up the idea that the US should be active in controlling world events. If not Pax Americana, or the US as world’s policeman, he still views the world as a collection of semi-superpowers that are exerting strength past their borders, and which the US has to be active in restraining…”

    Needless to say, I’m following all this closely.

  20. elrowley

    I think there is a lot of merit in Benedict Anderson’s idea of nation as “imagined community”. His emphasis on the importance of (especially vernacular) language and communication technologies in the development of national consciousness rings true with me. I’ve got an academic interest in the European tradition of linguistic idealism (which was associated with nationalistic thinking).

    I’ve yet to look at Arjun Appadurai’s writings. I take it that you like/endorse his ideas?

    “I see nation-states as requiring an element of mythologized nationalism for their own survival, and vice versa. It’s hard for me to imagine (no pun intended) the existence of a nation without some element of definition “against” whatever is outside the borders (=nationalism).”

    I get your point. But it doesn’t necessarily conflict with what I am saying. I’m critical of mythical thinking but I recognize that we can’t escape it. And I don’t see myself as supportive of or opposed to the nation state so much as simply trying to understand (changing) political realities. I *am* critical of particular myths, and particular forms of particular myths however.

    “I’m also interested in the dividing line that I may be reading into your writing, which is the messy, unclear, difficult difference between religious mythology and religious fundamentalism. I read this like as the difference between “I am a Christian” and “I am a Christian and you must also be a Christian” (or, for that matter, “you are Jewish,” and “you are Jewish and now I’ll send you to Bergen-Belsen”). One seems sustainable, even in a globalized society; the other is clearly not. The problem, maybe, is the porous boundary between the two.”

    Indeed.

    By the way, I think of fundamentalism more in terms of a naïve interpretation of scripture than in terms of intolerance, though the one can lead to the other (especially when applied politically).

  21. What’s mysterious about a nation or a people? I just don’t get it. When was the last time someone was confused by someone being Italian or Irish? Or hearing an Irishman refer to the “old country”? Or a Jew refer to “Ha’aretz”? Why do such ordinary, common notions require “mythical thinking” or represent a retreat from “reason”?

  22. Hi DanK, all I did in my second reply was give examples of where a person could use quotation marks when referring to people one likes (one’s own group) without it being *scare quotes*. I chose examples to make that point *obvious*. The specific words were not meant to replace or rewrite in meaning or tone what I actually wrote.

  23. Hi Mark, ok, it did sound like it was merely through exportation that the East got the concepts, but you’ve clarified your argument. Thanks!

  24. I should clarify my (negative) position on nations.

    I’m not against nations as political entities on some theoretical or emotional ground. It is simply from viewing their failure to hold together as practical instruments of serving common interests. It seems to take a lot more energy to hold them together, than what the people get out of them. Of course, the smaller the nation the more reliable they are (more beholden to local concerns), so this criticism is better viewed against massive nations. But you can find vast differences in interests, and desire to break from each other, at very small scales (look at Belgium).

    To the catchy idea of Ireland for Irish, Italy for Italians, etc there’s nothing much wrong with it, but “nations” as “cultures” is more or less mythical thinking that has little relevance for policy or discussion of existing nation-states. The UK for Scots, Brits, (some) Irish, etc? The US for??? Russia for???

    As I mentioned, even a small nation like Belgium has more than one cultural sub-population… and that is before we get into the fact that Ireland, Italy, etc are filled with sub-populations of immigrants from other nations whose descendants will be… what? What is their actual “nationality”? Are the changes they bring “poison” (note: those are scare quotes) to their host culture?

    And then there is the ongoing mixing of different ethnicities/nationalities, which is only going to increase. I am German and Scot with some Brit and Irish. So what national culture am I supposed to “belong” to? All, none? Maybe I’m just a US citizen, who is an immigrant in the Netherlands.

    What of the people, whose nation no longer exists, in name or reality? It came as a surprise to some Iraqis who had returned (in hopes) to rule Iraq, that it was no longer the nation they had left long ago. Their feelings were nostalgia, not facts on the ground.

    Time moves forward, not backwards, and while nostalgia can be fun and useful in places, it often makes for bad policy. “Italy” like any other nation, is made up of people from different locations as you press further back in time. Why are “Italians” (especially those living outside its borders) supposed to stop their search for identity at “Italy” rather than where their more ancient predecessors came from? And conversely, why can’t/shouldn’t “Italians” yearn to create a new nation, freed from parts of the current culture they don’t like, there or elsewhere in the world?

    Israel is a great example of all of this. The first state of Israel was founded by people that came from somewhere else (creating something new), which… like many ancient nations… fell and was lost to time. The modern state of Israel is not the same thing as that ancient nation. It contains people of different ethnic origin, with different government structure, and different stated goals… though there are some among the population pushing policies to recreate what was “lost”. Which group, which concept, is the real Israel?

    There is a fallacy known as “No true Scotsman” and its validity rests on the knowledge that “Scottish” as a culture is not monolithic. The same is true for people from any other nation/culture. The desire by some to engage in deep mythical thinking and impose a monoculture on nations (as political entities), tends to result in bigotry, suffering, and death.

  25. Dwayne: If there is a point somewhere in there or at least, one that is responsive to the very simple points I’ve made — that there is nothing weird or “mythical” or “irrational” about nations and peoples; that it is bizarre and offensive to be flip about the perfectly natural and reasonable Jewish desire for a country, after expulsion, torment, and mass extermination; that “reason” and “enlightenment” have had just as many negative effects as “romance”; etc. — I have no idea what it is.

    I think I’ll just leave it.

  26. Hi Dan K, my last reply was not directed entirely to your statements.

    The first paragraph was a response to Mark’s reply about my degree of being against nations as political entities, explaining that it is not an emotional or theoretical issue, but a practical matter.

    The rest increased the scope to nations as cultures, which took a statement by you (Italy for Italians) as a way in to that topic. Here, I thought there were greater problems, in practice and theory… though emotionally I get it and as I said they can be sources of fun and some practical use. I thought my discussion of the problems was pretty straightforward. If you are not interested in those problems, fine, but they exist.

    To your concerns…

    “that there is nothing weird or “mythical” or “irrational” about nations and peoples”

    There is certainly nothing weird about nations or peoples. I’d say they contain a mix of irrational and rational elements, of which the former does not discredit them or the latter credit them. I agree with Mark that there are mythical elements to both, whether secular or religious, and again this is not necessarily a discredit.

    That said, when trying to build policy from such notions (which I thought was Mark’s target) they grow increasingly problematic as they rely on irrational elements, in particular mythic, and even more particular religious myth. Then again you pointed out quite accurately that rational elements can increase the severity of problems, and I admitted there are wholly secular myths (utilitarianism, I could add now Marxism) which can/have lead to great devastation.

    “that it is bizarre and offensive to be flip about the perfectly natural and reasonable Jewish desire for a country, after expulsion, torment, and mass extermination”

    My first reply to you stated you had given rational reasons (agree perfectly natural and reasonable), and went further to support this by increasing examples of others using (wanting to use) the same rationale. So I thought I was clear on that point.

    My defense of Mark’s piece is that your argument (of a rational reason) seemed to be missing the point of his argument, which is about ideals used to form and maintain the nature of a nation… particularly within the scope of modern national policy. Thus I don’t see what he wrote as dismissing Jews had rational motives at all, much less that his writing was bizarre or flip.

    “that “reason” and “enlightenment” have had just as many negative effects as “romance””

    Again, I thought I already answered that, though I didn’t get quantitative. I have no idea which had “more negative effects”. If you have a breakdown that would be great. However, I already know I would disagree with labelling European anti-semitism, especially the Holocaust, as reason or enlightenment based, even if the latter’s efficiency at creating atrocities was increased by products of the enlightenment. Many of the problems within Europe (and the MidEast) have been based on religious myths, and trying to obtain them. I think they have a pretty bad track record.

  27. Dwayne: OK. I understand your points. I think that both you and Mark attribute far too much to what you consider “bad ways of thinking” but it’s not something I am likely to debate you out of.

  28. Dan

    I was going to stay out of the discussion between you and Dwayne, having already given my responses to your criticisms. But you mention me in your last comment, and Dwayne made a number of allusions to and defenses of what I was saying. I thank him for his support.

    You write: “I think that both you [Dwayne] and Mark attribute far too much to what you consider “bad ways of thinking” but it’s not something I am likely to debate you out of.”

    I am certainly happy to recognize that there are lots of grey areas where even people with similar outlooks will disagree. I am certainly not going around saying that we need to abolish (as if we could!) mythical and magical thinking. But we can talk about it, can’t we? And critique particular myths if we think they are doing harm.

    I recall your very strong response to a former contributor here who had Santa Claus in his sights. The main problem with his polemic (as I recall) was that it could have been seen as humorless and blinkered in a rationalistic kind of way. Molehill. Mountain.

    Traditional customs and so on are one thing, but literalistic readings and naïve interpretations of scripture are another. Surely we can agree that the latter represent “bad ways of thinking”. Even those of us who might have religious affiliations and/or are open to theological modes of thought would accept this, I think.

    One of the points I was making was that such views are influencing (directly and indirectly) American foreign policy in relation to Israel and the Middle East. I wanted to speak out against the application of naïve religious thinking to foreign policy questions because, in my view, such thinking, so applied, adds substantively to the risks of serious military conflict.

  29. Mark, I would certainly agree than any number of types of “mythical” thinking are terribly misapplied to politics and to policy. If evangelical Christian policy makers are making middle East policy on Dispensationalist grounds, then I categorically condemn it. If Zionism was primarily motivated by woolly thinking about Jews’ destiny in the Holy Land, I’d want a better reason. But, I think you wildly overestimate how much such thinking *really* determines politics and policy, in part because I think you are somewhat credulous in your engagement with these sorts of claims.

    I am much more in the — I guess Marxist — school of thought that most politics and policy is ultimately motivated by economic concerns and imperatives, though I would also add existential ones, in the narrow sense of the term.

    Put another way, if the Jews had enjoyed terrific times in the Diaspora, there would have been no Zionist movement. And if the Arab nations had not cynically used the Palestinians as a distraction, in their efforts to destroy Israel, once it became clear they could not do so militarily, we’d already have Israeli-Palestinian peace by now.

  30. “I think you wildly overestimate how much such thinking *really* determines politics and policy, in part because I think you are somewhat credulous in your engagement with these sorts of claims.”

    Wildly overestimate? Look at my actual claims (about adding to the risk, etc.).

    Credulous? Like you, I tend to see actual policy as being determined largely on pragmatically political and economic grounds. Largely, but not entirely.

    And I would also say that, in many contexts, fundamentalist religious thinking plays into and helps to define what is a politically attractive course from a cynically pragmatic point of view.

  31. Well, I explained quite specifically, the sorts of things to which I think you were way overestimating the influence of “bad mythical thinking.” I probably couldn’t be much more specific than that. I think Zionism was overwhelmingly a reaction to the very negative Jewish experience in the Diaspora, and I think the ongoing, metastasized P/I conflict is largely a matter of the cynicism — and military impotence — of the Arab states. And my initial reaction to your piece was largely about the treatment of these issues at the end, though I did also take issue with some of it more generally.

  32. Hi DanK, whew… I think we can bring this to a close in some measure of agreement. 🙂

    I agree that most international policy emanates from practical issues: economic/territorial/resources.

    But there are obvious cases where other issues (irrational, mythical, etc) are the only factor, or (more often) the critical factor in selecting *between* options. Perhaps most significant in this discussion, these other issues are what usually get used to *mobilize popular support* behind policy, because cut and dried rational discussion does not excite most people. Few want to go to war “for want of the price of tea and a slice”, but rather for Queen and Country, to defeat an Axis of Evil, etc.

    ““bad ways of thinking””

    I’d prefer “problematic ways of thinking when trying to deal with certain issues”, but you’re probably right that I see such things as playing greater roles than you do, and it might be a sticking point we can’t get past in any analysis.

    “Put another way, if the Jews had enjoyed terrific times in the Diaspora, there would have been no Zionist movement.”

    Not certain about *no* movement, but I largely agree with this and especially your second phrasing of it: “I think Zionism was overwhelmingly a reaction to the very negative Jewish experience in the Diaspora”.

    “And if the Arab nations had not cynically used the Palestinians as a distraction, in their efforts to destroy Israel, once it became clear they could not do so militarily, we’d already have Israeli-Palestinian peace by now.”

    Now this to me is a more problematic claim.

    Generally, I’d be willing to leave it alone, beyond a question (out of curiosity) what you think the nature of that peace (and those communities) would have been. However, addressing the problems with that claim reveals the various uses and downfalls mythical thinking (not yours but others) can play in generating policy. So I will address it in a follow up reply.

  33. Hi DanK, so I wanted to unpack my arguments about the following statement, within the context of issues discussed in Mark’s essay…

    “And if the Arab nations had not cynically used the Palestinians as a distraction, in their efforts to destroy Israel, once it became clear they could not do so militarily, we’d already have Israeli-Palestinian peace by now.”

    *The Past*— Historically, there were reasonable options floated for creating a Jewish state outside of the MidEast and it was arguably mythical thinking which kept interest focused on that region, to the exclusion of direct, practical concerns against it. If other options had been taken (early on), there would not have been an Israeli-Palestinian issue at all, and the loss of so much money and lives to establish and maintain a Jewish state in that specific region. Getting to what I said in my previous post, while not the sole or major cause of interest in a Jewish state, the mythic dimension was a great motivating force (morale and incentive) for many in the movement and seemed to drive selection between options.

    And while I agree that Arab nations have used the Palestinians as pawns in their own game, their interest (against Israel) is mostly based on mythical thinking, not economic concerns, which supports the criticism being made by Mark and myself. If in fact Arab leaders are entirely cynical, with no ethno-religious motivation, they certainly use that kind of thinking to motivate others toward their own desired ends.

    Finally, to concentrate on Palestinians being pawns of Arab nations, ignores the fact that Western powers have been using Israel for their own ends. Some of this was politically/economically motivated and some of it clearly mythical thinking, using that dimension as pretext to resettle Jews in Israel (that is *their* land, as if they have no right/reason to live elsewhere) while creating a block to Arab/Muslim powers in the region. Basically (to my mind) it was just an extension of crusade mentality/concerns.

    *The Present*— Given that Israel is a strong state, with support from the US, and Palestinians are basically living in an open air prison, Israel controls the peace process. Not the Palestinians, not Arab nations. And it seems clear the current Israeli gov’t and its associated settler movement (in word and action) are not interested in peace without obtaining religious, myth-based goals. They have moved the goal posts toward this end a few times, the worst part being the settlement movement which has made a Palestinian state a practical impossibility. None of this would have occurred if the US had not enabled these moves, particularly by continuing financial and military aid without strings attached to prevent it. In the US, large scale support comes from Christians who view US support for Israel from a religious rather than practical standpoint, and from fundamentalist Christians in particular who view this support (many quite openly) as part of a religious war of biblical import.

    Unfortunately these are the realities on the ground, for certainly leadership on all sides (no matter who you think *is* in control) are not dealing with strict economic goals or this would have been over long ago. In this case, mythical thinking has been/is being used for rallying cries as well as for setting agendas. This is a good example of where mythical thinking has become problematic.

    …………

    Obviously, the above account is also a (gross) over-simplification of the very complicated history, but I think accurately places how mythical thinking has influenced motivation and action during significant events.

  34. Dwayne: This is not the place to air out our differences on the P/I and A/I conflict, though I disagree almost entirely with your take on it. I will only bullet a few key points, but my aim is not to sustain a debate on this in the comments thread, and I will not reply to further developments on it. Maybe we should do dueling essays on the subject.

    1. The Jews accepted the partition plan, set out by the UN. The Arab states rejected it, on the cynical assumption that they could easily kill all the Jews in Palestine and have the whole thing for themselves. Without that one key fact, there would be neither an A/I nor a P/I conflict. Of course, the Arab states lost a humiliating defeat, despite their overwhelming numerical superiority, and thus began the situation that we have been living with since.

    2. The fact is that Israel is the historical — not mythical — home of the Jewish people, who were in the diaspora, precisely because they were expelled from that home, in which they once had several kingdoms. Israel is *not* the home of the Arabs who come from Arabia and are in Israel as a result of the Muslim invasions into lands that at the time were held by Christendom. One needn’t hold to any “mythical thinking” for this to be true, as it is a matter of uncontested historical record.

    3. The only reason that the Israelis have any presence in the “occupied territories” is because of the ’67 war, in which the Israelis preemptively struck Egypt, who, with a coalition of Arab states, was on the cusp of a massive invasion, with Soviet backing. The crushing defeat they suffered caused them to lose the lands they had previously controlled. Don’t want to lose land? Don’t start a war. And if you do and lose it, don’t complain afterwards. That’s something that school-age children should understand.

    4. American support for Israel has overwhelmingly been a result of (a) common culture (meaning, Western, largely secular liberal culture), (b) the Cold War, and (c) the fact that Israel remains the only liberal, democratic, non-basket-case country in the region. If they had the oil that Saudi Arabia had, we’d have no business with the Arab states whatsoever, who have proven again and again that not only can they not run their own countries, they cannot behave like responsible actors in a region.

    5. Israel was founded as a secular, socialist country, and was the darling of the global Left well into the 1980’s. The sudden turn against it is recent and has very little to do with any actual facts on the ground.

    6. Following from 5., Israel’s population has slowly been shoved into the arms of its political Right Wing — which had no substantial power in Israel since its founding — as a result of terrorism in the 1970’s and the successive “intifadas” of the 1990’s and beyond. This has empowered political forces in Israel that were always fringe, marginal elements and could be the single most stupid thing the Palestinians have done over the course of this recent history — and they have done many. Had Arafat made a deal with Ehud Barak — in which something like 90% of Palestinian demands were met — we would not only already been in a peaceful region, in which I think it very likely that the Palestinian and Israel states would be closely and productively economically connected, the ascendancy of the Israeli Right and the ultra-Orthodox religious forces behind it would never have occurred and Israel would still be a Center-Left country.

    7. Israel can easily survive the current situation, given their overwhelming military superiority and their dynamic, advanced, booming economy. (Whether the religious parties will spoil that survival is a different question.) The Palestinians will not. And when the oil runs out, neither will the Arab states. And it will be entirely their own fault, for having reacted so stupidly to the creation of a Jewish country in their midst that is no bigger than New Jersey. That this country has been more successful in every respect than they, in spite of its tininess, its lack of oil, and its being constantly attacked by those who outnumber it 100 to 1, should not only deeply shame its antagonists but set them upon a project of serious national soul-searching, which I have zero confidence they will do.

    8. Lastly, I agree with you that much of what is responsible for the failure of the Arab states and their Palestinian fodder — and that’s what they are to them, fodder — is a catastrophic type of mythical thinking. But to claim that this is the primary engine of Zionism is flat-out wrong, and reflects either a shocking degree of historical ignorance or else some kind of axe that is being ground.

    For those who are interested, I did a substantial dialogue on this over at BHTV with a Jewish interlocutor who is quite anti-Zionist.

    http://bloggingheads.tv/videos/34435

    Final note: I very much identify with the Zionist Left. I am unequivocally opposed to the Israeli Right and especially, the religious parties. But I do very much blame their rise on the treatment of Israel by the Arab states and the Palestinians. They have created their own nightmare — and ours.

  35. Hi Dan K, I still want to end this on more of an up note, even though we do seem to have differences on the conflict. So I will keep this short.

    My last reply was not supposed to be about the conflict itself, and admitted the account was a gross over-simplification. I agreed with some of your more in depth historical points, but most did not change (or touch) what I was saying about where mythical thinking has been involved by different actors.

    The only challenge was in point 2 (where I would disagree with your argument but will let you have the last word on it) and point 4 about sources of support in the US, which I will note somehow ignores openly stated reasons given by the groups I indicated, and who provide much of the support (especially among conservative republicans). I mean I don’t disagree with those three points you mention being in there, but my position is that there can be more than practical issues (that affect policy).

    In the last part of point 8 you said…

    “But to claim that this is the primary engine of Zionism is flat-out wrong, and reflects either a shocking degree of historical ignorance or else some kind of axe that is being ground.”

    I explicitly said that it wasn’t the primary engine (which I would take to mean sole or main cause), having already agreed with you what that was. The most I said was that it was a “…great motivating force (morale and incentive) for many in the movement and seemed to drive selection between options.” That is hardly controversial, especially for those in the early movement when choices were being considered on where to construct a new state, and does not replace what the primary engine was for what they were doing.

    “But I do very much blame their rise on the treatment of Israel by the Arab states and the Palestinians. They have created their own nightmare — and ours.”

    Whether I agree with that assessment or not, the point I would make is that we are still left with the facts on the ground. The right and religious are in power (in both Israel and the US) and so we are dealing with problems associated with mythical thinking, brought about by earlier mythical thinking (according to your own account). This seems to vindicate the overall argument Mark was making (and I support)… it would be useful for people to consider the myths they employ when developing policy. Religious myths can be particularly troublesome.

    I’ll definitely watch the video. It sounds interesting.

  36. Dwayne: Needless to say, I don’t agree that I have in any way vindicated Mark’ argument or yours, but that’s fine. I am rather shocked that you want to deny that the diaspora consists of the Jews’ exile from their original home in Israel, given that this is in fact what the diaspora is.

  37. Hi DanK,

    “Needless to say, I don’t agree that I have in any way vindicated Mark’ argument or yours, but that’s fine.”

    Ok, but I admit confusion how that is possible. It looked like you were saying the worst decisions in this situation have been made by those using mythical thinking, and not making practical choices. If so, that would seem a vindication?

    “I am rather shocked that you want to deny that the diaspora consists of the Jews’ exile from their original home in Israel, given that this is in fact what the diaspora is.”

    I said I would disagree with the argument you made in point 2. But rejecting your argument does not entail the above position. And how could it when I already agreed that ill treatment during the diaspora drove Zionism?

    If you want me to unpack my position, I can.

    It just seemed a bit tangential to (what I took to be) the point of the essay.

    Looking forward to watching your video today.

  38. Ok, but I admit confusion how that is possible. It looked like you were saying the worst decisions in this situation have been made by those using mythical thinking, and not making practical choices. If so, that would seem a vindication?

    ——————————

    Mark attributed Zionism itself to mythical thinking. I do not accept that and explained why, pretty clearly. He also assigned mythical thinking a primary role in much of the negative results of national and neo-imperial global activity, which I also reject and also explained pretty clearly why. So, I admit to finding your confusion confusing.

    Do people make bad decisions, based on mythical thinking? Absolutely. (They also make some great decisions based on mythical thinking) Does mythical thinking explain most or even much of the bad things going on geo-politically? Absolutely not. Those are the result of economic and other more mundane and basic existential imperatives.

  39. mpboyle56

    Late to the comments on this, but wanted to post given the somewhat odd (although not unusual in the contemporary world) direction of things.

    Given that the Jewish people is one of the oldest (and culturally rich) continuous ethnoi in the world, with an unbroken presence in Israel since ancient times it is most certainly a poor example, as DanK has indicated. Whatever Zionism’s ties to Romanticism, the Jewish people are far too ancient to fit all that easily into the post-1648 nation state box or its various European manifestations. The reasons why Zionists created Israel include, most importantly, the treatment of the Jewish people in the West. Behind that there are reasons both religious and secular, including (as DanK notes) elements coming out of modernity itself- not only the technology used to exterminate but eugenic rationales to justify that extermination.

    Beyond all this, however, no one ever asks about myths regarding Palestinians. Completely apart from the plight of the ordinary Palestinian just trying to live their lives (with which all can certainly sympathize), one might ask the definitely un-PC question about whether such a people even exist as a distinguishable ethnographic entity.

    According to Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinians and Jordanians are the same people. This is historically accurate and, moreover, appears to be the view of a substantial number of Palestinians as well.

    http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Do-Palestinians-want-a-state-with-Jordan-470558

    No people is free of myths, of course. Nor are they always detrimental. But in our day and age, some myths seem to be more exempt from scrutiny than others.

    Not saying this was intentional on anyone’s part here, BTW.

  40. Mpboyle: Good to see you around these parts again! It’s been too long! Don’t be a stranger!

  41. Hi Dan K, sort of a mixed bag…

    To be fair to me, I said his *overall argument* and actually gave an idea what that was. It had nothing to do with attributing Zionism (in total) to mythical thinking. If the beginning of his essay didn’t make that clear his last four paragraphs should.

    To be fair to you, well… you got me… you are right. Not being sarcastic here. I got a bit overenthusiastic and jumped from one instance fitting the overall argument to claiming “vindication” of it. That was some bad thinking on my part. 🙂

    But, to be fair to me, the following claims seem a bit more asserted than shown to be true…

    “(They also make some great decisions based on mythical thinking) Does mythical thinking explain most or even much of the bad things going on geo-politically? Absolutely not. Those are the result of economic and other more mundane and basic existential imperatives.”

    I admitted earlier I don’t know the percentage breakdown of how *many* things can be attributed to what mode of thinking, and I already said I think economic and other practical matters underlie many decisions. My position is that mythical thinking and fundamentalist religious mythical thinking in particular, tends to (not always) lead to worse outcomes, being used not just as the sole reason for policy, but to direct decisions between available options, and to motivate people to that cause.

    You and I have been on the earth for the same amount of time. Most of the *worst* policies I’ve seen… those with the most dire outcomes for the people they affect… have been driven, decided on by, or promoted using mythical thinking, particularly fundamentalist religious thinking.

    Moving beyond Israel/Palestine. The MidEast in general (3 wars involving the US and many terrorist incidents, esp. 9/11) have always had mythical thinking mixed in with whatever else was involved (if anything else). The Bosnian War (and genocide). The Rwandan genocide. South Africa’s Apartheid. Policies that restricted women’s health and reproductive rights (cutting aid where abortion/contraception allowed). Policies that allowed for HIV to grow to the greatest pandemic the earth has seen since the plague (maybe worse), based in part on not wanting to help its initially identified victims, and after because things like condoms, testing, and preventative medicine would promote sinful behavior.

    I could go on, but those are most of the biggest impact events I know of. Was this not the same for you? And the thing I find really weird is that we are both from persecuted minorities, which you seem pretty intense about, and all the worst stuff that has happened to either group throughout history has been directly tied to fundamentalist religious mythical thinking.

    Given the state of the world as it is (with fundamentalist thought in power), the recent history I/we have experienced, and the specific sources of bad policy toward our groups historically… why would Mark’s message seem so outrageous?

  42. > But you can find vast differences in interests, and desire to break from each other, at very small scales (look at Belgium).

    I’m late to this discussion but I know a bit about European history and I fail to see any link between Romantic ideas of nationhood and the creation of Belgium. As far as I know Belgium had to invent its myths of nationhood etc. after it was created.

  43. Dwayne: I think we should have stopped this exchange several rounds ago. I am suggesting again that we stop, now.

  44. Hi MPBoyle, also glad to see you back, though that won’t protect your post from some heavy push back. 🙂

    “Given that the Jewish people is one of the oldest (and culturally rich) continuous ethnoi in the world, with an unbroken presence in Israel since ancient times, it is most certainly a poor example…”

    1) How can the Jewish people be said to have “an unbroken presence in Israel since ancient times”, when the entire concept of the diaspora is, as Dan stated, that “they were expelled from that home”, and given the simple fact that (after being conquered) Israel as a Jewish Kingdom ceased to exist for a very very long time. Centuries? Millenia? Is it being argued that the Jewish people who remained after it fell, acted like some metaphysical placeholder in the region, for all those that left, despite the reality that the land as a whole became someone else’s and many Jews did assimilate into other cultures? In the context of current conflict, this sort of thing is sort of useless myth, which I’ll explain in the next point.

    2) The modern State of Israel is a new and wholly different entity than the Kingdom of Israel, with an ethnically and culturally diverse population. None of that is a strike against it (to me). The reason for its necessity was given as the threat posed to the Jewish people. Would that reason have been less if they were a younger, less “rich” culture, with no one having lived in those lands before, or since? If so, wow. If not, what is the point of such claims beyond arguing some form of exceptionalism?

    3) Given what you say, it is a most poor example of what? People without fundamentalist religious myths? How does this even connect with Mark’s essay or the discussion? His essay was about mythical thinking, noting the special problem fundamentalist religious myth can play in policy, including Christianity and Islam.

    “… coming out of modernity itself- not only the technology used to exterminate but eugenic rationales to justify that extermination.”

    There was no reason-based “eugenic rationale” to justify the extermination of Jews. It was based on the same reason given for centuries, as promoted by religious propaganda against them: they are a dangerous, inferior people. The religious hate and bigotry was necessary and sufficient. Eugenics would have been silent on the Jewish people without it.

    “… no one ever asks about myths regarding Palestinians.”

    Pardon, but people have, usually when they are about to make the next bizarre statement…

    “… one might ask… whether such a people even exist as a distinguishable ethnographic entity.”

    Seriously, what does that have to do with anything?

    Are they human? Do they live on the land? Have they themselves been living on the land for some time? Those are about the only questions that are relevant to whether we have to take their interests seriously.

    Nothing to do with PC. How is that *relevant*?

    It seems you are trying to prop a “people without a land, for a land without a people” myth, or argue that somehow people with older, contiguous cultures have more rights to live (on lands related to their ancestors) than younger or more diverse people who happen to be living there right now.

    If that last point were true, the US needs to give its land back.

    “But in our day and age, some myths seem to be more exempt from scrutiny than others.”

    I could have sworn that Mark was arguing that people check their own myths. Everyone. Somehow that was all problems. Ahhhh, but a call to check the myths of those wily, scheming, so-called Palestinians, is ok (including by Dan)? Sheesh.

  45. Hi Dan K, OK.

  46. Dwayne Holmes wrote:

    I could have sworn that Mark was arguing that people check their own myths. Everyone. Somehow that was all problems. Ahhhh, but a call to check the myths of those wily, scheming, so-called Palestinians, is ok (including by Dan)? Sheesh.

    ===================

    I said nothing of the sort. So sheesh off.

  47. Hi Couvent, my comment about Belgium was not explicitly about the Romantic Era, or Romantic ideas of nationhood. It was about using nations as references for culture. The given example was Ireland for the Irish, Italy for the Italians. Belgium is a nation with different cultures, some antagonistic. I went on to point out others.

  48. Sorry Dan, that was already posted before I saw your reply asking to end discussion. I would have left it out entirely otherwise. It was in reference to your liking a post that pretty much ended on that, not your having said it. I grant you could have liked it for other reasons. I’ll sheesh off now.

  49. DB,

    > I’m not against nations as political entities on some theoretical or emotional ground. It is simply from viewing their failure to hold together as practical instruments of serving common interests.

    Let’s focus on Belgium for a moment. Between, say, 800 and 1815 it has known many different political structures and types of government. Feudalism, city states, counties and duchies, the principality-episcopacy of Liege, the occupation by post-revolutionary France …

    Is there any reason at all to think that these structures and governments served the “common interests” of the population better than the nation state?

    Perhaps one could make the case that the very idea of a “common interest” was invented by the nation state.

  50. mpboyle56

    My point re: the antiquity of the Jewish people was to point out that using Israel as a paradigmatic example of a nation state and myth is fraught with complexities, partly because of the role of religion and history and the use of modern categories for ancient peoples. Ditto for the metaphysical/historical distinction. Hence a poor example, I thought. As to the Palestinians, given that the PLO has made clear that Palestinian identity is a political, tactical move whose purpose is Arab opposition to Israel, using the nation state model is also problematic here, IMHO, but for different reasons (because then the issue is an Arab/Israeli issue not Palestinian/Israeli). Note that I made very clear my sympathy with the ordinary Palestinian. What I find odd is simply that, usually, Palestinian identity is never asked about- even when the discussion is about myths and peoples and Israel.

    My puzzlement at the lack of discussion as to anti-Semitism as the cause for the creation of Israel- that point was not intended to be linked to any other.

  51. Hi Couvent, you have a point with raising the question if they did serve interests better. I’m not sure. Not a fan of feudalism so I would think the democratic nation state was better, though as democracies seem heading toward neo-feudalism (via economic systems) maybe not for long?

    I should note that in one of my posts in this thread… maybe that one… I said my criticism of nations as political entities was probably better made against massive states rather than small nations (like Belgium).

    “Perhaps one could make the case that the very idea of a “common interest” was invented by the nation state.”

    Could be. That is certainly true for the US and that it ended up redoing its initial constitution to tighten federal power would seem to argue that larger might be better, might better serve the common interest than loosely federated states. But at this point it is hard to find as much common ground in the much larger nation that the US has become.

    As an aside, this is pretty off topic and probably better continued on a later essay.

  52. Hi MPBoyle, just writing to say thanks for your reply. Whether or not I agree it intersects with Mark’s intention/argument, it clears up (to me) where you were coming from. I’ll bow out so as not to stress readers with more of my commentary in the thread.

  53. mpboyle

    I was going to let your original comment pass, but now, in responding to dbholmes, you have again expressed “puzzlement at the lack of discussion as to anti-Semitism as the cause for the creation of Israel.”

    Why should I have discussed or even mentioned anti-Semitism as a cause for the creation of Israel *in the context of this essay*? Of course anti-Semitism was a key driving factor behind the Zionist movement. Nothing I said could possibly be seen to deny this.

    In your earlier comment you wrote:

    “Given that the Jewish people is one of the oldest (and culturally rich) continuous ethnoi in the world, with an unbroken presence in Israel since ancient times it is most certainly a poor example…”

    It happens to be an example which involves different kinds of myth (secular and religious in addition to non-myth-based factors) and which happens to loom large in respect of US foreign policy. The broader context of the essay is a series of pieces on US foreign policy. America’s Middle East policies cannot, I would suggest, be understood if the close links with Israel are ignored. And attitudes to Israel and attitudes to certain Israeli policy directions are affected in many cases by attitudes to Zionism and to certain sacred texts. By contrast, secular and religious mythical thinking – (with nationalism) the main topic of the essay – is less relevant to America/China relations, for example.

    “Whatever Zionism’s ties to Romanticism, the Jewish people are far too ancient to fit all that easily into the post-1648 nation state box or its various European manifestations.”

    What you say here is in no way incompatible with what I wrote.

    Your point and the link about the Palestinians’ perceptions of kinship with the people of Jordan does relate to questions of national identity and to that extent is relevant to the topic of the OP. But the focus seems to be on the merit of various possible solutions to disputes between Israel and the Palestinians, a very specific and difficult question which can hardly be dealt with here in a satisfactory way.

  54. mpboyle56

    Mark,

    Thanks for your comment. Other than a brief mention of Herzl, the impression the article left on me was of Zionism and the other nationalisms in Europe being variations on the same theme, with Zionism having a bit of an anti-assimilationist twist. To me it just seemed a bit out of focus without mention of anti-Semitism as a driving force. As to the Palestinians and Israelis, my point is not at all to delve into the minefield of possible solutions, merely to mention that myths and national identity are a complex issue, including for Palestinians.