Plumb Lines

June 9, 2009

Ethnicity vs. Nationality

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 11:53 am

Mark Thompson and Freddie trade posts on whether the identification of a state with an ethnic identity necessarily leads to atavistic polices. First Freddie, with his radically anti-communitarian liberalism:

Any notion that a state has a distinct religious, ethnic or racial character is corrosive to genuine democracy.

Then Mark, suggesting that ethnic or racial communities may play a role in founding democracies, but eventually should allow themselves to be dissolved into the pluralistic melting pot.

The conversation reads as bizarrely ahistorical to me. A nation is different from an ethnicity, and indeed the two are historically opposed. Nations are the products of states, and are stable at the order of centuries. A nation is a (largely invented!) unity of genome, language, land, and sometimes religion.  Ethnicities are the raw material fashioned by states into nations, and are usually unstable over centuries because they rarely represent more than one kind of unity — linguistic, geographic, genetic, religious, or social. (It’s important to bracket Anglo-American history, because it’s exceptional. The English “nation” was indeed invented, but like the English constitution largely by accident, because of the Black Plague and the defeat of the Plantagenet claim in the Hundred Years’ War. In contradistinction, the French nation was created at the expense of the Savoyards, the Breton language, the people of Berry, by a combination of deliberate violence, deliberate marginalization, and the economic disruption brought about by the Industrial Revolution.)

It’s also worth noting that the kind of  liberalism Freddie espouses, the rights he thinks (and most Americans think) universal, were first articulated as the rights of Englishmen. This is famously the irony of the 18th century, of course. Modern liberalism, with all its universalist aspirations, was invented in nation-states, the most explicitly anti-universal form of state organization yet conceived.

All of this to agree with Mark. Either polities that aspire to universality must have something other than the state to hold them together, or the state will hold them together by tyrannical suppression of local loyalties.

David Schaengold

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1 Comment »

  1. I was thinking somewhat on similar lines the last few days since I made my original post. You need an ethnicity to form a democratic “nation”; otherwise the nation will sink into civil war, dissolve, and/or wind up united under a heavy-fisted tyrant. Oddly, though, over time a new “ethnicity” will be formed one way or another – either as a result of pluralism or as a result of tyranny. I’m increasingly tending to think that within the next century (or more likely two) the notion of being any kind of hyphenated American will disappear completely as inter-ethnic marriages gradually eliminate racial and ethnic distinctions. Especially amongst Caucasian children of the generation now being born, it’s already going to be near-impossible for most of them to define themselves as anything but “American.” When I was a kid, we used to have days at school intended to celebrate our ancestry; for most kids, this was easy – almost everyone was at least half descended from one or another country, and most were at least three quarters so (for me, I was three-quarters Polish, believe it or not…guess which quarter wasn’t). But how do you define yourself as anything but “American” when your ancestry is 1/4 Polish, 1/4 Italian, 1/4 German, and 1/4 Irish?

    Comment by Mark Thompson — June 9, 2009 @ 12:42 pm


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