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Me Talk Prettier Than You: Elite and Popular Discourse

champagnebeer paps blue ribbon

One of the divides that has emerged more starkly from the Brexit debate and the candidacy of Donald Trump is the distinction between elite and popular discourse. Just being overly general for the moment, elite discourse is most associated with the educated and professional classes and is characterized by what is considered to be acceptable forms of argument, the use of evidence, the recognition of complexity, and articulation. Popular discourse is more ethnopolitical and nationalistic. It is typically characterized by binary thinking, a simpler and more reductive understanding of the issue, and an ample amount of cognitive rigidity makes it difficult to change attitudes. To be sure, this is a general characterization because both genres are capable of each.

Still, consistent with the well-known polarization of society is the withdrawal of each side into a comfortable discourse structure where the two codes are increasingly removed from one another and the gap between them cannot be transcended very easily.

Additionally, elite and popular discourses share some different sociological and economic orientations. Elites are more cosmopolitan and popular is more local and nationalistic. Elites live in more urban centers and are comfortable with and exposed regularly to diversity. Those who employ more popular discourse tend to live in smaller towns and are more provincial. They seem to resist cultural change more and are less comfortable with diversity.

These two orientations toward language divide the leave-remain vote over Brexit and the electorate that characterizes the differences between Clinton and Trump. But this distinction is more than a socioeconomic divide that reflects some typical differences between people. It symbolizes the polarization currently characterizing American politics and has the potential to spiral into dangerous violence as the “popular” form of discourse becomes more “nationalistic.” It lowers the quality of public discourse and typically degenerates into even more rigid differences and stereotypical exemplars of elite and popular discourse. Nationalist discourse substitutes close minded combativeness for elite debate which can be passionate but is geared toward deliberative conversation that can be constructive. Nationalism is the deep sense of commitment a group has to their collective including territory, history and language. When national “consciousness” sets in then one nation is exalted and considered sacred and worthy of protection even in the face of death. Trump’s catchphrase “make America great again” or “let’s take our country back” or his appeals to separation and distinctiveness by building walls that clearly demark “us” and “them” are all examples of a nationalist consciousness that glorifies the state.

The nationalism espoused by Trump and the “leave” camp during Britain’s vote on the EU question are the primary impediments to consolidating, integrating, and strengthening democracies. All states with any sort of diverse population must establish a civil order that protects those populations; that is, no society will remain integrated and coherent if it does not accommodate ethnic diversity. At the moment, Trump’s rhetoric is divisive and representative of a tribal mentality that clearly wants to separate in many ways various communities in the US. Trump’s references to Mexicans, Jews, Muslims, for example betrays his own nationalistic sentiments.

The two ways to handle ethnic diversity are either pluralistic integration or organizational isolation of groups. Isolating and separating groups is inherently destabilizing and foment ripe conditions for violence. Building a wall and making determinations about who can enter the United States and who can’t are all examples of isolating groups. Intensifying nationalist discourse and the privileging of rights for a dominant group is fundamentally unsustainable.

This gap in the United States between an elite discourse and the nationalist discourse has grown wider and deeper. Each side snickers at the other’s orientation toward language and communication and continues the cycle by reinforcing the superiority of his own discursive position.

 

 

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Managing Ethnic Conflict – Moscow Style

If we want to treat Moscow’s interventions into Eastern Ukraine and Crimea seriously for the moment we might ask about any legitimate concerns on the part of Moscow. But the issue of “legitimate” concerns that justify aggression against others conjures up the rhetorical history of the Soviet Union and their claim to have spheres of influence. Hitler and Stalin used phrases such as this to intervene in the business of others and claim their “legitimate” rights to land and military presence in order to protect Russian citizens or interests.

This is exactly the situation in Eastern Ukraine on the lands that border Russia. Even though these territories have culture contact with Russia and a history of political engagement, the current tensions are not so much the result of locals agitating for stronger associations with mother Russia but with interference by way of propaganda and Russian adventurism. Moreover, it continues Russia’s persistent attention to breakaway regions of the former Soviet Union. Russia has desperately tried to hold on to influence in some of the states (e.g. Georgia, Azerbaijan) but this typically backfires. Ukraine and Kiev will probably be even more oriented toward the West and Ukrainian nationalism will soar.

Ethnic Conflict without the Conflict

The old Soviet Union, like so many political actors, wore blinders that allowed them to see primarily the colors of ethnic groups. The Soviet Union divided and assigned groups to territorial units predominantly on the basis of ethnic heritage. Stalin in particular created ethnic territories and established a broad array of territorial units defined as states. These states were supposed to be homelands for particular national groups (Azeris, Armenians, Uzbeks, etc.). The strategy was to keep groups separate so they could not easily organize against Moscow. It worked for a long time until various groups began to demand independence. Soon, there was ethnic violence and Moscow had its excuse to maintain influence by stepping in and claiming to calm the situation.

Russia has felt quite comfortable intervening in the affairs of its former territories. Russia felt, in fact, very secure and justified by its movement into Crimea. About 58% of the population of Crimea is Russian so the claim to a sphere of influence has some standing. But if Russia feels as if some international commitment has been violated, then they should use diplomacy and the avenues available to them through international law.

The Basic Instruments of International Conflict Management

For my money, Russia has never been particularly good at managing ethnic conflict. Even though historically they oversaw with the old Soviet Union 15 Soviet socialist republics all of which had minority groups, Moscow is sort of a “bull in the china shop.” There are typically four intervention possibilities – military interventions, economic interventions, diplomacy, and dialogue – but Russia relies mostly on military options. In designing a macro level institution meant to facilitate ethnic conflict resolution, the Russians have never been very innovative or creative. Take the case of the Chechens for example. In the northern Caucasus of South Russia Chechens are increasingly a higher percentage of the population, and there are about 20% Russians. Even without Russia agreeing to Chechnya’s autonomy assuring fair treatment, increased cultural autonomy, and more political rights would be reasonable.

When it comes to designing macro structures for divided societies Russia seems to ignore all of them. First, an ethnic group must address the issue of territorial organization of the state. The Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Chechnya and territories, Georgia, and other points of Russian interest are yet to resolve these territorial issues properly. Secondly, is the matter of the governmental relationship between the minority and the majority. And finally, Russia rarely concerns itself with the protection of identity groups and individual rights.

Putin may have successfully grabbed territory in the Crimea but he is increasingly competing with the West rather than a lesser prepared minority. And he may be banking on the fact that the EU will never consider Ukraine a proper European project, but this may be a dangerous wish as Ukraine increasingly turns its attention to the West and thereby makes progress on territoriality, sound governmental relations, and the protection of identity and minority groups.

Ethnopolitical Capitalism and Access to Communication Technology

Most and Lease Expensive Cities

The table above represents the most and least expensive countries in the world. I’m not so concerned in this posting with a discussion of cost of living but with the relationship between how expensive it is to live somewhere and access to media, computers in particular. There is a correlation, a strong correlation, between developing countries and what has been termed the “digital divide.” This lack of access to information and information technology is not a simple unfortunate byproduct of other things, but a crucial issue with respect to economic and social development. Media access will provide the crucial information and knowledge that make developing countries more productive.

The full implication of the consequences of the digital divide are still being untangled, but there is no doubt that the cheapest places to live are usually developing countries and they lag significantly behind industrialized countries when it comes to technology and the Internet. Even more interesting and perhaps detrimental to developing cultures is the fact that these developing countries focus on infrastructure rather than how the technologies are to be used. Of course, infrastructure is important and necessary but issues in information strategies, diffusion of information, and political possibilities are perhaps more important. Communication technology lowers barriers to the development of democracy, helping disadvantaged communities, and facing social problems. There have always been the “haves” and “have-nots” but now there is the “information rich” and “information poor.”

Muslims and the Digital Divide

Catherine O’Donnell in an article on Political Parties and the Digital Divide explains that Muslims are increasingly wired and have made progress in the last years. In particular political parties are online accompanied by growth in blogs, listserv’s, and chat groups. Interestingly, politics in Muslim countries is increasingly online but the divide between rich and poor countries is greater than ever. Developed countries have more high-speed broadband and sophisticated infrastructure. Again, the price of living in developed and undeveloped countries is predictive. The cost of an hour of Internet in a cyber café located in one of the developed countries in the chart above has dropped significantly. But this is not true for less-developed countries.

Prejudice and the Digital Divide

One more insidious relationship is between race and technological availability and use. Technological power is deepening the levels of discrimination suffered by those who live in undeveloped countries and are especially a member of a minority or disadvantaged group. Technological power advantages those already in power and reproduces the class system that makes it so difficult for less powerful groups to prosper. The study “Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide” documents the relationship between the use of new digital technology and disadvantaged groups. Below are some conclusions from the study, which was completed in 1999 so the actual data has changed, but the general thrust of the conclusions still hold.

“Those with higher education have more access to information technology.”

“High income families are more likely than low income families to have Internet access.”

“Political disadvantages are correlated with communication technology disadvantages.”

There is not only a racial divide but an ethnopolitical one. Group contact, including dialogue and deliberation, predominantly rely on access to new technology. And this is increasingly true because new technology provides the means and opportunity for communicative exchange at a far greater level then could ever be achieved by organizing face-to-face contact.

Computer skill and access to the technology and training necessary to maximize their use is a form of new power. If these new technologies are not made available to disadvantaged groups then power gaps will grow even greater and the differences between groups that typically lead to tension and communicative distortions will be exaggerated. Equally as important is the content that travels on communication technology. Dialogue between contentious groups such as Islam and the West must find the public sphere. This is most likely to be in cyberspace.

The Boston Terrorists and Their Imaginary Kinship with Chechnya

The Tsarnaev brothers have little to do with Chechnya. They have spent most of their life in the United States and their connection to Chechnya is on the basis of an imaginary kinship with an ethnonational group. The brothers have been described as “self radicalized.” In other words, over time they developed a powerful sense of their ethnic identity and its humiliation which resulted in decisions to unleash extreme measures. How does this happen? How is it that generally average American boys, with Chechnyan heritage, all of a sudden foreground that Chechnyan heritage and behave so violently?

Well, ethnic identity is like a plot in a murder mystery; it thickens over time. But it remains true that this identity has to be activated or triggered. The more interesting question is how such an identity is triggered. What are the issues most associated with stimulating differentiated group identity? Such identity is rooted in tradition, sacred mythology of the past, and a collective consciousness. The work of Anthony Smith directs attention to the power of myths, memories, traditions, and symbols of ethnic heritage that are used by people like the Tsarnaev brothers to tap into and construct a narrative that tells the story of injustice and retribution. Under particular circumstances this can happen pretty quickly and easily. And it does not only apply to angry groups bent on violence to redress a past injustice. I have seen Jewish students with little knowledge of their Judaism and few touch points with Jewish culture and religion travel on the Birthright trip to Israel and return significantly influenced and changed if not transformed. They have experienced little more than the activation of their ethnic identity through symbols and myths that historically position them within something greater than themselves of which they assume a long kinship.

The map below is just for general information because most people (although not the readers of this blog!) think we are talking about Czechoslovakia rather than Chechnya. Some earlier research on terrorism found that terrorist groups achieved their goals one of which was gaining attention. In other words, immediately following a terrorist act the public turns its attention to the issue or cause of the terrorist. Palestinian terrorism in the 60s and 70s is generally known to have been successful at laying the foundation for future international sympathies toward Palestine. Consequently, I’m sure that Google was filled with searches about Chechnya a few days after the Boston bombings. The public simply asks “who are these people and what are they talking about.” At least that’s true of some of the public but unfortunately large segments remain oblivious and apathetic about conflicts in strange places far away.

Chechnya Map

Very briefly, the Chechens are autonomous people in the Russian Federation in the North Caucasus. They have been in conflict with the Russians for generations and this conflict has radicalized many and been violent, very violent sometimes, on the part of both sides. There has been a raging controversy between Chechens and the Russian government since the early 19th century when Persia gave the territory to the Russians. They became increasingly focused on Islam given the proximity of Chechnya to Turkey and Chechnya’s continuous desire for help from Turkey. In 1944 Stalin committed atrocities and massive human rights violations by deporting the entire population of Chechnya’s to Central Asia because Stalin claimed they were supportive of Hitler. In 1991 after the breakup of the Soviet Union Chechen separatists sought independence from Russia and this resulted in bloody wars. Chechnya continues terrorist activities rooted in ideological Islam and national pride.

Ethnic identity is a relational concept such that the categorization of an ethnic group is based not only on ingroup qualities but differences from outgroups. This is what Edward Said meant when he described the “Oriental” as inferior because he was relationally in opposition to Westerners. The Tsarnaev brothers somehow began to foreground their Chechnyan identity and define it in relational opposition to an American identity (as well as probably a Russian one). The added intensity of having a stigmatized Chechnyan identity (oppressed, mistreated, misunderstood) was probably sufficient to ratchet up their sense of humiliation and justification for violence. Unfortunately, the rising expectations about democratic development and the concurrent increased respect for group rights probably means that we have not seen the last of such violence.

Group Level Perceptions and Racism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

When grappling with the difficult issues of intractable conflicts and how to moderate them one always encounters the “contact” solution; in other words, the two competing groups must get together and begin the process of communicating in such a way that the differences dissipate. There is sound research supporting such a suggestion and my own work, along with many others, is deeply focused on the processes of difficult conversations – or, as some term, dialogue.

There is always then a chorus of people who chuckle and say “this won’t work”. The depth and intensity of the conflict between the two parties, so the claim goes, is so great that talk is a waste of time. Well, this is true sometimes. I know of no serious scholar who believes that talk is magic, but I also know of no serious scholar who doesn’t recognize the centrality of interaction, contact, and some properly controlled form of dialogue.

Beitar will remain pure

What do you do about situations we’ve been reading about recently? I’m talking about the reports of fan racism in soccer in Israel. Israel has suffered a few difficult instances in the last few years with respect to violence against Arabs and Palestinians. But the sports context seems to exacerbate the problem and provide a context for a poison cocktail of attitudes, energized competition, and ignorance that produces a combustible mixture of racism.

Recently, plans by Beitar Jerusalem soccer club to add its first Muslim players prompted violent and racist incidents in Israel. During a recent match between Beitar and a team from Umm El Fahm hundreds of police had to be deployed. Beitar Jerusalem fans held up the banner above(which reads “Beitar will remain pure forever”) which connotes very unpleasant references to “group purity” an attitude that Jews – at least most Jews – would like to forget. Beitar gets its name from the youth movement, linked to Herut the forerunner of Likud, which opposes Israel’s Arab neighbors. The team name symbolizes a position of honor in Israeli youth movements. Some Beitar fans lead chants calling the Arabs offensive names, which prompts the Arab teams to call out “Allahu akbar.” Some Israeli teams do include Arabs but not Beitar.

The sports environment activates group level perceptions that cause fans and players to identify even more strongly with their national and ethnic group. Sports is a team activity and it is thus easier to foreground a collective group identity. The “individual” versus “group” level of perception is exaggerated in the sports context. People can feel threatened or vulnerable and they can feel this on an individual basis or a group basis, and the two levels of perception can be quite distinct with some situations, such as during heated competition, causing greater distance between the two. For example, if a Jew were asked whether or not he feels vulnerable or threatened he might say “no.” He personally feels secure and not threatened. But if you ask that same person whether or not his group (Jews) is vulnerable or threatened he might say “yes” my group the Jews are vulnerable and threatened. Some studies show that the more one feels his or her group is vulnerable or threatened the more conservative they are with respect to social policies and security.

It’s clear that Israel is expressing its insecurities and hardening its own political stances because it increasingly feels threatened and vulnerable at the group level. The sports context and public displays of demands for “purity” (meaning no Arabs) are troubling examples of the increased polarization in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nothing is separated from politics in Israel because conflicts of such intractability permeate the entire society. The whole culture participates in the conflict ethos. Ultimately the goal is to play soccer without charging ethnic tensions. Talk will not solve the problem at the moment but it will one day.

Gingrich and the “Invented” Palestinian People

Speaker Gingrich caused a small stir the other day when he referred to the Palestinian people as “invented.” Gingrich typically prefaces these statements with phrases like “let’s be honest.” The preface “let’s be honest” is designed to signal the hearer that Newt has the truth and you are about to hear it. It implies that up until now all discussion about the point (in this case the construction of Palestinian national identity) has been tainted by indirectness, vagueness, avoidance of what’s “real,” and the dreaded political correctness.

Newt Gingrich considers himself an intellectual and a historian. And although I cannot imagine myself voting for Gingrich, I do enjoy listening to him and appreciate his argument-based approach to politics. Newt can make an argument and offer a perspective, something which I enjoy and appreciate always keeping in mind the difference between “perspective” and “bias.” But the speaker can tout his historian credentials all he likes; he remains shallow and incomplete with respect to a variety of issues – Palestinian peoplehood in particular this time. I’m waiting for one of Newt’s challengers to point out that all collectivities, all national identities, all “peoples” are invented.

Gingrich’s claim that the Palestinians were Arabs living on the outskirts of the Ottoman Empire and never constituted a national or political entity – complete with state institutions, internal infrastructure, and recognition – is defensible enough. He is sort of technically correct. When the state of Israel was declared in 1948 there was no existing Palestinian state in the full sense of the term that was displaced by Israel. In fact, there was no consistent and organized call for a Palestinian state until about 1967. Many Arab leaders in that region of the country considered themselves to be part of Syria. Evidence has been marshaled to defend this point, namely, that most of the land acquired by Israel up until 1948 was purchased legally, the Arab Muslim population was migratory, and that some testimony before the Peel Commission suggested that the word “Palestine” was a Zionist invention.

But none of this matters. Gingrich doesn’t understand that all political and national entities are “constructed” and come into being over time. 100 years ago there was no Saudi Arabia or Lebanon or Syria. These “peoples” were formed as a result of political alliances. The speaker has perhaps fallen into the trap of believing that because his own national group (American) is older and more established it is somehow more authentic. A society and its national institutions are constructed on the basis of cultural unity. If a group of people live amongst one another long enough they have the basis for inclusion and exclusion (ancestry, language, religion,). The attachment to a collective category such as national group (e.g. Palestinians, Canadian, French, Saudi) is primarily symbolic and utilitarian in some important ways. Thus, any time a collective group mobilizes in pursuit of goals and has a loyalty to this collectivity, including a preoccupation with its preservation, they are cementing their sense of peoplehood.

Even if we accept a conservative estimate the Palestinians have been organizing themselves around instrumental societal institutions for 50 years. They have constructed themselves in a manner consistent with acquiring control over resources, the solution to problems, and a defense against enemies. The basis for inclusion in the Palestinian national identity is no different than any other; it is by birth, language, and a commitment to the well-being of the collective identity. There are few, if any, national categories or groups in reality. There are always influences from other groups, languages, and ideologies and definitions of collective identities vary somewhat on the basis of emphasis or orientation. Hence, there are Christian Palestinians as well as Muslims and groups whose ethnic descent varies somewhat from others.

There are a few common characteristics that describe the development of a national identity. These characteristics tend to represent a pattern of evolution from scattered bands of people to a cohesive collective identity that has persistence. First communities undergo changes from a minority to majority conception of themselves. They see themselves as the dominant voice and presence in a geographic area. This process is still incomplete in the case of the Palestinians but is clearly moving forward. Gaza, the West Bank, and other disputed land must be settled first. Related to this, is the fact that Palestinians have moved from a pan Arab sense of themselves to a more precise definition of their own boundaries as a collectivity. Secondly, the Palestinians have increasingly focused their attention on development in the future rather than surviving the past. This too is still in the early stages and will progress as the Palestinians acquire structures and control of resources that have an impact on their own political well-being. Third, the act of inventing one’s sense of being a “people” is advanced as institutions advance for the realization of group interests. Turning to institutions as a mechanism to satisfy collective interests is superior to relying on tribal or ethnic affiliations and begins the process of transcending ethnicity and forging a civic identity rather than an ethnic one.

Speaker Gingrich needs to develop a more refined sense of how a people come to be. Why would a possible president of the United States even make such a statement? It is not only shallow but unproductive and certainly not conducive to a peace process. As of now, the speaker is stuck in simplistic categories of what groups are deserving of national identities. He thinks of these categories as finite and established; he thinks of them as nouns when in actuality they are verbs.

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