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Ideological Purity and the Republicans

The Republican horror show continues. And although it is great entertainment, we should not forget the most stirring success of Karl Rove and the Republican Party which is to convince voters to support issues contrary to their own interests. The clear goal of every candidate in the Republican primary is to favor the powerful and hold the subordinate classes in check. Corey Robin in a recent book on “The Reactionary Mind” has argued and illustrated convincingly that the conservative mind is fundamentally reactionary and animated by a desire to hold the subordinate classes down. Throughout history superiors – the state, owners, church, or hierarchical institutions – have regularly resisted very much improvement in the lives of those without power. Robin uses conservative and reactionary interchangeably and he is talking about the likes of slaveholders, Catholics, fascists, Burke, Ayn Rand, Scalia, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Irving Kristol, and George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney.

            To listen to Romney, Paul, and Gingrich you would think the conservative mind is becoming isolationist again. In the 1960s if you mistrusted the government and home schooled your children you were a liberal hippie. In the year 2012 if you mistrust government and home schooled your children you’re probably a conservative isolationist. It is the role of government that currently most defines liberal from conservative. Clearly other issues weigh in but the role of government is oppressive and a drain on your individual freedom if you’re of the conservative mind (thus, keep your children home), or a transformative and moral force for those with a more liberal turn of mind. The sad truth is that the most important question is not about the role of government but about what government does well and what it does not.

            This collection of primary candidates have taken some pretty extreme positions from advocating bombing Iran, privatizing Social Security, eliminating controls on big oil, allowing Wall Street to grab whatever it wants, and extending constitutional rights to zygotes. As outgoing Congressman Barney Frank once quipped, “these conservatives believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth” because they afford more rights to an unborn fetus than a fully developed human being.

            Mitt Romney is thoroughly committed to destroying the safety net and any sense in which government can play a role in leveling the field of inequality amongst people. He will eliminate President Obama’s health care program and once again send about 1 million young people into the world with no coverage. And it should be noted that the cost of medical care including office visits, medications, surgeries, and diagnostic exams is all pegged to a financial market that includes insurance companies. Prices are artificially inflated because the dollars are available to pay such prices. Hence, anyone without insurance who gets sick and needs medical attention is asked to pay prices based on an economic system that he or she does not participate in. Without Obama-like controls insurance companies will deny coverage at will and return to hiking premiums.

            Even though the subordinate populations have gathered under the banner of economic reform, equality, rights, labor, and sometimes even revolution in every instance they have either been legally or illegally thwarted. Mitt Romney is a natural extension of this sort of leadership. Rather than working with government to find a proper and affordable role, even rather than the pragmatism of Reagan and Goldwater conservatism, these Republican candidates would rather retreat from extending opportunities to others by “fooling” the public into thinking that Obama has committed grave ideological sins (e.g. “socialism”, “liberalism”, or a “decline in social values”) rather than a serious effort to solve problems and help people.

            Curiously, traditional conservatives used to believe that human beings were born into a society or culture that was responsible for shaping and fashioning attitudes and values. This society that people were born into became an inheritance that was valued and worth saving. Such original conservatives were open to change, as long as their institutions stayed intact. The only quarrel there should be between liberals and conservatives is what changes are worthy. But don’t underestimate the importance of this difference between ideological purity and pragmatism. The Republican Party has become increasingly apocalyptic as it tries not simply to have better ideas than Obama but to convince us that Obama is inauthentic (“not a citizen”) and dangerous. Tea partiers and paleoconservatives are talking about revolutionary change because the country is in such “trouble.” This is not the healthy argument of a contestatory democracy but a call for Revolution.

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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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