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Nationalism, Autonomy and Group Boundaries

David Berreby, the journalist who wrote the book "Us and Them," has a blog spin-off from the book, appropriately named "Us and Them: The Blog". He's started a series of entries called "Forbidden Questions," and the first entry is titled "Freedom for Our People" -- is it snake oil?" Like the Barber article on "Jihad vs. McWorld," Berreby draws attention to the tension between group claims to autonomy, on the one hand, and the globalizing forces that contradict those claims. From both sides, democracy gets tossed around as a justification but in both cases, democracy can suffer. Berreby focuses on the outbreak of violence surrounding nationalist movements around the globe. As anthropologists and social psychologists have long pointed out, a group boundary both includes and excludes. In particular, Berreby questions whether we should favor the idea of a nation as a valid group boundary:

People can be persuaded to fight others on any basis. Timor illustrates this. So does Somalia. These are both nations in which people who share culture, ethnicity, language, history and religion have nonetheless found other methods by which to divide themselves homicidally.

Perhaps, then, the homogenous ``nation'' makes no more sense as a way to organize politics than the messy incoherent multi-language superstate. In which case, we can ask if nationalism is worth giving up the superstate's virtues -- for instance, its interest in preventing itself from being sundered by religious, ethnic or culture-based violence.

So today's forbidden question is about all those David-vs.-Goliath independence movements of the past two centuries -- from the Greeks throwing off their Ottoman yoke to the Timorese: Have we been rooting for the wrong side?

Berreby's "forbidden question" helps us think hard about the slogans we use to think about the world: "people should be able to rule themselves," sure, but every line you draw around "people" tends to crosscut other boundaries that may be just as legitimate. I'm not sure I like Berreby's alternative idea (that perhaps we'd be better off with super-state empires), but then again his point is to ask the question, not answer it. What's interesting is that it's hard to like either option - but where do we draw the lines then? Can we have our cake (autonomy for all peoples!) and eat it too?