The Utter Normality Of Ethnonationalism—Except For Whites

Jerry Z. Muller's Foreign Affairs article, Us and Them: The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism (March/April, 2008), is a grim and timely reminder of the power of ethnicity in human affairs. It has explosive implications for the future of the United States and the West.

Muller demonstrates that, over the last 150 years or so, the general trend in Europe and elsewhere has been toward the creation of ethnically-based states—"ethnostates". This trend did not end with the close of World War II.  In Europe, the war was followed by a forced resettlement of peoples—mainly Germans—to create ethnically homogeneous states. Indeed, the high point of ethnic homogenization in Europe was in the two generations in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

Muller writes:

"As a result of this massive process of ethnic unmixing, the ethnonationalist ideal was largely realized: for the most part, each nation in Europe had its own state, and each state was made up almost exclusively of a single ethnic nationality. During the Cold War, the few exceptions to this rule included Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia. But these countries' subsequent fate only demonstrated the ongoing vitality of ethnonationalism."

This point is crucial. While the recent spreading of the European Union imperium has given rise to a great deal of "post-nation" rhetoric, it has in fact been accompanied by an astonishing multiplication of ethnostates, split out of Yugoslavia and the former USSR — not to mention, of course, the Czech/Slovak division

Ethnic conflict is apparent as well throughout the developing world, and will likely lead to more partitioning and nation-creation. As Muller notes: "In areas where that separation has not yet occurred, politics is apt to remain ugly".

But a huge anomaly has arisen. Recently, Western societies have embarked on a public policy project in which the ethno nationalism of white people is officially proscribed as an unadulterated evil.  Multiculturalism only is encouraged and viewed as morally superior. As Muller notes: "Americans … find ethnonationalism discomfiting both intellectually and morally".

As a social scientist who takes the biological component of ethnicity seriously (although I readily agree that there is a cultural component as well), I can speak from personal experience about the hostility and moral disdain one faces from other academic social scientists when one points to these unfashionable facts.

Although World War II marked the defeat of the ethnonationalist National Socialist movement, Muller is clearly correct that it resulted in a Europe that was more accurately divided into ethnostates than ever.  But World War II also saw the triumph of the political and cultural Left. These two cultural facts have been at odds ever since.

German National Socialists remain the bogeyman of the political and cultural Left to this day. The Left is utterly dedicated to eradicating any vestiges of European ethnonationalism. Opponents of immigration are routinely labeled "racists" or "Nazis" for advocating policies that are, in fact, the norm in the rest of the world. Thus Israel favors Jewish immigrants, Spain favors people from its former Latin American Empire, India its "Non-Resident Indians" (NRIs), China favors the Overseas Chinese.

As Muller notes: "In a global context, it is the [Western] insistence on universalist criteria [for immigration] that seems provincial."

And, Muller points out, the anomaly whereby Western nations have sought to turn their backs on ethnic homogeneity is quite modern:

"The ethnonationalist view has traditionally dominated through much of Europe and has held its own even in the United States until recently. For substantial stretches of U.S. history, it was believed that only the people of English origin, or those who were Protestant, or white, or hailed from northern Europe were real Americans. It was only in 1965 that the reform of U.S. immigration law abolished the system of national-origin quotas that had been in place for several decades. This system had excluded Asians entirely and radically restricted immigration from southern and eastern Europe."

In attempting to account for this trend in opposition to ethnonationalism in Western societies, my own writing has emphasized the triumph of the Left and particularly the role of some Jewish intellectual and political movements and certain elements of the organized Jewish community as the  vanguard of the left and the most important force in passage of the 1965 immigration law (PDF). As Muller's essay observes, Jews were major victims of the ethnonationalism of others. Anti-Semitism was a general force throughout Eastern and Central Europe, culminating in the slaughters of World War II. And Muller notes that a prime motivation was that Jews dominated areas of the economy and segments of the social class structure to which others aspired—a principal theme of my book Separation and Its Discontents.

This history of loss as a result of others' ethnonationalism doubtless goes a long way toward explaining the main thrust of Jewish intellectual and political movements in the 20th Century—a principal theme of my book The Culture of Critique.

For example, the Jewish opposition to immigration policies favoring the European majority of the US dates back to before the immigration cut-off of the 1920s and spans the entire mainstream Jewish political spectrum, from the far left to the neoconservative right,  to this day.

However, Jewish opposition to the ethnonationalism of Europeans and European-derived peoples is in remarkable contrast to their unswerving support for the Jewish ethnonationalist state of Israel — a rather glaring double standard, to say the least. There is a rather straightforward analogy of Jews as victims of nascent ethnonationalism in Europe and Palestinians as victims of nascent Jewish ethno nationalism in Israel. (And ex-President Carter, in his recent Peace Not Apartheid, triggered much hysteria by noting the similarities between the policing techniques of Israel and the Afrikaner ethnonationalist state of pre-1990 South Africa.)

As Muller notes: "Social scientists go to great lengths to demonstrate that [ethnonationalism] is a product not of nature but of culture, often deliberately constructed. And ethicists scorn value systems based on narrow group identities rather than cosmopolitanism. But none of this will make ethnonationalism go away." (My emphasis –KM)

Indeed, a mainstay of the intellectual left since Franz Boas and his disciples came to dominate academic anthropology beginning in the 1920s has been a rejection of any theories that allow for biological influences on culture. A corollary is that different peoples and different cultures do not, therefore, have legitimate, biologically-based conflicts of interest.

But the data are quite clear: There are genetic distances between different peoples and different peoples therefore have legitimate conflicts of interest. And: there are deep psychological roots to ethnocentrism that make us attracted to and more trusting of genetically similar others. (PDF)

These biological realities will not simply disappear, no matter how fervently social scientists and other political and cultural elites wish they would.

But that does not mean that these realities cannot be repressed—at least temporarily. The response of the Left has been to entrench a culture of "political correctness" in which expressions of ethnocentrism by Europeans are proscribed. Organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League seek draconian penalties against such expressions by Europeans—and only Europeans. Many European countries and Canada have savage legal penalties that enforce intellectual conformity on these issues. In America the sanctions are more informal—but nevertheless similarly effective.

Whatever the drawbacks to ethnic nationalism (and the most obvious is the bloodshed that sometimes accompanies the creation of ethnostates), it has at least three overriding advantages expressed or implied by Muller:

  • As also noted by Frank Salter, because of closer ties of kinship and culture, ethnically homogeneous societies are more likely to be open to redistributive policies such as social welfare.

  • Sociologists such as Robert Putnam have also shown that ethnic homogeneity is associated with greater trust of others and greater political participation.

  • And finally, as noted also by historians of European modernization, ethnic homogeneity may well be a precondition of political systems characterized by democracy and rule of law.

Political correctness in the West cannot be maintained without constantly ratcheting up the social controls on individual thought and behavior. Western societies will experience increased ethnic conflict. Their governments will increasingly be obliged to enact draconian penalties for deviations from political correctness. And probably also to "correct" ethnic imbalances in social status and political power—much as the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires of old were forced  in their declining years to constantly bargain with rising ethnic pressure groups. Democracy, representative government, and freedom will be likely casualties.

Finally, Muller's essay is interesting in that it highlights how normal ethno national strivings are, even among Europeans.

In a very short period, Europe and European-derived societies, which had achieved an unprecedented level of ethnic homogeneity following World War II, have developed a stifling political correctness, in which any tiny vestige of ethnocentrism on the part of Europeans is crushed with all the power the ruling elites can muster. This is taking place while the rest of the world continues to undergo modernization via the creation of ethno states. Muller's essay makes one realize that this multicultural fad really may be just a phase—and a backwardly echoing phase at that, recalling the failed multicultural empires of the pre-modern era.

The climate of anti-ethnocentrism in the West is utterly anomalous, and set against the rest of the world. In my own writing, I have emphasized biologically-based European tendencies toward individualism and relative lack of ethnocentrism as flaws that have predisposed European whites to these tactical blunders. And I have emphasized how political correctness works at the psychological level (PDF) to suppress the legitimate ethnic aspirations of Europeans.

However, Muller's essay reminds us that Europeans have a long history of ethnic conflict. Ethnic nationalism was a precondition of European modernization. It also reminds us that, whatever their tendencies toward individualism, Europeans certainly also have sufficient levels of ethnocentrism to assert their interests and to establish ethnically homogeneous states of their own.

As Muller points out, though, the process is can be ugly. Just ask the Israelis—and the Palestinians.

Finally, as Muller notes, ethnic homogeneity is compatible with—perhaps conducive to—liberal democracy. At a theoretical level, this is because ethnic conflict produces deep, frequently irreconcilable divisions within a society and ultimately, causes group-based competition for resources and political power. These can be very hard to mediate.

The difficulty of establishing democracy and the rule of law in societies divided by ethnic conflict is a major theme of the contemporary world.

So is the campaign to bully European-stock whites, alone of all the world's groups, to forswear ethnocentric politics and consequently to fatally disable themselves in an unchangingly ethnocentric world.

Kevin MacDonald [email him] is Professor of Psychology at California State University-Long Beach. For his website, click here.