On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future


The Blurriness of Nation, Federation, and State: Brexistential Threats (May 30, 2016)

I have based my my subtitle here from language in Griff White’s excellent Washington Post analysis of the way in which many Scottish separatists believe a vote for leaving the EU in the upcoming “Brexit” referendum will reanimate the Scottish independence movement.  White refers to the prospect of leaving the EU as having an “existential impact” for many Scots. (For a great guide to Brexit issues, see this Brian Wheeler and Alex Hunt BBC article: .)

While many analysts have reported the great amount of debate over the so-called “Brexit,” usually arguing that the UK leaving the EU will cause tremendous disruption to the world economy, and will in particular deprive the United Kingdom of its holding of the lion’s share of financial dealings, the prospect of bringing back the Scottish independence movement so quickly after its most recent instantiation is fascinating, indeed.

As readers of this blog know, I have been very keen on thinking through the various ways in which nationalist energies are being aligned with economic interests in the Scottish independence movement.  My assumption has been, with the rapid fall in oil prices on the global market, and with the reliance on oil revenues for the funding of a future state, that the calls for a Scottish independence movement would be far in the future. But perhaps this “existential impact” is indeed making those fires return much faster. As I’ve argued elsewhere, perhaps the disintegration of Europe into a number of ethnonationally fused, capitalistically streamlined states may indeed be on the horizon.

It is fascinating to see how the notion of an “existential” threat is assumed due to Scotland being alleged to be more “European” than the United Kingdom minus Scotland. The essence of the Scottish independence movement, of course, has come from its view that it is a nation that is not truly able to control its own destiny within the United Kingdom: allegations of its votes never having true purchase on the direction of the country have been a perennial part of independence movements. Oddly enough, Scotland would seem to be just as much as a minority within the EU—if not more.

Nationalism always seems to be able to steer current events towards its narrative, and I do not doubt for a second that the Scottish separatist movement would indeed be re-energized if the Brexit vote ends up resulting in a call for the UK to leave the EU. I wonder if the subtleties of juggling state-, national- and international sensibilities will be made to be part of a rich and intriguing debate—or if it will indeed just be an excuse to reignite the same Ethnonationalist debate from 2014.


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Indirect US Democracy and Current Primary Anxieties (April 27, 2016)

In reflecting on the almost mind-numbingly long (and still ongoing) 2016 US Presidential primaries, I have been struck especially by the apparent surprise with which many participants and observers describe the essentially private and therefore undemocratic nature of political parties. My simultaneous fascination with territorialism and American citizenship has made me both sympathetic with the longing for direct democracy behind such surprise—and aware that our territorial history has always precluded anything resembling direct democracy.

Firstly, as to the primary election complaints (and I feel no need to provide links here, as there has been saturating media coverage of these elections over the past year). Various players involved and their supporters have argued about unfairness in the primary process as being undemocratic—whether it be accusations that party leaders are trying to rig the election through arcane rules (such as the Democrats’ “superdelegate” system, which allots votes for individuals that are added to a pool of delegate votes based on intra-state voting, or the Republicans’ incorporation of some state procedures that do not involve direct voters) or through voter disenfranchisement (such as complaints about some Democratic state elections being “closed” to non-party members or complaints that Republicans will vitiate the majority of a front-runner by enabling secondary ballot votes that can allow virtually any individual to win its nomination).

Political parties have absolutely no basis in the US Constitution. However, both American history and current US governmental practice make it seem as if political parties are essential to government. Historically, political parties emerge very early in US history, despite George Washington’s intentional aloofness from such a system: as these excellent Wikipedia articles on early US political parties makes clear, Hamilton and James Madison’s efforts in the Federalist Papers  9  and 10  to argue against political parties not only backfired, but these very individuals became associated with, respectively, the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties that made a binary partisan political system a norm that has continued, in various forms, to this day. Moreover, political parties permeate our government, eating up massive public resources to further their own monopoly on the civic process. The Democratic and Republican political parties are deeply embedded in virtually all levels of government in virtually every part of the United States, with partisanship inflecting not just nominations for the executive, legislative, and judicial branches at all jurisdictional levels, but also woven into the very electoral process itself: political parties’ primary elections typically take place in the very same places as regular elections and with the same public funding.

It is therefore not surprising that people are surprised that political parties are not actually part of our democratic foundations—for they in history and in current governmental institutions are practically inseparable from our democratic process.

At the heart of these complaints about the primary process is the conviction that a democracy should be direct, with each citizen having a single vote in every election. It is worth pointing out that even a fully “direct” democracy under such definitions (allowing for some reasonable limitations based on, say, age of entering into adulthood) would presumably be mostly confined to electing representatives who would then engage in their own actions within various governing institutions—that is to say, few seem to be advocating votes on every single action of government, considering how unwieldy such a system would be (intriguingly, the proposition process in a state like California seeks to bring more issues to more direct voter results). Even a fairly extreme form of direct democracy, then, would most likely still be of the “representative” form we have, making the idea of directness really just a formal marker of consent by a majority, fostering the illusion that elected individuals act on the behalf of their voters.

There are some obvious ways in which there is indeed massive disenfranchisement of voters in the United States—though it is vital to point out that political parties, as private entities that have no constitutional basis, are not in any way subject to US voting rights regulations. I think it is crucial to point out actual voter disenfranchisement, particularly insofar as it is so often directed against ethnic minorities and the poor. Many state legislatures’ efforts to enforce Voter ID laws, for example, are understood by many as designed to limit the participation of ethnic minorities and the poor, who are less likely to have such identification. As I have written of before on this blog, the most striking disenfranchisement of voters comes with those who have been convicted of felonies in the past, and who remain without voting rights even after serving out their sentences. (Happily, a very positive development has occurred in Virginia, where (as you can read in Sari Horowitz and Jenna Portnoy’s Washington Post reporting) Governor Terry McAuliffe has been instrumental in restoring voting rights to potentially hundreds of thousands of such citizens). Other examples of direct voter disenfranchisement include efforts to discourage university students from registering in many localities. Chillingly, such disenfranchisement can be compared to earlier disenfranchisement of US citizens—most obviously, that of women, which was only ended (along with some other forms of disenfranchisement) with 1919’s Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.

However, we hardly need to look at the private nature of political parties and such open disenfranchisement of voters to question whether direct democracy actually exists in any way, shape, or form in the United States—for our constitutional foundations explicitly prevent direct democracy.

The most obvious and well-known example of the fundamentally indirect nature of US democracy is in the US Constitution’s creation of an electoral college—a body of “electors” who alone bring about the election of a United States (the process is nicely described in this National Archives and Records Administration site ). While the electoral college body is traditionally tied to the results of state votes, the electoral college could in theory consist of members voting any way they want. Most likely introduced as a kind of escape clause in the case of the popular election of a dangerous demagogue (worries about the election of foreign invaders is handled elsewhere in the US Constitution (Article II, section 1)by the curious limitation of the Presidency (alone among all other positions) to a “natural born Citizen”), the electoral college shows that there is an explicitly indirect basis of US democracy. Indeed, the very way in which the US Presidential election process counts votes is, due to the incorporation of states as relatively independent agents in our political process, profoundly indirect at the mathematical level: rather than being elected by a majority of the popular vote, US Presidents acquire vote totals in (usually) winner-take-all contests in each states, which make the mathematics of state totals trump that of a true majority. As is well known, a number of US Presidents have been elected while having fewer votes than their primary opponent (for the list of these four, including, most recently, George W. Bush, see D’Angelo Gore’s FactCheck article). Other elements of indirection, such as the use of the House of Representatives to elect Presidents in the case of an “indecisive” election, are woven into our process (see the US House’s article on this).

Indirectness in our electoral process is hardly limited to the Executive. US Senators were not directly elected until 1913’s Seventeenth Amendment to the US Constitution, with Senators having before then been elected by state legislatures. http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_amendments_11-27.html Another obvious area of indirect democracy is the US Supreme Court: despite the fact that citizens regularly vote for judges in local elections (often with partisan tags attached), the members of the US Supreme Court (along with a number of higher federal courts) are only indirectly appointed.

It is the US Senate—that originally non-democratically elected, often profoundly anti-democratic institution whose “Standing Rules” allow, for example, one Senator to anonymously hold up a legislative bill, which includes the ability of a single filibustering Senator’s ability to hold off all Senate business (except for listening to the fililbuster) for as long as she or he can last, and which currently assumes that sixty percent (rather than a simple majority) of Senators must agree for a bill to even be heard in its chamber—that offers the clue to the most importantly indirect aspect of US democracy. As I have written of before on this blog, the history of the territorial growth of the United States, combined with the balancing of federal and state rights that is central to US government, absolutely precludes anything resembling direct democracy. The US Constitution’s creation of a bicameral legislature, with one house (the House) based on a representational model tied (relatively) to the number of voters (through the districting system) and a Senate whose membership was utterly detached from population numbers and instead keyed to states was clearly designed not just to have a “checks and balances” system harmonizing federal and state rights—it was also clearly designed to allow for the addition of new states. Most states that came into the United States after the original union of former colonies that had been bound together under the Articles of Confederation began as territories, and these were often in large areas with thin populations. The only way to lure these territories—typically forged by a combination of massive settlement into the lands of indigenous peoples, with the US Government intervening in the process through a combination of federal treaty processes and direct military engagement—was to ensure them that they would be represented significantly in the US political process, despite their thin numbers. Direct democracy must be sacrificed in such a regionalist model (an issue that is also deeply affecting current politics in the United Kingdom, about which I have written extensively in this space, such as here and here).

Personally, I hope that all the angst about the alleged unfairness of the US political party primaries in this election cycle will lead to some more general reflection on the profoundly anti-democratic stranglehold two private groups have on our democratic process. As I have indicated above, I think it is vital that those considering the issue not make the mistake of assuming that there is an actually direct US democracy hiding beneath the veils of the two parties that have grown so powerful as to seem indistinguishable with it.


Unsettling Ethnonationalism: Cataluña and a Fragmenting Europe (September 29, 2015)

Reading about the recent regional elections in Spain, in which a pair of political parties advocating the secession of Cataluña from the nation-state of Spain won some 48% of the vote, I had to wonder if Europe is going to soon come apart at the seams. (You can read about these elections in BBC’s coverage, here).  ; the BBC also provides an excellent summation of the Cataluña [aka Catalonia] issue here). Coming on the heels of last year’s referendum on Scottish Independence, the Catalonian independence movement seems to echo a larger sentiment of division within the European Union (a topic on which I have written before here).

As you might gather from my frequent posting on the subject (say, here, here, here, and here), I think the Scottish referendum of September 2014 was a crucial moment in the history of intra-European nationalism—and its co-optation by bald capitalism. While many may find the idea of smaller countries breaking free from greater nation-state along ethnic or regional lines stirring, I find it all quite troubling—especially when profit margins seem to be a crucial part of the picture.  However much proponents of separation may couch Scottish (or Catalonian) separatism in the rhetoric of freedom and independence, it is clear that financial motives are a major, if not the crucial, driving force: much as Scottish separatists speak of wanting to take control of North Sea oil revenues, so do many in the Catalonian separatist movements speak of their region as a financial center that is not able to control its massive revenues, which end up being distributed across Spain.

I suppose that one reason I find myself skeptical of the separatist movements in Scotland and Catalonia is my experience with efforts at secession in cities—particularly my own experience growing up in Los Angeles. At a number of points in my lifetime, citizens of the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles, where I grew up, sought to secede from Los Angeles. Such secessionists cited precisely the sorts of things Catalonian groups cite—the idea that tax revenue from their region was going out elsewhere, and that the region has an integrity as a place that should be broken off from the rest of a larger unity. Since by Los Angeles law any secession requires a vote of all Los Angeles citizens, San Fernando secession efforts have not succeeded—leaving only a sense of bitterness in those secessionists who feel that “their” taxes shouldn’t go over “there” (“over the hill,” as they say, into downtown Los Angeles, which is perceived as having much more poverty). (For a nice commentary on San Fernando Valley secessionism, see Ryan Reft’s KCET column, here.)

I always felt quite saddened by such secessionist movements, which seemed to me be selfish to the point of crassness. The pattern of fragmentation in many cities—whether it be through “white flight” patterns in which people, often citing the need for “better schools,” vacate “urban” areas for suburbs, or the creation of smaller towns that are separated from larger urban areas, often in the name of better services or schools—often leaves me with a feeling of sorrow about how readily self-interest can drive people to alienate themselves—literally—from their neighbors, to produce smaller and smaller areas, in which there is increasingly less socio-economic (and sometimes ethnic) diversity (it’s called “white flight” for a reason, after all, even if those who flee are often more diverse than the label implies). (See Alana Semuel’s recent Atlantic article for some alarming analysis about recent intensification of “white flight” patterns. For a counter-view of relevant trends, see William H. Frey’s Brookings Institution study that sees more diversity in suburbs).

Seeing what is happening in Scotland and Catalonia, I wonder if this is simply the same sort of profit-focused fragmentation on an ethnonational rather than urban scale. It is hard to imagine if there might ever be an end to the possible fragmentation of European states, if such categories as economic self-interest and ethnic or regional solidarity are all one needs to invoke—after all, is there any nation-state in which all regions are at all times equally profitable, and in which no area ever pays a single cent—or should I say euro—more than another, on average? Moreover, the EU itself is under intense pressure from nationalist reactions to a larger federalism, as I have written about both in terms of the rise of Syriza and in the rise of Euroskeptics. Division and self-interest are the clarion calls everywhere, in a Europe that is profoundly riven by nationalist and regionalist forces (indeed, it is not surprising that a coordinated response to the refugee crisis currently affecting Europe is sorely lacking).

As I determined in my own unstable responses to the Scottish independence referendum (as someone who studies Scottish literature and history with gusto, I am very susceptible to the view that Scotland is exceptional), I realize that, in the end, I find federalism far more viable as a disposition than what I see as its opposite—ehtnonationalism. Ethnonationalist energies shun the difficult task of consensus, speaking directly to self-interest. Mixed with neoliberal economic self-justification, ehtnonationalism can surely begin to do lots more work of division once it begins to operate, and the Catalonian vote suggests that such a fever is beginning to spread rapidly throughout Europe.

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Fernandez’s Promise to Repatriate Objects and the Shadow of ISIS’s Symbolic Violence (August 25, 2015)

As I have often pondered the staggering quantity of artifacts that were most probably pillaged from other countries in the museums of powerful countries, I was pleased to read the other day BBC reporting about Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s announcement that Argentina will at some point return thousands of artifacts to Peru and Ecuador.  Fernandez is, it seems to me, not speaking far off the mark when (as the BBC reports) she describes the action of “restoring the cultural wealth of countries such as Ecuador and Peru” as “something unusual, really special.” The article closes with a recent American example of such return of cultural items—namely, Yale Unviersity’s decision to return “dozens” of items taken from Macchu Pichhu by Hiram Bingham. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-29750832 (you can read more about Yale’s return of the items in Diane Carson’s excellent—and wonderfully titled—NPR piece, “Finders Not Keepers: Yale Returns Artifacts to Peru”).

The number of cultural “treasures” that were most likely at some point plundered from somewhere else and eventually made their way to museums is truly mind-boggling—as virtually any visit reminds one. In my most recent trip to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, I remember thinking that at a certain point the scale of the collections of Egyptian artifacts becomes so great as to risk a kind of obscenity—though not as excessive, as say, the British Museum’s holdings, which seem to me to be so vast as to almost daring the visitor to question the propriety of so much material display. There are, of course, famous examples of Western countries holding the goods of other Western countries (the Elgin Marbles being the most well known), but the holdings of cultural artifacts from New World, African, or colonized parts of Asia by former imperial powers always makes me the most uncomfortable (particularly when it involves mummies or sarcophagi, which most emphatically were not meant to be unearthed for display to casual tourists). Museums, after all, are often the expression, simultaneously, of the great material power of some civilizations, and the vulnerability of so many other cultures.

But I am also sometimes uncomfortable with the rhetoric of belonging that equates those controlling particular territory with rights over cultural objects that can be traced to that location. For the most extreme of examples of the problems with such a view, we have only to look to ISIS and its religiously motivated  destruction of ancient artifacts in territory it controls, the most recent instance being its destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra, Syria (see the BBC’s reporting on this here for the most recent updates). As I have written of here, ISIS understands completely the power of museums and the preservation of things deemed to be treasures—and it is calculatingly releasing precisely such energy in the targeted destruction of some such objects. ISIS’s deployment of symbolic violence, which I have discussed elsewhere, is clearly a vital part of its agenda: its destruction of sites and objects associated with any religion separate from its extreme form of Islam materially encodes its efforts to clear a space for its eponymous vision of an Islamic State. Such religiously justified iconcoclasm has clearly been effective as a form of psychological warfare: to put it plainly, such actions have freaked the international community out, presenting ISIS as a group that is truly beyond the pale. As I have written about here and here, ISIS’s territorial ambitions are central to its strategy, as it unsettles international politics by becoming a player within the politics of state-making. ISIS would certainly stand as Exhibit A for the argument against seeing cultural treasures as belonging to the lands where they originated. While one could argue that the international community (however that might be conceived) could make exceptions in extreme cases such as ISIS, it is easy to imagine that such a rationale could be invoked on flimsy grounds.

It is important not to cite the Elgin Marbles case as an example of the latter point, by the way: as this British Museum statement makes clear, the popular view that the museum has argued that Greek authorities could not properly care for the statues, which were removed from the Parthenon, is a myth.  As the remarkably full and straightforward British Museum statement makes clear, public value—the ability of people to see such items in the optimal conditions of a museum—are the rimary justification for not repatriating00 to use the rhetoric of cultural authenticity and territorialism—the marbles. I must admit that I find the British Museum statement remarkable for its honesty and for its straightforwardness about its rationale for keeping what it deems to be some 30% of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum.  I count myself among many who learns much about the world by visiting museums; I try to visit museums whenever I have time while visiting another city. While the guilt of appropriated goods is always an element in the experience, there is also the positive element of the cosmopolitan, as the museum visitor both experiences signs of other worlds while visiting an institutional site that shows such signs and their cultures are valued. Such a powerful transnational experience is often a refreshing departure from the suffocating atmosphere of nationalism and territorialism in a world where so many fight over land and objects, with the accumulation of wealth and prestige being the primary motivation.

Perhaps it is ISIS and its unsettling use of symbolic violence that is destabilizing all of my recent reactions to questions about museums and cultural values. President Fernandez’s decision surely should be welcomed, and it would surely be nice to see more such actions being taken in cases where clearly plundered items are returned to countries whose populations have clear connections to past groups. However, it is vital to avoid assuming reductively direct connections of cultural artifacts to current cultures (which often consigns them to a present pastness, as scholars such as Johannes Fabian [in Time and the Other] and Kathleen Davis [in “Time behind the Veil” in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s The Postcolonial Middle Ages] have argued) to past groups, and it also seems vital to realize that the alternative to the repatriation of items is not always simply shameless plundering and vulgar display.

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Eroding the One-Percent’s Territorialism: California Coastal Access (Part II) (July 17, 2015)

Being both a native Californian and one consistently suspicious to the various antidemocratic machinations of entrenched socio-economic elites, I was delighted to read Ann O’Neill’s reporting on the opening of public beach access to Carbon Beach West in Malibu. Territorialism, it is important to remember, is not just the province of nation-states or violent street gangs, but occurs in everyday contexts—namely, whenever someone or some organization seeks to restrict or control access to some area (I here follow Robert Sack’s classic formulation in Human Territoriality). As readers of this blog will already know from my discussion of this subject last year, a simultaneously fascinating and grotesque case of systematic territorialism has long existed in California coasts: despite clear laws determining that the beach is a public space to which access cannot be restricted, mostly rich landowners seeking to dominate public spaces have often used various ruses to control access to public spaces.

Thanks to the California courts, territorialist actions by shameless rich landowners to flout clear laws about public beach access will be less viable in Carbon Beach West, which has, tellingly, become known as Billionaires Beach

In her article, Ann O’Neill wonderfully captures the ugly classism that lies behind rich territorialists who have sought to seal off common, public space either by tricking (through such deceptions as fictitious “no parking” signs) or intimidating (through security guards) would-be beachgoers: O’Neill writes of the “riff-raff” and “hoi polloi” whom the super-rich sought to remove from what they treated as their “private backyard.” O’Neill gives a wonderful survey of the recent legal history of protecting coastal access as a public good, with conservationist interests aligning with a sense of fairness and democracy.

With such a legal counter to the ugliness of what the Occupy Movement has taught us to call the One Percent, one realizes that our legal system is not always, as it sometimes seems, only aligned with the rich and well connected. Of course, California’s coastal laws are fairly singular—and coastal access is often indeed the space of private backyards for the super-rich (now that I live near the opposite coast, I have seen that East Coast sensibilities are strikingly unlike those of California). But now is not the time to dwell on the grotesque territorialism of the super-rich. Much as I discussed earlier when I wrote on the wonderful techniques activists can sometimes employ to strike back at elitist territorialists, I think it is best now simply, like the conservationists celebrating in O’Neill’s article, simply enjoy today’s legal victory as the proverbial day at the beach.


Aleppo and ISIS’s State Ambitions: World Heritage on the Territorial Horizon (June 10, 2015)

As others have noted, perhaps the most striking thing about the rise of ISIS (aka the Islamic State) is that it is fundamentally motivated by territorial, rather than merely terrorist ambitions. While Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda have, as Stuart Elden has shown in his indispensable Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty,  always demonstrated sophisticated territorial strategies in linking specific operations with a larger thematics of an aggressive Caliphate (see especially chapter two), the Islamic State is remarkable in being singularly devoted to explicit state-construction in a militarily expanding zone. ISIS seems to me to be combining the expansive energies of conquest that we normally associate with empire with the efforts to stabilize and legitimize a territory that we associate with nation-building.

ISIS’s original name, as I have discussed here before,  strikingly reveals its territorial ambitions by localizing its proto-state in a space that defies the boundaries of the currently accepted nation-states of at least Syria and Iraq, with the ambiguity of the Arabic term “al-Sham” possibly signifying the much larger area understood in the West as “the Levant.” The movement to the name of Islamic State radically intensifies the possible territorial ambition of the group, since it suggests that its caliphate may well be an expanding entity limited only by the ambitions of its militarized version of Islam (see, for example, Al Jazeera’s reporting on this ambitious name-change; I also discuss this here).

Recent reports of ISIS celebrating the one-year anniversary of their taking of Mosul hammers the organization’s territorial ambitions home, indeed. As the BBC reports, ISIS has organized banners throughout the city, decorating buildings—and in so doing highlighting not just its control of the city, but also projecting a sense of long duration—of the kind of permanent holding of territory that we associate with nation-states. While ISIS may well not, as Liz Sly reports in the Washington Post, be effective in actually running a state, it is remarkable that such state-building remains a key part, if not indeed the raison d’être of the group: while Quinn Mecham’s systematic study of state-like development by ISIS in the Washington Post highlights many of the organization’s limits,  it also shows clearly the group’s ambitions to create a stable, working state that would become part of the static collection of world nations.

When it comes to projecting an image of permanence that defies the previous trend of the chances that ISIS may soon take over Aleppo—which, Wikipedia informs us, is “one of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world”—is especially striking. (See Lina Sinjab’s BBC reporting on ISIS’s current chances in taking Aleppo.)  ISIS appears to be more poised than ever to make a play for Aleppo, with, as Anne Barnard of the New York Times reports, possible support from Syrian government forces. The profound antiquity and cultural richness of Aleppo may make one worry, given ISIS’s predilection for the iconoclastic destruction of historical objects and even sites about which I have written here and here, that much of the rich “world heritage” in the World Heritage http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/21 city of Aleppo will be destroyed (or, as Heather Pringle’s National Geographic suggests, sold off) by ISIS (though, given the fact that the Battle of Aleppo has been raging on since July 19, 2012, it is not clear how much of Aleppo’s archaeological and artistic treasures are currently left to destroy or sell).

However, simply holding Aleppo might be the most symbolically powerful move made by ISIS. Aleppo, after all, has been held by numerous groups: as the UNESCO site tells us, “Hittites, Assyrians, Akkadians, Greeks, Romans, Umayyads, Ayyubids, Mameluks and Ottomans” have all “left their stamp on the city.”  In adding its name to that UNESCO list of temporary—if however long-lived masters of Aleppo, ISIS may doing its most significant work yet in installing itself in world consciousness as a state rather than an insurgency.

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Russian Crusaders in Ukraine: An Unsettling Reminder of Western Religious Nationalism (May 25, 2015)

Since I have recently discussed how eerily events in ISIS recall events in the First Crusade about which I happen to be reading for a scholarly project,  I could not help but be taken aback by seeing this theater of uncanny resemblance shift suddenly north and east. In this chilling BBC article by Tim Whewell, some Russian volunteers describe their rationale for fighting in the civil war in eastern Ukraine as a need to take part in a “holy war” aimed at recreating Russian “Empire.” It is hard to imagine a less comforting sentiment if one hopes that the violence in Eastern Ukraine might abide anytime soon: the logic of holy war and the idea of stopping the violence “only when the job’s done,” as the Pavel Rasta interviewed by Whewell says. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30518054 Getting a “job…done,” if one is, as I am, currently reading and thinking about the First Crusade, a very alarming phrase. Pavel here explicitly links himself to the logic of those engaged in the First Crusade, describing Donetsk as “Jerusalem” and the civil warriors there as engaged in “holy war.”

If the “job” of the Frist Crusaders was to take Jerusalem, to incorporate it into the control of a larger (Western) Christendom, then its conclusion was horrifying, in a mass atrocity on a truly historical scale—the Crusaders’ sacking of Jerusalem on July 15, 1099, in which warriors bent upon holy war slaughtered indiscriminately virtually all of the population of Jerusalem, not discriminating between warrior or civilian, between man or woman, adult or child. (On the sacking of Jerusalem, see Thomas Asbridge’s The First Crusade, where he dubs it “one of the most extraordinary and horrifying events of the medieval age” (316).  It is also important to note that the religiously zealous Crusaders did not simply erupt in violence in sacking Jerusalem: as is well known, they killed a sickeningly large number of Jewish non-combatants in what were the first pogroms, while making their way to the Middle East [see Susan Jacoby’s New York Times discussion of this], and also killed numerous Muslims and Eastern Christians while making their way, sometimes engaging in sieges and often having to forage when supplies ran out, to Jerusalem).

Pavel is, of course, just a Russian volunteer, and so it would be wrong to link his explicit statements with the motives of, say, the Russian government. But Whewell’s framing of the interview as offering a rare insight into Russian (that is, rather than Ukrainian) volunteers in the Eastern Ukrainian insurgency is vital: we can see here the motivations of many of those non-military individuals who have been moving into what has become a regional war-zone. Much of what drove the First Crusade was the religious zeal of those who were not from the military classes: what was originally a request from the Byzantine Emperor Alexius for a contingent of military men to assist in fending off encroaching Seljuk Turks ballooned, after Pope Urban II’s infamous November 27 sermon at Clermont, into a massive movement of individuals—in the scores of thousands—into the Middle East, all bent on just the sort of “holy war” Whewell reads into ordinary Russians’ self-sacrificial decision to enter into Eastern Ukraine in a desire to join a fight that here looks like nothing less than a religiously zealous Russian nationalism.

As Whewell argues, from the perspective of Russian volunteers, the fight in Eastern Ukraine is part of a kind of defensive aggression enacted by a Russia surrounded by hostile Western forces. Russian imperial ambitions are most clearly part of their operations in Ukraine, which comes, of course, after the notoriously well-orchestrated and executed annexation of the (formerly?) Ukrainian territory Crimea. As I have discussed before, such Russian imperialism and nationalism has been a key to the conflicts in Ukraine.

Russia is hardly unique in holding such ambitions (indeed, America, the United Kingdom, France, and many other Western countries were not just historically, but remain, in my view, imperial nations)—nor is Russia unique in fomenting notions of “holy war” (just witness right-wing rhetoric in the United States since 9/11; American Pavels would not be hard to find). Western biases also need to be counteracted to clearly analyze the situation in the Ukrainian civil war. I think, for example, that the Western media has usually presented a quite biased version of the initial events leading to the explicit unrest in Ukraine (the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych was consistently presented in the West as a righteous and democratic revolution, when it could just as easily have been presented as a violent and anti-democratic coup: revolutions, after all, are usually in the eyes of the beholders). In my view, the religious and nationalist zeal of Pavel is not chilling because it is uniquely Russian, but is in fact troubling because it recalls the rhetoric of so much Western rhetoric—not just in the premodern First Crusade, but in the tendency, for example, of many modern commentators to speak of a global war against Islam, or to use the rhetoric of defense against invasion to discuss immigration. Americans don’t like to hear such criticism, even when it refers to such distant events as the Crusades: witness the fierce reaction to President Obama’s quite reasonable reminder to Western audiences that such violent episodes as the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the African slave-trade show that the West is not insulated from a violence and barbarism often projected only onto the Islamic other (see, for example, Juliet Eilperin’s initial Washington Post reporting on the incident).

From some perspectives, there is so much continuity between Russia and Ukraine, as I have argued before, that it takes some effort to create a sharp and violent distinction. From Whewell’s article, it seems, alas, that what serves so often throughout history as a force of violent division, religious zeal, is energizing the territorialist fight in Ukraine—and religion and nationalism are rarely anything but a volatile mix. I hope that cooler heads prevail there, soon—for I quake to think what can happen as people like Pavel work to get their “job…done.”