Thursday, May 17, 2007

Horses and Peoples

I took a class one semester as an undergrad at Cal from one Professor John Smith ... that's really his name. It was called something like Middle Islamic history. I remember the first class vividly because Professor Smith spoke so slowly, dryly, softly. "Now, how many hours does a horse have to spend eating in a day?" And he proceeded to figure that out, again slowly, deliberately, unhurried by the obvious impatience of the fidgety students. I thought I was bored stiff, and wondered what other class I could substitute. But something told me to hang in there, and I did.

The next class was nearly deserted. I felt sorry for Smith who seemed like a decent man, rather gray. I was older than most undergrads ... I started my academic careeer at 31 ... but still too young to understand that a tenured professor of such erudition and grace was rather pleased to be rid of the hordes of the uninterested. And that little something that told me to stick it out ended up exposing me to one of the most important influences in my thinking today.

What I took away from his class was a thorough fascination with the materials of everyday life, and how they frame history. More specifically, Professor Smith taught me the modalities of the movement of nomads into civilization. It is an error to believe that barbarians were merely murderous marauders. They were by and large small bands moving deliberately most of the time and suddenly from time to time. They enjoyed the advantage of movement over the sedentary in that they could go to resources rather than wait for them to grow, but also the associated disadvantage that once they have consumed they must move on. His approach was reminicent of the old saw about studying military history: battles are for amateurs, logistics are for professionals.

European civilization is the result of barbarians, and most national myths hearken back to them. But these myths are heroic rather than material, and it is here that the lessons of Professors Smith again came to good service in some recent reading: the impressive The
Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe
by Patrick J. Geary of UCLA. His thesis is fundamentally this: the notion that these barbarians had ethnic identity is a back formation. Their identity was shifting. They started as small bands whose size varied according to their success. But once they seized a place ... and there are many ways in which they seized a place over the 5 or so centuries in which they did so ... it was only then that they began to develop ethnicity as we know it. That ethnicity developed as the new rulers needed it, or as the newly ruled chose to shift from one view of themselves to another, or as those who sought to coopt them set out to define them. It is only late in history ... in modern history ... that these ideas solidified into the nationalism that became the mark of modernity.

In general, I tend to think ethnicity is bunk ... not unreal sociologically or politically or economically ... but based ideationally on unsupportable myths. So in the modern world of the free individual, we succeed when we reduce ethnicity to a flavor, and we fail when we "force it" or "allow it" to be essential to a person’s being. By ”force it" I mean primarily through repression, and by “allow it” I mean primarily by indulging its conceits.

By origin, I am a white male middle class Anglo Canadian whose grandparents had surnames that were Scottish, English, Dutch, and German. By paternal decent I am a ninth generation Canadian, and by maternal decent, I think I am eighth generation, both through the male line. So what am I? Maybe that it why I am little skeptical of ethnicity as a hard concept, and prone to look at it as a banner. What is essential to us is our humanity; ethnicity is just the hue.

So back to the horses in Professor Smith’s class. When I look at Darfur, I wonder about their horses. When I listen to the claims of the Serbian nationalists, I remember that there is no good evidence as to how and when they became an ethnic group. When I think of Islamic political thinking, I am reminded of Ibn Khaldun's seminal comments on the relationship between nomadic military might and urban piety (on which subject I will write more on another occasion). And when I listen to the Hungarian-named President of France, I remember that the whole of idea of Frenchness was invented over millennia in response to innumerable pressures, no single one of which can be labelled the first cause.

But “civilization”, now that is an essential ...

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