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Noot gets one right

December 12, 2011 - Harry Eagar
Sort of. And his fellow rightwingers are giving him hell for it.

Noot's got no reason to complain, though, since they've let him slide with his numerous outrageous falsehoods and fantasies, like the one about how poor kids don't know how to work.

He's correct, though, that Palestinians are an invented people. As usual with Noot, especially when he's årrogating to himself the authority of his professor's robe, he leaves out more than he gets in.

I have never thought much of Noot's history lessons, for all that he has a doctorate in the subject from my Creole ancestors' favorite institution of higher learning, Tulane. He's correct about the recency of Palestinian nationalism., however. It didn't exist 40 years ago.

What Noot did not say, though, is that a great many nationalities were invented, in some cases, like Romania, deliberately by intellectuals who were greeted with puzzlement when they told illiterate peasants that they were Romanians. The peasants would have called themselves Christians, if anybody had asked; and that would have been the reaction of almost anyone in the vast disputed borderlands where Protestant and Catholic Christians, Orthodox, Jews and Muslims met in a swathe running from Poland to Ethiopia.

A century or a century and a half ago, almost anyone in those places, if asked, would have self-identified by religion. If the questioner was of another faith, the answer would have been general: Christian, Jew, Muslim. If of the same faith, the response would have been refined a bit: Protestant, Shia or whatever.

Even beyond the borderlands, nationalism was not so clearcut as we Americans are accustomed to think it. According to the historian Theodore Zeldin, at the time of the formation of the Third Republic, only 6% of the people in France spoke French. To a very great degree, nationalism was created out of labile material by self-conscious propaganda, through government schools, newspapers and agitation.

Although the circumstances were different, the same methods were used in America to nationalize immigrants. The French are often ridiculed by holier-than-thou types for teaching their black subjects in Africa to read from primers that opened: “Nos ancestres, les Gaulois . . . [Our ancestors, the Gauls], but the French had a robust sense of cultural self-worth and were ready, up to a point, to recruit non-Gaulish people to it, just as even the Nazis were ready to aryanize Jewish children who had the requisite blond hair and blue eyes. Nationalism was a divider, but it could be a unifier when it suited political aims.

The revolutions of 1848-49 are called the Springtime of the Peoples, because the radicals appealed to the self-consciousness of the masses against the dynasties, although since they first had to create the self-consciousness, they failed in the short run.

The Arabs, for the most part, came generations late to this development. Even today, it is not easy to determine the nationality of a particular Arab. We call the ones who live in Arabia Felix and Arabia Deserta Saudis, which is hardly a national term, since it refers to the dynasty. In Lebanon, during the 1970 civil war, it wasn't necessary to ask. The country was infested with sectarian checkpoints, although to outward appearance, all thugs looked the same – green fatigues, AK-47s. When stopping a traveler, they didn't bother to ask, Christian or Muslim? They just made the victim pull down his pants, and if the state of his prepuce didn't match theirs, shot him.

The ignorance of Americans, and especially of Republicans, on this matter is profound. The Bush II crowd went to war to create an Iraqi government, in profound ignorance that there is no such thing as an Iraqi. The Kurds in the north do not think of themselves as Iraqis, and the Arabs self-identify by religion or by tribe. Only when talking to stupid Americans, especially if the Americans are unloading trailerloads of cash, do they speak of being Iraqi. They now have a parliament that was elected to represent Iraqis, but since they do not consider themselves such, it doesn't meet.

A lot of mischief could have been avoided had this situation been appreciated in the White House and the Pentagon.

Likewise with Palestinians. They were not self-conscious two generations ago, but they are now. The invention has been successful. Even people who had little connection with Palestine, like the expat intellectual Edward Said, a cosmopolitan who was, if anything, Egyptian, liked to pretend he was a Palestinian.

It is not easy to unnationalize a group of people. I cannot think of any example, although there are plenty of instances in which attempts to nationalize groups failed. The dissolution of the Soviet Union is the prime case. Russification worked, but like everything else in Russia, not very well.

Thus, it is difficult to think what point Noot thought he was making by calling attention to the fact that the Palestinians are a new people. A people they are, and now will have to be dealt with as such.

So, Noot was sort of right, but impolitic. Not only did he irritate the Palestinians, but a fraction of his own party. It is easy to see why they were irritated. One of their best talking points on foreign policy was going to be a charge that Obama has not done enough to solve the Palestinian conundrum. Now Noot has taken that one off the table by presenting the other party as one that doesn't even want it solved.


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