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Mediterranean Quarterly 13.4 (2002) 38-48
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Reflections on Ethnic Fear
In his classic novel of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens wrote that it was the best of times, but it was also the worst of times. That observation applies to our own day, as well. Particularly for those of us who live here in the United States, these are indeed the best of times. Our country is economically vibrant, technologically unmatched, and militarily dominant. Recognizing the opportunity presented by our society, people from around the world want to come here to learn at our educational institutions and even to become American citizens. And we welcome them, for we believe they will add to our prosperity, rather than diminish it. Perhaps even more important, we are confident enough in our own identities as Americans that we welcome people of various ethnic backgrounds, as we have from our inception. "What then is the American, this new man?" Crevecoeur asked in 1782 in his Letters from an American Farmer. "He is an American, who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. . . . Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world." 1
That is the vision of democracy in the United States, embodied in our national motto, e pluribus unum: out of many, one. But the American vision [End Page 38] of democracy is not universal, and it is the rejection of that definition that lies at the root of the ethnic conflict we see in so much of the world, conflict that makes our era one of the most tragic in history. In Europe, in Asia, in Africa, people slaughter each other so that their nation can live together in one state as they define it. These are not wars of dictators, although charismatic leaders may inspire followers to kill. Ethnic conflict is conflict in which ordinary people actively and willingly participate because it is rooted in the popular ideal of national self-determination, the idea that a state must properly consist of a single nation. And this idea, we must recognize, received its major impetus from Western democratic thinkers, who saw it as a way to eliminate the tyrannical rule of one people over another. "Where the sentiment of nationality exists in any force, there is a prima facie case for uniting all the members of the nationality under the same government, and a government to themselves apart," John Stuart Mill argued in his 1861 essay Representative Government. "Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities," and therefore "it is in general a necessary condition of free institutions that the boundaries of governments should coincide in the main with those of nationalities." 2
Mill was writing in an era in which empires dominated Europe, empires that did not give adequate expression to the democratic aspirations of their minorities. At the same time, other nations were divided into small states and sought to achieve unity in a larger whole. Thus, Italy and Germany were formed. This growing national consciousness, however, did not contribute to a more peaceful Europe. On the contrary, nations began to identify themselves in opposition to each other. "The national sentiment was not developed directly out of the [French] revolution in which it was involved, but was exhibited first in resistance to it, when the attempt to emancipate had been absorbed in the desire to subjugate, and the republic had been succeeded by the empire," the great British historian Lord Acton wrote in his reply to Mill. "The movement against it was popular and spontaneous, because the rulers were absent or helpless; and it was national, because it was directed against foreign institutions. In Tyrol, in Spain, and afterwards in Prussia, [End Page 39] the people did not receive the impulse from the government, but undertook of their own accord to...