the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2003 November 8


Discussing his assault on Wall Street corruption, New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer referred to Pat Moynihan’s theory of the diminishment of social standards through the tolerance of lesser violations. Moynihan was then saying what Rudy Giuliani, another New York moderate (on the other side of center), later famously practiced, cracking down on “quality of life” crimes, like jaywalking and sleeping in public. Few would need help making the comparison to the theory of “gateway drugs”, where casual drug use, of marijuana for instance, is held to facilitate serious drug use, of heroin for instance, or oxycodone for those who can afford it. While I am glad of Spitzer’s actions at least, I have never thought the underlying argument to be much more than silly ― it seems, in particular, to tie up resources combatting minor infractions that could instead be used combatting actual, rather than hypothetical, major infractions. And of course I do not believe jaywalking and pot-smoking to be criminal; but at the very least I never objected to Giuliani, if he so believed, professing that they were criminal. He can say whatever he likes, and if he truly believes them to be wrong, he should not keep silent.

Dominion, the exercise of control over the world by some of its inhabitants, is the only form of crime I am prepared to recognize; and it has been a good fortnight for dominion. But these recent events have also offered some support for the idea, as Moynihan said, of defining deviancy down. Dominion exists on a continuum, from a New York cop harassing a homeless person to a Beijing cop executing a peaceful dissident. Looking at the world’s troubled states in recent days has suggested that the tolerance of one form of dominion, the literal conspiracy of silence about it, can lead, perhaps must lead, to another form, one which is worse and which is rhetorically much less tolerated.

The four states in question are Georgia, Spain, Sri Lanka, and Russia. Within the last decade or so, all have been democratic, but we need only return to 1975 to find all of them as closed, undemocratic societies, particularly so with Spain, under the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco, and Georgia and Russia, under the Stalinist dictatorship of Leonid Brezhnev. The other important fact the states have in common is that each is currently undergoing, and suppressing, an armed revolt on the part of a national minority, in a region that is historically and demographically occupied by that minority, but politically ruled by another nation and culture in a fashion that all honest observers would describe as imperialism. These minority regions are Abkhazia, the Basque Country, Tamil Eelam, and Chechnya; and all but Tamil Eelam are merely the most combative minority regions in their respective states. This rule is supported by a common myth of nationalism that identifies the state with the nation, and vice versa. The resistance of Abkhazia to Georgian rule, of the Basque Country to Castilian rule, of Eelam to Sinhalese rule, and of Chechnya to Russian rule, adequately demonstrates the truth. States are not nations, not in the sense of voluntary identification or cultural affiliation. States are, in varying degrees, dominions. And a state where a majority nation controls a minority nation through myth and other lies and then ultimately through force is not far from a state where a minority controls a majority through myth and other lies and then ultimately through force.

Abkhazia was not a major issue in last week’s parliamentary elections in Georgia, but it is a major rationale behind Eduard Shevardnadze’s now-blatant authoritarianism. Shevardnadze was once one of the world’s leading opponents of dominion, as the reformist foreign minister of the Russian empire under Mikhail Gorbachev. He has since restyled himself, in typical “Near Abroad” fashion, into a nationalist, and has proposed to uplift Georgia by debasing it. Abkhazia is effectively sovereign, though largely laid waste. Georgia may soon follow. Exit polls showed Shevardnadze’s party being trounced in the election. But early official returns have it doing almost twice as well, and its leading opponent half as well. Protests have materialized; the official tally is now being delayed with the apparent intention of calibrating the final result to give Shevardnadze the largest possible win without triggering a mass uprising. But he is already warning against civil war. This, to be sure, is ominous.

In the southern Basque Country ― the portion under Spanish rule ― the elected government has proposed a plan for greater autonomy and separate representation internationally, as for instance in the European Union. José María Aznar, the conservative nationalist in power in Madrid, has vowed to block this. He has been crusading against Basque self-determination under the guise of a war against terrorism. Surely some Basques are terrorists, but that does not discredit their cause; nor does the proposal for autonomy, as Aznar claims, reward terrorism. By that argument, apartheid would still be in favor and Ireland would still be entirely British, and there would never be a Palestinian state, or an end to the occupation of Iraq. It should be asked why the actions of a few terrorists should condemn a worthy cause, such as the free choice of the Basque Country to coexist or not with the Spanish state. But Aznar, either a believer or a manipulator of the nationalist myth, does not grant that worth.

The president of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumaratunga, has long opposed concessions of any sort to the Tamil population on the island. Her nationalist-myth-inspired policy of unconditional victory has certainly prolonged the separatist war, and is hopefully the reason why her party lost the last parliamentary elections, to a party favoring negotiation. The prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has delivered, negotiating a truce with the Tamil forces and wringing the greatest possible concession from them, the abandonment of a claim to independence. It is to be expected that the Tamils will be given autonomy in exchange, but Kumaratunga proposes to give them nothing, again arguing that to do so would reward terrorism. Thus, when Wickremesinghe was recently out of the country, she fired his security and information ministers, assumed the powers herself, suspended parliament, and declared a state of emergency. This is exceedingly illiberal behavior, needless to say, and negates her original mandate. The Tamil forces have held their fire, and Wickremesinghe has returned to a boisterous welcome, so there is hope. But until the government returns to his control, Sri Lanka is an autocracy, and one with bloody determination to imprison a minority people.

The drama in Russia is not directly connected to Chechnya; but everything in Russian politics is indirectly connected to Chechnya. Chechnya was the foundation of president Vladimir Putin’s popularity and his rise to and maintenance of power, and it is the linchpin of his strategy to prevent the final dissolution of the Russian empire. At the moment the issue is the social role of the oligarchs. The Western-inspired privatization that made a handful of Russians scandalously rich and gave them control over an unimaginable fraction of the Russian economy was transparently corrupt. Nothing but a caricature of a capitalist would question that in private. But Vladimir Putin, responsible for law enforcement in Russia, has not previously questioned it in public, nor has he done anything about the corrupt schemes for tax evasion and wealth accumulation employed by the oligarchs since. This was the result of a thieves’ bargain, where the oligarchs’ wealth was uncontested by Putin and Putin’s rule was uncontested by the oligarchs. Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; though Putin surely identifies more with God. He would not tolerate, therefore, the participation of the oligarchs in politics. In particular, he would not tolerate their funding of opposition politicians, especially Yabloko, the only liberal opposition Putin has, the only significant party that is dedicated to openness in general and to the truth about a rather-sensitive issue ― Chechnya. The few liberals in Russia have struggled to publicize that Russians have been dying needlessly in Chechnya, that Chechnya is being destroyed and its population brutalized, and that the main public justification for this was a terrorist act committed not by Chechen rebels but, most likely, Putin’s government itself. Russia’s richest individual, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has seen his associates arrested, his company targeted, and finally been arrested himself. He has resigned as head of his company, an oil conglomerate, and some suggest this is prelude to running for president himself. Putin controls the mass media, and Khodorkovsky’s ill-gotten wealth may indeed be the only viable weapon against Putin. We can anticipate Putin’s next move with little difficulty.

Russia is the most troubling case. It remains a large, populous, powerful state, a member of the G-8 and a permanent member of the UN security council. It has tremendous industrial capacity, high technology, expansive natural resources, an educated populace, and the bomb. It matters, therefore, that it is a mafia state without significant independent mass media, run by an imperialist former member of the secret police, that the parliament is dominated by this imperialist’s supporters, that its next-largest parties are Stalinist and fascist, and that the (miniscule) liberal opposition is nonetheless tied, ideologically and now in personal terms, to the forces of corrupt privatization and rightist plutocratic excess. And what better model do we have for China’s eventual democratization? Could we, in twenty years, have seen China democratize and then enter a period of autocratic regression, while Russia yet languishes there?

But Russia is not the only appropriate recipient of our attention. We should not be tolerating dominion in any degree. The democracies that tolerate majoritarian national imperialism by other democracies are a mere step from practicing it themselves. Those democracies that practice this form of imperialism are a mere step from totalitarianism. Only so can they truly silence their discontented minorities. Those of us who do not want to live under totalitarianism ourselves, and I presume that includes most of us, would be well-advised to speak out against majoritarian tyranny now, and if not for altruistic reasons then for egoistic reasons. We may not always have the freedom to do so.


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