Gary Johns has written a lucid and compelling book to support the resistance to The Voice (The Burden of Culture, Quadrant books.) He points out that the demand goes far beyond fixing obvious problems to something very different – the demand for self-determism for ethnic and racial minorities.
Popper sounded an alarm about this movement in the Sixth Eleanor Rathbone Memorial Lecture, delivered at the University of Bristol in 1956. Eleanor Rathbone was a British MP and a stalwart campaigner on issues including female circumcision in Africa, child marriage in India and forced marriage in Palestine.
The theme of the lecture was “an optimist’s view of modern history.”
At the time Popper considered that the optimist’s view had considerable rarity value because “the wailings of the pessimists have become somewhat monotonous”. This was the height of the Cold War and many people considered that it was only a matter of time before one side or the other precipitated a disastrous military confrontation.
Popper considered that, by 1956, there was no need for further criticism of the communist system and he proceeded to criticise the nationalist faith which he regarded as equally absurd, when expressed as the doctrine of national self-determination.
The principle amounts to the demand that each state should be a nation-state: that it should be confined within a natural border, and that this border should coincide with the location of an ethnic group; so that it should be the ethnic group, the nation, which should determine and protect the natural limits of the state.
He noted that apart from the possible example of Iceland there are virtually no nation states of that kind and the attempt to realise that state of affairs has caused endless conflict and strife when ethnic minorities demanded that they be allowed to break away or join an adjacent state where they would be the majority. For example Czechoslovakia was formed under the principle of national self-determination but as soon as it was formed the Slovaks demanded (in the name of the same principle) to be free, and finally it was destroyed by the German minority, in the name of the same principle. The latest example of this principle is the demand for a Palestinian nation state which is used as a rationale for waging war on Israel.
“There are ethnic minorities everywhere. The proper aim cannot be to “liberate” all of them, rather it must be to protect all of them. The oppression of national groups is a great evil; but national self-determination is not a feasible remedy… Few creeds have created more hatred, cruelty, and senseless suffering than the belief in the righteousness of the nationality principle; and yet it is still widely believed that this principle will help to alleviate the misery of national oppression. My optimism is a little shaken when I look at the near-unanimity with which this principle is still accepted — even by those whose political interests are clearly opposed to it.”
Postscript. With the benefit of five decades of hindsigh it is apparent that Popper was wildly over-optimistic. Who would have predicted that, with the disasters of Stalinism about to be admitted by the Soviet leadership, within a few years radical youth in the west would make brutal thugs like Che and Mao into cult figures?
That the “liberation” of the Third World from western colonisation, and the delivery of untold billions of aid would result in the worst famines and genocides that Africa has ever seen?
That left liberalism would become a religion with all the attendant intolerance and prejudice, and be widely promoted in the universities of the western world?
That a civilisation with leading figures like Shakespeare, Milton, Beethoven and Mozart, would produce generations that would assign cult status to the purveyors of narcissistic and self-indulgent entertainment provided by the Beat generation and the aftermath.
That Popper’s ideas would be marginalised in the academic community by a series of fads and fashions – logical empiricism, language analysis, POMO? What next?
So much for optimism. Lets give pessimism a chance.
The world hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.Matthe Arnold, Dover Beach.
We decayShelley, an elegy on the death of John Keats.
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.