Monday, March 19, 2007

Amanda Marie Hunter on Ballentine and Snyder

In Nationalism and the Marketplace of Ideas, Jack Snyder and Karen Ballentine explore the relationship between elites, constituents, and nationalism in the environment of newly democratizing states. The article makes plain the strong appeal nationalism offers to political elites in this context: It allows them to makes claims and mobilize the masses without encumbering future actions with the economic specificities detailed in socialism and liberalism. Further, segmentation, or diversity, in a population allows elites to capitalize on its manipulation. That is, demographic cleavages channel the flow of information along preexisting paths of exchange, which are often defined by religion, language, and geography. This allows elites to craft narrow nationalist messages and direct them at select populations while successfully excluding others, which was done with terrifying accuracy in Nazi Germany and the former Yugoslavia.

Snyder and Ballentine argue that the perfect conduit for the dissemination of an elitist nationalist propaganda is a media industry that has recently undergone rapid expansion and liberalization. A new and unprofessionalized press corp., which is likely lacking investigative ethics or a moral code of conduct, behaves in a vastly different manner than in the west, where the role of the press as a public forum for debate was conceived and developed. This is, in part, due to the fact that economic transitions in post-communism often lead to a narrow type of privatization in which previous elites divide the stakes among themselves. Hence, the operators of authoritarian media sources become the owners of the ‘free’ press. In these situations, the press is less of venue of analysis as it is an arm of the state, and as such easily falls prey to nationalist mythmaking and mass mobilization. The authors charge that NGO’s have consistently and recalcitrantly failed to recognize that it is not the mere existence of a free press, but rather the qualities that they traditionally embody, that are essential to a liberal democracy.

The authors constructively point out that certain types of myths would not weaken, even under the influence of a professionalized press, because of their inherent subjective nature. Claims relating to deserts or inherent ‘goodness’ cannot be defeated in the public sphere because they are not falsifiable. Thus, the authors have acknowledged two types of national myths: preventable and unpreventable. Perhaps, as a corollary to this argument, a content analysis of the press during the dissolution of Yugoslavia could strengthen this position. In short, these claims ought to be supported by empirical evidence. In that way, one would be able to more precisely identify the role of preventable myths as related to a larger confluence factors that lead to nationalism.

However, the authors do go quite a long way in thematizing ideas that resonate beyond the particular cases discussed in the article. Essentially, it does not follow that the installation of institutions will necessarily be accompanied by the suitable corresponding practices and behaviors. Thus, intuitively, they will not generate comparable results. In fact, a priori actions that treat democracy as merely a commodity to be imported and exported are likely to do more harm than good, both within the unlucky nation and to democratic theory itself. Clearly, politics and culture are not mutually exclusive processes. The implementation of foreign political practices into a rapidly changing nation with disregard to a rich and entrenched culture is beyond cavalier – it smacks of assimilation. Ultimately, the only guaranteed results are unintended consequences.