Social Self-Determination in Ukraine, Dialogues, 18/04/2014

I’m introducing a new category to the blog today. Dialogues are short to long interviews with colleagues and friends about issues relating to what I write about — political philosophy, the related journalism, and my various fiction projects. Below is an edited version of a conversation I had with my friend M, in response to my post yesterday on the worsening political situation in Ukraine and the threats the Jewish population in Donetsk have received recently of ethnic cleansing.

Unrelated to this, I had an article published this week with Newfoundland’s newest literary and arts magazine, Landwash, which you can read here. It adapts my posts regarding the institutionalization of creative writing, the wider educational effects of University of Iowa’s seminal program in that area, and how my upcoming novella, Under the Trees, Eaten, confronts and critiques these issues. 
• • •
Vladimir Putin is a dangerous man
leading a geopolitically dangerous
country. He's even more deadly
when he takes his shirt off.
Hey Adam,

I'm curious as to your thoughts on this, but didn't want to lob this grenade into the thread on your Facebook wall. I feel like the current issues in Ukraine are a fascinating example of Putin's mastery of the Western love affair with the notion of the liberal subject. Crimea, for example, is being spun as a case of individual sovereignty, with the referendum understood as the free choice of the Crimean people to join Russia. Further, the Russian line interprets attempts by the West to reject this referendum’s legitimacy as nothing more than a typical unilateral decision as to what is best for any given country, regardless of the feelings of that country’s citizens.

Of course, such arguments have to ignore the past and present geopolitical history of Crimea. One could ask how the province’s Tatar population feels about its region’s political developments, because no one ever has. The party of the current president of Crimea only received 4% of the vote in Ukraine’s last national election, and he ascended to power at gunpoint. Turning to these facts, however, means suggesting that some kind of Ukrainian federalism would have to override the apparent desires of the current citizens of Crimea.

While I'm not totally sure where my ideas could go, I can't help but feel that Putin has grasped how to use the Western idolization of the liberal subject to get what he wants. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, given that you have much more knowledge in this area than I do.


Self-determination as a political concept can get so slippery, and I think it has to do with the notion we have of treating countries and cultures as if they were unified individuals. As the concept was first developed with John Locke and his successors up north in the Scottish Enlightenment, it focussed on individuals being able to live in freedom from interference by the government or armed forces, and quite literally determine themselves. Then the Kantian moral philosophy made self-determination (which he re-conceived as self-legislation) an essential function of reason itself.

There had been a tradition in absolute monarchy of conceiving of an entire kingdom as the extension of the King's body, hence Louis XIV's habit of referring to himself as France. But I think the real kicker to blending universal self-determination with the self-determination of polities was justified with Hegelian political philosophy. Hegel and the thinkers he influenced tended to subscribe, at least for the first 100ish years, to a notion that humans could only be free insofar as they articulated the cultural values and continuities which constituted them individually as people in the first place. So the state was conceived as the engine of freedom, culture was linked to the state, and the internal consistency of a culture in a territory defined by state borders was seen as a culture's gaining internal consistency. This ended up only fuelling racism, because cultures were linked to states and territories, and a culture could only be authentic if everyone shared the same moral and religious beliefs. Cultural authenticity was possible only when all citizens of a state shared a culture. Otherwise, discord would necessarily arise to disrupt the rational order of a people. I see this underlying a lot of racism in modern Europe against Muslim immigrants: because they have a different culture, they don't belong in Holland, France, Hungary, Austria, etc. This identification of culture, country, and state has been ingrained in Europe for so long that I don't know if many Europeans can conceive of alternatives, unless they're ethnically mixed or otherwise pluralized already.

But the result of this was that instead of identifying a kingdom with its king, a people are identified with the state. It's become a justification of racism because any cultural diversity in a state is seen as introducing discord. I've heard quite reasonable people suggest that Canada isn't really a country because of its incredible internal cultural diversity. On Hegelian (and Heideggerian, but let's not go there because I have a busy day) grounds, that's actually true.

And so we still use the segregation of diverse peoples to solve problems of racism that arise in ethnically plural societies. This is a justification for the creation of Kosovo, just as it is for Crimea, Donetsk, and Transnistria. It only works when racism has become so terrible and violent anyway that culturally plural regions have practically been ethnically cleansed anyway. Kosovars or Timorese just wouldn't feel safe still living with Serbian or Indonesian controlled police. 

But I'm Canadian. So I don't see this as a necessary result of cultural pluralism. You can just as easily get the racism parodies of Russell Peters arising out of a culturally diverse society as you do ethnic cleansing. And even though he's not my favourite comedian, I prefer the Canadian path.

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