Friday, August 17, 2007

Ethnicity and Related Nonsense

Tibor R. Machan

A young woman asked me the other day what I thought her ethnic background is. After declining to guess—mainly because I don’t care about such stuff and know even less—she kept pressing me and I said, “I guess you may be Turkish.” Whereupon she took major offense.

I didn’t even ask well, what is it? I just turned around and left her standing. I was in no mood to go into why I think taking offense at something like that is utter nonsense. But, yes, it is.

First of all, even if you think most of the Turks were scum throughout history, what does this have to do with Turks today? Not a thing. One is Turkish or Bulgarian or Armenian completely involuntarily and so cannot be held responsible or being one. Maybe if you emigrated to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union to become a citizen because you loved the official ideology there, that can be held against you. But having been born Turkish or Greek or Afghan simply hasn’t thing to do with you identity except accidentally, for better or worse.

In the case of human beings, as distinct from breeds of dogs, one’s ethnicity is irrelevant to who one is unless one makes it so. I was born in Budapest, Hungary, of German parents, actually, but I liked many aspects of Hungarian culture, so despite my being unusually tall for Hungarians, as well as blonde, I made it a point to absorb much of the Hungarian atmosphere around me—to a point. In time I discovered America, through novels and movies and eventually in person, and that is what I chose to become insofar that's possible. My identity wasn’t going to be determined by forces I couldn’t control. At least as far as those aspects of it one can do something about were concerned.

Later, in my academic career, this identity thing became a big deal, politically hot and such. I could never get behind it. What is the significance of such accidental stuff when there is so much of oneself that one has under one’s control? What about what you have done—your scholastic record, your friends, your taste in the arts, your religion or philosophy or politics? Those always seemed to me far more significant than the place from which one hails or the ethnic membership of one’s parents and so forth.

But maybe it is this bit about belonging that is at the bottom of ethnic, national, racial, and similar identities. Or perhaps it is about artificial self-esteem. People seem to need to have a decent estimate of themselves but so many of those who speak out about human affairs consider it selfish, hubris even, to think well of oneself. It is regarded to be conceited to have pride in one’s achievements—just watch how at the Academy Awards everyone is squirming when accepting an award. It is always others who have merited it, never the recipient. No one ever says, “Gee, finally, I got my reward, something I earned fair and square.” Humility is one of these terrible pseudo-virtues that tends to make liars of people, not to mention psychological wrecks.

If it were more encouraged for people to not just achieve things but to be proud of their accomplishments—which isn’t to say everyone ought to become a braggart—all this escaping into one’s group so as to steal some self-esteem could well diminish, even disappear. Of course, that assumes that people do in fact accomplish worthwhile feats.

Since not everyone can end up at the top of the heap, it is best to acknowledge that even small achievements matter. Over a lifetime of decent works and with a little bit of courage to take credit were credit is due, that should not be too difficult. And with recognition of one’s worth, one’s having been creative and productive in one’s life, reliance on ethnic or racial or national pride may in time become pointless. I certainly recommend it, given the mayhem that all this ethnicity and identity politics evidently wreaks across the globe.