Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Book Review: Modern Hatreds

Kaufman, Stuart J. Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War. Ithaca, NY; Cornell University Press, 2001.

Kaufman argues that symbolic politics are the necessary condition for ethnic war. His analysis, in the form of a comparative case study, is that the one universal feature of ethnic wars is the use of a symbolic explanation of what's happening, for example, extinction myths.

To this extent, his analysis builds on a macro-level what David Grossman's On Killing did on a micro-level. It is the process of dehumanizing the enemy--the rapacious other who seeks to destroy us--while simultaneously humanizing ourselves--who are therefore good and just by seeking to destroy them. The ethnic myth also has the purpose of group definition--it tells the hearer who is one of their co-ethnics and who is not.

Where I think he errs is in his claim that there has to be a pre-existing mythology with the other group--that such a mythology must exist before it can be exploited. A pre-existing mythology, I believe, only makes the process of adoption of the mythic explanation easier. All you need is a really good lawyer who can explain why this situation is like a historical situation. It's just easier to get people to buy into an explanation with which they are already familiar--which is why Hitler is the universal bad guy comparison.

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