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Passion and Paradox: Joan Cocks Considers the 'Terrible Beauty' of Nationalist Movements

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November 22, 2002

Passion and Paradox: Joan Cocks Considers the 'Terrible Beauty' of Nationalist Movements


Photo: Fred LeBlanc

Joan Cocks

As a political theorist, Joan Cocks is interested in the ways that people have understood and fought over freedom, equality, justice, community, and other ideals. But to assume that Cocks lives only in the realm of theory is to overlook the roots and applications of her work, which are firmly grounded in world events and her own experiences. During the 1960s and '70s, Cocks studied issues surrounding class, imperialism, and gender that were brought to the fore by the Vietnam War and the feminist movement. In the 1980s, Mount Holyoke students struggling with their cultural identity led her to develop a new course, Cultural Politics, and students interested in theory across disciplines inspired her to shape the College's Critical Social Thought Program. Recently, having joined a group opposed to construction of a Home Depot store in the small agricultural town of Hatfield, Massachusetts, Cocks has been helping to define and debate beneficial development, economic progress, and other concepts relevant to land use—the subject of her Memories of Development course. But for the past decade, world events and her own ethnic and national entanglements led Cocks to consider national identity, national self-determination, and nationalist violence, the topics of her most recent book, Passion and Paradox: Intellectuals Confront the National Question (Princeton University Press, 2002).

Cocks first became interested in nationalism in politics, especially the drive for political unity based on the idea of shared ethnicity and homeland, in 1991, the beginning of what Cocks calls "a decade of high nationalist drama." The catalyst was the U.S. government's offensive against Iraq after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Cocks recalls widespread support for U.S. retaliation among ordinary Americans. "Even the mechanic at my muffler shop had a huge poster of Saddam Hussein with a bull's-eye on his head and an unprintable slogan underneath. I began to wonder what triggers such passionate identity with their national government and such fervent willingness to go to war on the part of the American people, most of whom know little or nothing about Iraq, Kuwait, or Middle Eastern politics. Why are citizens of any one state viscerally outraged by a distant second state's violations of the sovereignty and borders of a third state?" Questions about national loyalties multiplied for Cocks during the explosion of ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and Bosnia. "Citing high moral principles, Americans rallied around their government to stop a country from invading another in an area where our oil interests are," she said. "Yet there was little official interest in or popular support for intervening in another country to stop a genocidal enterprise, even after the world had promised in 1945, 'Never again.' "

Cocks's interest in nationalism intensified when she began participating in a local organization, Arabs and Jews against the Gulf War. This was the first political group she had ever joined on the basis of her ethnic (Jewish) identity, because, said Cocks, "I never saw my political commitments as a function of what I was, as opposed to what I thought." And in fact, "the Jewish and Arab members of the group agreed on many things, including their assessment of U.S. foreign policy and their opposition to the bombing of Iraq. At the same time, they were divided along strict ethnic lines in their attitude toward nationalism. All the Jews in the room were staunch antinationalists, critical even of Jewish nationalism; all the Arabs were proud proponents of Arab nationalism. I had such an instinctive distaste for nationalism that I had avoided the subject for most of my life, but given my observations of this group, I thought I'd better find out more about it."

Cocks began asking questions. What constitutes a people? Does national identity merit territorial autonomy? Is national self-determination a condition of political freedom? Of human freedom? Whose will makes up the national will? Does national identity require a homogeneous national population, and if so, what is the fate in a national community of ethnic and racial minorities, diaspora populations, dispossessed peoples, immigrants, and "guest workers"? And does intervention in violent nationalist drives against those deemed "aliens" and "outsiders" bring vulnerable groups a better or worse fate?
For answers, Cocks turned to the writings of eight intellectuals from diverse backgrounds and political camps who were compelled by imperialist oppression, ethnic persecution, and other events of their time to confront dilemmas of ethnic identity, national self-determination, and feelings of belonging or alienation. Exploring the writings of Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Hannah Arendt, Frantz Fanon, Isaiah Berlin, Tom Nairn, V. S. Naipaul, and Edward Said, Cocks discovered that nationalism is inherently ambiguous and complex.

On the one hand, Cocks found that nationalist movements do have positive aspects, emerging from and fostering pride in shared history and culture, love of homelands, and collective political agency. In her book, she examines Frantz Fanon, for example, who wrote and acted in support of nationalist movements for independence, arguing that even violent movements can be necessary for humiliated peoples seeking freedom from oppressive colonial regimes. On the other hand, Cocks—and Fanon, too—found that valuing one nation above all others can engender contempt for difference and a drive to dispossess "aliens" and conquer new territory. She notes the escalating violence and counter-violence in recent relations between Hutus and Tutsis, Serbs and Kosovars, Israeli Jews and Palestinians. She looks back to the early twentieth-century revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, who accused European capitalist states of championing nationalist self-determination "to justify their intrusion into other regions of the world, thereby denying the possibility of national self-determination to those regions and so negating national self-determination as a universal right."

While examining and comparing philosophers' perspectives on nationalism, Cocks confronted its polar opposite, cosmopolitanism, and again found ambiguity and complexity. Cosmopolitan individuals can avoid parochialism, take pleasure in difference, and identify with strangers, writes Cocks in Passion and Paradox, but they can also be disdainful of the local attachments of other people, feel disconnected from all settled ways of life, and show no regard for the landscape, history, and culture of the places they visit, reside in, or develop. Still, she takes issue with the Scottish neonationalist Tom Nairn for condemning cosmopolitanism as "the self-serving ideology of 'big battalion' states, metropolitan managerial and intellectual elites, socialist enemies of ethnic difference, a Jewish international intelligentsia, and diasporic individuals who live as lightly in one country as in another."

Research for Passion and Paradox not only expanded Cocks's understanding of nationalism but also helped explain her "instinctive antipathy" toward nationalist movements. As she read accounts of the alienation felt by dispossessed peoples throughout history, she recalled childhood stories about Jewish relatives in Europe who had become targets of discrimination, exclusion, and, in the worst case, extermination, when ethnonational movements arose where they lived. Cocks sees an inevitable logic of persecution at work in all ethnonational states, including, ironically and tragically, the state of Israel, this time with Jews as the majority state people. "The only way that logic could have been avoided by those in search of a Jewish homeland would have been through the creation of a binational state for Palestinian Arabs and Jews providing a roof and equal political voice to both peoples," says Cocks, echoing her book's excerpts from Hannah Arendt. Cocks says that a bi or multinational state, while ideal, is possible only "if all people in that state claim the best aspects of nationalism, namely collective action and love of place, and the best of cosmopolitanism, namely delight in heterogeneity of the kind that the United States as a society of immigrants achieves at its very best moments. Exclusive nation states, states for a single people, are always dangerous for other groups who happen to be living there and in certain circumstances will lead to catastrophe for them."

Cocks has concluded that nationalism is more complicated than she had once thought. "There is no political phenomenon more ambiguous than this 'terrible beauty,'" she writes, acknowledging that one can have sympathies for ethnonationalism even while one champions heterogeneous political community. "Human beings and cultures are not purely evil or purely good," says Cocks about her book's findings. "People are filled with contradictory combinations of desires, and life is usually more complicated than two clear, opposing poles. I learned the same thing about nationalism; it doesn't align at one pole. Both nationalism and cosmopolitanism have positive and negative moments. The project for our century is how to glean and intertwine the positive from both ends, and create something new and interesting for the world."
 

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