I once had a discussion with a friend who insisted that 'religion is not ethnicity'. It started me wondering if that is really true. In some parts of the world, ethnic groups seem to be defined by religion as much as 'race' or language. For example, we now think of someone who is 'Greek' as speaking Greek, and as someone who is 'Turkish' as speaking Turkish. But when Greece first gained its independence, and the two populations were intermingled in both Greece and Turkey, 'Greeks' were defined as Orthodox Christians, while 'Turks' were defined as Muslims. Language was secondary; so that someone who was Christian but spoke Turkish was defined as 'Greek', while someone who was Muslim but spoke Greek was a 'Turk'. That definition still persists today, and Greece claims that Albanian-speaking Christians in southern Albania (where the majority are Muslim) are actually 'Greeks'.
More recently, in Bosnia, when the 3 main 'ethnicities' were fighting, what really distinguished them? They all spoke the same language and shared virtually the same culture, living together for centuries. But the Croats were Catholic, the Serbs were Orthodox, and the Muslims were, of course, Muslim. If a Croat converts to Orthodoxy, is he then a Serb? How about a Muslim who becomes Catholic? Is she then a Croat? In Bosnian society, religion is not a flexible thing- a mere matter of personal conscience. It is almost a betrayal of one's community. In fact, Muslim communities throughout the Balkans are often seen by the Christian majority as 'collaborators' who betrayed their compatriots and converted for personal gain. (Whether that was true or not, centuries ago, the present generation can hardly be blamed for it.)
In Iraq today, most commentators refer to Shiites and Sunnis as if they are two ethnic groups- which, in essence, they are- but defined by religion, not physical characteristics or language, as both groups are Arabs. Even where there is a conflict between two truly distinct 'ethnic' groups, religion is still, often, a factor. Armenians and Azerbis speak different languages and have very different cultural traditions, but it is the religious factor- that Armenians are Christians and Azerbis Muslim- that has made the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh so bloody. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, the Tamils and Singhalese speak different languages, but they are also of different religions: Hindu and Buddhist, respectively. Would their conflict have been so violent and unresolvable if they were of the same religion? I wonder.
The examples of religiously-defined ethnic groups are numerous: Sikhs in India, Maronites and Druze in Lebanon, Jews everywhere, and Mormons in the United States. Even in Canada, part of the 'French Canadian' identity is their Catholic heritage. The concept of religion as a matter of personal conscience, unrelated to an individual's status in his community, is historically recent, and a result of the humanism and individualism which emerged in Europe after the Reformation, and during the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, it has not been universally accepted, as we saw recently in Afghanistan, with the Muslim who converted to Christianity. In parts of the world where Christians and Muslims, or Muslims and Hindus, or Protestants and Catholics (N. Ireland) are killing each other, simply for being of a different religion, it's not exactly surprising that anyone who converts is looked at with suspicion. As long as religion continues to be used to define who is "us" and who is "them"- who is "in" the group (and can therefore be trusted) and who is "out" (and must be feared), this will continue to be the case.
How does a country like the United States go from a US$200 billion dollar surplus to a US$500 billion dollar deficit in just 4 years? Is it simply bad fiscal management? A few unexpected expenses, caused by 9/11 and the "War on Terrorism" combined with over-zealous tax-cutting for the rich? Or is it something more sinister? I don't usually buy into conspiracy theories, but I first started to wonder about this when George Bush did a tour of Africa a few years ago (right after the invasion of Afghanistan) and promised to spend tens of billions to fight AIDS in Africa. I think it's a worthy cause, don't get me wrong, but this had never been a priority for Republicans before, and with a mounting deficit, I wondered why suddenly now? Was he actually trying to run up a bigger deficit?
Consider this: U.S. Treasury bonds ('T-bonds' as they're commonly called) are the default 'safe' haven for global investors/speculators who are worried about risky stock or currency markets. When things get jittery, they buy up T-bonds. American taxpayers pay the interest, and the American government guarantees them. In effect, it's a way of transferring money from the average American to wealthy American and foreign investors. Of course, this is true of any country which has a debt (ie. 192 of 193 countries in the world). But U. S. debt dwarfs the debt of all other countries- if global investors couldn't buy T-bonds they would lose a source of easy, risk-free profit.
Then I remembered, from an American history course I took in college, that such a pro-debt lobby did in fact exist, in the early 19th Century, when Americans were debating setting up a national bank. Their argument was much the same as the one I've stated above: they thought investors should have a safe place to put their money, with the public paying them interest. Naturally such an idea was not popular, except among the rich.
Ironically, Bush is now using the enormous deficit which he himself created as an excuse to cut social programs for lower income Americans, all in the name of 'balancing the budget' -which he seems to have no intention of doing.
If a pro-debt lobby does exist in the U.S. today, it is obviously one that works behind closed doors, very quietly and informally. If the American public knew about it, there would be quite a scandal. But those who stand to lose from a balanced U. S. budget are the wealthiest (and therefore most powerful) people and institutions in the world. It would be surprising if they stood by and did nothing to try to unbalance the American budget.
Once upon a time, there was a poor village in a lonely valley, isolated from the rest of the world. In this village, not everyone was poor: some families were actually quite prosperous, and one in particular was rich. The rich family lived in a huge, rambling mansion- because they had many parents and children, cousins, second cousins, aunts and uncles and grandparents, all living together. Now the whole rich family was ruled by a wise and prudent old man, who made sure that the family never spent more in the village than they earned from their vast estate. Still, because it was such a large, rich family, they spent more in the village than ten or twenty of the other prosperous families combined. The villagers came to rely on their patronage- the very economic life of the village depended on this one family.
But then, inevitably, the old man died. He was replaced as head of the family by a son who was not as wise or prudent. He saw no reason to spend so little, and soon encouraged the whole family to spend extravagantly. He himself set the example, by spending freely on his favourite pastime: collecting guns. Soon he had the biggest gun collection in the whole village, with more guns than all the rest of the villagers together.
At first the storekeepers and saloonkeepers of the village were overjoyed at the spendthrift attitude of their best customer. Their profits soared, and they built second-storeys and additions to their businesses. But soon the rich family ran out of gold to pay for their purchases, and they started to pay with promisory notes and I.O.U.s. The villagers were confused: was the rich family no longer rich? Why didn't they pay with gold anymore? But, not wanting to lose their most important customer, they took the I.O.U.s. Surely the rich family would start paying in gold again soon. Besides, the village bank, which also relied on the rich family's business, always honoured the notes.
However, the family did not change it's ways, and instead fell deeper and deeper into the villagers' debt. Eventually, the bank stopped accepting the rich family's notes. The storekeepers, who had traded the notes among themselves, as a kind of village currency, lost confidence in the notes too, and stopped accepting them as payment from each other, or the rich family itself. The rich family, unable to buy anything, but dependant on the village for their needs and wants more than ever, grew poor, and their mansion fell into disrepair. Finally, the angry villagers, who waited in vain for the vast horde of promisory notes they had collected over the years to be honoured, stormed the mansion of the rich family. The patriarch of the family reached for the guns in his gun collection, and that alone saved him and his family. The villagers retreated to their homes in the valley below, burning the now-valueless promisory notes in a big bonfire in the village square.
The formerly-rich family continued to decline in fortunes, until the son died, and his son succeeded him. Like his grandfather, he was wise and careful with the family finances, and slowly the family began to recover their wealth and reputation- but they never held the same honoured place in the village, as other village families rose to prominence and wealth, surpassing their own.
Now, dear readers, can you guess the moral? Who this rich family is, and what this village?
Everyday I hear people talk about how violent the world is, and how we live in such troubled times. Certainly some parts of the world, such as Liberia, Congo or Iraq, closely resemble hell, and it is hard to imagine how things could be worse. But there have always been wars, and if we zoom out, to look at the world as a whole, from the perspective of the last 50, or 500 or even 5,000 years, then we see a far different picture. In fact, we have never- I repeat, NEVER- seen a more peaceful era than the one we are living in right now. This is a new (perhaps brief) Golden Age of Peace.
With the end of the Cold War, there were a rash of conflicts as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia broke up. But that is normal when a large empire or multi-ethnic state dissolves- for example, when the Ottoman Empire retreated from Europe, or when Britain withdrew from India-Pakistan. The post-Cold War conflicts have mostly been resolved, or are being resolved now through more peaceful negotiations. Meanwhile, long-standing conflicts which were sponsored by the superpowers of the Cold War have ended, and brutal dictatorships around the world have been replaced by democratic governments (or, at least, less-brutal dictatorships).
Too many civil wars have ended since 1991 to list them all here: Nicaragua, Mozambique, Ethiopia-Eritrea, East Timor and Cambodia, to name a few. Yemen has been re-united. Apartheid has ended. The IRA came in from the cold (sort-of). Hong Kong and Macau were peacefully re-united with China. And popular movements have overthrown dicatorships in Indonesia, South Korea, Congo, and throughout Latin America. Perhaps the most hopeful development in the global spread of peace is the recent withdrawal of Israel from Gaza. Maybe that conflict, too, can be resolved in the next decade. (Alright, I'm not that much of an optimist!)
The surest sign of the Golden Age of Peace is that international conflicts are becoming increasingly rare. Armies just don't cross borders as often as they used to. In fact, if we use the classic definition of 'war' as being a violent conflict involving the armies of two sovereign states, then there is no 'war' anywhere in the world today. Not one. Of course, there are still civil wars, and the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. But civil wars, as I said above, are becoming fewer, and occupations don't last forever. In a decade or two we might see the end of even these wars. Imagine that: a world without war!
The question I'm sure you're wondering is: why? Why is our era so much more peaceful? There are many hypotheses: the spread of democracy, global interdependence, or even the influence of one monolithic super-superpower, the United States (although, since the U.S. started the last two international wars, and sponsored most of the civil wars of the Cold War era, this last hypothesis is questionable). But that is for another essay. The point I am trying to make here is that we should recognize the true, present state of affairs, and not bemoan 'our violent, troubled times' when in fact we live in the most relatively non-violent, untroubled times in human history. Welcome to the Golden Age!