Michael Neumann on self-determination

Lately on this blog I’ve written about secession and the creation of new states from existing ones. My opinion is that states do not have a “right” to put down such rebellions, and that in many cases the national government should let the group secede. At the same time, I’m queasy about the idea of “national self-determination” – the idea that groups have a right to their own state.

The other day I came across an interview of Michael Neumann, who is most famous for his writings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and author of the book The Case Against Israel. In the interview, Neumann talks about self-determination, and his views on the subject so closely mirror my own that I can do no better than to quote him directly:

Michael Neumann: As for why I’m critical of “the principle of national self-determination”, that’s because ‘nation’ or ‘people’ is constantly used to mean ‘ethnic group’. So interpreted, the ‘principle of national self-determination’ is one of the most destructive ideals ever advanced.

We might suppose there is an ethnically homogeneous population on some planet, and members of that population want the same thing. Their interests never clash with the interests of other populations on the planet – maybe there isn’t any other population on the planet. Should they be able to determine ‘their destiny’? Sure, why not – as long as they do this for good, not evil.

On this planet of ours, whenever the clamor for ethnic self-determination arises, it’s shamefully, blatantly bogus. The ethnic groups in question are almost never well-defined and never monolithic: not every member of the group has the same interests. What really happens is that you have some fake ‘community leaders’ spouting all sorts of self-induced lies about how important their ‘identity’ is to them. These posers claim their vitally important identity needs someone to ‘preserve’ it. Oddly enough for such spiritually attuned people, preserving it usually requires something quite material, like a bunch of land, or a wad of government cash.

Worst of all, it always turns out that, wherever this ‘people’ allegedly needs to determine itself, there are other folks living there as well. What about them? Their ‘destiny’ may not mesh with the ‘destiny’ of the self-determining ‘people’. We know all too well how this usually plays out. How did we ever get to believe that ethnic rule is acceptable? Self-determination wouldn’t even make a strong case for Palestinian statehood. Are the Palestinians a ‘nation’ in the ethnic sense? Well, what happened to them being Arabs, and to Arab nationalism? What happened to the whole region, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, once being called just ‘Syria’? Nothing could be more of a reality than the Palestinians who inhabit Palestine. But when we abstract them into a ‘nation’, their case for statehood becomes weaker, not stronger – perhaps not as bogus as the Zionist case, but hardly compelling.


3 Responses to “Michael Neumann on self-determination”

  1. ATurner Says:

    I agree. Self determination doesn’t seem like a good reason for secession. I only believe in secession when there is an initial cause such as genocide, or negative unequal treatment.

  2. Andy Hallman Says:

    Can you elaborate on why you think past genocides and unequal treatment are relevant?

  3. ATurner Says:

    Perhaps not past but ongoing bad treatment. A country shouldn’t be allowed to treat any groups unequally (if by taxes or genocide). Then other countries in the future may feel like it was okay to treat certain groups of people this way.

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