Saturday, December 4, 2010

Sovereignty and Difference

Under the current social institutions, sovereignty does protect difference. As long as people identify the Self in terms of the Other, minority groups of people will require a degree of sovereignty in order to achieve security. Identity politics have come to define our world. The general theory is that if everyone pursues what they want at the expense of the other, then a natural balance will form distributing resources somewhat fairly. Therefore, in order to effectively pursue their self-interest, minority groups require a degree of sovereignty. The degree to which those with sovereignty perceive them as different and the relative size of the minority group dictates how sovereign they have to be to be secure.

A perfect example of this issue can be seen in the State of Israel. As much as one can be angered by how the state was formed, the sociopolitical environment after World War II and the event preceding it merited the creation of a sovereign Jewish state. We all know the story of the MS St. Louis and there’s no need to delve into the result of its failure, but what it illustrates is that in order to achieve security the Jews required a state to advocate and work towards their safety.

The story of the Native Americans provides a less clear-cut scenario. When the white settlers arrived the tribes processed this sovereignty. However, over two hundred years these settlers systematically colonized their land and destroyed their power structures. In the current US, while their sovereignty allowed them to make treaties with the American government it did not stop this government from subsequently ignoring them. However, following the terrorization of Native Americans by settlers, the US acknowledged that sovereignty protects difference by creating the reservation system.

Currently, reservations do posses a degree of juridical and political sovereignty. As a result, different tribes are able to structure society according to their ideals and not come into conflict with the US. For example, the Acoma Pueblo hold certain rocks to be sacred. Because of their sovereignty they were able to pass a law making climbing on certain rock formations be punishable with 20 years in jail. Recently two white college students were arrested and sentenced to 10 years in jail and the US respected the tribe’s sovereignty by letting this sentence stand. No matter one’s views on the morality of locking away people from other cultures simply for ignorance, one must admit that this shows that this tribe’s sovereignty protected their cultural differences.

This can also be seen near where I live where Hupa tribe members are able to practice unsustainable and environmentally unfriendly hunting and fishing methods because they are on tribal land. What is interesting about this example is that the hegemonic majority had to grant the tribes their independence in order for them to respect their sovereignty.

As long as the current sociopolitical institutions exist identity groups will require sovereignty to protect difference. However, if the institutions were shifted so that people linked the wellbeing of the Self with the well being of the Other I could imagine this dichotomy becoming irrelevant. Under this new institution, differences between peoples could perhaps be accepted as natural. At the same time, identity groups would feel less need to preserve inhumane cultural practices in order to protect their sovereignty.


  1. Your passage on the Native American Reservations is really interesting. There's always the problem when one group of people's notions of what is right or fair conflicts with another person's notion of the same thing. In these situations it's not just unwillingness to accept each other's differences that makes it hard to live together, it's that the different identities in question depend on *not* accepting the other's differences. Like the sacred rocks — Americans would never convict people for climbing those rocks, but the tribe would find it unacceptable to *not* convict them for climbing those rocks. I think the line between differences that can be eventually sorted out and differences that need sovereignty to survive occurs when they differ on what they consider to be "universal" or "basic" notions of what is right and wrong, which actually aren't that universal or basic at all.

  2. You bring up a really good point. By giving these example's I was trying to also raise the question of whether we want all difference to be preserved. The general discourse on most people's blogs has assumed that difference is always good. However, perhaps there are some differences that we should resolve. As much as one can feel secure sitting in the swamp of moral relativity its gets hard at certain points. Is it really ok that those climbers were locked away? That's why I like to envision a future where sovereignty is no longer need to protect difference and we can work towards the settling of some differences within a respectful environment.

    Usually that's when I wake up and realize that I'm late for my 8:30