Reading Response: Kathleen Conzen et al., “The Invention of Ethnicity…”

Kathleen Neils Conzen et al, “The Invention of Ethnicity: A Perspective from the U.S.A.”

In “The Invention of Ethnicity: A Perspective from the U.S.A.,” Conzen and her colleagues are attempting to construct a new conceptual framework for understanding ethnicity that builds off of the earlier work of Werner Sollors. Sollors believes that ethnicity is a “collective fiction” that is essentially invented. Conzen and her colleagues agree with Sollors that ethnicity is constructed, but not that it is complete fiction. Rather, they see ethnicity as a product of “communal solidarities, cultural attributes, and historical memories” (Conzen, et al., 4-5).

In order to prove their point, the authors use three case studies to demonstrate support for their theory that ethnicity is constantly reconstructed. The authors successfully show that there is nothing primordial, in the sense that they are unchangeable, about ethnicities. They are malleable and new expressions of ethnicity, at least in the American context as presented by the authors, are consistently reconstructed in reaction to external pressures or events. In doing so, Conzen and her colleagues demonstrate that expressions of ethnicity in the United States, while sometimes assuming symbols from their homelands, are uniquely American.

The authors also show that immigrant ethnicities have consistently emulated each other or presented their best imagined attributes in order to become respected in society. An interesting problem in the article, though not necessarily with the authors’ work, is that ethnic posturing of supposed positive contributions to society seems to have less to do with the successful integration into American society than the acquisition of wealth and political power does. This becomes apparent when the authors note that the Italian community was able to reposition itself in society, by demanding the establishment of Columbus Day as a Federal holiday and pressuring media outlets to stop referring to Italians as gangsters, only after they had become financially and politically powerful in American society (Conzen, et al., 31).

One of the most important contributions of Conzen and her colleagues’ article is the fact that they present the whole history of American society as being engaged in this process of constant ethnic redefinition. They show that after the revolution against Britain, an Anglo-Saxon Protestant identity was defined in order to maintain a functional society across States with different cultural and national backgrounds. This reinforces the authors’ point that ethnicity is built, fades and is rebuilt in order to meet peoples’ needs, not just by immigrants, but by the supposedly dominant cultural element in the country as well. There is no monolithic American culture that immigrants must emulate in order to become American. The authors show that ethnicities trade values and ideals and are constantly defining themselves and each other.

By complicated an overly simplistic narrative about ethnicities and assimilation into American society, the authors have opened the possibility for a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be an American. Viewing immigration and belonging in America through the lens of ethnic identities that are constantly being redefined clears away the mythology of a monolithic Anglo-Saxon super-ethnicity that immigrant ethnic groups must join. We are left with new questions, as well. Are there essential qualities or ideals that one must subscribe to in order to be American, or is what it means to be American a constantly shifting definition? Another avenue that could be explored using the concept of ethnicity presented by the authors is the fluidity, or lack thereof, of traveling between ethnic groups. This is touched on by the authors, but they focus their analysis on the behavior of ethnic groups as a whole, rather than the transition of a person from one group to another.

Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era Book Cover

Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era, by Julia Phillips Cohen – Reaction Essay

In Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era, Julia Phillips Cohen examines the ways in which the Jewish community in the Ottoman Empire engaged in image management and identity construction through media, philanthropy and by engaging in patriotic behaviors. Cohen’s goal is to use the Ottoman Jewish example to show that the concept of imperial citizenship emerged earlier than what had been suggested by earlier works. Using newspapers, letters, consular reports, photographs, and postcards, Cohen creates a narrative that shows how the Jewish community conceptualized their place in the Ottoman Empire and how that self-image changed over time.

Cohen argues that prior to her work on the Jewish community’s relationship with the Ottoman state, previous scholarship had created a distorted narrative by relying on a narrow group of Jewish chroniclers who were sympathetic to the Ottoman state. Throughout her work, she gives examples of how the trope of a special relationship existing between the empire and the Jewish community was used to create and maintain an image of loyalty and patriotism, but shouldn’t be taken at face-value, because it oversimplifies a complex and constantly changing dynamic that reflected contemporary issues and needs.

Becoming Ottomans has a narrow focus on the Jewish community, but the narrative Cohen has produced can be used as a basic model for understanding how minority communities and their relationship to the state apparatus changed over time. Initially, Cohen states that the Jewish community was not even included in the imperial government’s considerations, but that oversight does not seem to have been malicious. There were simply too few total Jews and too few in positions of power for the government to have given them any consideration. It is also probably the Jews did not figure into imperial decisions very often because the Ottomans’ primary problem was Christian Europe.

With effort, the Jews were able to make their presence felt and gain recognition for their patriotism and loyalty to the state. Jewish attempts to appear patriotic was initially a response to a fear of being considered “inside outsiders”, a potential threat to the empire. This is an important concept that touches on the tension between Muslims and non-Muslims in the empire and shows that despite official rhetoric about equality, there was always a sense of the empire belonging to Muslims. Cohen did an excellent job of exploring this idea by showing how Jews attempted to adopt the language and symbols of Islam in an effort to fit in. By the end of Cohen’s narrative, Ottoman Jews in other countries identified with the empire, so the constant efforts of the community’s elite to mold Jews into citizens with a sense of loyalty to the empire were successful.

The final chapter of Cohen’s book, dealing with “Contest and Conflict,” was confusing and spent too much time describing competition between Jewish clubs, almost obscuring the more important conflict between pro and anti-Zionists, which has greater implications for later Middle Eastern history. I also felt like Cohen should have spent more time discussing the impact of the Sephardic cooption of the Ottoman Jewish narrative on the Mizrahi, but that may have taken her too far outside the scope of her intended argument. I also received the impression that she intended this book to be consumed by scholars familiar with Jewish history, since she failed to explain issues she brought up that would not be readily comprehended by someone unfamiliar with Judaism. A good example is the problem of the Turkish ice cream seller and eating meat. If one did not understand kosher dietary laws, the entire conflict would make no sense.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Positive Extremism

In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” dated April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the subject of extremism as it applied to the nonviolent direct action he was advocating in Birmingham. Specifically, he was responding to the fact that he had been labeled an extremist by “white moderates” and the Christian leadership of local churches. Rather than arguing against the label, King embraced it and justified it through a well thought out argument that both validated positive forms of extremism and equated the passivity of the white moderates to a form of extremism in itself, because their inaction resulted in a form of severe injustice. For King, extremism and the conception of extremism was a dynamic tool that he used to convey his message and advocate for the ending of segregation.

When the word extremism is used, the first thing that probably comes to mind are violent activities intended to create a political statement, including actions by groups like the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, or the Ku Klux Klan. One could even argue that some modern government policies are extremist. Certainly some people in the United States would consider the PATRIOT Act to be an extremist response to a problem, because it violates certain ideas that are held to be just and inviolable, like the right to privacy. Through his argument, King defended nonviolent direct action by establishing the concept of positive extremism. He defined it and presented it as a means of seeking justice which would result in brotherhood and understanding, or equal treatment for segregated people.

For King, the term extremism did not have one meaning. Extremism was dynamic and could be either a positive or a negative attribute. He described Jesus as an extremist for love, Amos as an extremist for justice, and Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel. He called Martin Luther an extremist for principles, John Bunyan an extremist for conscience, Abraham Lincoln an extremist for freedom and Thomas Jefferson an extremist for equality (King, 7). Using these examples, he tied extremism to historical figures that have gained widespread recognition as just and righteous men whose ideas and/or policies their contemporaries perceived as extremist. Doing this was King’s way of saying that what society may at first consider to be extreme, may on closer inspection be a positive change.

Extremism isn’t always a negative attribute. King redefined it as nothing more than a measuring stick to judge the level of passion a person has for a cause that they are engaged in. If someone has been labeled an extremist, that doesn’t necessarily mean their cause is wrong or unjust; it simply means that their goal contradicts prevailing societal norms. Considering the contributions to the world of the people King cited as being extremists, extremism can be greatly beneficial. It’s just a matter of how a person perceives what’s being done, so the key is to convince a person that they must engage with a topic, and then to get them to engage with the topic objectively. To do that, King advocated using nonviolent direct action. To be effective, King had to present nonviolent direct action in Birmingham as a form of positive extremism and, more importantly, defend the cause it supported as both universal and just.

Since King’s nonviolent direct action was termed extremism by the Christian leadership and white moderates, he created a case for nonviolent direct action being positive extremism. First, he defined nonviolent direct action as an attempt to create tension in society, but not violent tension. The point of the tension, he said, was to make an issue unavoidable, so that society would be forced to confront it, in much the same way that Socrates used his questioning to try to force a person to confront an idea directly (King, 2-3). He was criticized for pushing the issue, but King felt that this was necessary, since no problem will solve itself just by adding time (King, 3). The plight of Negroes in the United States had been actively ignored, even by the community he thought would be most ready to promote brotherhood and understanding: the white moderate and the leadership of the Christian church (King, 5 & 9). Change requires a catalyst and King intended nonviolent direct action to be that catalyst, not to harm anyone or specifically to cause violence, but to force the public to engage with the topic and examine it critically. When an issue is pushed to the side and isn’t in the limelight, it’s easy to forget about it, or to mentally gloss over the subject and continue accepting the status quo, an attitude that King was firmly against (King, 3).

To universalize the goal of the nonviolent direct action in Birmingham, desegregation, King equated it with the pursuit of justice. Since his audience was primarily Christian, he did this by appealing to Christian morality. He wrote that, “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law” (King, 4). He went on to quote St. Thomas Aquinas, a notable Christian thinker as writing, “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust” (King, 4). King then explained that since segregation distorted the soul and damaged the personality, it was inherently unjust, according to Christian thinking and conceptions of morality (King, 4). He also compared the segregation of society to the separation of man from God, which is a powerful image, considering the goal of Christianity is to reunite with God through righteous action. By appealing to Christian concepts of justice and unification, King legitimized the movement’s goal of desegregation to his audience.

Having defined the issue of segregation as morally wrong and unjust and nonviolent direct action as positive extremism, King was left with the task of engaging the moderate whites and Christians in a way that would imply that inaction was in itself a form of extremism. He did this by defining passivity in the face of an unjust situation as a form of extremism. King began by criticizing town leaders for not agreeing to engage in negotiations with Negro leaders. He also criticized shopkeepers for failing to adhere to previously made agreements regarding racially motivated signage (King, 2). To tackle this problem, King refers to the fact that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” (King, 5). This analogy equates the passivity of the white moderates in Birmingham with the (presumably) white moderates in Germany, drawing parallels between the status of Jews in Germany and the status of Negroes in Birmingham. While not a perfect analogy, it catches the attention and gives a very real and tangible example of what can happen when good people do not speak up in the face of oppression and injustice. And, certainly, contributing to the death of six million people through inaction could be interpreted as a passive extremism.

One of King’s main themes in his letter is that sometimes society must be disrupted so that people reach a better understanding of what processes are actually affecting society and how to change them for the better. Having quoted Socrates in his letter and incorporating the idea of risking social disruption in pursuit of the ‘good’, in this case desegregation, it is obvious that King was familiar with the themes of Plato’s work, specifically The Trial and Death of Socrates. One of the themes of The Trial and Death of Socrates is the conflict between maintaining the status quo versus risking social disruption in the pursuit of truth, or the ‘good’. Socrates does not intend to disrupt society to its detriment, but rather to call into question firmly held beliefs for the sake of the betterment of society through a deeper understanding of what justice is. In the same way, King does not intend to disrupt society to its detriment, but rather to call into question firmly held beliefs about segregation for the betterment of society through a deeper understanding of brotherhood.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a very well read and intelligent activist for desegregation. He incorporated successful arguments from historical sources (he also drew from Machiavelli’s philosophy) into his writing and added his own spin, the appeal to Christian values, in a way that blends them perfectly into a rational and convincing argument addressed to his specific audience. He justified his use of nonviolent direct action by redefining the idea of extremism and then identified his cause as just by associating it with Christian morality. Finally, he issued a call to action to the white moderates and Christian leadership by demonstrating that passivity is itself a form of extremist behavior when it leads to severe injustice. King was accused of extremism, so he turned extremism into a tool that could help him achieve his goals.

Works Cited

King, Jr., Martin Luther. 1963. “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Birmingham, April 16.