Thursday, 20 May 2010

Diasporas: A new sort of togetherness

Circassians in Turkey: lonely no longer

A new sort of togetherness

With new technology and new concerns, émigrés reinvent themselves

The Economist, May 20, 2010

AT A Hindu temple in Chicago, hundreds of people of Indian descent, professing many faiths, turned up from across Illinois and farther afield to hear a speaker from back home. But the meeting on May 15th was not the usual style of diaspora politics, in which a nation’s far-flung children are urged to cheer for the homeland.

The man they came to see was Jayaprakash Narayan, head of a movement called Lok Satta which opposes corruption and wants electoral reform. And the aim of his month-long American tour, which includes venues like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Google headquarters in California, is to get support from Indian-Americans for a drive to correct some of India’s failings. That sounds a lot better than passing round the hat for hardline Hindu nationalist causes, something else that occurs in the diaspora.

Bad, sleazy government, Mr Narayan says, is holding India back, crippling the country in its race with China. Having voted with their feet by leaving the country, he adds, Indians abroad should now help make their homeland worth staying in. Independent India’s early rulers had picked up statist ideas when studying in Britain; a new cohort of Indians, having thrived in economies like America’s, are nudging the country towards a freer market. This transmission of ideas, he notes, is easier in an electronic age.

All this is a long way from ethnic lobbying of the old school, in which people from country A are persuaded to use their votes to tilt their new homeland’s policies and make them less favourable to country (or regime) B, their ancient bugbear. Or else they are urged to fight old causes in an even more direct way—by sending money to extremist groups. In almost every democracy that has received migrants from troubled places, the influence (or at least, perceived influence) of groups committed to particular national causes has been a feature of political life, and of foreign-policy debates.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former American national security adviser, has controversially described the Cuban-Americans, the Armenian-Americans and the supporters of Israel as the three most effective groups in Washington, DC—while agreeing that the lobby of his native Poland “was at one time influential”. A landmark in the efforts of ethnic groups to affect American foreign policy was the arms embargo placed on Turkey in the 1970s, under the sway of Greek-Americans angry over the Turkish takeover of northern Cyprus.

Until recently at least, it seemed that the influence of ethnic constituencies was doomed to fade. For one thing, the communities on which they were based are blurring into wider societies. Gone are the days when Irish-Americans looked mainly to fellow Hibernians to socialise with; today’s Lebanese-Australian teenager is as likely to hang out with youngsters from Vietnam as with other Levantines. In America, meanwhile, support for Israel is no longer an especially Jewish cause; the largest body of pro-Israel hawks are evangelical Christians, while many Jews are critical of Israeli policies,

True, groups can hold together as long as there is one big woe to be redressed. For Armenians, the big cause is recognition that the mass killings of 1915 were genocide. Yet the power of a single issue cuts both ways: once the great cause is achieved (as with Baltic independence in 1991) or lost (as with Sri Lanka’s Tamils), the reason for hanging together can fade away.

Life in the old dog
Despite all this, the latest signs are that diasporas have life in them yet. As Mr Narayan shows, they are interacting with their homelands in more creative ways. The American Ireland Fund has raised over $250m, mainly from rich Irish-Americans, to promote charitable causes, and above all inter-community relations; a lot better than giving money for guns. A new breed of wealthy Greek-Americans is doing more interesting things than counting congressional votes: funding libraries, scholarships and university chairs in Hellenic studies in the United States, for example. And this week George Papandreou, the Greek prime minister, met successful businessmen of Hellenic origin from five countries (such as Andrew Liveris, chief executive of America’s Dow Chemical company), in the hope that they could lend their struggling homeland some badly needed pizzazz.

But perhaps the main reason why diasporas are perking up is simply the new ease of communications. With the internet and social networks, people with a common origin or concern can stay in touch and pool their efforts—with a flexibility and spontaneity that would amaze old-time lobbyists, reliant on faxes, phones and foreign-ministry briefings.

Take a diaspora as obscure as the Indians are visible. The Circassians descend from a Caucasus nation obliterated by Russia’s tsar in the mid-19th century, losing around half its 2m population. Nine out of ten Circassians now live in diaspora: survivors fled to all corners of the Ottoman empire and beyond. Only 20 years ago, they were dwindling, with moribund diaspora bodies under Soviet tutelage. The internet is rekindling the cause. Facebook and Twitter link thousands of Circassians, helping them raise the national profile. Facebook groups and Twitter feeds enabled Circassians to co-ordinate the protests held on May 21st in Berlin, Istanbul, New York, The Hague and Washington, DC, to mark the 146th anniversary of what they term a genocide. They plan to make their feelings known at Sochi—the site of the killings—during the 2014 Olympics.

Politics is just one part of the diaspora’s e-revival. Reassembling fragmented cultures is another. Circassians can find their long-lost music and dance on YouTube. Information about history and culture that was once obscure or falsified is now a click away. Online Circassian dictionaries and language courses are emerging. Internet forums can facilitate the search for a spouse.

For some diasporas, any alternative to politics is welcome. In Ukraine the diaspora is the biggest donor for the Ukrainian Catholic University, the country’s main independent provider of higher learning. Rigorous education is less glamorous than getting Ukraine into NATO or keeping the Russian bear at bay. But the gains are palpable, in contrast to the chaos and corruption of Kiev politics which faze many émigrés.

Such stories mark a big turnaround for diasporas, which over the last century have often had to wage an uphill struggle against time and geography. “One by one, all remaining links to our old life are vanishing […] Our Baghdad, my Baghdad is gone for ever.” So concludes “Memories of Eden”, Violette Shamash’s reflections on Jewish life in that city. A community which a century ago made up almost 40% of the city’s population now lives chiefly in fading memories. But the people to whom memories are dear (if only because of things heard from grandparents) can now cultivate and share them more easily.

E-communications provide some hope of keeping at bay all the forces which threaten the existence of diasporas, especially small ones: assimilation (seen in the decline of once-mighty tongues like Yiddish and Latino) and the danger of irrelevance as the world moves on. But that will only work if the will to keep old languages and cultures alive really exists. In the easy-come, easy-go ethos of the electronic age, virtual communities die as well as live.

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