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Posts tagged ‘Ethnicity’

“Voluntary Purging” and Ethnic Regimes

By Taylor Marvin

At Political Violence @ a Glance [full disclosure: I edit contributions for the site] Erica Chenoweth flags an interesting quote by Bashar al-Assad included in Hassan Hassan’s recent piece in Foreign Policy“Practically, this process is positive,” Assad remarked, commenting on recent defections.

Chenoweth argues that the Assad regime sees the rebellion as less of an existential threat and more of a useful way of sorting out who’s loyal and who isn’t:

“Apparently, Assad would prefer a small, committed core of officials committed to crushing the revolt than a broader regime infiltrated by traitors,’ as Hassan puts it. Although many conflict scholars view defections as a sign of regime weakness, Assad may see it as a process of voluntary purging, thus strengthening the regime.”

In Hassan and Chenoweth’s telling, the civil war is a loyalty test that functions as a voluntary purge — because remaining with the regime is costly, especially for military officers and diplomats stationed abroad, those who elect to stay are the most committed. This “self cleaning” is useful for autocrats whose power rests on a small, empowered portion of the population, often in the economic elite or security forces. For these to be an effective bulwark of regime authority, however, they must not be compromised by dissent. Purging is a way to ensure this. Of course, it is often difficult to tell who is loyal, and who isn’t; because dissidents within the regime power structure hold positions of privilege and can expect harsh punishments for disloyalty, they have an incentive to fake compliance, weakening the regime’s security.

If authoritarians cannot easily assess loyalty, they either over- or under-purge. Over-purging, most famously by Stalin and Mao, weakens the regime by mistakenly removing capable supporters. Stalin’s purges during the 1930s paved the way for early Nazi victories after the German invasion and, as Stephen F. Cohen notes in “The Stalin Question” many of those who survived purges later rose to prominent military and economic positions; presumably, these high-quality Soviet citizens would have contributed more to the strength of the state had not languished in the gulag. Smaller scale purges are also costly to the regime if it overreaches, especially when focused on purging a technocratic or military support base. Under-purging risk missing dissidents, who can safely continue to slack or assist other dissenters external to the regime support base.

Ethnic-based regimes avoid this problem by using an extremely costly signal of loyalty, ethnicity. Conflating ethnicity with the regime makes it difficult for co-ethnics to defect by tying their personal security to the regime’s in a very visible way. Unfortunately for ethnicity-minded authoritarians, the loyalty benefits of ethnic-based regime types only work in narrow circumstances. If the regime’s ethnic group is large, ethnicity is no longer a costly tie to the regime and does not reliably signal loyalty; after all, not everyone can be part of the elite. If the ethnic group is too few, it would be difficult to entirely staff the upper echelons of the military and policy with loyal co-ethnics. This is the case in Syria, where Alawites, the religious minority the Assad family belongs too, make up less than ten percent of the population. While Alawites fill most elite Baath Party and security force positions, there aren’t enough of them in Syria to staff the entire government.An interesting question would be if ‘voluntary purges’ like Assad’s are more common in countries where the ruling elite comes from a ethnic minority large enough to motivate an ethnic-based regime but not large enough to rely on entirely.

Of course, there’s another potential explanation to Assad’s statement: he’s bluffing. Assad’s remarks quoted by Hassan were given to the pro-regime channel Addounia TV, and Assad knew they would be heard both by regime loyalists and the wider international community. Assad has an incentive to project a credible postion of strength, both to bolster regime forces and discourage foreign intervention — admitting that the defections hurt doesn’t accomplish this. Framing defections as positive “self-cleaning” is a credible way to lie.

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Star Trek and Ethnicity

By Taylor Marvin

The cast of Deep Space Nine. Via Memory Beta. No idea why Bashir’s head is so tiny.

Robert Farley has some fun  pointing out that Star Trek’s Starfleet is fairly… monochromatic. Of course, this isn’t surprising: Star Trek in all its iterations is an American show, and while its run has taken some fairly revolutionary progressive leaps, the show is still intended for a mostly American — and mostly white — audience.

I do think it’s interesting how much trouble American audience have internalizing just how large the world’s Asian population is. If Starfleet really is a perfectly meritocratic international organization, we’d expect roughly two fifths of human starship crews to be of Chinese or Indian descent, assuming world demographics haven’t drastically altered in last three hundred years (as Farley notes, Star Trek’s internal canon suggests that it has). While American audiences accept this on a factual level, few science fiction narratives actually depict world demographics as they actually are — Americans are used to seeing a white-dominated society, and perceptions of a future inclusive utopia are baselined around the demographics of early 21st century American, not world, society. It’s telling that when Star Trek: Deep Space Nine did introduce a non-white lead the producers selected an African-American actor rather than one of Asian heritage, a choice that reflects Americans’ perceptions of what constitutes a “minority”  (though apparently the role was not written with a specific ethnicity in mind and actor Avery Brooks was selected on the strength of his excellent acting, so maybe this is reading too much into into the casting).

If the Star Trek universe reflected all of human society rather than just contemporary America’s, the show’s string of mostly white characters are all drawn from a minority of human society. It’s understandable that American audiences have trouble imagining a Starfleet that doesn’t reflect the ethnic composition of their own society. But presenting the Federation as at its core fundamentally American — both culturally and ethnically — does speculative fiction a disservice. Science fiction often strives to rigorously imagine future science and technology; why should ethnicity be any different?