By AG Moore
(I don’t know when I wrote this, but the argument is still sound….)
I looked up Newt Gingrich’s bio on Wikipedia. According to that source, Gingrich received a PhD in modern European history and wrote his doctoral thesis on education in the Belgian Congo. Which makes his statement about the Palestinian people (asserting that they are an “invented” people) all the more outrageous.What constitutes a ‘people’? This is a question that has arisen for every historian, particularly historians who examine heterogeneous cultures, such as the Belgian Congo was.In an unintended commentary on Newt’s ‘people’ remark, The New York Times ran an article today about the increasing inclination of native American tribes, especially those in California, to disenroll members. By fiat, tribal councils are wiping out generations of tribal affiliation. Individuals who thought of themselves and their ancestors as part of the Chukchansi people, for example, are no longer included in that group.”It’s like, now I”m a white girl,” one disenrolled member declared.In another, though more distant, ‘people’ controversy: on November 17, 2009, President Barack Obama stated that Tibet was part of China, this despite the Tibetans having a distinct language and religion, and despite their vigorous efforts to be acknowledged as the Tibetan ‘people’. The tension between China and Tibet goes back centuries, with China declaring that Tibet is part of China and Tibet denying that characterization. The Dalai Lama himself (whom Tibetans claim as their spiritual and political leader) has spoken of distinct Chinese and Tibetan ‘people’.As for Newt and the Belgian Congo–in 1960 the Belgian Congo became an independent country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since gaining independence, this African nation has experienced much tumult, some of it due to foreign interference and some due to internal strife. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has within its borders approximately 250 distinct ethnic groups and within these groups some approximately 700 dialects and languages. As a symptom of national disunity, the southern province of Katanga in the past has gone to war in order to win its independence because it viewed itself as a culturally and economically distinct ‘people’.Another good illustration of the difficulty inherent in trying to define a ‘people’ is achieved by looking at the Kurds. This group, with its own language and sense of identity, does not have the status of an independent nation–although there does exist within the borders of Iraq an autonomous Kurdish region. And yet mainstream media uniformly refers to the Kurds as the Kurdish ‘people’.So, I ask, what constitutes a ‘people’? Beats me. Probably has something to do with language, culture and awareness. One thing it is not, which Gingrich surely knows, is a political construct–although imposition of such a construct might influence the sense of who people consider themselves to be over time.Pundits in recent days have faulted Gingrich for being a flame-thrower because of his statement about the Palestinian ‘people’. What these pundits should be concerned about is not so much Newt’s attempts to garner attention with flame-throwing flamboyance, but rather the harm he has done to the PhD industry, by advertising in such a conspicuous fashion how this advanced degree in no way insulates the holder against aggressive ignorance.