Essay by John-Paul Himka, University of Alberta, published on ‘Ukraine Analysis’, September 2011.
First off, I would like to thank Roman Serbyn for his critique of my positions as enunciated in my text “Interventions” in its abridged version. I am glad to see the arguments of the other side presented in an articulate fashion. I will not be able to respond to all the points Roman raises in his “Erroneous Methods,” but I will pick those that I understand to be the most important. The text of mine that he critiques, “Interventions,” states my positions on the Holodomor and Holocaust only in condensed form, to provide the audience a context for my discussion of what it is like to challenge widely accepted and sensitive interpretations of national history. A much longer version of that text will appear later, but with the emphasis still on the experience of challenging rather than on the merits of my case. I have been making my case for the actual history and its interpretation in a number of publications1 and in conference papers that I have made available on the internet.2 In these other texts one can find references to primary sources and fuller explanations of my thinking. There are many other important publications on these same issues by other authors.3
Myths of national consolidation
A major point of difference between Roman and me, one that may be irreconcilable, is our attitude to national myths. He writes that I fail to see the benefit of “positive myths of national consolidation” or “consolidation myths” or “a constructive, foundational national myth.” This is true. I look at myths, especially national myths and victimization myths, with profound distrust.4 I cannot even imagine one that I could endorse. Roman is in error to assume, stereotypically, that I accept Jewish myths and even their instrumentalization while denying Ukrainian myths. I hate to see the Holocaust used as a victimization narrative to build community or support for Israel and especially to justify Israel’s harsh policies toward the Palestinians (and I am no enemy of Israel). In the Israeli-Arab conflict I see the mobilization of competing myths and little room for rational discussion. I am for history – complicated, messy, honest history where, at least in theory, the underlying rationality in the acceptance of facts and in the investigation of causalities creates a space for the possibility if not of a shared narrative, then at least of a shared community of discourse. The problem with myths is that they are transcendent, in Popper’s terms: metaphysical, based on something other than rationality, ultimately irrational. Myths cannot “talk” to one another as histories can. They are closed systems that fall out of dialogic discourse. In Ukrainian nationalism – and I will be using this term to refer to the nationalism of the capital N nationalists, i.e., the ideological postulates of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists – myths have priority over history. History should, in its view, serve myths. This makes perfect sense for an ideology that embraces voluntarism and irrationalism.
In Roman’s view, good myths bring about national consolidation. Here I am also distrustful. Every consolidation is also an extrusion. National consolidation extrudes groups that do not fit the consolidated model. In nineteenth-century Galicia, the consolidation of the modern Polish and Ukrainian nations went hand in hand with the extrusion of Jews.5 In mid-twentieth-century Galicia and Volhynia, Ukrainian nationalists attempted to consolidate the nation by eliminating the national minorities (especially Poles and Jews, but also Roma and others), persecuting religious groups they did not approve of (Baptists, Ukrainian Autonomous Orthodox, and Russian Orthdox), and executing fellow Ukrainians who opposed their policies.6 The logic of any particular national consolidation requires examination, since this logic can prove dangerous. At the same time, I cannot deny that deep divisions in a society, such as exist in Ukraine, or in the United States for that matter, also pose a danger. But here again, I would prefer to see the demobilization of the myths – the closed thinking – that impede dialogue or agreement on a set of future-oriented positive goals. I teach an undergraduate course on the History of the World in the Last Ten Years, and I assign readings from both The Weekly Standard and The New York Times. It is my view that an informed citizenry must take into account the arguments of all sides; it should not be constrained by the consolidation of one position, particularly not of a nationalist position…
Read full essay at weblink above.