History not news

I thought I'd blogged about this before, but I must have just thought about it a lot. One of the things I learned (from guide books!) is that there used to be more Czechs in Vienna than in Prague. This was in the early 1900s, when the Austrio-Hungarian empire had been lasting for hundreds of years, before the world wars. Vienna was incredibly rich not only financially but in terms of culture and science.

The Jewish memorial in Vienna is kind of this weird ridged concrete block. It turns out it is meant to represent all the knowledge the city lost --- a library inside out. I have had an Austrian tell me that if the Nazi party hadn't happened, Austria, not the USA, would be the dominant power in the world. I don't know how many think that. But anyway, what happened to the Jewish people, while horrible, is only part (half, not the tip) of the iceberg. Now the Czech Republic is almost entirely Czechs, and Austria is almost entirely Austrian, and the same can be said for most neighbouring states. Although no one likes to talk about it so it's hard to find out the history from friends.

What made me post this is an article in the IHT by Jerry Z Muller called The Clash of Peoples. Muller draws attention to this phenomena in Europe (maybe a little too gently). I know I was shocked when I first learned about it, really shocked, and felt hypocritical for thinking that countries in the Balkans & elsewhere that were dividing on ethnic lines were being stupid & primitive. Maybe it is something to complain about, but if so we have a lot of long-established allies to complain about first.

Its interesting though that (again, looking at the historic Balkans and Central Europe) you see villages that are largely one language group or ethnicity, and have been for centuries. The diversity came largely from these viewed in aggregate, and from the big central institutions like cities and universities where merit was sometimes rewarded regardless of ethnicity because it lead to increased regional power & wealth. If you look further back in history, you see tiny regions fighting against each other that now would consider themselves ethnically similar. I don't know much about this, but I wonder if the rise in power of the nation state has increased the potency of national-ethnic identity, whereas before the villages mattered more & so that was a sufficient level of homogeneity for people to feel comfortable. But Muller points out that this national "ethnic cleansing" has spread at the same times as democracy & capitalism, so it is hard to distinguish what has really brought peace. It's depressing, especially to those of us who love cities & diversity, but because something is depressing doesn't mean it isn't true. It may be that facilitating partition is a better path to peace & happiness for the inhabitants than facilitating the return of refugees to their old homes. This seems horribly unfair, but maybe at least the international community could also facilitate financial compensation, so the people who are starting over can at least have a chance of buying or paying for the building/developing of something like what they had before.

If Muller is right! One thing about science, you learn that you are never sure if you are right, and never should be sure. But you also have to act on the best knowledge you have at the time. So, "if when all the evidence & history is looked at, it seems likely Muller is right, then it might be worth considering that policy" is I guess what I mean.

By the way, I've spent most of this week debugging other people's code, so I haven't really had much of my own science to talk about, sorry.