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The Esperanto-speaking Community Flirts with Ethnicism
It used to be that much of what Esperantists (or Esperanto-speakers, as many have recently taken to calling themselves) published about Esperanto in other languages was more propagandistic than objective. Even today, some overly heroic accounts of its history and hagiographies of its founders are in circulation.
But in recent years Esperanto-speakers have begun to publish more information and serious academic work that does take a more critically detached view of Esperanto history and deals more openly with negative aspects of the community's history. These have included in the first half of the 20th Century a number of politically unsavory compromises with nationalism on the part of the organized "neutral" Esperanto movement. That movement, unlike the politically more savvy workers' Esperanto movement, has traditionally made valiant efforts to win over famous personalities for Esperanto and to ingratiate itself with governments, whose support for the adoption of Esperanto as an international language was believed attainable. Two blatant cases of opportunism with respect to ruling-class nationalism were the gung-ho patriotism of many Esperantists and the loyal support they provided to the ruling class of their respective countries during World War I, and a few years later the general blindness of so-called "politically neutral" Esperantists to the increasing threat posed by fascism and nationalism, and indeed the willingness of many of them to associate Esperanto with nationalism when that appeared opportune.
The present more balanced approach to Esperanto history is commendable as far as it goes, but it still tends to overlook unpleasant features of the Esperanto movement in the recent past and in the present. The implication of much writing on Esperanto history is that although the traditional "neutral" movement did fall from grace during World War I and at the advent of authoritarian and fascist systems in the 30's, it later returned to the progressive outlook that is construed to be its fundamental nature. But now, a very small number of left-leaning Esperantists are raising political objections to some of what the organized Esperanto movement is saying these days, too. They believe that modern forms of ethnicism and nationalism have become a problem in that movement.
The commonly overlooked current problem is the uncritically positive attitude of many Esperanto organizations toward ethnicism, various types of ethnic nationalism, ethnofederalism and European ethnic regionalism, right-wing varieties of anti-Americanism, and most recently the mania for "purification" of national language in a number of countries that especially targets fashionable anglicisms. All of these political tendencies have in one way or another been systematically associated with Esperanto, mainly by embedding them in the argumentation for its worldwide introduction. And they are also highly regarded by forces of the European New Right, which promote them and seek to ideologically influence other movements that promote them. Few Esperantists are aware that New Right thinking has begun to permeate much of what the Esperanto movement is saying to its own members and to the world. Few Esperantists understand what the New Right is and how it operates, for that matter.
In defense of Esperantists, it has to be said that they do not deliberately gloss over nationalistic aspects of recent Esperanto ideological history in their writings for non-Esperantists. They are genuinely disoriented with respect to some ideological aspects of the Esperanto movement and unfamiliar with the political issues that are involved.
Oddly enough for a group whose aspirations are perceived to be universalistic in nature, the Esperanto movement (more accurately described as a community these days, as the idea of introducing Esperanto worldwide is now being downplayed by many Esperanto-speakers and even discarded by a few, who no longer believe it to be realistic) became infatuated with some varieties of ethnicism and ethnic nationalism in the 1970's. It has hitherto escaped a large-scale debate over the issue. It is perplexing that a group in which liberal and left views generally prevail should be so ingenuous as to systematically advance arguments that are characteristic of the New Right, when the supposed potential of Esperanto to "save" endangered languages and ethnic cultures is asserted.
Guy Héraud, a non-Esperantist and a renowned advocate of the theory of ethnic federalism, was one of the first to revive this idea in the postwar era. Having lain dormant since the 1930's, it again became current among Esperantists in the early 1970's. It seemed to hardly disturb the few that actually scrutinized Héraud's proposal that Esperanto could in no way perform its function in this ethnic salvation plan, except in the context of a coercive ethnic revival policy within the "ethnically homogenous" regions that would have to be created as the scheme's main feature. Héraud participated in activities associated with parties like the FPÖ and Lega Nord, which are often eager to replace old-fashioned racism with ethnicism and culturalism, which appear to be more modern and intellectually appealing. He is frequently cited in their publications. He was a member of the New Right think-tank GRECE that is led by Alain de Benoist. His disciple Yvo Peeters, also associated with ethnic causes and a regular author for the German New Right weekly Junge Freiheit, has been a guest at several conferences held by Esperantists. Another ethnic federalist and associate of Héraud (who addressed a meeting held in 2000 by the Lega Nord in his honor) is Andrea Chiti-Batelli, who very frequently appears at Esperanto congresses and who authors texts touting an ethnofederalist strategy for the Esperanto movement as its last, best hope for victory, a victory that is supposed to take place first in Europe and then in the world at large.
Within the Esperanto-speaking community there is a fairly active – though politically relatively moderate – organization of Esperanto-speaking ethnists, the International Committee for Ethnic Freedoms, IKEL. Another entity, the European Esperanto Union, has now turned much of its attention to "European identity", the lack of which it believes to be a great problem that is waiting to be remedied through the introduction of a "European identity language" - Esperanto, of course. The Universal Esperanto Association, the largest organization of Esperanto-speakers, is attempting to arrange regular cooperation with groups that are euphemistically referred to as "language defenders". These are groups that work to ethnically cleanse their particular language of some foreign vocabulary, especially recently adopted anglicisms. In this way, it is claimed, the language will become more able to pass on to coming generations the national or ethnic identity associated with it.
Esperantists who are not close to the New Right as such, often unwittingly reproduce elements of New Right thinking in their public statements, calling for cultural policies designed to preserve "ethnic diversity" and "cultural diversity" and to save ethnic cultures and languages from extinction in an ever more "Americanized" world. The worldwide introduction of Esperanto is claimed to be one of the most effective of such policies. Although these Esperantists associate Esperanto in various ways with the preservation of threatened languages and ethnic cultures, their explanations of the exact correlation between the two matters - the introduction of Esperanto and the maintenance of ethnic cultures and languages - are usually either vague or implausible.
The World Anational Association (SAT) has a long-standing tradition of opposing nationalism, and in the case of its anationalist tendency, of promoting the kind of thinking that detractors call "rootless cosmopolitanism". Though this antinationalist tendency is controversial even within SAT, and not yet very well-coordinated, it is my hope that it may become a force able to counteract the ethnicism that holds sway in the community of Esperantists. If such an effort is mounted, it has every chance of success. Ethnicism is contrary to the life-style that characterizes active users of Esperanto, which is highly cosmopolitan. Many Esperanto-speakers are polyglots. They often meet their partners in the Esperanto community, and Esperanto becomes their home language and one of the native languages of their children. A sizable percentage of Esperanto-speakers live in countries other than those of their origin. Ethnicism and associated ideologies can almost certainly be deflated in the Esperanto-speaking community, once a sufficient group of Esperanto-speakers understand the issue and begin asking "awkward" questions and demanding answers.