Without a tongue, without a nose?

Nowadays, we tend to think of races as groups of people that share certain genes, but if you look at the expanding list of categories on the US Census, you get the sense that some people wonder if race isn’t better defined as people who share a certain culture, especially a culture bounded by language. Hispanics can be black or white, but they are still Hispanics, while whites can speak French or English, but they remain whites. Some students I’ve taught have made a similar point when they insisted that they were people born in Africa but now living in America, not African-Americans. Faulkner might have had similar thoughts. It turns out, that in the scholarly literature on Aryans (not as Hitler defined them, but an ancient group of people), there’s a convenient word to summarize these opposing views: anas. (And no, I don’t mean the title for Thomas Jefferson’s lengthy compilation of his own papers.)

Anas, according to Thomas Trautmann, is Sanskrit that can be parsed as a-nas, “without a nose,” or an-as, “without a mouth,” or without language. (Russian does something similar to the latter when it calls Germans nemetski, mute ones. Certainly, Jefferson wasn’t lacking for words.) So we have a physical criterion versus a cultural one contained in the same word to set apart a group of people. In this case, the word tries to decide who these Indo-Aryan speaking arya were versus the people who weren’t arya, both of which groups seemed to have been hanging around in what is now roughly India about 3500 years ago and happened to get themselves recorded in various seals, treaties, and religious verses. Some apparently could talk about horses and lions, while others could not.

If you’ve doubted that words have power, consider this: the Nazis sent an SS expedition in 1938 to look for those ancient Aryans hiding in the mountains of Tibet. Of course, they found traces of what they sought, not in tongues but in faces, and later in skeletons.

Is any distinction safe? (Dare I ask the post-modernists?)

Further reading:

• Thomas Trautmann, The Aryan Debate, Oxford UP, 2005.

• Christopher Peter and Jürgen Ritter, “Nazis auf dem Dach der Welt,” Der Spiegel, 24 April 2008.

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No betrayal without expectation

In Pearl Jam’s song “Alive,” the speaker is betrayed twice by his mother: first, by learning his supposed father is actually someone else while his real father is elsewhere, dying, and second, by being substituted for the father. One could argue, however, that the first betrayal is really the father’s. Couldn’t he have emerged to set the record straight?

Now let’s jump to NSA’s PRISM (and everything and anything else it’s doing). Another betrayal by the father? The nation is suddenly not what we thought it was, just like a dad wasn’t? The two hardly seem comparable. It’s no surprise the NSA sucks up electronic signals from around the globe. After all, it was founded to do just that. Dad, meanwhile, we think of as dad—the one who made us, the one who raised us. We know dad before we know what is expected of him, and as we grow, we begin to expect certain things and not others. We expect he was made to keep us safe, or at least on the straight and narrow.

Yet expectation is the root of betrayal. No wonder young adults seem most susceptible to feelings of betrayal: they know too little. As we age, we experience more of the world, so that we expect less from it. But this needn’t be cynicism. We don’t need to be passive. We do, however, need to be aware, and translate awareness of our intentions and our environs into useful action.

In a democracy, what does it mean to be betrayed by the nation, if we purportedly make the nation?