Polyculturalism and Norway: Getting Culture Right


It was pure coincidence that at the time I happened to be re-reading Vijay Prashad’s Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity that some right-wing Christian would carry out a horrific terrorist attack in Norway that killed nearly one hundred people. Since the attack which targeted a government building and a political summer camp (both being labeled "Marxist-multiculturalists" by the attacker), many of Anders Breivik’s writings have been translated and published all around the world. They give an insight into some of the cultural struggles we face today.

The relevance of Prashad’s book is his criticism of multi-culturalism (as well as color blind racism) and advocacy of polyculturalism. Prashad’s argument—and I agree with him—is that multi-culturalism is divisive. Multi-culturalism leads us to believe that there are these clear, distinct cultures that are different from one another, and that we should respect these differences. In fact we should celebrate these differences.

But there are problems.

For one, we are more alike than we are different, which means we have more common ground to explore than differences . . . in which to attack each other from. Maybe I am wrong but it seems that we haven't really done well at celebrating our differences. More than anything, we hype our differences to escalate it and drive unnecessary tensions (sometimes to serve ulterior motives).

And the idea that cultures exist in clear boundaries is just not accurate. Furthermore, cultures are not static. They are fluid. They are constantly in the making, and are holistically related to other cultures (as well as other facets of social life like politics, kinship, ecology and economics). Even as individuals our identities are the product of many cultures, often supposedley conflicting ones. As a white man in a white supremacist society I am of course a part of "white culture" but my tastes in music, food, language, art and more also links me to "black" and "hispanic" and "Asian" cultures.

Is it any wonder that when we base our cultural identities off of our perceived, and sometimes real, differences from others, and then call for tolerance, that some groups (usually the dominant ones) feel threatened and lash out? It can't just be me who notices that we often define ourselves by what, or who, we are against; that we create groups in which to identify with and that the confines of these groups are, at best, unclear, and at worse, counter-productive since, again, we are one species with various cultures that are inter-related and alike in more ways than not. Perhaps it would be better to view what we currently call "culture" as a "subculture"—that is, variations of the common, wider culture we all share (and what these commonalities are, I think, should be a focal point if we are to improve social relations). This kind of approach is called "polyculturalism," and was surprisingly advocated (though not directly referred to) with a Jerusalem Post paraphrased Amartya Sen as saying, "Without a shared cultural foundation, no meaningful communication among diverse groups is possible." [Note on JP: I just want to point out that, yes, I get that Israel is hardly a model of polyculturalism, and the writer's comment about the peace initative in Oslo being "misguided" suffers from some serious revisionist errors.]

Fellow polyculturalist, Justin Podur, used the metaphor of a salad: "multiculturalism is a salad bowl compared to the melting pot of assimilation. In a salad bowl, vegetables retain their own characteristics, their unique identity." He then went on to say that,

What is good about multiculturalism, and useful to retain, is the recognition that cultures, modes of communication and expression and group identification other than the dominant one are worthy and deserve a certain autonomy. It also encourages some humility in encounters with other cultures: it suggests you suspend judgment and try to understand people on their own terms, to try to understand the cultural baggage that you are bringing to the situation when you do so. What is lacking in it is a notion of what happens within these cultures and between them.

Moving on, there is one particular comment I read of Breivik’s that I wanted to remark on:

Islam has historically led to 300 million deaths, Communism has historically led to 100 million deaths, Nazism has historically led to 6-20 million deaths. ALL hate ideologies should be treated equally. 

First, I got to call out the hypocrisy of an individual railing against other “ideologies” for their “hate” that “historically led to” death. While I agree it is important to address the issue of hate in ideologies and how it fuels conflict, one must ask: How does Breivik feel “ALL hate ideologies [that historically lead to large numbers of death] should be treated”? He provided that answer last Friday with murderous hatred.

As a polyculturalist, I find it difficult to share Breivik's view that there is some cultural divide between Islam and Christianity, something I will get to in a second. In Breivik's writings he likes to portray Islam as violent and hateful, but his own actions reveal just how similar he is to those violent reactionary forces he tries to distance himself from.

Second, Christianity and Islam have a considerable amount in common. Their history, geographic location, being a part of the Abrahamic faiths, and a number of other things like phrases they use (i.e. Muslims syaing "asalaam ulkaum," and Catholics saying "may god be with you") and more show just how alike the two are. The idea there is a cultural clash between the two is mostly nonsense. I think there is a better case to be made that the clash is they're alike.

And not only is Christianity historically and culturally connected to Islam—as well as Judaism—but it is also connected to Nazism. Adolf Hitler made the following comment within 24 hours after taking office:

The National Government will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built up. They regard Christianity as the foundation of our national morality and the family as the basis of national life.

Not to mention the "ratlines."

Third, I just want to point out that this concept of cultural purity is part of the continued problem of racism here in the US: white supremacy. It’s a comment on white Christian terrorism in America (though no doubt it can be applied elsewhere): if you’re a caucasian for Jesus you can fly planes into IRS buildings like Joe Stack, or blow up government buildings like Timothy McVeigh, or attack abortion clinics like various pious individuals, or the pipe-bombs of Eric Rudolph, shoot/stab sinners, kill your kids, invade Iraq because God told you to like He did George W Bush, get caught with a bunch of cyanide like some Texans did, or get caught with a lot of explosives outside a mosque, and along with hundreds of other incidents over the last 40 years . . . and other caucasions for Jesus can still enjoy white supremacy and not be hassled at airports.

In fact, to highlight this hypocrisy further, when the attack in Norway first occured there were immediate claims that Muslims were behind the attack and the phrase "terrorist" was used considerably. It has become clear that noly Islam carries with it the burden of being the archetype religion of hate and violence despite the fact that Israel and the US are much more violent and aggressive. But as it became clear that a right-wing white Christian male was the culprit then, as Glenn Greenwaldnoted, the use of "terrorism" was employed less.

Bigots who enjoy social dominance can, and often do, talk about the depravity of others as if they have some kind of moral high ground. And when “others” carry out violence, or when there is a campaign to turn "them" into a public nuisance, we see institutional processes put in place that harass those not a member of the dominant “culture" (e.g. calls for homosexuals in Ghana to be rounded up, the so-called random security checks at US airports that target Arabs and Muslims, the abuse of Roma people in Eastern Europe, and the "show me your papers" of Arizona) but the historical violence of the dominant group doesn’t even sound alarms. It is a common feature to see those who oppress claim to do so in good intentions, usually to punish the foul hordes that threaten their precious societies.

Last, if we want to keep count of which "cultures" have a large amount of skeletons in their closet, Christians like Breivik should be very cautious. A “historical” look at the deaths caused by Christianity would make Islam and Communism look pale in comparison. In the America’s alone and just limited to the deaths of the indigenous people we are talking about 100 million lives taken. A look at the wars, inquisitions, slavery and pogrom’s of Christianity over the world would no doubt leave quite an ugly mark. The problem here, and what Breivik fails to understand, is that what are often called cultural conflicts are more than that. Many times they have more to do with economics (i.e. fighting over land and resources) than cultural differences.

Thanks to the War on Terror (which should really be called the War of Terror) there is a vicious cycle where pious Muslims attribute the political and economic hardships they endure (because of the US capitalist empire) as a division between them and non-Muslims (i.e. the War on Islam), and likewise, non-Muslisms see a similar division where Muslims are trying to takeover and undermine their Western (Christian) societies. When in fact the real problem is imperialism and capitalism, not the mythical clash of civilizations!

And while there is something to say about the skeletons in the closets of various cultures the real issue as I see it is how to go about resolving them. The multi-culturalism approach is flawed. However, just because it is flawed doesn’t mean we should seek assimilation under a mass culture of nationalism, like right-wing fanatics. Clearly whatever flaw we can attribute to a culture we can likely find it in almost all others, highlighting the absurdity of a proponent of one religion (or "race") accusing another of being violent and hateful. I find it hard to believe that various cultures can constructively and productively influence each other in order to transcend their shortcomings by relying on violence, oppression, or walling themselves off and creating, or exasperating, differences. Instead, recognizing the inter-connections of our cultural heritages—how, we, not only as individuals, but, as cultures are related—and how our cultures are fluid and ever-changing, influencing and being influenced by one another, we should be building a foundation of common ground that centers around how "the fact that we have multiple, overlapping identities and belong to multiple communities, [in] a world more interconnected in so many ways." (Justin Podur)

This blog piece may be a bit cluttered with thoughts and ideas, open to correction and/or disagreement, but my ending comment is that unless we reconsider what cultures really are and how they have shaped events, from the past to the present, then, and much like George Santayana said, we "are condemned to repeat it."

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