Revolutionizing Culture Part One

On to Part II


MICHAEL ALBERT: Throughout the left, broadly understood, everyone agrees that anti-racism should be part of our agenda. We should oppose structural and ideological features of society (and also in our movements) that relegate people to having less influence, status, power, income, or having worse living conditions, or being consigned to fewer options, or having to endure persecution or denial based on race — or, for that matter, on cultural affiliations more broadly including religion, nationality, language, modes of celebration, etc. That’s good, and also progress beyond past times. But is this movement only rejecting bad things or does it have a positive aim, and what aim would you propose? Maybe we can first address other aims that have been proposed, or that are now proposed, and indicate why we need to get beyond them. Assimilation? Separatism? Multiculturalism? Others? What about them, briefly, is wrong, or incomplete, or otherwise needs refinement? Why do we need new vision regarding cultural communities and their relations?


JUSTIN PODUR: The political climate right now has put all of our movements on the defensive. So we are fighting defensive battles to try to protect affirmative action against relentless onslaught. We are trying to fight against police brutality, mass incarceration, the war on drugs. We are trying to fight against racist, colonial wars that are occupying whole countries. We are trying to fight against deportations and more draconian and racist immigration policies. The indigenous are trying to fight against further colonization and abrogation of their rights. In addition to being on the defensive, anti-racist movements are fighting on a wide variety of fronts, and not all of us always know what everyone else is doing, or thinking. Still, I think that in anti-racist and anti-colonial movements there are positive aims and insights.


But let’s start, as you suggested, by taking some of the proposed aims that you mentioned, which I would argue are inadequate. Assimilation, for example. Assimilation gets rid of the problem of a powerful community oppressing a less powerful community by absorbing the less powerful into the more powerful. Some communities that had been oppressed historically have struggled for the right to assimilate and have actually succeeded. Noel Ignatieff has a book about the Irish and how they assimilated, for example, called ‘How the Irish Became White.’ Karen Brodkin takes a similar tack about the Jewish community in the United States in a book called ‘How Jews Became White Folks.’ Both of these communities had been oppressed in the ways racism oppresses people—relegating them to specific places and occupations, teaching hateful myths about them, and so on. Both communities quite successfully assimilated. But the ‘success’ of assimilation wasn’t an anti-racist success, because it was assimilation into an oppressive system. The very titles of the books show that—you assimilate by ‘becoming white’. That’s how assimilation works—it’s always assimilation into the dominant community or caste. And you might lose something, you might lose quite a lot, in fact, in ‘becoming white’, as well.


But those are the successful examples of assimilation. The reality in North America is that assimilation has been a false promise. Latino immigrants are told that they are supposed to assimilate, but they are racially profiled, incarcerated disproportionately, they are denied legal status in a country that is happy to accept their labor. The indigenous are told to assimilate, but their rights have never been respected the way settlers’ rights have. Every time African-American communities have had some economic success, some way has been found—from political manipulation to outright violence—to reverse that. So, in many cases, assimilation is just an empty promise that a racist society taunts the oppressed with.


There is at least one other, serious problem with assimilation. That is: what happens if a community doesn’t want to assimilate? That is one recipe for violence, communal warfare, and nationalist reaction. The attempts of ‘socialist’ states in eastern europe to make minority communities assimilate had this result. But in a sense, the history of every single nation-state is similar. Western Europe had a lot more linguistic diversity. It was the most powerful national groups that extended their power as far as it would go, assimilating the rest, that resulted in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain.


ALBERT: What did Jews lose in rising to a position above “oppressed” in the U.S.? If assimilation means losing one’s own identity to adopt that of the larger community, it doesn’t seem that the Jewish community did that. If not, then are they a poor example which shows that something like assimilation can work – or are they an example of something else entirely, perhaps?


PODUR: For one thing, if you take Jews, or Italians, or many of the immigrants from Southern or Eastern Europe who ‘assimilated’ and ‘became white’, there was definitely quite a lot of cultural, and especially linguistic diversity, lost— not only to those communities but to the whole of North America. But since the only options seemed to be assimilation or everyone living in separate spheres unable to communicate with each other, assimilation happened.


But yes, I see your point also that the Jewish community did not merely drop its whole unique religious or cultural identity in order to assimilate. And what I had in mind when I said that you might lose quite a lot in becoming white was less about losing some of the cultural richness that could have been brought to the whole mix, and more about some of the things Tim Wise talks about. In an interview with LiP magazine, he says:


“On a basic level, one might consider the harms that come from racial privilege if, by virtue of that privilege, one remains isolated from others. So, to live in an almost all white neighborhood, thanks to past and present housing bias, as about 85% of whites do, means huge advantages in terms of wealth and assets, but also means that we’re cut off from the experiences, cultures and contributions of people of color—to our own detriment in terms of being functionally literate and interculturally competent for a country that is increasingly non-white, and a world that never was white to begin with. And while that isolation and ignorance might not have mattered in an earlier era, now it does…”


“Well, it’s a perfect analogy between on the one hand the cultural incompetence that comes from domestic segregation from one another, or isolation white from black, or white from latino, for example, and what’s going on right now internationally. As I’ve traveled around the country this last month it’s obvious to me that Americans—especially white Americans, but really all Americans—are fundamentally lacking in understanding of not only other cultures, but other people’s perceptions and realities. And this is why so many people can ask the question, “Why do they hate us?” And say it with no sense of irony, no sense of wonder at all. And I think our isolation from the world—even as we engage it globally, economically—is now coming back to haunt us.” (http://www.lipmagazine.org/articles/featbrasel_145.shtml)


So there are costs of various kinds, not the least of which is the cost of adopting the convenient assumptions of dominant, powerful groups.


ALBERT: If you say that when a community drops its own culture to join a larger one, it loses and we all do, and that that is assimilation and we ought to reject it a a goal, I understand. But I still think if we use the U.S., that to a considerable extent that wasn’t what happened with Jews. If you say that after whatever it was that happened with Jews, let’s call it harmonization for want of a label, if there are communities still subordinate – that didn’t harmonize, whatever that is — all those in the dominant culture, the harmonizers,  have lost something, as well as of course those who are still subject to racism, exclusion, subordination, etc, I understand that too. Partial harmonization into domination isn’t a full solution. But what if someone says, okay, so the problem is whatever occurred for Jews could have occurred a bit better, with even less compromise of the original orientation, and that that positive harmonization could and should have occurred for all cultural communities. Why wouldn’t that be a positive image for culture? Will universal harmonization, an improved version of what happened for Jews, turn out to be very like what you are going to be advocating for all commmunities? Maybe we should go on to separation and you can return to say how this variation on what we have seen compares to what you actually favor, when you have a chance to put it forth. So, okay, to move on, what about separatism?


PODUR: Separatism solves the problem of racial, or cultural, or national oppression by separating the races (or cultures or nations) from each other—separating them physically, geographically, culturally, and presumably economically as well. Again, we can learn about separatism by looking at an example, like India and Pakistan. India and Pakistan were all part of ‘British India’. For a lot of complex reasons, the idea of a separate Muslim state became the force for a ‘Pakistan movement’. Many of the leaders of the anti-colonial movement just couldn’t believe it. If you read Nehru’s (India’s first Prime Minister) autobiography, he says—there’s no way this Pakistan thing could ever happen. All over India, Hindus and Muslims live together. What is going to happen? Are all of these Hindus and Muslims going to move? He couldn’t believe it, but it happened—and it was one of the largest and most violent population exchanges in human history. Now we have two nuclear-armed states facing each other, they’ve fought several wars, and each state has actually done a fair amount of suppression of national minorities within its own boundaries.


Now maybe India and Pakistan just didn’t do separation right. But the fact is that the world is a very mixed-up place, where people of different cultures, ethnicities, religions, live and work side by side, and that wouldn’t be such a bad thing if separatists didn’t make it so. But given that it is so mixed-up, it means that separation is just not possible without massive amounts of violence and ethnic cleansing. Even after partition of India/Pakistan, there are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan! So, separation is a practical nightmare.


Separation is highly impractical for another, similar reason. The world is a very interconnected, interdependent place. There is no reason why people in one community should go without the benefits of interaction, travel, communication, with people of other communities. Interaction is natural, inevitable. The question is: what are the terms of interaction?


I see multiculturalism as similar to separatism. In multiculturalism, every culture has its own space carved out for it. Every culture lives by its own rules. This can make ‘culture’ a cover for all kinds of oppression. In that sense it has the same pitfalls as separation. To quote Vijay Prashad’s ‘Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting’ on these pitfalls:


“Are cultures discrete and bounded? Do cultures have a history or are they static? Who defines the boundaries of culture or allows for change? Do cultures leak into each other? … To respect the fetish of culture assumes that one wants to enshrine it in the museum of humankind rather than find within it the potential for liberation or for change. We’d have to accept homophobia and sexism, class cruelty and racism, all in the service of being respectful to someone’s perverse definition of culture.”


Anti-colonial movements have tended to be nationalist in character, and nationalist movements usually argue for one form or another of separation. Usually this is understandable—it comes from a sensible urge to be out from under the boot of the colonizer. But I believe many in anti-colonial movements have learned that nationalism is not the answer. Nationalism is, instead, an enemy, the same way assimilation is.


Neither assimilation nor separation are the answer. They are just two sides of the same coin: they both want homogeneity and destroy diversity (assimilation by creating one big unit, separation by cutting every unit off from all the others). They both oppress the people stuck within them. I’d like to see anti- racist movements go on the offensive again, but without nationalism.


ALBERT: Okay, I get your argument regarding assimilation and separation but I am not sure I follow your views on multiculturalism or nationalism. So, broadly, what is multi-culturalism? And what about it do you find lacking, and, on the other hand, what about it do you find good and useful to retain? And regarding nationalism, are you saying you don’t think cultural communities should celebrate their own approaches and advocate their community interests – which is one aspect of nationalism — or just that they shouldn’t go beyond that celebration and advocacy to denying and violating other communities including advocating separation and even hostility?


PODUR: Let us take nationalism first. Nationalism goes well beyond cultural communities celebrating their own approaches and advocating their community interests. It is primarily about allegiance. It is an approach to land and citizenship and politics.


National communities arose for a lot of different reasons, but the key thing to remember is that they did not emerge fully formed at the beginning of time. There are all kinds of communities. There are communities of interest or occupation (like the ‘scientific community’ or the ‘journalistic community’) that have their own norms and can inspire strong loyalties and allegiances; religious communities; kinship networks and communities; linguistic communities; territorial communities of all kinds of levels (neighborhoods or cities or regions or countries); communities that come about because of some shared experience or history (like the African Americans).


What nationalism says is that one of these kinds of communities—usually linguistic or territorial—is the primary kind of community. It says this is who you are, above all. It says the nation is going to be the basis for political life. It is going to be the basis for citizenship—any political power you have, any access to the instruments of a government, comes through your membership in a nation (and specifically a nation-state). It says that the nation has claims to territory, resources, and state power. It says that each individual owes loyalty first and foremost to the national community—often to defend it unto death—before any other loyalty.


Of course, this is very useful to the elites of every nation-state, from the weakest and smallest to the most powerful. They are the ones, after all, who get to define who is in the nation and who isn’t, what is in the national interest and what it is not, and when there are resources or territory to be claimed in the name of the nation, they are the ones who benefit from it. They are also the ones who need to get very powerful and unquestioning loyalty when they want to go to war. By saying the community is in danger and asking the people to sacrifice for the good of the nation, they have had a lot of success in mobilizing for war.


Historically states, and movements aiming at capture of state power, have been the most active and powerful agents in creating and strengthening nationalism because it’s so useful for them. What elites usually do as well is invent all kinds of fancy mythology about how these national communities have existed forever, how they are the most advanced and remarkable people, how their past is littered with martyrs to the national cause. Sometimes, some parts of the mythology are true. Usually they are cover stories for elites.


You can see it very clearly with things like journalism. Journalists have a set of values—fairness, accuracy, objectivity—that they are all supposed to adhere to. But adhering to them in a nationalist context like the US brings conflict. Journalists, like everyone else, are expected to be nationalists first, especially when the state is at war. So you get these embedded journalists whose job is to be war propagandists, and everyone accepts it because of nationalism.


The difficulty is that nationalism has also been one of the strongest forces against colonialism and racism. Affirming and celebrating a community, affirming to ourselves that we are not what the colonizer says we are, finding connections to the past, and to one another, that the colonizer wants to keep hidden or break, wanting to overcome the ‘artificial’ borders and barriers between people—all these are important things that sometimes end up in the nationalism of oppressed people. But as a demand for loyalty, as a basis for claims to territory and resources, and as a basis for citizenship, it’s very destructive.


ALBERT: What about multiculturalism?


PODUR: What is multiculturalism? The analogy people often use is that multiculturalism is a ‘salad bowl’ compared to the ‘melting pot’ of assimilation. In a ‘salad bowl’, vegetables retain their own characteristics, their unique identity. In a ‘melting pot’, they do not. We’ve already rejected ‘melting pot’ assimilation, so we don’t need to go over it again.


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. If we have a multicultural society where every ‘culture’ gets to ‘govern itself’, does this mean that ‘culture’ can be used to justify sexism, or homophobia, or capitalism? What rules govern the hundreds of interactions across cultures that will happen every day? How will conflicts between people of different cultures be solved? Multiculturalism doesn’t provide the right tools to understand these problems or to deal with them.


ALBERT: I have tended to understand nationalism as less tied to states and more a matter of cultural community, probably due to the way black and Latino movements have taken nationalist stances without having states behind them — but maybe that was my imposing my values on the term. In any event, your rejection seems to be a rejection of nation states, of mindless loyalty, of seeing others as inferior, etc. Okay, you have given reasons to reject assimilation, separatism, and nationalism. Multiculturalism, it seems you deem incomplete. It has good values, good aspirations, but not much institutional substance to give the values weight or clarify what they would really mean in practice. If that’s a fair summary, maybe we can now move from criticism to prescription. What new structures do you have in mind that would provide better cultural and community aims?


PODUR: Multiculturalism is an approach that says every culture has its own space and its own resources. But it is inadequate for the reasons I’ve mentioned. So, instead, some anti-racists have proposed something called ‘polyculturalism’. Quoting Robin Kelley’s 1999 ColorLines article:


“…we were and are `polycultural.’ By `we,’ I’m not simply talking about my own family or even my `hood, but all peoples in the Western world. It is not our skin or hair or walk or talk that renders black people so incredibly diverse. Rather, it is the fact that most black people in the Americas are products of a variety of different `cultures’ — living cultures, not dead ones. These cultures live in and through us everyday, with almost no self-consciousness about hierarchy or meaning. In this respect, I think the term `polycultural’ works a lot better than `multicultural,’ since the latter often implies that cultures are fixed, discrete entities that exist side by side — a kind of zoological approach to culture. Such a view of multiculturalism not only obscures power relations, but often reifies race and gender differences..


“…While this may seem obvious, for some people it’s a dangerous concept. Too many Europeans don’t want to acknowledge that Africans helped create so-called Western Civilization, that they are both indebted to and descendants of the very folk they enslaved. They don’t want to see the world as One — a tiny little globe where people and cultures are always on the move, where nothing stays still no matter how many times we name it. To acknowledge our polycultural heritage and cultural dynamism is not to give up our black identity or our love and concern for black people. It does mean expanding our definition of blackness, taking our history more seriously, and looking at the rich diversity within us with new eyes.” (http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=30&ItemID=3865)


Let me take my own crack at what polyculturalism means. Multiculturalism focuses too much on “cultures” having autonomy, resources, and so on. I would say a polycultural outlook puts the focus on people and on whole societies. Polyculturalism recognizes that a single person holds multiple identities, multiple allegiances and affinities. We speak different cultural ‘languages’, and we can change. And to go from the individual to the society, polyculturalism recognizes that cultures overlap, they change, they evolve over time. They cross-fertilize, and all societies are in a permanent state of flux, with all kinds of often very creative exchanges and interactions happening.


So if a multiculturalist says that a society should allow all cultures to develop autonomously, a polyculturalist says fine. But the “wider society” has a culture of its own, and that culture is one that everyone would have to relate to. It is in this shared space where people of different cultures interact that the basis for solidarity can be built. So in addition to having cultural autonomy, it would be important that the shared space be representative of everyone, and be based on things that are universal (and I believe there are some universals). No one is going to live sealed off in a single culture. There is just no such thing—and there probably never was.


Likewise if a nationalist says that you should owe your primary loyalty and cultural affiliation to the nation, a polyculturalist says no, there are many loyalties and affiliations, that overlap and merge and change.


In March 2001, the Zapatistas marched from Chiapas to Mexico City on what they called the ‘march of indigenous dignity’. One of their demands was the passage of a ‘law on indigenous rights and culture’. What they wanted was not the creation of a new, separate, indigenous nation state. It was not exactly a “nationalist” demand, in that sense. Instead, their proposed law featured territorial autonomy within Mexico. So, in their proposal, one could be indigenous and Mexican. Or, put another way, one could be Mexican without having one’s indigenous identity erased or devalued. This is what polyculturalism is getting at. Comandanta Esther, in the Mexican Congress, responded to critics who said the Zapatistas were making separatist demands by saying:


“This proposal was accused of balkanizing the country, ignoring that the country is already divided. One Mexico which produces wealth, another which appropriates that wealth, and another which is the one which has to stretch out its hand for charity. We, the indigenous, live in this fragmented country, condemned to shame for being the color we are, for the language we speak, the clothes which cover us, the music and the dance which speak our sadness and joy, our history.


“This proposal is accused of creating Indian reservations, ignoring that we indigenous are already in fact living apart, separated from the rest of the Mexicans, and, in addition, in danger of extinction.


“This proposal is accused of promoting a backward legal system, ignoring that the current one only promotes confrontation, punishes the poor and gives impunity to the rich. It condemns our color and turns our language into crime.”


Against that, Esther argued for a Mexico where “without losing what makes each individual different, unity is maintained, and, with it, the possibility of advancing by mutual agreement. That is the country we zapatistas want. A country where difference is recognized and respected. Where being and thinking differently is no reason for going to jail, for being persecuted, or for dying.”


The proposal is to make room for an autonomous, indigenous Mexico—part of the multicultural ideal, even part of what’s best in the nationalist aspiration—but also to change the whole of Mexico, so that it includes the indigenous. It is integration without assimilation, and it is autonomy without separation. That’s a good proposal for cultural relations.


What of nationalism and nation-states as a basis for government? Governments are based on territory and community, and nationalists argue that each national community has some ‘natural’ territory, some natural boundaries (unfortunately different nationalists have different boundaries in mind). Nationalist ideals and aspirations usually have a territorial component. That’s why maps are such important nationalist symbols. But in addition to being the basis for government, land is also an economic resource, and criteria of economic justice constrain nationalist ambitions for land. Why should citizens of the North American continent have vastly higher standards of living because they happen to be born on territory that is fantastically agriculturally productive? Economic justice requires that resources be apportioned equally and efficiently and with ecological rationality. But that’s not the whole story. Because territory is the basis of government, cultural or communal autonomy will have a territorial basis. That is the basis of the Zapatista proposal, and of the Afro-Colombians and indigenous in Colombia, and indeed of the indigenist proposals here in North America, of people like Winona LaDuke and Ward Churchill. Winona Laduke wants us to see the indigenous as ‘islands in a continent’. Ward Churchill argues for a federation of indigenous communities that will have a new relationship to the North American states—the indigenous communities will negotiate their own level of autonomy or sovereignty.


This gives a clue about citizenship as well. If a polyculturalist outlook recognizes that we all have multiple, overlapping identities and affiliations, it makes it possible to imagine multiple, overlapping levels of citizenship as well. If citizenship implies a set of rights and duties, you have such rights and duties at multiple levels—rights as a part of a local community, as part of a regional community, as part of a ‘national’ community, and as a citizen of the world. Why couldn’t you have citizenship at every level as well? That would mean you had the right to participate in decisions that affected your locality but not someone else’s, but in decisions that affected the whole world, you would have as much say as anyone else. At the global level, there is something like an expanded version of the universal declaration of human rights, and also decisions on action for global issues like climate change. At the local level, there are by-laws and decisions for public expenditures. Citizens have rights and obligations at every level. The change from today would be adding new levels of citizenship—not separating people, but giving people more say in decisions that affect everyone, giving people access to forums where they can talk to each other at all levels.


On to Part II

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