Revolutionizing Culture Part Two

Back to Part I

ALBERT: Multiculturalism says there are lots of cultures, we should respect them all, but it doesn’t provide clear means for the smaller and weaker cultures to avoid reduced status, rights, or even existence at the hands of larger stronger cultures, even though protection seems to be multiculturalism’s priority. Multiculturalism also ignores that the whole is somehow a culture too and that cultures in contact within a society are porous and have responsibilities imposed by their union. Multiculturalism biases us away from highlighting cultural entwinement.

Polyculturalism also wants to respect and protect all cultures, but without losing sight of their entwinement and mutual responsibilities. It wants autonomy, but also mutuality or even solidarity. It wants to escape the bias away from entwinement that characterizes multiculturalism so it seeks a kind of integration without assimilation and with retention of identity — actually, multiple identities – and without making land central.

If that summary is wrong, please correct it. But if that is broadly right, then what if the multiculuralist replies, hold on — you haven’t explained why these entwinements you emphasize won’t cause weaker communities to be subordinated to stronger ones, much less what to do about differences stemming from culture but impeding rather than facilitating social unity. What happens if the celebrations or morals of a community within society violate the norms the society as a whole seeks to implement? You have even reduced our attention to the problem. We multiculturalists haven’t solved it, but at least we see it as central. By shifting focus to the benefits of mutual interaction and influence, aren’t you letting the key issue drift away from priority — protecting the weak and small from the large and powerful? How do you envision communities within society having larger encompassing affiliations, yet this not leading to the small and weak being subordinated and subsumed?

PODUR: The problem you identify is this: one set of cultural assumptions, or values, or norms, conflicts with the values of the whole society. This is a genuine problem, because if the whole society simply imposes its values on the group, it’s a violation of diversity and autonomy. If the group is allowed to do what it pleases, then all kinds of oppression and violation could occur under the cover of respecting someone’s definition of culture.

In the normal course of events, a polycultural society has two ways to protect against this problem. The first is that the whole, which as you say is ‘somehow a culture too’, is thought of as a shared space. Not just based on what is universal, and certainly not just based on the largest or most dominant group, but a space that is open for people to bring their cultures to the mix. So there are opportunities for communication, exchange, debate, that are made to be open for people to explain and learn about differences. The second is that autonomous spaces are also protected, as in multiculturalism.

One conflict that arose in India early on was something like this. What was to be the official language? A lot was at stake here, because jobs, educational opportunities, and so on would be constrained by the choice of language for administration. In 1956, there was a linguistic re-organization of states. So each state had its own official language, and the country as a whole had two official languages: English and Hindi. India, especially today, is no polycultural paradise, but some of the institutional arrangements made early on had some good ideas for making an extremely diverse society work.

But, what happens if a conflict should arise? You could imagine a conflict where an individual or group seeks the protection of the whole society because of oppression within a cultural group. Or where some cultural group objects to some practice of another group. Or, to make it even more serious, suppose you have territorially-defined communities and one community fears that its neighbour is arming and preparing for conquest.

The conflicts would be debated and discussed in something like a genuine ‘United Nations’. The late Rodney Bobiwash, an indigenous activist and friend, used to say: ‘there are thousands of nations and hundreds of states. There are less than two hundred states in the United Nations. The only reason the United Nations isn’t called the United States is that the name was already taken.’

You could have a mechanism for resolving conflicts that doesn’t preclude intervention, but requires a lot of consensus for it. I’m borrowing from a paper by Arthur Waskow in the 1960s, called ‘Keeping the World Disarmed’. If you have a forum where all the communities send representatives, you have a rule where any country (or community) can send a single unarmed inspector to any other if they suspect there is oppression or arming or a violation going on. But in order to send a larger group, more consensus is needed. The more force to be used, the more consensus is required. This assumes that the greater the violation, the more widespread the concern will be about it and the more consensus there will be that an intervention is needed.

George Monbiot makes a different proposal that could also work in a recent essay on United Nations reform. In his proposal, each country sends representatives to the UN, but larger countries send more representatives, making voting more democratic:

“No nation would possess a veto. The most consequential decisions – to go to war for example – should require an overwhelming majority of the assembly’s weighted votes. This means that powerful governments wishing to recruit reluctant nations to their cause would be forced to bribe or blackmail most of the rest of the world to obtain the results they wanted. The nations whose votes they needed most would be the ones whose votes were hardest to buy.

“But this assembly alone would be incapable of restraining the way in which its members treat their own citizens or representing the common interests of all the people of the world. It seems to me therefore that we require another body, composed of representatives directly elected by the world’s people. Every adult on earth would possess one vote.

“The implications for global justice are obvious. A resident of Ouagadougou would have the same potential influence over the decisions this parliament would make as a resident of Washington. The people of China would possess, between them, sixteen times as many votes as the people of Germany. It is, in other words, a revolutionary assembly.”

Monbiot’s idea is for two different institutions. One, where each nation sends representatives weighted by population, giving larger communities a larger voice, and a second that is directly elected. (Incidentally, Monbiot is obviously no youth liberationist, giving only adults the vote, but that could be modified and leave the proposal intact).

What is to stop an overwhelmingly powerful community from “going it alone,” or creating a “coalition of the willing” by railroading weaker communities into supporting an intervention that is only in the interests of the powerful? Here we have to ask what is the basis for power? What makes a community overwhelmingly powerful? Population, resources, economic and military power. So long as there are gigantic disparities in wealth and power between countries and communities, there is little hope for a polycultural future. Indeed, part of the criticism of multiculturalism is that it doesn’t come to grips with these material inequalities, the correlation of race with class and political power.

A big part of the solution is therefore restitution, or reparations, that will put communities on a more equal footing. Without that, the facts of massive power differentials will overcome the institutional protections. I think that is what is happening with the United Nations today—the UN framework was designed to balance competing powers and help avert catastrophes, but the US is so powerful that there are no competing powers, so the US can ignore the UN at will. It will be the task of movements to break down these differentials in power, to win restitution, and create a context where new institutions can encourage justice, peace, solidarity and diversity.

ALBERT: On the one hand you seem to be saying that changes in people’s overriding values to a polycultural perspective and in the relative strengths of communities via reparations and economic changes in society will make problems less difficult. That seems quite true. On the other hand, you say that a broad body empowered in more participatory ways will somehow mediate or adjudicate still difficult issues. Maybe nothing much more can be said by way of norms or structures. But suppose even with economic redistribution a small minority culture comes up against a very large culture, both existing within a single society. By votes, by power, by any measure of that sort, the latter can dominate the former. Should there not be some law, some agreement — sure, it can be violated, but that goes for anything — that somehow imbues the smaller community with rights of protection that transcend its tiny size and trump the will of the larger community to violate the smaller one? It is not a good analogy, but it brings to mind prisoners rights, or the rights of the accused, etc. Rules that can’t be abridged, or that can only be abridged in very rare circumstances, for example. Wouldn’t clarifying that sort of thing be part of setting out a vision for cultural communities and giving it additional substance?

PODUR: Every federal arrangement that has existed incorporates what you might call protection for ‘minorities’. It does so using the two mechanisms already discussed: by giving communities autonomy on the one hand, and giving them representation—perhaps representation and influence out of proportion to their numbers—on the other.

Even the United States state system does this. Every state has the same amount of influence in the senate, regardless of the population of the state. And also, in the United States, there is a concept of ‘states rights’. Both of these are, in effect, protections of minorities, the ‘cultures’ of the small states. I am using this example on purpose, to highlight the fact that protecting ‘minority groups’ has its own problems. State’s rights, as you know, were used by the southern states to justify slavery as a unique part of their ‘culture’ and ‘lifestyle’, and then to justify segregation. The whole community of the US was complicit, of course, but in the event it was only massive infringing on ‘state’s rights’ that ended slavery and then segregation.

My point is that while protecting minority communities from being swamped is important, and can be done through a mix of autonomy and representation, it is also fraught with problems of its own, one of which is that individuals within a minority community (in this example the African Americans in the southern US or in the US generally) might badly need the protection of the wider society (in this example the northern US) from the powerful (in this example the white elite in the south) within their own community. When they seek that protection, they will probably do so on the basis of some universal values or rights. And again, I have to insist that this is not as controversial as it might seem. I don’t think the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a greatly controversial document, even among very religious communities. I would argue that a lot of the resentment that even mass religious fundamentalist movements feel has more to do with misdirected and manipulated class and political disenfranchisement due to dislocations and capitalist globalization than with a hatred for human rights or political freedoms. And I don’t see a problem in infringing on a minority ‘culture’ if people of that culture are claiming they have to use slaves, or outlaw reproductive rights or freedoms. But again, a diverse society could make rules that said intervention into autonomous communities can only occur if there is a great deal of consensus that some terrible wrong is being committed.

But to go back to the idea of state’s rights, aren’t states just pieces of land? Should they have rights? Should groups have rights? It is a difficult problem. Our system legally (but not actually) protects individual rights, and you can imagine an extension of these rights to protect cultural rights of individuals to affiliate, identify, assemble, and express themselves as members of whatever groups they choose. Group rights are more difficult to grapple with. There is a difference. If your political system is based on individual rights, including a whole range of cultural rights and protections, you can easily think of institutions that can guarantee and protect them. If your system is based on group rights, though, or state’s rights, or national rights, then everyone has to find a group, a state, a nation, and if they don’t have one they have no way of exercising their rights, and if they are in a small one they have fewer rights than if they are in a big one.

There’s a book by Benedict Anderson called ‘Imagined Communities’, where the author discusses where nationalism came from. He talks about specific institutions, like the census, and its role in making nationalism a powerful force. Suddenly, out of all the multiple affiliations and identities, you’re supposed to check off a box to indicate your identity. And you know that everyone else is checking off a box as well, and that there are going to be claims on collective resources based on these groups. The point is that, as much as protections are needed, an emphasis on protection of minorities can have the effect of hardening what might be a fluid situation, one in which ‘minorities’ and ‘majorities’ could leak into each other or change, but won’t because there are now institutional mechanisms that make them more permanent. In fact this is one of the ways nationalism spiraled out of control in the colonial world—as a ‘security dilemma’, where everyone else is mobilizing for their rights as a nation, which means that you had better do the same or be left without rights or protection, and so on into group competition for resources, and all too often into war and disaster.

ALBERT: In your example, if the minority community of slaves were protected, it would not be necessary to violate the larger minority community of southern states. More, intervention to protect the minority might be something you build into a community vision, and there might be cases where protecting larger minorities’ rights compared to smaller minorities is, in fact, untenable. But what about meat eaters and vegans? Or more directly cultural, what about communities with different views on abortion, or on the rights of young people, or even just on what holidays should be celebrated in the form of days off from work, say? What if a minority religion wants creationist textbooks? Perhaps these aren’t ideal examples, but in disputes where a weak community confronts a more powerful one, shouldn’t there be structures which protect the weak? We want to explicitly preclude intervention by a more powerful community to violate a less powerful one, no? And to do it very effectively, no?

PODUR: In a democratic society, there are some measures that need to be taken to prevent the majority from trampling the rights of the majority, yes. I keep mentioning the pitfalls though, for a reason.

In the examples you raise, you want neither veganism nor meat-eating to be imposed; you want reproductive choice; you want the rights of young people guaranteed; you don’t want creationism to impose on science education. In all these cases, you cannot protect minority views in such a way as to allow them to trump the majority or even the rights of individuals (which is why you wouldn’t want a minority community to be able to restrict access to abortion even for women within that community). You want, instead, for all the views to be heard, and represented. You want the minority to have access to media, to have rights and opportunities to try to convince the majority of their view, by making sure they are represented, perhaps disproportionately. You also want, in cases where there need not be conflict (as with veganism and meat-eating, until the vegans convince everyone) for there to be autonomy.

In a society where there is economic equality and political freedom and participation, I wonder whether ‘majority’ community means the same thing it does in our society. What kind of issue would pit a large community against a smaller one that didn’t have an economic or political component that constrained the decision according to shared norms of justice, or that couldn’t be dealt with by autonomous communities making their own decisions? If there was a decision on which people were voting, would people vote their skin color? Their language? Their religion? There would be different majorities on different issues. Indeed, even today, if there has been one thing frustrating the Hindu nationalists in India, for example, it has been this fact— that people don’t vote their religion.

ALBERT: You ask, should groups have rights? Isn’t the violation of blacks or women or homosexuals precisely an attack on a group, not on individuals per se? The lynched black man and raped woman are not individuals, but stand in for the group, no? And this holds, also, if the attacks are verbal, or are attempts to subsume or ridicule and weaken a culture, no? And so isn’t it the group and its modes of celebration and identification that needs defense, even if it is ultimately of course people who are thereby protected? Sure, we can say that no one should be killed or brutalized, and that will rule out killing or brutalizing individuals per se and also as members of groups. But do we think groups should have the right to have holidays, and to celebrate them and to not suffer for doing so? I do. But I don’t think individuals should have the right to say today is a holiday for me and so I don’t have to work today and you all have to abide that regardless of inconveniences to you. Some things are collectively cultural and achieve their warrant precisely for being so, don’t they?

PODUR: Yes. There are collective rights in addition to individual ones, that can and should be guaranteed by way of autonomy and representation. And indeed, the legal definition of “genocide” is the destruction of a group as a group—obliterating all of a group’s ways of identifying, communicating, expressing its membership, even if the physical destruction of the members doesn’t take place.

Still, I wonder if the whole reason we think so much about the ‘defense’ and ‘protection’ of ‘minorities’ has to do with how disempowered we are. I think a lot of the communal problems that arise in our society have a lot to do with economic and political disenfranchisement. Capitalism means you have no control over your economic destiny, state oppression means you have no control over your political destiny—culture, or sometimes nationalism, is a kind of consolation prize. “Defend” your “traditions”, even if they include patriarchy or homophobia; wave a flag, but do not dare ask about economic, or political, self-determination.

* * *

ALBERT: As far as reducing the prospects of unbalanced conflicts — what do you mean by reparations and how do you see them occurring?

PODUR: Our economic system is built on the labor of slaves, the stolen land of indigenous people, the plunder of colonies, and the exploitation of immigrants. The legacy of all this is a concentration of resources within and between countries. One of the effects of racism is this massive economic inequality. The inequality itself leads to restrictions of all kinds of freedom—the most fundamental being the freedom to move. The rich countries have to restrict immigration because if the borders were opened labor would be able to follow capital wherever it flew. So violence is used in order to protect (and expand) an economic system established by violence. Such disparities in wealth and power will undermine any ‘multicultural’ arrangements you could design. As I said, that’s one of the criticisms of multiculturalism, that it says we are supposed to have ‘tolerance’ for each other even as one community is plundering another.

Having said that, I also think there is a right and a wrong way to do reparations. The wrong way would be for elites to hand out some money, that would quickly end up right back in the hands of elites, after which those same elites could wash their hands and say ‘okay, racism’s over now, shut up’. The right way would be for reparations to actually, permanently reduce inequalities, break up concentrations of power, and increase the economic independence of communities. So, resources—not just money but land, for example land that military bases are on, or corporations hold—would be transferred to the control of oppressed communities (like African-Americans or indigenous) with a view to long-term establishment of agricultural, industrial, health, education, environmental infrastructure that would bring their communities to equality and build a basis for autonomy and more equal relations with the wider community. In ‘The Debt’, Randall Robinson suggests things like establishing educational and infrastructure funds. At the international level, reparations means things like erasing debts and beginning to transfer resources and investments in the other direction—going well beyond fair trade to trade in which the poor countries capture a much greater share of the benefits. The anti-capitalist globalization movements, the movement for Black Reparations, and many indigenous movements, see reparations in this vein.

ALBERT: Regarding reparations, just to fill out the view you are offering, suppose, by whatever dynamics, blacks in the U.S. currently had the same average income, positions, etc., as whites, but also the history of slavery, etc. Would reparations make sense? If it is payment to redress a prior injustice (which the word seems to imply) they would. But if one intends instead to move toward an equitable and just distribution, then they wouldn’t make sense. My problem with the word reparations implies that if there isn’t some unusual past rip off but there is grave inequality, the inequality is okay and needn’t be redressed. Likewise, if there is the grave past violation but no current inequality to redress, the payments nonetheless need to be made. If establishing that kind of logic isn’t the intent, then I wonder why the call is for reparations rather than for income redistribution to redress current injustices.

PODUR: Reparations, as I understand it, has several parts. The first is “repair,” so the damage done by these historical atrocities and injustices that is reflected in inequality today, has to be repaired. I don’t think it would be hugely controversial to say that the ‘repair’ aspect, the transfer of wealth, is based on redressing those inequalities in the present, some of which are reproduced in the present and others that are simply a legacy of the past. And yes, all inequalities have to be removed by such transfers. But that is only the first part of reparations. The second has to do with collective memory. It has to do with making a public recognition of the atrocity that took place, of making it a part of our history. So, to answer your question, supposing that blacks in the US had the same average income, positions, etc., as whites but also the history of slavery, such a recognition, a reckoning, would still be in order, and would be an important part of what reparations means. Some of the most moving parts of Randall Robinson’s book, The Debt, have more to do with this aspect of reparations than with the redistributive aspect. Yet another aspect of reparations is the justice aspect. For atrocities that have taken place in living memory, there has to be justice. Not only truth and reconciliation, but bringing the authors of massive crimes to justice. If the atrocities occurred generations ago, that kind of justice is not possible, but reparations can still be made. So, a transfer of wealth to remove inequality (income redistribution to redress current injustices, even in the absence of grave past violations, would be adequate for this part), a historical reckoning, and justice, all are elements of reparations.

ALBERT: Why would you want to increase inequality – by giving assets to a group that was not poorer – to achieve a historical reckoning? Why is asset transfer the only way to recognize past injustice, or even a good way, when it isn’t redressing inequality but is instead, even aggravating it?

PODUR: This isn’t just a theoretical question. Norman Finkelstein talks about this in the context of reparations for the Holocaust, in his book The Holocaust Industry. It is interesting that a lot of mainstream US figures understand the principles behind restitution in the context of the holocaust, but not in the context of slavery, the genocide against the indigenous, or colonialism. Finkelstein quotes Bill Clinton as saying “we must confront and, as best we can, right the terrible injustice of the past.” Congressional leaders wrote to the Secretary of State saying “response on this restitution matter will be seen as a test of respect for basic human rights and the rule of law.” Madeleine Albright, talking about the benefits the Swiss accrued from the Nazi plunder of the Jews, said those benefits were “passed along to subsequent generations and that is why the world now looks to the people of Switzerland, not to assume responsibility for actions taken by their forbears, but to be generous in doing what can be done at this point to right past wrongs.”

Finkelstein discusses the merits of the case against the Swiss and concludes that the same case could easily be made against the United States (but is not) in the matter of the Holocaust; and a far stronger case could certainly be made against the US for slavery or the genocide against the indigenous. But he also identifies the problem you mention. It is one thing to seek reparations from Swiss Banks or the German government, wealthy institutions that had no justification for denying restitution. It is quite another to seek reparations from Poland or Belarus, extremely poor countries (the average monthly income of a Belarussian is around $100) which some of the compensation organizations were doing. That kind of compensation would aggravate inequality, and is fraught with problems.

There is in this case a tension between justice and equality, and balancing them has to be done carefully.

ALBERT: Okay, supposing the model of polyculturalism is filled out and gains advocates as a goal regarding the relations among cultural communities, what would this mean for political activism now? Does it have implications for the kinds of demands and programs movements should have? Does it have implications for the structure and character of our movements? Are there implications, in short, for what we do now?

PODUR: I think it calls attention to the need for solidarity. A powerful aspect of the anti-war movements, the movement for Palestinian rights and justice, or movements against US intervention, has been international solidarity. The experiences of this kind of work have led many local activists to wonder why we don’t show that same kind of solidarity more locally, with indigenous struggles in North America, with struggles for immigrant rights. The challenges to more “nationalist” approaches have come from movements for indigenous and immigrant rights. To quote Nandita Sharma:

“Indigenous peoples, like (im)migrants, have been negatively effected by the power of national states to determine membership criteria and to define membership so as to further the narrow interests of ruling elites. National ‘citizenship’ rights for Indigenous peoples has always meant having to relinquish self-determinacy and pledge allegiance to a colonizing power. That is why so many have refused them. For (im)migrants, ‘citizenship’ rights are equally problematic. They are highly racialized and gendered so that even those people of colour who gain them are not recognized as equal members of society. Of course, the world over, most people migrating are denied citizenship rights altogether. Citizenship rights, and their denial, then, are a very powerful mechanism in the hands of national states to bolster their own power (and the power of employers and landlords) at the expense of Indigenous peoples and those of us who can be declared to be the ‘foreigners’ and ‘enemy-aliens’ within, most specifically people from the Global South, especially women of colour.” (http://www.newsocialist.org/magazine/37/article02.html)

In Europe, North America, and Australia, there are growing movements raising the demand “No One is Illegal”. This is a really revolutionary idea that I think meets nicely with polyculturalism. The same with indigenous struggles for land rights and self-determination. These struggles compel new relationships between communities and new ways of thinking about the ways we are connected, and the ways we could be connected in a more just society.

There is a constant tension in polyculturalism, between autonomy and solidarity, between trying to ensure a shared space is really representative and realizing that the boundaries between the things that are represented are fluid and overlapping. That tension can be painful, but it also provides so many possibilities.


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