Friday, December 17, 2004

Globalization, uncertainty, and the far right

Ferdinand Celine was an anti-Semite. This may be a bit surprising, because his estate refuses to reprint his book on facism, Bagatelles pour un massacre. Celine derived his racist and fascist beliefs from the idea that civilization should be founded on the differences between groups or individuals.

I am re-reading Nichlas Fraser's The Voice of Modern Hatred: Encounters with Europe's New Right. I've read it before, but due to what's been on my mind (Other than finals) certain aspects of the book are standing out to me in a new light. The idea that civilization and/or culture is or should be founded on differences between people can be found in many places, not only in the writings of anti-Semites. It can be found in Huntongton's The Clash of Civilizations. And most alarmingly, it can be found in identity formation.

Celine's ideas seem very familiar to me now. Fraser writes, "Celine was sufficiently well educated to understand that the race theories implied by German anti-Semitism were nonsense - indeed he found the seriousness of Germans ridiculous. But culture was important to him, and he believed that a culture could die as easily as any other organism. Looking around him, Celine announced that France was mortally threatened. The last vestiges of Frenchness would be extinguished in the next war. The 'bagatelles' of which he wrote were a form of consolation offered before the imminent prospect of Armageddon, and they consisted of telling fellow Frenchmen that it remained the obligation of every Frenchman to hate Jews. For Jews were the founder members of the international class of capitalists. (...) Jewishness found expression in the English language, which had been annexed and destroyed in much the same way as French shortly would be. Above all Jewishness could be identified in the mass, homogenized multiculturalism of America, which would sooner or later destroy France." (Fraser, p. 26-27)

These opinions, with France substituted for some other country or sub-culture, can be heard a lot, sometimes with Jews substituted for the IMF or the WTO or something similar. In his book, Fraser mentions a study by Max Horkheimer and T.W. Adorno in the suburbs of southern California on Nazi and fascist sympathisers. Their conclusion was that there was, in fact, such a thing as an 'authoritarian personality.' People who has authoritarian personalities tended to be male, not very well educated, and had patriarchal attitudes to family authority. They found "Conservative embattled" to be their general motto. Most interestingly, they found that "those who felt threatened in their jobs, or who were worried about a world changing too rapidly for them, were particularly affected. The armed forces appeared to provide a testing ground for such types." (Fraser, p. 30)

Again, we've heard this before, not just from fascist sympathisers. These cries of cultural extinction, this distaste for multiculturalism, for change can be heard all around the world. The intense dislike of globalization and mixing of people bordering on hate can be heard from left, right, and center, not to mention the strong feelings that the concept of Americanization evokes. The two are, of course, interwined and one and the same for many people.

All this suggests that there may be a closer link between the foundations of Nazi and fascist ideologies and resistance to globalization than we may care to think. Although it is very clear that only a minority of people who feel this anxiety become members of the far right, the basic premises of the resistance ought to be more strongly questioned. Some far right groups even call on these ideas to evoke sympathy from society and to make their ideas sound like self-defense - the Vlaams Blok is quoted in Fraser's book to say just that: "They defended themselves against charges of bigotry with the assertion that it was the project of 'multiculturalism' - the world was never defined - and not the existence of individual Arabs, Turks, or Africans in Europe, which caused all the trouble." (Fraser, p. 36)

This brings up some very important subtleties. When does cultural preservation stop and a racist, nazi, or fascist systematic erasure of anything 'unauthentic' start? How clear lines can one reasonably expect to draw around a culture to mark off Self and Other? How much cultural change can one expect people to put up with?

I see in all this something unique that the neonazis need to appeal to their volk, to appeal to others' discontent and fears, to attempt to claim legitimacy for merely wanting to 'preserve' their culture - essentialist identity construction. If there is no essence of Europe to be infused with, then there is no volk bound together by bands of pure bloodlines. Then, you cannot kill their culture. If there is no essence of Europe that requires being white, then the Arabs and Turks can't be a threat. You can't threaten something that doesn't exist.

I don't flatter myself with thinking that I have discovered the solution to the problem of what to do with the far right, nor explained the far right. I do not pretend that changing identity construction is a practical solution to anything. However, I do think that this is yet another reason why it is extremely important that we (as in, everyone on Earth) abandon the idea that identities come from some inner "essence" that undeniably makes us who we are, passed down from our ancestors and culture. Reading The Voice of Modern Hatred again, I hear echoes of Amin Maalouf's In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. The far right could have been another interesting chapter in his book.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The elephant in the room

I just finished reading a book called How Race Is Lived In America, a complication of an article series in the NYT. It was very interesting and well-written, and of course prompted thinking on my part. However, I realized something tangential as well: for me, the elephant in the room isn't race as much as it's nationality, cultural imperialism, and other related attempts of perceived outsiders to change culture. That also creates slurs, prejudice, distrust, and even outright hatred. It complicates friendships, business, all human relations. Those in positions of power don't see it and think everything's peachy and simple. Those are often the people who historically have used force to have things their way, who have oppressed and manipulated other countries, or those who are part of the hegemony.

I would feel more comfortable talking about race candidly than about cultural imperialism candidly, maybe because the basic facts of my race are clear, whereas the basic facts about what culture I am part of is not as clear. Therefore, I expect to be dismissed as inauthentic or 'tainted' or something, and therefore not worth listening to. Somehow, in those discussions, I get defensive about opposing ideas equally, and they get emotional and I get emotional and everyone demands that since I don't like what the other 'side' is saying, I ought to stop being wishy-washy and clearly agree with everything they're saying, the whole thing breaks down. Or arguments surface along the lines of the recent ideas on what is 'un-American.'

At least if I'm a racist bigot, I will only be accused of being an ass, not of both being an ass, stupid, disloyal, hysterical, unrealistic, and inauthentic at the same time. In reality, I most probably understand and have self-reflected on national power relations better than race power relations. That doesn't mean I feel more comfortable talking about it really honestly. I'd rather be accused of being mean than having my very method of identity construction - betweening - derided. I can stop being mean, but I can't stop others from mishandling my social identity. In terms of worst-case scenarios, I'd rather look deep into myself and see a mean, evil racist hidden under blankets of bullshit and denial than have my identity erased and denied and dissolved by others and being told that no one will claim me. Both would be very unpleasant, but only one would destroy me.

I noticed that I could identify on a personal level the most not with the white people in the story, but with the article on a biracial man. And that identification has nothing to do with race, it has to do with labels and identities and betweening. His just happen to be racial, mine are national and cultural. And like him, I find myself in a position where histories of other people collide head-on, and I am being asked to make an artificial choice on which 'side' I want to be on. Maybe there is a more general pattern here, of which racial tensions and power politics as well as identity politics are only examples instead of unrelated issues.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Open letter to my fellow Americans

Dear Americans,

The world is watching you. The world always has been watching you. They watched you far before 9/11, and they're still watching. People watch what your President does, how he negotiates, how he smiles, what he has to say to them. They watch to see what you're wearing, where you shop, how you talk, how your society is portrayed in your TV series, in your movies. Unbeknownst to you, you are all on a country-sized stage with the spotlight on you. You don't look up often, and when you do, you never sense the eyes watching you from the side of the stage, trying to elucidate what's going to happen next from the muscle movement in your face, from your choice of words, or from your clothes.

You cannot turn the spotlight off, you can't step down from the stage. And while you're up there giving your performance, people are reviewing you as you go. Everyone's whispering and talking to each other, pointing, commenting, keeping track. Arguments arise, sometimes very heated ones, in the audience. Not infrequently, one section of the audience will only continue watching from the corners of their eyes and focus their attention on a bitter argument about what you just did, and whether it might be a good idea to do the same, or whether it would be treacherous and stupid. Some of the audience is paying attention because they want to be on stage too, they want to be up there giving the performance of their lives, flicking people they didn't like off and pretending to be just as unaware of the audience as you are.

Other parts of the audience feel threatened by you and how you are so flippant, even though you are on stage and everyone's watching. They don't know that when you're up there, you feel like you disappear into this mass of people and that your actions are only your own. Some in the audience have learnt how to play off of people's feelings about the whole play and can rally people around them to throw tomatoes, in addition to the individuals who spontaneously throw rotten fruit. Everyone has their own reason for watching. But everyone's watching.

I know, because I can slip off the side of the stage when only a few people are watching (like on a plane) and sit quietly in the audience, and no one will be none the wiser. And now that I'm back on stage, I'm telling you - don't pick your nose, don't pull out that wedgie, don't make a face you think no one will notice - there are so many people watching what you do that someone will see it. And the audience doesn't know you personally, they don't know who you really are - all they have to go by is your actions on stage. And there is nothing you can do about that. All you can do is learn to make big movements that are clearly visible from far away, act out what you want to communicate, and smile. Don't forget to smile. People know that under the stage is the biggest, most destructive army the world has ever seen, and the last thing they want to see is upset people jumping on top of bombs. That's why most of them are watching. Their fate is tied up with what's going on on that stage, but they can only influence what happens in indirect ways.

If you feel the urge to act on the audience's behalf, keep in mind that because everyone's watching, there is no single thing that they want or expect. You have to pick a part of the audience to focus on. And furthermore, shut up and listen whem they speak - you can't speak for someone you haven't heard speak at length. I am not saying this on behalf of the audience - I am saying this to alert you to that you are being scrutinized. Do with that information what you will, but don't forget it. And please think of your country and its reputation before you do anything at all.