Wednesday, February 08, 2006

What this crisis should teach us

Before things get even worse (which seems to be the case as I'm writing this), we need to remind ourselves that this isn't a clash of civilizations, as predicted by Samuel Huntington, but a problem within what has become the common or globalized culture of western civilization.

Newsweek ran an interesting article yesterday about how Japan is ceasing to be Japanese. This actually throws some indirect light on the cartoon conflict because it highlights the strength and degree of the undermining effects of global culture. If Japan can't resist, who can?

Though the trend dates back at least to the end of World War II, our globalizing world has radically changed. I have little doubt that ten years ago the cartoon crisis would either not have existed at all - thanks to an attitude of passive submission on the part of the Muslim minority -- or would have produced merely local incidents in Denmark. Why has it taken on the dimension it has today? I would suggest a number of contributing causes:

  1. The emergence of a US driven "global" culture that has moved beyond the phase of co-existence with other cultures and has begun to show signs of seeking to replace them (see the Japan article: I call this the Halloween phenomenon, driven by "innocent" commercial interests but carrying a powerful cultural payload).
  2. The need for the U.S. economy - totally organized around the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about upon leaving office in 1960 - to have an identifiable global enemy in order to justify its budgets and increase its margin of manoeuvre. (see the remarks of Bush, the presidential candidate in 2000, wistfully regretting the clear-cut dichotomy of the Cold War),
  3. The disastrous (and culturally insensitive) invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and the consequent political and military bridling of Pakistan, three Muslim countries.
  4. The failure of most European countries to integrate their growing Muslim populations, half a century after decolonisation and at a time when birth rates for the "indigenous" (white) population are constantly falling.
  5. Europe's culturally motivated dilatory tactics to keep Turkey from joining the union.
  6. A gradually increasing crassness of U.S. culture, provoked and justified by commercial interests and highly visible in all exported media.
  7. Talk of having God on our side when going to war against Muslim nations (this wasn't a problem during the Cold War, because the enemy was godless communists, so there could be no theological rivalry in the contest).
  8. The double standard on nuclear policy concerning Iran, a line promoted by both the U.S. and Europe: in particular because India, Israel and Pakistan have never been singled out in the same way.
  9. The new ethos and rhetoric of the "war on terror" (the Pentagon now calls it "the long war"), which insists that everyone's duty is to attack sources of terror (e.g. suspect Musims, even when they happen to be Brazilians on their way to work in the London tube).
  10. A psychological threshold shared variously by Arab and Muslim cultures that determines when collective action should be taken.
  11. The more universal laws of mob psychology (e.g. the French or Bolshevik revolutions).
  12. The confused, directionless and mostly bungled "attempts" to settle the Palestinian situation (I sensed we were in trouble when we moved from "peace process" to the "roadmap" metaphor: what better way of saying "we're lost!").

This ethos of the "long war on terror" plays a very important role, because:
  • It confirms the feeling of Muslims in western society that they will always be considered a potential enemy,
  • It motivates the occasional newspaper editor and cartoonist to "feel good" about lashing out at everyone's favorite enemy. Isn't that the way cultural as well as moral values work: they enable us to feel good about doing what society or our moral teachers recommend? "Do the right thing".
The result of all this is that Muslim are under pressure to 1) accept a permanent status of outsider, without even the promise of evolution felt by the first post-colonial generation, 2) accept to be associated with the enemy in the "long war" that produces such good feelings in the "long warriors" (a category that includes publishers and cartoonists*).

Justifying this by invoking freedom of the press or freedom of expression can only be seen (and felt) as hypocritical, since the press is not a simple platform of personal expression but a powerful organ of cultural and political orientation.

As interculturalists it seems to me we should be dealing not merely with abstract ideas about cultures and societies but with people's real feelings. As westerners we take comfort in "pure knowledge", which as suppliers of a brain-based service we see as a commodity. If we can't take the time to explore what external factors influence people's feelings, but only content ourselves with reciting the litany of "dimensions" and behavioural trends, God help us (and inch'Allah)! On the other hand, our clients rarely ask us to solve the world's problems, so why not just continue on our merry old way and at least feel comfortable in our own culture among all the other "long warriors"?


What does it mean to publish cartoons? Is it simply a form of expression or a power play to model contemporary culture? Some people claim that the sole issue is honouring everyone's right to say what they think (an axiom in cultures that value explicitness, directness and outspokenness). They argue that a cartoon isn't an action, but an idea. Let's see what action is in fact involved. I count the following:

* Commissioning the cartoons
* Drawing by the author-artists
* Paying for the cartoons
* Publishing
* Distributing to a wide population.

I'm surprised that such a complex and public process can be characterized as "personal expression" and defended on the basis of the "freedom of expression". Once again (I've already made this point), we seem to have a cultural and historical problem that stems from having lost the distinction between public and private. A similar phenomenon can be found in the debate around the 2nd amendment in the U.S.: "the right to bear arms". It was framed as a means of defining collective responsibility not as an individual right (in a society that had no standing army and a fear of colonial invasion, citizens were encouraged to be ready to organize into a local militia). And yet this historical reality is utterly forgotten, not because the information isn't available, but because we have lost all awareness of the vital (but difficult to define) distinction between public and private.

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