Thursday, March 23, 2006

Multiculturalism - Then and Now

Denis Dutton reviews The Defeat of the Mind by Alain Finkielkraut, a book that traces the genealogy of multiculturalism, especially in its post-modern form. Unsurprisingly, it goes back to a reaction against the Enlightenment.

For Johann Gottfried Herder,

“There was no absolute . . . only regional values and contingent principles.” Each epoch and every culture thus possessed its own version of “reason.”
He wrote this in 1774 at the height of the Enlightenment so he didn't win many followers. That changed after Napoleon routed the Prussians at Jena in 1806, the trauma of which made many Germans look inwards to uncover their cultural identity, their Volksgeist, which became seen as a good in itself however irrational or prejudiced it might be. Herder again:
“Prejudice is good in its time and place, because it makes people happy. It takes them back to their center, attaches them firmly to their roots, lets them flourish in their own way, makes them more impassioned, and, as a result, happier in their inclinations and purposes. The most ignorant nation, the one with the most prejudices, is often superior in this respect.”
(Is this beginning to sound familiar?)

Finkielkraut traces the uses of the Volksgeist through the Dreyfuss Affiar and Fascism to its rebirth after the war in, of all places, UNESCO and Claude Lévi-Strauss's 1951 essay, “Race and History”, which it commissioned. The intention was to confound racial prejudice and the idea of cultural superiority (especially that of the West). The consequence was that the bathwater thrown into the backyard still had the baby in it: the ideas that had made the West dominant along with the sense of superiority that had engendered.

The cost?
Quoting Hélé Béji, Finkielkraut points out that the very idea of cultural identity which was used as “a means of resistance under colonial rule . . . became an instrument of repression after the Europeans left.” Just as the values that constituted indigenous cultural identity were not to be questioned by individualist universalism of Europe, once Europeans were gone they were not be challenged by anyone. In many cases, “the formerly colonized became their own captives; stuck in a collective identity that had freed them from European values... there was no place for the individual in the logic of identity politics.” Hence, the frequency of one-party rule in former colonies: the Volksgeist triumphant.
The book and review also mention Julien Benda’s The Treason of the Intellectuals (1926), a prophetic book which "critiqued the culture-idolotry of European intellectuals and their readiness to turn their backs on principles of freedom and rationality". Benda had seen the Dreyfuss Affair as a defining moment which brought the Volksgeist out of the closet to smash the crystal in the Enlightenment drawing room. There was now a split
between those who saw patriotism as “part of your blood and bones,” a matter of deep feelings for ancestors, flag, and soil, and Dreyfusards like Benda, who still believed in the Enlightenment. He warned that this was all taking Europe toward “the most total and perfect war the world has ever seen.”
And if all that isn't depressing enough, read about what this type of thinking leads to. This editorial from The Australian protests at the "feral postmodernism and hyper-relativism" that informs what they're teaching the kids there. An example: In South Australia, kids are taught that
"Western science ... is only one form among the sciences of the world".

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