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Universalism versus Multiculturalism – The Crisis of Liberal Democracy in the Aftermath of the Paris Massacres

Je Suis Charlie (Creative Commons)

Within a few days following the shock of the terrorist assault on, and wanton slaughter of the staff of, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the deeper crisis of Western liberal democracy—the crisis of universalism versus multiculturalism—surged into view.

Right after anywhere between 1 and 1.5 million marchers in the streets of Paris locked arms with a wide spectrum of world leaders to show solidarity against Islamist extremism under the banner of the now contentious slogan nous sommes tout Charlie (“we are all Charlie”), the pushback started and the knives came out, not only among conservative Muslims but, more pointedly, among major segments of the North American intelligentsia.

Even though many French were calling the events their own “September 11,”  many Americans ironically took the very same attitude toward the Paris attacks as the French, and many Europeans, did toward Americans in 2001.   The  rather smug message was “just get over it!”  A more subtle and implicit one:  “well, you probably had it coming.”

The insincerity, duplicity, and outright stupidity of some of these apologies for, or downplaying of, the Paris massacre led even the usually even-minded liberal New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to explode and deride it all as “theater of the absurd.”

Controversy over Free Speech

Much of the recoil centered on the issue of free speech,  which Americans are supposed to value more than Europeans, but not this time.

In addition to the routine canard that populated numerous op-eds, blogs, tweets, and Facebook posts that the French were hypocritical about free speech anyway, the argument routinely came down to this:  “well, free speech does give you the unfettered right to speak your mind, but not unconditionally to insult people, especially if the people who you are insulting find those kinds of insults particularly insulting, and they themselves are minorities in your culture.”

The same view was attributed even to the Pope, who supposedly in offhanded remarks to journalists had said insulting religion itself should be legally curbed on a global scale (a position, incidentally, already advanced in the United Nations by the majority of Muslim countries), although his opinions were apparently taken out of context, and he didn’t quite mean exactly that.

Many of the anti-Charlie criticisms focused on its alleged “racism,” citing the magazine’s frequent depictions of Muhammed with a long, bulbous nose, which was compared to Nazi propaganda art representing Jews.  I myself got drawn into an unsolicited twitter debate (as if you can have an intelligent argument about anything with 144 characters per post) with one of my followers, who insisted quite heatedly that not only was je suis Charlie offensive to Muslims, but that free speech itself was “racist.”

But, as Laura Miller writing in Salon aptly—and sanely—pointed out, we Americans have no business calling the French racists, that we are quick to condemn something without assessing its cultural context, and that there is a non-trivial difference between mocking religion and making fun of people who adhere to it.   Certain members of the French left also laid into what they considered the stupidity, ignorance, and hypocrisy evidenced in the quick take of the American left on the issue.

Are lampoons of Catholicism, or especially of the current Pope, “racist” because so many Latinos make up its communion, or Christianity in general because nowadays, statistically speaking, the majority are people of color (and actually from a broad historical viewpoint always have been).

At the same time, the majority of Muslims are not Arabs, so the equation Charlie Hebdo=Islamophobia=racism becomes a real stretch.

Liberalism and the Crisis of Core Values

What the detractors did get right, of course, without much nuanced or balanced understanding is that the l’affaire Charlie Hebdo does bring into a new and glaring light what is, in effect, a real crisis in the West, which hypocritical Americans cannot consign to Europe alone. It is a crisis of core liberal values.

The crisis arises from seemingly compatible, or negotiable, binaries within our deeper value systems, which turn out to be neither compatible nor easily negotiable.   The case of Islam and its growing presence within the cultures of the West forces us to examine closely—and with a lot more tolerance for ambiguity than we would like—the significance of these binaries.

The crisis can be boiled down to one of Enlightenment universalism, from which so many Western juridical and political principles are derived,  versus multiculturalism.

The universalism of the Enlightenment, which spawned the French Revolution, always assumed that both human dignity and human liberty resided in fostering laws as well as institutions that would guarantee the freedom of the mind and the right to unfettered expression of the thoughts it called forth.

While recognizing that what today we call “civility”—refraining from gratuitous opprobrium toward those with whom one differed, or from whom one is different—was the key to the free exchange of ideas, the paladins of the Enlightenment regarded sensitivity to cultural differences as a sign of education and breeding, not as a social or political mandate, let alone as an occasion for the intervention of the state.

This lack of concern was rooted in what now can be considered either an arrogant, or naive, assumption that a commitment to rational inquiry and discussion itself will ultimately sort out all differences, and that when one enters into the cosmopolitan concourse of enlightened conversation and respectful inquiry, one will in time realize that the importance of one’s own cultural particularities is negligible in comparison to the the promise of what some theorists nowadays have termed rather quixotically a “global civil society.”

Such a society would, in principle, be awash with blessings of what the philosopher Immanuel Kant envisioned as an emergent universal community of enlightened beings treating each other as “ends in themselves,” a new secular universal “religion” circumscribed “within the limits of reason alone.”

The Enlightenment “Myth” Unravels

What later critical theorists dubbed the “myth” of Enlightenment began to unravel almost from the start, especially with the Napoleonic wars.  But the myth was finally busted by the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s, which itself was inspired by the work of the younger and more radical members of the Frankfurt School such as Herbert Marcuse.

For Marcuse and those like him, the heritage of the so-called Age of Reason turned out to be one that valorized “instrumental” reason far more than “critical” reason.  Instrumental reason transformed faith in the power of reason into a faith in the mere capacity for science and technology to improve material life and “deliver the goods”, effectively mobilizing and shrewdly managing for the sake of  our private narcissistic impulses in order to maintain the hegemony of consumer capitalism.

Marcuse, who became the darling of what we now call “cultural Marxism” in the late Sixties, did not think this trend meant that Enlightenment rationalism and universalism should be abandoned, only that militants should, fueled with the adrenaline of reinvigorated Hegelian dialectics that elevated the role of “critical reason”, take the Enlightenment where even the Enlightenment had never dared to go.

But Marcuse’s admirers, especially in America, took matters in a different direction.   The shocks to the militant idealism of the time, represented in such page-turning events as the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy and the election of Cold Warrior Richard Nixon in 1968, sent the once unified left in different directions.

Many white radicals became disillusioned, rudderless, and capitulated to what they called the “system,” as the movie The Big Chill in the Seventies so dramatically and poignantly rubbed in.   At the same time minority communities discarded MLK’s “I have a dream rhetoric”, full of the sentiments of both traditional Christian and Enlightenment universalism, and began to construct narratives of ethnic exceptionalism and self-exclusion from the cultural mainstream.

The new strategies of “critical” theorizing emphasized the underlying marginalization, non-inclusion, “silenced voices”, and even subtly sanctioned violence of the presumed “Eurocentrism” and “phallocentrism” invisibly propping up the “hegemony” of universalistic norms and narratives.  A counter-myth of what technically became known as “hetero-normativity” itself went mainstream, first in the academic world and gradually in Western society at large.

The Rise and Fall of Multiculturalism

The new normativity of “multiculturalism”—or what in today’s somewhat stilted jargon has come to be termed “inclusive excellence”—took on its own subtle “hegemonic” aura.  The new “categorical imperative” of recognizing and celebrating “difference” increasingly became the unchallenged metanarrative of our times.

Ironically, the narrative of inclusive difference did work fairly well for a while to incorporate non-white Europeans into the very social and economic fabric that neo-Marxist criticism and the emergent “identity politics” had sought to unmask as woven through with the hypocritically exclusionary standards of Enlightenment universalism.  It did so well that in 1997 the famed philosopher Slavoj Žižek stepped on a lot of “progressive” toes around the world when he declared:

The conclusion to be drawn is thus that the problematic of multiculturalism—the hybrid coexistence of diverse cultural life-worlds—[is what] imposes itself today is the form of appearance of its opposite, of the massive presence of capitalism as universal world system.

The same kind of dynamic continues to operate —unwittingly, according to Žižek—for many “leftists” who have come to insert Islam, in general, and even militant Islam, in particular, into those portfolio of those abused by a capitalism, when in fact it is the very same “kinder and gentler” capitalism, into which they in their ivory towers and hip urban bistros and microbreweries have bought and from which they have swallowed whole without so much a twitch of ambiguity or unease.

Writing in The New Statesman in the immediate wake of the Paris trauma, Žižek is even more blunt.  Islam cannot be folded simply and accordion-like along with a whole variety of ideological trinkets signifying “The Other” into the multiculturalist’s hope chest, he says.

The tendency to do so on the part of Western progressives is not a sign of their enlightenment, but their decadence.    Their attitude toward illiberal acts of violence by the same Other, summarized in the French saying tout est pardonné (“all is forgiven”), which the second Charlie Hebdo caricature of Mohammed coyly mocked, constitutes a kind of thinking in the view of Žižek that institutionalizes the latest iteration of Nietzsche’s “slave morality” and the pervasive attitude of ressentiment as the hallmark of Western culture.  

“Such thinking,” Žižek maintains, 

has nothing whatsoever to do with the cheap relativisation of the crime (the mantra of “who are we in the West, perpetrators of terrible massacres in the Third World, to condemn such acts”)…For these false Leftists, any critique of Islam is denounced as an expression of Western Islamophobia; …The result of such stance is what one can expect in such cases: the more the Western liberal Leftists probe into their guilt, the more they are accused by Muslim fundamentalists of being hypocrites who try to conceal their hatred of Islam.

Pulling no punches, Žižek goes on to compare Western intellectuals and especially wanna-be leftists to Nietzsche’s “last men”.

Long ago Friedrich Nietzsche perceived how Western civilisation was moving in the direction of the Last Man, an apathetic creature with no great passion or commitment. Unable to dream, tired of life, he takes no risks, seeking only comfort and security, an expression of tolerance with one another.

That portrayal summarizes perhaps the pathology of today’s lumpen-academic, the new social media intelligentsia that prefers scoring on daily points of political dyspepsia than engaging in any probing critical analysis of what is happening around them.

For Žižek, the Islamists do need to be defended because their “passionate intensity” mirrors pathetically the loss of any grand vision of life, even the vision of Enlightenment universalism of which the new “tolerance” is a distant echo and devolved type of dysfunctionality.  “It effectively may appear that the split between the permissive First World and the fundamentalist reaction to it,” Žižek opines, “runs more and more along the lines of the opposition between leading a long satisfying life full of material and cultural wealth, and dedicating one’s life to some transcendent Cause.”

The Battle for a New Radical Universalism

At the end of the essay Žižek calls for a genuine, committed new radicalism that transcends multicultural mumbo-jumbo and embraces once more the universalistic vision of emancipation, which of course he frequently and familiarly argues can only be conceived in terms of a reborn, Marxian Fourth Internationale.

Žižek forgets that the multiculturalist position is a direct descendant of the Marxist critique of ideology and has been aimed at Western tribalism, the real implication of the term “Eurocentrism”.

In many ways German chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent alarmist observation that “multiculturalism has failed” throughout Europe is a recognition that the rhetoric of inclusion for ethnic minorities from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, putatively anchored in the ideal of universal human rights pertinent to the charter of the EU, has never been able to compete successfully with the age-old tribalism of race, language, and cultural memory that fostered the respective European national identities in the first place.

But what multiculturalism does not get at all is Islam, which has never been a form of ethnic self-designation.  Rather from the seventh century onward it was always a vision of the universal transformation of the social and political order through a militant response to the unconditional will of Allah as revealed in the Qur’an.

That is something Žižek discerns but to which the multiculturalists are blinded.

In fact, the well-known French social philosopher and theoretician of Islam Olivier Roy has built his career on showing how the growth of militant Islamism in Europe is as much of an indigenous and self-conscious form of resistance to multiculturalism as it is among European nativists.

The global era of a happy, rainbow-hued cultural pluralism administered by the invisible hand of an ever generative consumer capitalism is over.  The struggle to define a genuine and perhaps ultimately triumphant new form of universalism that will bind the planet together is now beginning.

Even in their ruthless determination and with the kind of bloodthirsty and genocidal criminality we find in the likes of ISIS, it is becoming clear that the radical Islamists have been the first to plant the flag in this accelerating struggle.

In the million-man march of French citizens we saw a counter-demonstration upholding what are perhaps still inspiring Republican – and Enlightenment-style universalistic – values and principles.

In their own way the Paris antagonists got it.  Americans, and especially President Obama who effectively shrugged and said “no big deal,” didn’t.

But as of today the heat is on.

(2) Comments

  1. “The struggle to define a genuine and perhaps ultimately triumphant new form of universalism that will bind the planet together is now beginning.”

    There already is a genuine and ultimately triumphant form of universalism, but it isn’t a political or philosophically based ideology, and, as I’m sure you’re aware, exists in the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’.

    In which case, it would seem highly dangerous to replicate the Kingdom of God in yet another ideological form. Islamism, Republicanism, Marxism and Secular Liberalism have all been attempts to do that at heart…and all have left a pile of dead bodies at various points in history as a testament to their impatience and materialism.

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