A Cultural Monstrosity

Emmanuel Molding Nielsen analyses how culture has shifted from being an antidote to racism to a purveyor of populism

At a recent public lecture at the LSE, Nick Clegg claimed that liberalism, amongst other things, is under sustained assault from a particular form of Cultural Anthropology. Clegg’s comment begs the question of how anthropology has gone from being a key tool in progressives’ toolbox to a dangerous rhetorical weapon in the populist arsenal.

It is in part thanks to the work of anthropologists like Ruth Benedict and Franz Boas that we are today able to dismiss theories of racial superiority as crude and wrong. In her book, ‘The Patterns of Culture’, Ruth Benedict made the then controversial argument that we are defined by cultural differences and that biological differences are only skin-deep. This powerful argument shifted the public conceptions of national identity in a significant way – rather than a country being united by notions of common blood, they united around a common culture.

It was hoped that this argument would rid the world of an understanding of national identity rooted in a divisive racial polemic. Instead, it led to the emergence of a far more nebulous, and difficult to pin-down, form of populism. Far-right populism – this time under the guise of culture – effectively blurs the boundaries between racial and cultural identity, giving rise to a racist discourse which is far more difficult to call out and confront. By claiming to protect a vague and emotionally charged concept of the ‘the nation’, right-wing populists are able to distance themselves from claims of racism under the guise of insurmountable (and often unexamined) cultural differences.

Culture is both everywhere and nowhere, because it is an ‘imagined community’ existing only in the minds of people and their imaginings of what constitutes, say, a Brit or an American. It is this inherent ambiguity surrounding the term which has, much to the horror of anthropologists, enabled ‘culture’ to be weaponised by right-wing populists as a source of historical legitimacy, and in the process turned into a cultural monstrosity.

Modern democracy is particularly vulnerable to this type of discourse as it derives its legitimacy from a culturally defined demos. But who is the demos? What is this culture? And who gets to define it? The discursive vacuum created by these questions has been effectively appropriated by populists to deadly effect. The painfully vague idea of the culturally legitimate nation is claimed, by populists, to be in a state of constant crisis. This state of crisis is generally precipitated by an ongoing siege by an equally nebulous foe who is portrayed as swamping the national culture.

Although the roots of this rhetoric are deep and dense, one relatively recent example of this is Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ which pitted ‘the West’ (whatever that means) against Islam, framed as a culture on a crusade to destroy western civilisation. This discourse continues today, albeit on steroids, with Donald Trump’s now infamous slogan of making ‘America Great Again’, which enshrines the cardinal virtues of being: White, Christian, and Republican as constitutive of an authentic American culture. In opposition to this is the ‘morally bankrupt’ media and democratic establishment, who don’t represent the view of the ‘real American people’. Another covert enemy within is, of course, Mexicans, who become analogous with drugs, crime, and rape.

In the midst of this discourse, the only reason why Americans wouldn’t vote for Trump is either because they are deluded and un-American, and therefore illegitimate, foreign i.e. Mexican, or because they don’t dare say ‘what we’re all really thinking’. As is often the case with populists, they successfully identify a part of the problem (insular elites), but fall woefully short when it comes to solutions (building a wall). As a result, the only figure standing between the morally and culturally righteous Americans and those seeking to take over, is Trump who is capable of standing up for the American nation.

This same rhetoric, which uses culture to create an omnipresent enemy, is also flourishing in the UK and across Europe. Mexicans are replaced by Syrian refugees and eastern Europeans, and the democratic establishment with the corrupt Brussels Eurocrat. According to this narrative Brexit will protect British identity from the cultural perversions from across the channel.

The tendency towards this type of discourse is dangerous for two reasons. Not only does this perverse use of the culture concept undermine faith in democratic institutions, it also distracts from the very real problems we’re facing. Instead of dealing with the issues facing the British and American public, such as reforming the welfare state, dealing with soaring inequality, or the crushing effects of globalisation on low-income households, the national discourse becomes caught up in futile debate over national identity, wherein an ill-defined idea of culture is both the root of and solution to all problems. But why is this?

The answer lies in the fact that culture not only draws its legitimacy from the past, but also from within. At a time when we are facing unprecedented economic, climatic, and demographic challenges that remain beyond the comprehension of even the most educated, it is easier to retreat into a debate in which we can all be experts – namely, the cultural debate. Populists not only use culture as a divisive tool, but equally as a rhetorical escapism for the people, which allows everyone to be vindicated by emotion and feelings about ‘belonging to a culture’. This is succinctly illustrated by the Brexit referendum debate, where Michael Gove infamously claimed that “the people of this country have had enough of experts”. Rather than seriously debating the merits of Britain’s membership of the EU, the national debate was instead hijacked by the issue of British identity and its alleged threats.

So, what can be done? Considering that the roots of this predicament can be found in anthropologists’ attempts do away with nationalism, we would do well to look to the social sciences for budding solutions. Whilst the widely held image of the anthropologist in the public imagination as the chronicler and protector of cultures still holds sway (amongst the admittedly few, who claim some insight into their work); anthropologists must do more to challenge and substantiate the idea of culture as primordial. The idea that the nation state derives its legitimacy from historical roots, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Culture, rather than being static, is constantly in a state of transformation. If a cultural community can be imagined, then it can certainly be reimagined.

This does not mean that we should dismiss culture altogether. Culture is indisputably a very real part of everyone’s reality, but that does not mean that we should take it at face value. Instead of allowing right-wing populists to hide their racism and claims of national legitimacy under the guise of culture, we must try to reimagine our understanding of culture – not as an unyielding historical and emotional force, but rather as something which is characterised as much by its emotional power as its capacity for change. This is difficult, especially because it is a doggedly complex point to put across to the public, but as we have seen from the example of Ruth Benedict – it can be done.

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