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The Barbarians are not who we think they are

by Théophane Le Méné

« We persist in denouncing the Barbarian. He has simply changed his country, the colour of his skin, his beliefs and his religion. »

In Athens, and later in Rome, those who failed to submit to the authority of the city were marginalised and branded “Barbarians.” But they could always choose to return to the fold and accept the rules of the game: si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more, (“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”), as they used to say. Fifteen centuries later, nothing has changed, and the inhabitants of our world, now reduced to a market empire, never miss the chance to castigate the new Barbarians. They are referred to as conservatives, reactionaries, sometimes Nazis, often Fascists, and – why not? – even homophobes. Their thought is regularly described as “nauseating.” They are anti-European, nationalistic, opponents of progress or heralds of the real. They reject political nominalism and fight solipsism, in the name of which all individuals are encouraged to focus exclusively on their own concerns. They are the Barbarians of the 21st century.

While, in linguistic terms, the negation of orthography or syntax is a “barbarism,” so too, in an altogether broader field, is the negation of the real and of the reality of differences. “It is in thoughtlessness that evil is to be found”, said Hannah Arendt in an attempt to explain Nazi barbarism in a country that, only a matter of years earlier, had been a shining example of European civilisation. In Responsibility and Judgment, the philosopher listed the criteria by which a totalitarian system is defined. Amongst them, the transformation of the individual into a rootless, isolated fragment of the masses; a confusion between the true and the false, between reality and fiction that prevents the development of individual convictions; and the hysterical denunciation of an imaginary enemy.

The advent of the modern world and of a form of universalism encompassing all peoples has had a paradoxical effect on the ways in which the Barbarian is perceived and on what common sense designates as his lack of humanity or culture, his primitive and violent nature. The passing of the centuries have not changed our attitudes, and we persist in denouncing the Barbarian. With the emergence of a globalised world into which we are all supposed to fade in order to constitute, each to his own ability, a cog in the great liberal economic machine, he has simply changed his country, the colour of his skin, his beliefs and his religion. And here, the “foreigner,” the Barbarian, is less the Indian in his loincloth, a confirmed atheist, a convert to Coca-Cola and Hollywood TV dramas, than the adversary of the “cooperative society of consumption and production” described by Carl Schmitt, whether he is a farmer opposed to the Common Agricultural Policy, a professor of literature outraged at the Anglicisms he sees at every turn, an enthusiastic young flag-waver, or a pen-pusher discombobulated by Brussels’ bent for creating new legislation. Is it necessary to recall the fact that we are faced with an immense global market the objective of which is to do away with borders? And to remind ourselves that these borders are not only physical but also, amongst other things, cultural, religious, moral, artistic and linguistic, that they constitute an obstacle to the free circulation of goods? To ensure that merchandise flows freely, the liberal steamroller works conscientiously to erase differences and eliminate the kind of exuberant behaviour that hampers the smooth progress of finance. Now, in this global village, neither time zones nor any other type of barrier will be able to prevent a Chinese businessman discussing the Shanghai and Bovespa stock exchanges with a Brazilian colleague.

In his well know essay, Race and History, Claude Lévi-Strauss, an inveterate opponent of ethnocentrism, criticised those who, from time immemorial, have castigated other existing cultural forms while celebrating their own, and only their own. At the time the text was published, many people were struck by the disturbing philippic, “The Barbarian is, first and foremost, the man who believes in barbarism.” It is probable that some people had interpreted the phrase as an invitation to restraint in their judgment of others, especially of those who were generally regarded as foreigners, in the etymological sense of the word. But on closer examination, the ethnologist had done no more that recall Montaigne’s antiphon when, in his Essays, the Renaissance author wrote, “Each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice.” Pier Paolo Pasolini used to say that the bourgeoisie are not who we think they are. Like the poet, we are tempted to assert that the Barbarians are not who we think they are and to share the sentiment expressed in Lévi-Strauss’s memorable phrase.

Théophane Le Méné

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