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Mysteries and paradoxes of the “politically correct”

by David Engels

" It is not because we use the same telephones, climb aboard the same kind of aircraft and bravely use English as a kind of lingua franca that we are now universal citizens sharing the same vision of the world. "

I. Globalisation and the European identity

One of the most striking paradoxes of the process of European unification is the fact that there is no real recognition of a European identity, broader than the national identity, but distinct from those of other human cultures. According to polls, almost half of all Europeans do not recognise the existence of such an identity. And what reason is generally adduced to explain this state of affairs? The dissolution of the European identity – if it ever existed – within globalisation, which has supposedly erased the frontiers between continents and nations to the extent that, beyond national identity, we can only recognise a “human” identity based on “universalist” history. And what is the result of this tragic misunderstanding, a misunderstanding knowingly encouraged by our politicians? An emphasis on numerous red herrings poached from the muddy, teeming waters of the crises of the 21st century designed to elude the questions that citizens ask them, for example, when will we see a European policy that focuses on the wellbeing of its citizens rather than on the financial markets; when will we see a European policy based on a pride in the continent’s history and not on “politically correct” masochism; when will we see a European policy that dares to confront the problem of and the reasons for the democratic deficit instead of taking citizens for fools who are only acknowledged once every four or five years and who, the rest of the time, are considered intellectually worthless.

But let us return to this so-called “global human culture”, this grand family of peoples into which Europe, with its universalist values, will naturally meld – this great subterfuge whose raison d’etre is to mask the unwillingness of Nation-States to abandon any of their competences to the profit of a genuine unification of Europe, and to camouflage the decidedly ultra-liberal stance of the European Union in its current form. I should be clear about this: far from me to deny the fact that the world really has become more intertwined than ever or to claim that we have the least chance of returning to the era of the splendid isolation of human cultures that existed before the great discoveries. But this doesn’t mean that we can talk about real “globalisation”, for this entanglement is, in the end, nothing other than a “Westernisation” of the planet, with all the consequences that this has produced, not for other civilisations, who are generally quite keen to protect their underlying identity, but above all for our Western civilisation which, seeing its own material characteristics mirrored around the globe, suddenly feels alienated from its own identity.

So, there we have the answer to the mystery of the so-called absence of European identity, apparently subsumed within a cultural identity that is “simply human.” In effect, the word globalisation suggests a series of cultural and material interactions in which all actors participate. But it is impossible to ignore the fact that such interactions are currently based on the global acceptance of the model of civilisation developed by the West and exported, first by the power of colonialism, then by the no less violent power of capitalism, around the planet. Of course, an increasing quantity of commodities are traded with the rest of the world; of course, the West’s share of this trade is getting ever smaller; of course, our technology was first copied, then developed independently by scientists and technicians from other cultures – but none of this entitles us to talk about a genuine process of globalisation in the cultural sense. Skyscrapers, automobiles, jackets and ties, aircraft, microwave cookers, electricity, computers, radios, glasses, telephones, nuclear fission, television, parliamentary democracy, plastic packaging, motorways, the financial system, space travel, freezers – all of these things were not only invented “by chance” in the West, but also flow logically from the evolutionary logic of Western civilisation and for a long time represented – before becoming the standardised mould of the material life of humanity – the quintessence of Americano-European civilisation.

But it should be pointed out that it is not at all a question of congratulating ourselves for these exploits, which are relative to say the least when their perverse effects are taken into account, or to justify a form of arrogance based on their invention and, above all, their transformation into objects of mass consumption. And neither is it a question of getting involved in a puerile competition based on who has made the most inventions, as if the fact that printing and gunpowder were originally developed in China before Europe changed anything whatsoever about the fact that it was in Europe, and not China, that they occasioned a profound revolution in society as a whole. What I would like to emphasise by means of this list is the – sad – truth that the world’s material culture is increasingly based on the Western model, and that it has become almost impossible for the average man to see, in the material realities of urban life in Tokyo, New York, Beijing or Sydney, anything other than superficial differences. Consequently, he might ask, won’t the daily life of an inhabitant of London be closer to that of a citizen of Hong Kong than to that of a Romanian farmer? Isn’t the whole idea of a European identity an erroneous, or at least anachronistic, concept? And isn’t it enough to think about the World rather than just focusing exclusively on Europe?

I would reply with a clearly enunciated “No” to this idea, however understandable it might be. To put it somewhat provocatively, “Humanity” only exists as a biological, rather than a cultural term. There are huge differences between human cultures, and only the mania of politically correct translations, simplifications and approximations could ever make us believe otherwise. It is not because we use the same telephones, drink the same coffee, turn on the same computers, climb aboard the same kind of aircraft, bravely use English as a kind of lingua franca, and order our books from the same online delivery company that we are now universal citizens sharing the same vision of the world. To adduce a clear, if perhaps extreme, example, the pilot of the Boeing that crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York held a degree from a German university, had lived for many years in that country, had done a series of jobs involving a whole swathe of electronic techniques (including flying a plane) and spoke several European languages, and all this without feeling (and that’s the least one could say) a jot of sympathy for the Western world that surrounded him and whose technological advantages he enjoyed on a daily basis. Just because there are translations of Murakami, copies of the Koran for Dummies, Chinese cookery books, Indian curries, and posters designed by Congolese children in the local supermarket, does not mean, far from it, that, in the end, the timeless wealth of humanity is instantly available and that diversity can be reduced to a few, ultimately insignificant details.

Another example: anyone who has grown up speaking two languages – German and French, for example – will be well aware of the difficulty, or even impossibility of expressing exactly the same sentiments or ideas without affected the form and meaning of what is said. But anyone who has taken the trouble to study non-European languages like Arabic or Chinese has to recognise that they are not merely other “languages” but other worlds. No translation will ever render, even approximately, all the strangeness of their linguistic structures, associations, sensibilities and nuances, and even after years of study, the abstract mastery of such languages will only rarely provide access to the wealth of feeling evoked by the power of words that even an illiterate native will feel more fully than a foreign university professor. And it is not just languages themselves that separate us, for, of course, they are accompanied by religious, philosophical, political, familial and societal systems totally different from ours and that the façade of so-called globalisation hides on a merely superficial level from the eyes of the naive spectator or the politician convinced of the beneficent nature of multiculturalism.

Indian Buddhism will always be a mystery to us, for we are sons and daughters of the West, incapable, without long years of study and, above all, many years in India, of really getting to the bottom of the psychic and psychological motivations at its heart. In spite of the stereotypical and superficial admiration for “the wisdom of the East”, Chinese philosophy will always remain a secret to us, for we will never be able to understand why metaphysical question that fascinated the West for millennia receive only a superficial attention, while other questions of a spiritual nature are addressed with a sensibility that we are not even able to properly translate into our languages. Japanese theatre and music will never touch us in the same way as a Shakespeare play or a symphony by Mahler. Of course, they can arouse our intellectual curiosity, but we possess neither the psychological foundations nor the artistic taste required to share the enthusiasm triggered by these arts in the Japanese public. It is, therefore, in opposition to these other great cultures that the existence of a decidedly unitary and specific European culture is crystallising. For, confronted with the otherness of the Chinese, the Indian or the Muslim, the Dutchman and the Italian, the Frenchman and the Pole will immediately feel like members of the same great family, sometimes with marked personal affinities and antagonisms, often in dispute, but, in the end, sharing, beyond their disagreements, a certain common cultural ground constituted by shared experience, characterised by the same linguistic family, the same faith, the same artistic evolution, the same concept of individualism, sharing the same continent, and, above all, sharing a long history characterised by an incessant desire to realise at last the political union that was at the origin of our common epopee, initiated by Charlemagne.

In spite of the superficial standardisation of the material framework of life effected by globalisation, which is no more than the exportation of the technological shell developed by the genius of the old West, human cultures are separated by vast distances and always will be. And this is a magnificent thing, because all cultures have developed and will continue to develop their own trajectory, radically different from their peers, in an attempt to give an individual expression to all the potential of human beings and to make it possible to enrich, through cultural contacts, the efforts of others. And, from this point of view, it is not the so-called enemies of globalisation who are Eurocentric or anti-humanist. It is, rather, those who, under cover of the struggle for diversity and multiculturalism, mistaking the Westernisation of the world for globalisation, and following on from this false impression, working actively, through their local, national or European cultural policies, to encourage a melting pot of cultures, who negate the true wealth of difference, claiming instead that we are “all the same”, sabotaging the continuity of Western spirituality, belittling our history with their masochistic moralism, and promoting a cultural homogeneity that reduces the progress of 6,000 years of world history to a list of interchangeable consumer goods, rendered unrecognisable by the need to adapt them to all tastes, like “exotic” pre-prepared supermarket dishes. If the European Union really was historically useful, it would fight for the recognition of our shared cultural identity and for the protection of the interests of our civilisation, our traditions and our history, and, in the world, for the promotion of local cultures, not out of chauvinism or a sense superiority, but out of a deep respect for authentic difference.

David Engels

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