The year the Culture Wars went global
Turning geopolitics into a battlefield over values is a really bad idea.
A century after the outbreak of the First World War, it seems humanity is confronted with new cultural disputes that have the potential to mutate into violent conflicts.
The experience of the past century has demonstrated that the politicisation of culture always ends badly. And little wonder: cultural crusaders create a climate of intolerance towards the norms and values of their cultural targets. They are often censorious and seek to devalue their opponents. In its more extreme forms, cultural politics leads to the mutual dehumanisation of the antagonists.
Such dehumanising sentiments were far too evident a century ago. The Armenian genocide of 1915 represented the most extreme and destructive manifestation of this lethal synthesis of culture and militarism. Tragically, almost a century later, the spectre of culturally motivated violence haunts that region once more. Until recently, the great Armenian church in Deir el-Zour in Syria served as a memorial to the mass killings that occurred during the Great War. Earlier this year, however, in a savage act of vandalism, a group of Islamists blew the church up. They destroyed its archives, and the bones of hundreds of victims of the 1915 massacre were left strewn in the streets.
Today, the most extreme exponents of the politicisation of culture are the jihadist zealots who regard the lives of those who do not share their faith as unworthy of moral value. But the depravity and barbarism of a movement such as the Islamic State can obscure the disturbing reality: namely, that the politicisation of culture, and its intolerant consequences, is gaining strength across the world. It has certainly contributed to the hardening of the rivalry between the West and Russia. And it is this, the emergence of a caricature of the Cold War, that is arguably the most significant international development of 2014.
It seems that disputes about lifestyle, family life, sexual orientation and the nature of community life are no longer confined to the domestic sphere. The Culture Wars have gone global. Muslim jihadists are not just fighting with bombs; they are directly assaulting Western liberal values and denouncing them as immoral. For his part, Russian president Vladimir Putin has sought to present himself as fighting for traditionalism and the Christian way of life. In turn, Western diplomats have criticised Russia for its patriarchal and sexist culture.
There is little doubt that the Russian government is a willing participant in what it regards as a war over moral values and beliefs. In September 2012, Putin stated that ‘cultural self-awareness, spiritual and moral values [and] codes of values are an area of intense competition’. He said that to ‘influence the worldviews of entire ethnic groups, the desire to subject them to one’s will, to force one’s system of values and beliefs upon them, is an absolute reality, just like the fight for mineral resources that many nations, ours included, experience’.
In recent years, the Putin regime has claimed that the Russian way of life and its values have been the target of hostile foreign interests. The Russian government has expressed concern about the influence of the Western media over its national life. It regards Western NGOs operating in Russia as agents of alien interests, which is why in June 2012 it passed a law that requires any Russian NGO funded from abroad to register itself as a ‘foreign agent’.
Putin self-consciously cultivates the image of Russia as a moral crusader fighting for the survival of human civilisation. Last December, in his annual state-of-the-nation speech, he responded to Western criticisms of Russia’s attitude to homosexuality by lamenting the decline of morality in the West. He drew attention to what he perceived as the morally disorienting consequences of Western social engineering: ‘This destruction of traditional values from above not only entails negative consequences for society, but is also inherently anti-democratic because it is based on an abstract notion and runs counter to the will of the majority of people.’ He claimed that traditional family values were the only effective defence against ‘genderless and infertile… so-called tolerance’.
Although ostensibly directed at the Russian public, Putin’s denunciation of the ‘genderless and infertile’ lifestyles of Westerners was also directed at a global audience. Just a few days before the delivery of this speech, an influential Kremlin-linked think-tank published a report titled Putin: World Conservatism’s New Leader. The report sought to present Putin as the global saviour of traditional values. The report claimed that ordinary people throughout the world yearn for the stability and security offered by traditional values. It argued that people believe in the traditional family and regard multiculturalism with suspicion. Dmitry Abzalov, a spokesman for the think-tank, told the press that ‘it is important for most people to preserve their way of life, their lifestyle, their traditions’, and, because of that, they ‘tend toward conservatism’.
Western commentators frequently claim that Russia is waging a cultural conflict against tolerant, liberal and democratic values. It is certainly the case that of all the protagonists, Russia is the most self-conscious exponent of a values-based public narrative. But Moscow’s use of a moralistic discourse of tradition and Russian nationalism should be seen as a variant of the values-driven ideology of Western governments themselves.
Western institutions and governments are hardly shy when it comes to demanding that their values and lifestyles be adhered to by all societies. In fact, societies and cultures that do not adhere to Western values face pressure to fall into line. Take the case of Japan. During the summer, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination exhorted the Japanese government to pass an American-style law that would criminalise certain forms of speech as hate speech. What is remarkable about this intervention is that it was not confined to calling on the Japanese to deal with racial discrimination; it actually prescribed an Anglo-American legal innovation for the policing of free speech in Japan. It is entirely legitimate to criticise a nation’s government for failing to deal with racial discrimination. However, the demand that a sovereign nation regulate public speech in accordance with the values and methods of Western societies is a form of cultural colonialism.
The problem with international cultural crusades is not the actual values – many of the sentiments promoted by Western institutions are worthy and enlightened ones. No, the problem is that such crusades assume that Western states possess the moral authority to question, undermine and change the laws and values of communities throughout the world. When diplomacy and geopolitics become entwined with the attempt to affirm the moral superiority of a way of life, the outcome is always unpredictable.
The real danger with the globalisation of the Culture Wars is that it threatens to confuse diplomatic problems with existential questions that touch on a people’s way of life. Take the case of US president Barack Obama’s high-profile address to European youth. In this speech, he linked his criticism of Russia’s behaviour in the Crimea with criticism of those who oppose his political agenda in the US. He celebrated the politics of identity and permissiveness, and denounced the ‘older, more traditional view of power’. He added that ‘instead of targeting our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, we can use our laws to protect their rights’. In all but name, Russia served as a proxy for Obama’s desire to attack his traditionalist foes back in the US.
When domestic cultural conflicts in the US are recast on the global stage, diplomacy may become hostage to them. Diplomacy could become, in short, an extension of a domestic moralistic crusade. Such international values conflicts may appear relatively benign compared to those that led to the outbreak of the First World War. But do not be fooled. Cultural rivalries, and disputes over lifestyles and values, are extremely difficult to resolve because they are intimately linked to basic moral questions, even to the meaning of good and evil. As a result, these disputes are rarely susceptible to pragmatic solutions and can easily escalate into dangerous rivalries. Let 1914 be a warning to all those who presume to lecture other nations’ inhabitants about how to live their lives.
Frank Furedi’s latest book, First World War: Still No End in Sight, is published by Bloomsbury. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).)