Mike van Graan: The Cultural Weapon

© Mike van Graan
© Mike van Graan

Mike van Graan is the Secretary General of Arterial Network, a continent-wide network of artists, activists and creative enterprises active in the African creative sector and its contribution to development, human rights and democracy on the continent. He is also the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute (AFAI), a South African NGO based in Cape Town that harnesses local expertise, resources and markets in the service of Africa’s creative sector. He is considered to be one of his country’s leading contemporary playwrights.
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Recently, I was struck by the front page of a British newspaper, featuring a picture of their Prime Minister and the headline “Cameron: my war on multiculturalism”.

The article began with the paragraph: “David Cameron launches a devastating attack today on 30 years of multiculturalism in Britain, warning it is fostering extremist ideology and directly contributing to home-grown Islamic terrorism”. In his speech, Cameron “warns Muslim groups that if they fail to endorse women’s rights or promote integration, they will lose all government funding”.  In terms of Britain’s new policy, “All immigrants … must speak English and schools will be expected to teach the country’s common culture.” The article states that Cameron blames a doctrine of “state multiculturalism” which encourages different cultures to live separate lives, and which he believes, is “the root cause of radicalisation which can lead to terrorism”.

This “new” British policy is consistent with the rising nationalism in Europe with anti-immigrant parties having been voted into parliament in the Netherlands and in Sweden in recent times, countries that have prided themselves as “liberal” and “tolerant” societies. Two years ago, the Danish government offered foreigners one hundred thousand krone to leave Denmark. Last year, the French government dangled 300 Euros for every Roma adult and 100 Euros for every Roma child to leave France. France has also banned some forms of Muslim apparel. 

Cameron’s “common values” that he would like immigrant communities to commit to echoes Laura Bush at the time of the USA’s re-entry to UNESCO after years of absence, when she said that UNESCO “can now help to achieve peace by spreading the values that will defeat terror and lead to a better and safer world”. She, of course, was referring to the values and worldviews of “the other” who in her view, sowed terror, whereas for many in the global south, it is the values, worldviews and ideology of wealthy countries in the north and the manner in which these are expressed economically, politically and militarily, that are the chief source of terror in the world.

Within European societies – in a post-9/11 world – there is a greater move towards homogeneity, towards integration around a set of “common values”, and an increasing intolerance of cultural difference, of otherness.

In so doing, the hypocrisy and self-serving “values” of wealthy European nations are again exposed.

A few years ago, when the World Trade Organisation was promoting the liberalisation of access to global markets, some of these countries were very concerned that their creative industry markets would be swamped by American creative products. They argued vehemently against “free trade” in the cultural sphere, as creative goods have worldviews, values and ideological assumptions embedded in them. Should American products flood global markets, consumers would imbibe these values, ideas, ideologies and perspectives on the world. This would lead to a homogenous world that would affirm the hegemony of one country, and would undermine global democracy.  

This was the essence of the argument that led to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, which affirms “that cultural diversity is a defining characteristic of humanity” that “should be cherished and preserved for the benefit of all” as it “creates a rich and varied world which increases the range of choices and nurtures human capacities and values”.  The Convention states that cultural diversity flourishes “within a framework of democracy, tolerance, social justice and mutual respect between peoples and cultures” and “is indispensable for peace and security at the local, national and international levels”.

With this Convention, France, Germany, Britain, Canada and a host of other nations with strong creative industries are able to withstand American creep in their local markets, and maintain and celebrate their own identities and cultural heritage.  The language of “cultural diversity” has thus been appropriated largely to preserve the audio-visual and other creative industries of countries of the north in their trade battle with America.

Yet, what these countries have piously demanded at a global level – heterogeneity, diversity and tolerance of other – they are increasingly moving away from, and in fact are actively clamping down on, at a national level.

All this is being done in the name of national security and a safer world.  The irony is that such actions will achieve exactly the opposite.   (9.2.2011)

The views expressed in this column are entirely the views of the author and are not necessarily those of any of the institutions - or their partners - with which he is associated.

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