Unbehagen in der Kultur: Populist intellectuals or the Dogville

Therein resides the falsity of a certain kind of multiculturalism: the fact that cultures are different, that each culture possesses its own irreducible specificity, is a factum brutum, a banality that lacks the dignity of an object of thought; the problem, on the contrary, is to explain how, in spite of their differences, cultures none the less interact; how a certain (poetic, ideological, etc) theme can have universal repercussions and cross the barriers that separate different cultures. Slavoj Zizek

“A young person escapes from a cruel and unbearable world and finds a new one which, little by little, turns out to be the same”. This is the shortest description I could find of Lars von Trier’s film (theatrical mise-en-scene), Dogville. Life in the isolated, insular Rocky Mountain town Dogville is peaceful though economically depressed. Sure, Dogville’s people, like all other people, have their small idiosyncratic moral flaws and shortcomings. Then, one starry night, Grace [Nicole Kidman] appears and asks to be sheltered. She is escaping for her life from a group of gangsters. With the help of the town’s philosopher, who is eager to illustrate his theory of receptivity and moral rearmament, she manages to convince the good folks of Dogville to provide her with shelter. Despite the economic hardship they feel a human responsibility to provide Grace with protection thus endangering the harmony and the peace of the town. Soon afterwards, however, things begin to go wrong – exploitation of Grace by its residents- only to end in full tragedy: the complete annihilation of the Dogville’s people. So what went wrong? Is the film, as many a critic has suggested, a tale of misanthropy? What can it tell us about multiculturalism?

I want to use the story of the film as a metaphor to help me assess the debates that are currently taking place in Norway with regard to the topic of immigration and multiculturalism and the ethical and political questions that they raise. Asle Toje has baptized the debate “kulturkamp”. Let us propose two hypotheses:

Multiculturalism: the mother of all social ills

Communities and cultures are better left on their own, without disturbances and intrusions from the outside world. Such disturbances are unwelcome and for a good reason. People who share not only a geographical place but also a “national” “ethnical” and “cultural” mythology are accustomed to their communal/cultural ways of doing things, have a codex of morality and a set of ethical norms which have evolved historically to satisfy and regulate their intersubjective relations. It is better to avoid disturbances than to allow a foreign intrusion create one. As the popular saying goes, better safe than sorry. The idea emerging from this reading is that multiculturalism is rarely, if ever, a good thing. Humans are conservative by their very nature and they distrust foreigners who come to settle permanently on their land, especially those that have markedly different values. Peace, prosperity and social harmony are premised on the assumption that a society functions best when it is homogenous and uniform, when diversity is reduced to an absolute minimum and when a philosopher from time to time, as is his task, reminds them of and awakens their sense of communal duty and their human responsibilities towards a virtual other, a distant neighbour, who does not share the ‘values’ of the community: the problem of receptivity, as is elegantly put in the film.

Dogville seems to suggest that things certainly, almost always, get out of control when a harmoniously smooth balance is disturbed by a foreign intrusion. Relations are strained and thrown off balance. People loose their ethical moorings and start behaving erratically and haphazardly, criminally in fact. Even the philosopher, to his dismay, discovers that his theories were merely a way to gain certain intellectual prominence among his people. He believed in his words only theoretically, when the prospect of their realization was indefinitely postponed. The moment the real foreigner is among the Dogville people, the beautiful idea of receptivity of the other shows its true face, namely that the philosopher did not really believe it himself. Retrospectively, he came to realize that he was only discussing it as an “as if” possibility, an illustration not meant to be put in practice. The prosperity and the stability of a community can be guaranteed only when the community remains as closed off as possible to the foreign influences.

Change –the admittance of foreigners in a community- brings the worst in people. People lack the necessary moral and political compass to accommodate a foreigner whose horizon of meaning is alien to the historical trajectory of the host people. It must thus be resisted; those who proposed and supported it were proven wrong and disqualified. This has quite extraordinary implications: the idea of, and the will to, integration is no guarantee, in and by itself, that the foreigner would ever be accepted as one of us. One is reminded of the Jews in the Second World War. They were surely as integrated, assimilated even, as any ‘foreigner’ could ever be; nevertheless they were not spared their ensuing tragedy that befell upon them. Integration is not as a matter of course, the solution to the problem of the other in our midst.

But does the film thus suggest that the borders must be closed off, the foreigners must be expelled and the asylum seeker sent off to Africa or whatever local fascist remedy happens to be on offer at a particular time? One can certainly construe such an interpretation. The film, in this reading, suggests that the cause of the problem is external. If Grace had not showed up, none of the problems would have occurred in Dogville. If only they had been more robust in defending their town they might have been spared.

Monoculturalism: a dangerous social fantasy

Is there another way to read the film? A reading which is more optimistic, realistic even, than the previous one? History is full of examples where coexistence of different cultures side by side is fully possible. In the first reading the idea was that cultural diversity, multiculturalism as a factum brutum, is to blame for the social failures of an imaginary homogenous majority culture. But what if multiculturalism is not the problem, rather the problem is its obverse, namely, monoculturalism? We thus get the following scenario: It is not the case that multiculturalism is the cause of the social problems and of the failure of certain social policies. The cause of the social problems is the nativist’s perception that the other who is of a different culture is the problem. Namely, the problem for the failure of integration should be located in the nature of the ideological perception of society and respectively culture as homogenous phenomena, with its underlying image of society as a social body. Let us baptize it ‘the problem of illusory perception’.

Grace’s appearance palpably saves the illusion of a lost innocence; that if Grace did not appear things would have gone as before. The appearance of Grace did not bring the chaos out of nothing. There are innumerable signs in the film that point out that the appearance of Grace merely made visible what was there boiling underneath all the time. Her presence in the function of a convenient scapegoat embodies the point through which society tries to elude, conceal the antagonism constitutive of any social order, i.e. that on behalf of which any social order or a culture is prevented from achieving full self-identity. In other words, culture is and remains an ontologically incomplete and incompletable project. Our identification with the social fantasy whose function is to suture the gap of antagonism makes possible the belief that cultures are quantifiable social units, independent wholes corruptible only from outside. Grace’s presence has made visible the antagonism of the society (at the vey beginning none of them seems to need Grace’s help… by the end we see Grace working double shifts and is paid less).

So what the film conveys is not that the theory of receptivity is wrong, that national cultures should close their doors and refuse entrance to foreigners… but that societies should come to terms with the fact that there are no full/whole/complete cultures, that it is not the fault of the immigrant that she embodies, as the point of constitutive exception, and in that very embodiment she makes visible some of the wrongs, lays bare the illusion, of the culture as a self-enclosed entity. The logic of blaming the immigrant that she is responsible for what is wrong in society, for making visible what should have remained hidden (the social antagonism) uncannily resembles the fundamentalist logic that blames woman when he goes astray. This is the much more important and difficult lesson that we can learn from Dogville. We have to come to terms that society and culture are not homogenous wholes, ontologically sealed off entities where each of its elements has its own specified place in the Whole. It also makes us see that even if we could isolate our culture from foreigners and immigrants’ intrusion society would still not be a whole, that antagonism would find another channel to render/make itself palpable/visible… What the populist right cannot see is that in blaming the foreigner for the ills of the society they merely displace the real of antagonism into an imaginary one, and thereby ideologically cover up the social antagonism and sustain the illusion that if it were not for these immigrants, these toxic subjects, who narcissistically hold to their cultures all would have been for the best. This is what Dogville exposes as a pure fantasy. It punches a whole in the narrative which views the foreigner as a potential danger.

Secularism vs. Multiculturalism

There is an obvious problem involved in the concept of multiculturalism as conceptualized by the right wig populism. Under the pretext of universality multiculturalism is criticized for promoting relativism and devaluing the “universal” values. While there is a grain of truth in this critique, it is far from obvious how multiculturalism undermines universal values. To the extent that multiculturalism in a postmodern nihilistic mode promotes uncritically all forms of culture without regard to the universal values embedded in a certain struggle for emancipation then for very obvious reason this form of multiculturalism cannot be accepted. However, to reduce the wealth of a certain culture to a few practices that negate their cultures’ own inherent universal aspiration, the crack in the particular, is equally unacceptable. This is what is racist, a belief in incompatibility between cultures, about both the nihilist multiculturalism and the reductive Manichean outlook of the other’s culture monoculturalism. They both elevate their own cultural practices to the universal norm, although the first disavows such an elevation. Relativist multiculturalism does not take into account the undeniable fact that the majority culture dominates the secular institution and state apparatuses. In this sense both multiculturalism and monoculturalism, in exempting themselves from a properly modern, Cartesian self-examination, are condescending and infantilizing ideologies of the other as other. They elevate their own tradition to the point of neutral universality while relativizing other minority traditions.

This, however, is not the aspect that the populist intellectuals object to. In fact, this is what populism is about . The national majority culture wants to preserve the right to remain unchallenged, preserving the unconditional right to define good and evil. Multiculturalism, in the sense of allowing people to enjoy their harmless cultural differences, is an unwelcome phenomenon because it forces the majority culture to question its own foundation and mythology, to cast a self-examining critical eye upon itself, and bring the fact of contingency and relativity of its own tradition to bear on organizing the political life. It is here that the majority tradition risks absolutizing itself and radically undermining the universal principle of secularism by reducing it to an aspect of ‘our’ culture. If this is the case, that is, if secularism is a species of the genus culture, the hope for achieving some form of integration of the minority cultures is indefinitely thwarted. Integration effectively means here assimilation of the minority cultures into the majority culture: you have to accept secularism not because it is a universal value, which mediates intersubjective and intercultural relations, but because it is the value of ‘our’ culture. It is a value of ‘our’ culture, no doubt. The other, however, must accept it not because it is a value of ‘our’ culture but because religious options are not feasible any longer and because of the universal that emerges though it. It may seem that this is a purely semantic manipulation of the concept of secularism. It is not. The consequences of obscuring this distinction are far more serious than it may appear. The debate on integration gets entangled in culturalist terms and the question of how much of ‘our’ culture the other must assimilate, and where the limit should be drawn, becomes all the more difficult to solve. Integration must be rescued from culture (and culturalist terms in both its versions: monoculturalism and multiculturalism).

The way out of this deadlock is, in a modern Cartesian way, to relativize all cultures, the majority culture included, by making visible the contingency of their necessity. This under no circumstances implies the relativization of universal struggles, a point that is continuously repeated by both relativist and absolutists. Cultures are relative, contingent phenomena, only in relation to some universal point which remains constant, and which in our case is egalitarian secularism or the principle of the neutral public space in relation or opposition to which cultures are formed, reformed or unformed. From this perspective, multiculturalism or pluralism of ways of life is fully compatible with, and mandated by, the principle of secularism. Here, however, a culture cannot be elevated to the dignity of the universal principle itself, even if that culture generates values which in principle can be universalized. Secularism is not an undetachable aspect of a single culture even though genealogically we can trace back its origins in the Western world. As a principle which arose to mediate between conflicts and wars of different fractions and sects, by virtue of such mediation no particular and fully modern culture can do without it. It is this principle that must be accepted by all, and as Habermas has argued, all particular tradition must translate, formulate and justify their political demands into a secular language intelligible to all of the citizens.


De kulturradikale hadde lite til overs for folk flests tradisjonstro og verdier. Resultatet var en nådeløs kamp mot hva som ble stemplet som «tradisjonelle» og «grumsete» meninger. Men når det gjelder innvandrerkulturer, så skal de bevares. Ja til hijab og koranskoler. Undertrykkende praksis, spesielt kvinneundertrykkelse, skal «respekteres» som kulturelle uttrykk – noe som aldri ville vært tilfelle hadde det vedrørt den norske kulturelle underklassen.

Den kulturelle overklasse betrakter innvandrerne som ofre – også når de er overgripere. Ofre er verdig trengende med krav på privilegier på flertallets bekostning. Resultatet var at stadig flere søkte offerrollen. Hva filosof Henrik Jensen kaller «offerets strategi» splitter samfunnet i et utall selvsentrerte minoriteter. Og flertallet skulle sitte stille og lytte mens mikrofonen vandret mellom disse minoritetene.

Det er ikke tilfeldig at det var representanter for den kulturelle underklassen, Fremskrittspartiet, som ble stående som forsvarerne av universelle verdier som likestilling og ytringsfrihet, da kulturradikalerne gikk i tog med islam og dialogentusiastene sto rede til å forhandle (Dagbladet, 22.06.2009)

Hvis vi kjører på med deres [68-erne] multikulti, og sier til somalierne at «det er greit med hijab og tvangsekteskap og kjønnslemlestelse, og vær så god og etabler dere i egne kolonier», da vil trolig middelklassens vilje til å betale skatt svinne hen, og da faller velferdsstaten sammen (Dagbladet, 01.07.2009).

Asle Toje is correct to point out, in his critique against the minister Trond Giske, that putting an equal sign between a multi-ethnic society and a multi-cultural society is a convenient fallacy . An Ibsen play staged by Norwegian-Pakistanis is not a good example to illustrate the multi-cultural thesis. They are staging a Norwegian play. One cannot however avoid noticing another convenient fallacy employed by Toje. There are also grades and shades of culture, a variety of aspects and nuances which cannot be as conveniently covered by the signifier of ethnicity or language. A play staged in a theatre for ethnic Norwegians in Urdu is not only meaningless but pointless as well. Should, however, a director decide to put a play in Urdu for the communities who understand the language and enjoy the culture, then we have a case of multiculturalism.

Culture however has other, even more important, aspects which cannot be dissociated from the individuals who performatively enact in their daily practices a number of codes that make their lives worthwhile. It is an aspect of multiculturalism, even if we chose not to see it as such. Different groups of people have their own codes which structure and mandate their familial relationships: the relations to their parents, siblings or children; the relation to their communities and other cultures. Some of these practices are, obviously, in stark contrast not only to the content but also the form that the relations of other people take. While there are aspects which must be regulated by the law and the public use of reason, there are also aspect which remain purely cultural and private in the sense that they belong to a particular community, and that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

While we may engage in endless, though ultimately meaningless, debates about whether your culture in general is superior to mine or not, the fact of the matter is that cultures are not Leibnizian monads which exist independently of people’s perception and activities. Some are more resistant to change than others; some harbor more negative elements, negative when measured by some universal-isable principle, than others; they all, however, are subject to the law of change. And although we cannot accurately predict the direction this change will take, it would be unwise to merely assume that they are heading towards the bad and the worse. Integration, if it is to succeed, must be measured not by another culture’s likes and dislikes, though these cannot be realistically ignored, but by some principle which all, despite or because of their cultural particularities, can accept as their own. We must at least assume that all cultural formations are particular responses some universal deadlock.

In dealing with the new right-wing populist intellectuals one must make sure to avoid two pitfalls: One is the temptation to consider their movement a passing fad, a group of young naive utopian intellectuals who have good intentions but are nonetheless misguided. This approach ends up exculpating them from the seriousness of their critiques and the immense potential to win the cultural battle, which Toje has declared they have already won. Toje, no doubt is right here: mainstream parties use similar rhetoric in an effort to co-opt the support of more radical voters. The more moderate parties begin by admitting that the more conservative parties did in fact address actual problems that concern people. So even if the populist intellectuals were to be defeated in election, their defeat may be their ultimate success: they will no longer be needed since their message has been integrated into the mainstream. The other is the attempt to prove that they are racists or fascists, or make ad hominem attack on their psychological personalities. Both approaches prevent us from confronting the fact that they are addressing a number of issues which have become prominent, not only in Norwegian politics, but in the West generally. We should think carefully about what mood we are being summoned to here .

Norway’s new right wing intellectuals associate and identify the multicultural liberals with Tom (Paul Bettany) in Dogville forever burdened by their impotence to act in conformity with people’s real interests. Multicultural Liberals are accused of being the cause of the immigrant malaise; they thus cannot solve or cure the society from it. They at best indefinitely will postpone and thus aggravate both the little inherent transgressions that the host society gets from the mocking of immigrants and further exacerbate the immigrants’ stubborn, devious and irrational attachment to the enjoyment of their culture. Populist intellectuals see immigrants, i.e. Muslims, as Dogville’s honest folk saw the arrival of Grace: a source of the problem. Liberals being complicit with the same malaise are pushed aside as part of the problem. The analogy is here suggestive: Muslims were welcomed with open arms, cherished for a while and now when they have started to assert themselves independently of the majority culture are mocked and treated as dangerous lunatics. The idea is that they will sooner or later come to destroy Norwegian culture, not physically of course, but they will impregnate it with alien norms. To live under the coordinates of this illusion is painful, no doubt. We do not want to loose our traditions and culture. And why should we when we can still act and prevent the ubiquitous change. Playing with this fantasy is what the populist intellectuals do the best. The final solution is the victory of Muslims who may, as they have already started, change the symbolic coordinates of the present society.

FrP (The Progress Party), according to Toje, is all about treating immigrants and Muslims as universal subjects. This is, I may add, a salutary trait of FrP’s politics. But it is hypocritical, since in one and the same breath FrP enframes the crimes committed by individuals with Muslim or immigrant background in culturalist terms, which easily degenerate into labeling phenomena. What comes out of such identification is first and foremost the imposed identity of Islam upon Muslims, and thereby implicitly condemns the whole Muslim faith as instigator of violence and crime. If FrP truly believed its own political message of equal treatment of all regardless of their background, making a big uproar every time an immigrant commits a crime as if all people who subscribe to Islamic faith were transcendentally present or condoned the crime is an indication of condemnation of all Norwegian Muslim communities. This is treating Muslims as part of a community, as embodiment of their culture, not as democratic rational subject.

The immigrants are a cause of many troubles, they spread bitterness and hostility, they do not want to follow traditions of the host country, they stupidly insist on practicing their religion, they engage in all kinds of extortions and crimes, they destroy the harmony and the way of life of the country who has taken them in. FrP’s response is to make the country less attractive to its newcomers: Obey our customs or we send you to Africa.

Instead of working towards a sustainable open society, the new intellectuals work ceaselessly to realize its opposite. They want to hold captive the society from changing because change is what people do not want. It threatens their way of living. It creates unnecessary confusion and undermines a host of convenient certainties. It just happens that people, all people, rarely, if ever, want to change their ways of life, especially prosperous ways of life, except perhaps, those who live in desperate and unenviable conditions. And even they would invent some ideology to keep things the same. One can safely generalize that people who have experienced the pain of change resist it.

There is of course one, but significant, problem with this theory of resistance to change. It is simply impossible to stop change, especially in today’s globalized conditions. Whether we want or not, change creeps in from where we least expect. It would require to bring history to a complete halt, which I may add here was initiated by Europe and then went out of its control, to reverse the trend of change which has swept not only Europe but the globe.

The fundamental question of what kind of society we want to live in can hardly be given a false populist answer of the kind that we should close our borders, as if they ever were wide open.

While it is and remains immensely important to rethink the question of what kind of Norwegian society do we want, it remains equally important that the question of Norway’s cultural identity cannot be thought in isolation from the world at large and the different communities in its midst. These people come to the shores of the West because of their abject and dehumanizing living conditions of extreme poverty or total lack of freedom. While Norway is not responsible nor can it by itself solve the injustices in the world it can certainly device policies that work toward a more humane world.

There are many factors besides that of religion and ethnicity which unite people together. An almost paranoiac sense of being persecuted and unwelcomed –whether these feelings are real or imaginary is beside the point-, of being constantly the object of ridicule and negative criticisms, are powerful incentives to bind people together in more or less isolated communities. Being fair and just to minorities under no circumstances justifies the benevolent attitude of being uncritical towards their religious-cultural practices. Being critical in absolute, however, without taking into consideration unequal relations of power, the subordinate minority status, the obligation and the taxing demand to assimilate the culture of the majority, of improving their image, their standing and their very being and the awareness of not being good enough or not doing good enough, of falling behind, all these put considerable pressure on the people with immigrant background.

About albphilosopher

Sead Zimeri has studied Philosophy, Islamic Philosophy and Religion, International Politics and Psychoanalysis. He is currently the project coordinator of "Islam and the Liberal Society" at the Liberalt Laboratorium (LibLab) thin tank in Oslo, Norway. http://www.liblab.no
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