The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
9.4 (Fall 2009)
the polis in crisis
Community and Identity in Late Modernity
This long essay will be looking at the problem of community as well as the related theoretical conflict of the particular vs. the universal. Its focus will be human social/societal relations in the contemporary period, and especially current and historical European and Western self-identifications. The rise of possible new social identities in the post-1960s context of the new social movements, and of ever-intensifying, consumptionist, consumerist milieux, especially in North America and Western Europe, will also be examined.
The guiding slogan of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was “Community, Identity, Stability”. Obviously, Huxley is invoking these terms, which are frequently cherished by traditionalists and such “social conservatives of the Left” as Christopher Lasch, in an ironic sense. Brave New World has indeed turned the meaning of these fine words upside-down. Yet that does not mean that there is not a way in which these words can be authentically cherished and invoked.
There appear to be a number of types of community today which could not have possibly existed before. These have been brought into possible being by electronic media and the consumption culture (see, for example, French New Right theorist Guillaume Faye’s idea of “consumer tribes”). Some of these probably contribute to increased social disintegration (e.g., the extreme elements in the rap-music community—which is also sometimes called, as a whole, “hip-hop nation”), while others are relatively innocuous (e.g., fans of Star Trek). Young people are defined to an incredible extent today by the music they listen to, or, in some cases, by their favorite television show (which often amounts to an entire “style-of-life”). There is also the well-known example of sports (fan) communities. One main point to be made is that communities based on what is ostensibly “fiction” (e.g. Star Trek) often have a more substantive “reality”: i.e., they affect a person’s behaviour, lifestyle, values, etc., more than supposedly long-rooted, “genuine” communities like nations and established religions.
In his important book, What’s the Matter with Liberalism? (1992), University of Toronto political theorist Ronald Beiner criticized the too-extended use of the term “community” (e.g., to include such phenomena as Sloan Rangers or Sloans, i.e., preppies at Oxford/Cambridge). There might also be uses of the term which are not only vacuous, but socially negative. One very common approach to communities today is as a socially disintegrative “rainbow-coalition” of various victimological “sectoral” groups, defined almost exclusively in anti-traditional terms. One must be very careful to differentiate among the different types of phenomena being described under the “rainbow”—which may range from obviously somatic categories to rather ephemeral ones, such as “artists” or “students”. (The assumptions about artists and students as sectoral groups today are that they tend to be very left-leaning and inherently anti-traditionalist.)
Though one cannot argue against the fact that nationalism is basically a product of socialization (although presumably reinforced to some extent by some common physical characteristics— i.e., mostly a result of “nurture”)—some have argued that the complementary differentiations between masculinity and femininity seem very basic and “natural”, thus making the project of total gender equality very difficult. Interestingly enough, it is considered by some theorists who cherish Marx today that feminism and gay rights follow as a theoretically unassailable progression from classic Marxism.
One would perhaps like to look for a “hard edge” in the definition of community that would afford less social and cultural importance to less salubrious or more trivial groupings. A sound definition might also encourage an understanding that at least some of those who claim to speak for various sectoral groups in North America are not necessarily strongly representative of their respective community, nor are they necessarily making arguments that will be truly of the greatest help to their respective community.
The traditionalist theorist would like to restate the argument (however impolitic it may in the public arena today) that what could be called ‘the West” (for lack of a better term) is truly in the throes of an enormous decadence (at least on the level of nation, spirituality, public/social morality, and genuine culture). It is ironic that this supposed cliché of Western decline and decadence has been given so little play in the last few decades; for when Spengler was writing his famous work (The Decline of the West), things might have subsequently developed in a better direction were it not for the monstrous excrescence of Hitler and the Nazis. Although very many traditionalists, conservatives, and nationalists in Europe had ferociously opposed Nazi Germany, the entire “right-wing option” stood as discredited in the minds of most people in the Western democracies in 1945 because of its presumed affiliation with Nazism and Nazi Germany’s ghastly crimes. At the same time, what became called Eastern Europe—which would have remained traditionalist by democratic choice—was given over to Stalin and his henchmen. In contrast to what the author sees as Buchanan’s foolish and grotesque exercise in achronia about “the unnecessary war”, the most appealing type of alternative-history to genuine traditionalists would have been one where Hitler had been stopped earlier, and where America’s engagement—should the need for it have arisen (as conceivably a decisive British and French response alone might have been sufficient)—against Hitler had appeared earlier in Europe.
There is indeed a lack of a really good exposition and critique of contemporary decadence in current readings. Perhaps some traditionalist thinker should attempt a somewhat more solid revivification of this “discourse of decadence”, avoiding some of the dated mistakes of Spenglerian and certain overly moralistic approaches. One might think that today, professedly conservative journals such as National Review would be screaming to the skies about “decadence”. They could look, for example, at “obvious”, empirically quantifiable measures of decline: e.g., an aging society, the epiphenomena surrounding the disintegration of the family, and so forth. Yet they seem to persist in being far too optimistic.
The traditionalist thinker believes that the study of the past can often be fruitful towards understanding our own predicament. Vico, for example, had elucidated an insightful, cyclical interpretation of history. Many traditionalist thinkers see a cyclical pattern where societies standardly arise, get organized, get physically wealthy, and then decline and disappear.
A traditionalist thinker could argue that “the West”, having become the richest and most powerful society in world-history, is now entering the phase of its decline, derived from excessive wealth and comfort.
There is perhaps a law of civilizational entropy. Where the West might differ is that there seems nothing necessary about its decline; the physical means and resources for its perpetuation are—at least in theory—readily available, but “the spirit availeth not.” It might be argued that this process of truly monumental decline (the higher you rise, the lower you will fall) is bringing about the sharp contemporary challenge to traditionalism from the new social movements; that the competing schools of political philosophy today have to be understood, at some point, in the context of their place in this enormous decay. Perhaps even Nietzsche’s understanding of the end of horizons is part of the ongoing historical process.
An almost wholly sociological approach to the nature-nurture controversy could be seen as problematic. Major evolution in history would seem impossible, if this were the case (i.e., the same society would simply replicate itself ad infinitum.) Do not some persons, through their idiosyncratic beliefs and actions, initiate change? One might also ask what is the exact ontological status of the various “discourses”? Perhaps the following formulation, “language = discourse = community”, would be fruitful. Could not a tradition-minded thinker argue that there is a “discourse of humanity”, or “a discourse of masculine and feminine”, which underlies and pre-exists all the various branchings-out and overlayerings of discourses having occurred over thousands of years? One might also wonder, if these discourses precede the human person, to what extent any person can be described as a product of immediate socialization? Is not in “discourse” some kind of imperative which, although it certainly evolves slowly, is (from a human life’s vantage point) frozen in time and space, and which “commands” or presupposes certain behaviours in those who share in it?
One might also wonder if a full socialization position does not imply the meaninglessness of history? Is there not ultimately some kind of spark in humankind, some sort of spirit, which defies the idea that history is simply a long bloodbath, or “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”? Is the choice today inevitably between a return to various forms of violent tribalism vs. an enervating hyper-decadence eventually leading to the ultimate breakdown or physical extinction of the society?
Perhaps the most important part of sociopolitical analysis would be identifying, classifying, or grouping types of discourses/communities (the question of boundaries). This is often done by identifying genre/genus, then subgenre, etc. This can be applied to the most weighty and most trivial things.
The idea of a “global civil society” is a problematic one. First of all, the notion of “civil society” is often understood to be in some senses particular, therefore rendering the notion of a universal civil society appears prima facie questionable; and secondly, more controversially, one could express reservations about the more frequently encountered interpretations of the civil society/state paradigm itself (although this is a bedrock notion in political theory) as something in some ways loaded towards liberal perceptions, and perhaps overused as a construct in the discourse. For example, are the various sectoral groupings of the so-called “rainbow coalition” to be considered as part of the spontaneous flourishing of civil society—or rather outgrowths of a state administrative and juridical system? On the other hand, can the massive trans-national corporations be properly considered as part of “civil society”? It seems unlikely. Also, the widely cast use of the term “civil society” to embrace global consumerism, the pop-star Madonna, “Brangelina”, and so forth would seem inconsistent with the term’s essential meanings, which focus on “small, local associations”. There is arguably, however, more coherence to defining global civil society in terms of multifarious NGO’s rather than of the global pop-culture…
The delineation of particularity vs. universality, and the negative things one has to embrace along with particularity, are perhaps too stark in the theoretical understandings of some pro-particularist thinkers. For example, could it not be confidently said that certain practices are always aberrant? Consider the case in Canada of a man who had committed long-term incest with his daughter, and was applying under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to have custody of their children. Some would contend that there is no argument from within liberal premises that could be made against this case, assuming that “he takes proper care of the children.” However, it could be assumed that many people would feel an immense sense of revulsion at this practice. But what is the source or justification of such revulsion, if not some sort of incipient concept of a “higher law” (or whatever one chooses to call it)? Does the acceptance of some sort of general normative principles necessarily entail the embrace of so-called “universal human rights” (sometimes also called “abstract universals”) so sweeping as to be capable of growing socially corrosive? Would it also be considered as an undermining of the particularistic thesis to point to the prevalent practices of most earlier human societies, existing before 1965 or so, as a standard: that is, the use of “history” itself as the normative standard?
Might it not be argued that, whatever occasional barbarities (such as female circumcision or mass human ritual-sacrifice) have marred human culture, there is in fact, ultimately little difference between what various human societies consider to be good or evil? Mothers everywhere still take care of their children, and so forth. In fact, it might be possible to derive a roughly similar general ethic from most of the human societies that existed before about 1965, in contrast with contemporary society.
C. S. Lewis has maintained that rules for society and social existence (which he interestingly enough termed “the Tao”) exist across all times and places. He brought attention to the fact that most of the aberrant phenomena of social existence occur as a result of taking one aspect of “the Tao” and elevating it above others. For example, extreme nationalism is the exaggeration of a proper self-regard for one’s own nation and identity. The type of Western liberalism that flagellates itself in abasement to minorities is an exaggeration of notions of charity and of the desire to be humane.
It might be argued that most human societies differ so exceedingly much NOT in their general moral prescriptions, but rather in their memory of specific experiences in the world, their pantheon of heroes, etc. Peoples and nations, of course, have a unique recollection of heroes and events which they seek to preserve, but the general structure of these identifications exists across peoples and nations.
It might be said further that the moral prescriptions for day-to-day life derived from an interpretation of one’s history (which generally speaking makes claims of seeing one’s nation at the heart of the world, and as being more moral than any other people or nation) are quite similar. Thus, it seems likely that differences between peoples and nations are not ultimately based so much on substantive differences between their “languages of good and evil” (though there may be perceptions of extremely wide gulfs) as on the exigencies of survival or power-accumulation in the world.
One would like to question once again if holding such a position (i.e., condemning certain clearly aberrant practices of some traditional societies—or, on the other hand, saying that some things are always wrong) necessarily implies having to embrace what may tend to become a socially corrosive Kantian universalism.
When one says that one is “fighting to preserve rooted particularities,” does this not mean that one is fighting to preserve a nation’s or people’s sense of identity in terms of their retaining a symbolic understanding of their place in history and the world? Yet although, in a people’s self-understanding, their identity is seen to offer a distinctive, worthier moral system than that of any other people or nation, in fact the moral codes of all rooted societies appear largely similar. This is not to say that there may not be distinctions in the so-called “character” of nations, both for the good and the bad. Certain bedrock things, however, remain the same across all humanity.
In trying to understand the historical process, some theorists have drawn attention to the fact that the evolution of human history has often proceeded through a series of revolutionary upheavals, such as the founding of new religions and nations. It is argued that tradition—no matter how longstanding—frequently conserves an initial radical founding. Nevertheless, the very fact that vast social and cultural structures emerge and are built upon the initial founding is an argument for the importance of tradition. In trying to understand how radical foundings have led to very longstanding traditions, perhaps an idea similar to that of Weber’s “routinized charisma” can be invoked.
One extremely important notion for relations between nations is that, at least in theory, some kind of ethical code must take precedence over the elevation of the nation as the supreme end. Although a nation or people may see itself at the center of the world, it can still uphold a moral code that does not give it permission to carry out any kind of evil it wishes to against other nations and peoples. Gross evil and immorality on behalf of one’s nation should not be permissible, even if it gains great power and advantages for one’s nation. The most notorious example of seeing the nation as prior to any moral considerations was of course Nazi Germany. An extreme danger is posed whenever large numbers of any nation’s citizens, or of any grouping in a given society, begin to explicitly theorize that their group-interests take precedence over what could be called normal moral considerations.
Ideally speaking, the ethical code of a nation (its virtue), will be mutually reinforcing with the nation’s sense of identity (its culture). It seems reasonable to suppose that in situations where a nation is more harmoniously ordered, it can achieve great things in the physical world, as well, because it does not actively go in the direction of a blowhard strife and aggression. However, this is unfortunately not always the case: Nazi Germany came close to achieving world-dominance while being based on a profoundly evil order.
Another major issue in relations between nations apart from the embrace of anti-moral outlooks involves a nation’s moving beyond morality into the excess of what could be called moralism. The moralizing and “missionizing” nation can never feel at ease in the world, and typically makes claims to impose its “enlightened” values on the planet as the whole.
A third issue which has arisen in late modernity is the cultural imperialism (let us be blunt) of America. The near-ubiquity of the mostly American-derived, technologically driven pop-culture means that rooted and traditional ways of life in many societies around the planet are becoming attenuated and undermined in favor of Americanization without any need for U.S. troops stationed in dusty garrison-towns. Ironically, the various Hollywood cultural industries are probably even more radically opposed to traditional America than to traditional societies (or the remnants of traditional societies) outside of America: i.e., America itself may be among its most bitterly suffering victims.
Obviously, human history has been characterized by constant warfare and strife, but considerable amounts of conflict arose out of the virtually unavoidable exigencies of national survival. There were also frequently attempts made (for example, through such constructs as “just war theory”) to try to limit the destructiveness of warfare. Notions evolved, too, that claims of different communities had to be accommodated in some degree through various forms of autonomy or proto-federalism.1
Another matter worth pondering is the view of Western universalism as “our own particularity”. Is this not problematic? That is, if the peculiarity is our own, then it is not truly universal. Certainly proponents of such universalism should not seek to apologize for it on this basis.
Might it be possible to try to measure quasi-empirically the strength of a person’s identifications with different communities? How would one draw the boundaries between these various identifications: e.g., between a person’s Frenchness and his or her politico-philosophical outlook? What would be the most reliable indicator for the strength of a person’s identification? If someone listened to rock-music for five hours a day, would being French require a concurrent thinking about France for most of those hours—or for five distinct hours? What level of thought would qualify for group membership?
Real traditionalists today are completely repelled by crude systems of class, or “ascriptive class privilege”. The brazen exploitation of human being by human being is both untenable and unattractive. At the same time, however, traditionalists argue against the “new class” or “overclass” or “new oligarchy” which they see as becoming instituted after the 1960s. Traditionalists might indeed interpret the ultimate meaning of “the Sixties’ revolutions” as resulting in the final yielding of a more traditional-minded (and probably more restrained) elite to people who—regardless of whether they had claimed to be idealistic in the Sixties or not—tended to move in the direction of becoming little more than another form of oligarchy. Traditionalists today are against the rule of these (mostly liberal) rich.2
Some might argue, for example, that “the real world” of the North American media is probably just as exclusive an oligarchy as any other.3 Traditionalists may sometimes be amazed to see how “nasty” the current oligarchy can be, especially to truly powerless people who are neither well-connected nor considered as emphatically part of the rainbow sectoral groups. Anyone who (for one reason or another) isn’t an “insider” tends to find life within such a power structure quite unrewarding: e.g., an old, dedicated Labourite campaign worker who gets a button from the Leader for 40 years of slaving for the Party. It would be interesting indeed to do some serious scholarly inquiry into how the current-day elites really function—without moving into the too-predictable grooves of the usual left-liberal sectoral formulations.
There is a somewhat obvious critique of contemporary liberalism to be made: to whit, that although liberalism promises freedom, “freedom of choice” in regard to one’s beliefs, and absence of prior constraint, it in fact gives no real opportunity to people to choose anything other than itself. This argument about the “sub rosa social totalitarianism” of liberalism was made by conservatives (and some eclectic left-wingers) decades ago. Given that people are exposed to millions of hours of media images and sounds (MTV, etc.) virtually from birth, the chances that they will not be broadly liberal by eighteen are infinitesimal. The media images drip, drip, drip into the person, and melt (meld) into his or her personal essence. One can never underestimate the extreme conditioning power of media, in all their various dimensions. The searing electronic medium in its visual and auditory aspects is a truly new element in human history. The proposition could easily be maintained that, rather than enhancing creativity and imagination and “re-enchanting” the world, it in fact undermines real creativity and real imagination, and ultimately deconstructs reality.
Another very important consideration is the marked weakness today, in most people’s daily lives, of “the public-political realm”, as opposed to (for example) “the rock and rap-music world” or “the sports world”. One might ask pointedly: how many times has John Rawls been on CNN? A rather utopian goal worth striving for is that as much as possible of the fundamental political and decision-making realm would be contained within a given country’s formal organized party structure (reflecting a wide spectrum of ideologies), and as little as possible in economic, media, and “special-interest” sectors (of whatever type).
It might be argued that the importance of Rawls (for example) is mostly within his own relatively small community (i.e., political philosophy in the academy). An optimum strategy might be to try to participate in as large a number of communities as possible. One would surely appeal to a greater number of persons in that way.
Figures such as Marshall McLuhan, Christopher Lasch, Tom Wolfe, P.J. O’Rourke, and especially Camille Paglia are to be admired for their “media savvy”. They are what could be called “media intellectuals”, and are themselves pop-culture icons as opposed to academics—however brilliant—who stay strictly within the academy. (Paglia was initially teaching at a little-known American college.) It is their ideas, phrases, and vocabularies that seep into the general consciousness through the media. Even the very traditionalist Canadian thinker George Parkin Grant, as a “public philosopher”, played up to certain elements of the media and had a well-defined media image: i.e., the gruff, kind-hearted “profound critic”, and “pure lover of wisdom”.
When reading the social democratic Gad Horowitz’s excellent piece in By Loving Our Own: George Grant and the Legacy of Lament for a Nation (1990)—an anthology of essays on Grant’s thought)—one can be in almost complete agreement with the author’s condemnation of aristocratic privilege, and of its deficiencies. It’s possible that most traditionalists would agree with the idea of a guaranteed annual income, but it would have to be realistically pegged (in North America) at about $15,000, not $30,000 a year (Beiner had suggested the latter figure in his 1992 book, What’s the Matter with Liberalism?) 4 Unfortunately, Horowitz’s economic plans, as presented in the book, seem clearly economically unworkable. One might also wonder if getting a substantial guaranteed income in the range of $30,000 a year would, necessarily improve a person, or otherwise lead to a return to some sense of community in North America today.
This author saw, some time ago, a televised talk between the editor of Tikkun, Michael Lerner, and William Bennett on CNN, where he was drawn to far greater agreement with Lerner than with Bennett. It might well be true that many Americans are too selfish, as Lerner argued. But is it not true (as Lerner obviously did not argue) that the repudiation of personal selfishness is most effectively done in the name of what could be pointedly called “a higher selfishness”: i.e., that of one’s own family or one’s real community? Few people can love all humanity together, in the abstract.
The contrast of someone with great social authority (or what is considered authority today) vs. someone with great economic resources also merits consideration—as does the fact that someone with vast economic wealth may choose to live a relatively Spartan or relatively virtuous existence.
Traditionalist social critics also share the politically realistic, if unsavory, view that every society always has its “rulers” (ultimate decision-makers) and “ruled”, however many attempts may be made to mask this. A possible critique of the liberal New Class is precisely that it lacks some kind of moral code that would in any sense restrain its excesses, whether in the effective suppression of its opponents or in its virtually unlimited self-indulgence. The condemnation of the liberal New Class is precisely that it is in some ways one of the worst ruling classes in history. The stunning fact is that the distance in lifestyle between the so-called North American superrich (who considerably overlap with the liberal New Class) and the rest of the people is probably the greatest that has ever existed in history. The superrich truly exist in a world all their own.
It is also ironic that those who talk the most about “the rich”, the “two nations” in America, and so forth, are often those who are closest to the real establishment and derive the most advantages from the system: a good example of such a figure is Robert B. Reich (see especially his book, The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism ).
Is there not also some case to be made in trying to differentiate—at least in theory –between those poor in current-day society who have fallen into poverty because of circumstances quite beyond their control, and those who have fallen prone to various bad lifestyle habits? The latter group of people should not perhaps reflexively generate such searing moral anguish in society as whole. The writings of Theodore Dalrymple, for example, give a rather depressing picture of life among at least some of the current-day poor which avoids the usual liberal sentimentalism.
Another important issue is whether there can be true “erotic” politics of any sort without some kind of agonistically constituted exclusion, subordination, and closure of options (as I recall John Gray writing).5. It is, unfortunately, often true that the “hot ecstasies” of the Gemeinschaft can also lead to attacks on other peoples.
It may be suggested that the emphasis on the all-determining nature of culture is a way of rescuing “nationalism” from its critics. Though there clearly are some purely physical characteristics shared by some proportion of a given people, culture clearly involves things such as mannerisms, clothes, and (of course) language, which cannot really be divorced when we “conjure” a picture of a given nationality in our minds. Theoretically, let us say, anyone can be a French person if culturally socialized as a French person, though what might be called “the physical resistances” are greater in the case of certain highly dissimilar groups. However, much of that may in fact be due to very strong, prior cultural identities of dissimilar groups. It is difficult to precisely define “ethnicity”—a not entirely cultural, but neither an entirely somatic phenomenon. Yet today, in most Western countries, ideas of exclusion or of assimilation are seen as almost equally repugnant—although they are in fact much different concepts.
The collection edited by Amy Gutmann, consisting of a major essay by Charles Taylor and commentary by other prominent figures (including Michael Walzer, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition ), is an important contribution to the scholarly debate over “community”. (It was followed by an expanded collection of essays on the same theme, Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition .) The essay by Michael Walzer defends “one liberal culture”. His vision is of ethnicities (folkloric) within a single liberal culture. This is in contrast with the “new multiculturalism”, or what some would call true multiculturalism, which has overtones of a “loss of a center” and “the postmodern mood”.
Multiculturalism is generally seen by liberals as an entirely benign phenomenon. But it could be seen as part of a complex of ideologies and pop-cultural trends that sometimes have less-than-benign effects. Some traditionalists would pointedly argue that most current-day Western societies tend to exalt anything and everything that would impede decent, normal relations between men and women of the majority population, and especially attack their prospects and possibilities of having any (or more than one or two) offspring. Some of these traditionalist critics might indeed argue that the life and flourishing of various minority communities and outlooks implies the undermining of the moral and physical coherence of the majority.
As a heuristic device to challenge both right- and left-wing oversimplifications in the area of community, putting together an anthology of several persons from divergent groups “in search of identity” would be helpful—an anthology of writings by decent, intelligent people, that is, searching for some sense of stable, meaningful identity in today’s increasingly fractured, dystopian world.
Among the theoretical questions that could be asked in a work of this type would be many about the overlapping nature of ideological, religious, national, ethnic, regional, local, municipal, and “community” and “small-community” identities. One might ponder identities from the perspective of nation and religion in conflict: e.g., historically French Protestant or English Roman Catholic. One might also examine which types of assimilationist pressure in a given society may be seen as legitimate, and which not. What degree of perceived loyalty or perceived adherence to symbols of loyalty is sufficient for a loyal member of the broader society? Is there usually a “mixture” of ideas that is generally acceptable? Do some stances and practices among groups like new immigrants have to be seen as highly questionable?
There is also the salient question of distinctly “modern” identities (for example, consumer tribes, hobby groups, the rainbow coalition) in counterpoise to more traditional categories like nation and religion.
One should also address the question of what is usually the great contrast between the identity of immigrants—and of children of immigrants—and the mainstream, and how long such a dissenting line of succession can continue. The identity of adult immigrants will almost always be set closer to that of their country of origin, whereas the children of immigrants are presumably more able to choose their identity.
Indeed, the numerous crosscurrents in types of identity possible today (e.g., ethnicity, “consumer tribes”, hobby-groups, mere formal membership in a state, and so forth) might seem a distinctly “post-modern” phenomenon and problem. The large-scale immigration across the planet, which is one of the distinctive features of late modernity, creates a whole new set of issues for community/identity.
Some may find the use of the word “community” as “nonvaluative”—that is, not required to meet any coherent definitional standards—to be problematic. Some ultra-traditionalists would employ the word only in a strict sense (e.g., a community rooted in received religion, land, consanguinity, and folkways). The term’s use, for example, in “hobby-community” (rapport ludique; communauté ludique) would be highly questionable to them.
In regard to a person’s sense of identity, especially in the context of large urban agglomerations, one may notice different degrees of membership in different communities by the same person. A possible thumbnail sketch for someone might be divided by percentages. One could perhaps try to define the saliency of given issues in an individual’s identity like “voting blocs” when the subject tries to make a decision. What constitutes a concrete “decision” in which the different facets of one’s identity are brought to bear would have to be defined, as well.
Another issue involves the evolution of what constitutes a given national identity over time.
For example, Polish society in the last hundred or so years could be roughly divided into these distinct sociocultural periods: 1870-1918, Late Partition Period; 1918-1939, Second Republic; 1939-1949, War, Occupation, and Twilight of the Second Republic; 1949-1956, People’s Republic under Stalinism; 1956-1965, People’s Republic II (ascendancy of Gomulka); 1965-1979, People’s Republic III (late Sixties’ Crisis and Gierek ascendancy); 1979-1990, Solidarity Era and Twilight of the People’s Republic; 1990 to today, Third Republic.
The sociocultural evolution of English-speaking Canada could be traced roughly in the following fashion: c. 1780-1867, British North America; 1867-1965, Dominion of Canada; 1965-1982, Pearson’s Canada; 1982-1993, Beginning of “Charter Canada”; 1993-2006, Chretien Hegemony; 2006 to today, Conservative Interlude.
Persons born in different sociocultural periods are likely to have highly divergent values, even though the nation they live in is ostensibly the same one.
Another question to be considered is of “territorial nationalities” vs. “ethnic groups”. Some traditionalists would tend to valorize so-called “territorial nationalities”, mostly based in the countryside, over mostly urban-based “ethnic groups”. Another important question is that of “long-established minorities” or “traditional minorities” vs. newly arrived or arriving groups.
It might be noted that the principles of premodernity, which tolerate the existence of hierarchy and inequality, usually allow for the comparatively long-lived coexistence of ethnic groups in a given territory. The dominant nationality accepts the existence of the ethnic group, while the ethnic group accepts its subordinate status as the price of survival. Therefore, in premodernity, minorities can usually exist for centuries, despite sporadic persecution. On the other hand, the principles typical of modernity—homogenization, autonomy and equality—tend to make for constant ethnic friction. The dominant nationality typically wants to bring all society under its undivided control, while formerly subordinate ethnic groups demand equal or superequal status, or else want to break away from the society.
Because of (among other factors) that part of the modern impulse that drives towards social, cultural, and political totality, it could be argued that many of the most horrible ethnic genocides actually took place in modernity, not in pre-modernity. Some people would have difficulty understanding that the typically pre-modern patchwork quilt of multiple sovereignties and influences did not lend itself to projects of mass-genocide.
Along with measuring a person’s identity in terms of his or her membership in various communities, one might also have a possible scale for a person’s relations to others, which of course fluctuates over time. After intensified attachment to one’s parents and immediate relatives, one normally moves on to attachments to peers and significant others, and then in most cases to one’s spouse and children, as well as to post-secondary school and work associates, and eventually to grandchildren and possibly great-grandchildren.
Degree of adherence to an identity might also be calculated on the basis of cash spent (money) towards a given activity or cause, or of time spent (time) on a given activity or cause. This might be the most scientific calculation possible, prima facie.
It is an important question whether so-called liberal values are to be held as universal or are to apply only to so-called Western political communities. John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971) was highly universalistic. However, after 1980, Rawls apparently acknowledged (at the famous Dewey lectures) that his theory of justice applied only to Western political communities, especially the American. He was severely criticized for this by many more universalist-minded liberal theorists.
Another issue worth considering is that different nations have different traditions of tolerance or intolerance. There are some obvious sociopolitical facts in history: for example, that a society like Canada has almost always been more tolerant than a society like Germany. With its lack of any real historical sense or context, the determination by some to construe traditional Canada as a nexus of presumed “white evil” must be seen as absurd.
It is possible to argue that liberalism could in fact be seen as unicultural—one North American liberal culture. Does multiculturalism really mean a plurality of “ways of life”—or even, by extension, of ideologies: i.e., a diversity of the thoughtful? Or does multiculturalism rather mean multiracialism and a large amount of dissimilar immigration from nontraditional sources, all dominated by one prevalent ideology of left-liberalism? In Canada today, is not the word “ethnic” really used to refer mostly to so-called visible minorities, as opposed to so-called “white ethnic” groups like Ukrainian-, Italian-, Portuguese-, and Polish-Canadians?
There is also the issue of multicultural vs. multi-national or multi-ethnic states. Multi-national or multi-ethnic states occur fairly frequently in history. They simply involve the coexistence in a single political structure (usually with some elements of rudimentary federalism) of differing, usually territorial nationalities which have lived contiguously to each other for very long periods of time. Multiculturalism, however, appears to be something other than this. An extreme rapidity of the demographic shifts, for instance, may be noted.
Some might also question the issue of government or state involvement in multiculturalism. Some would say that ethnic groups in a society like Canada’s can be entirely free to preserve their own languages, traditions, causes, and so forth—a tolerant sounding position—provided that they do so with their own resources. The latter qualification sounds rather onerous. Apart from the official Department of Multiculturalism annual budget of around 25 million dollars, state-sponsored multiculturalism is, indeed, one of the central aspects of the new, post-1965 Canadian society, and has arguably led to expenditures of billions of dollars since that time.
One might also question to what extent an ethnic identity is predetermined by the subject’s upbringing, or by simply being born into a given group. In such a case, the person typically has no choice about belonging or not belonging to a given group. This is the debate between “chosen” and “ascriptive” identities.
Ralf Dahrendorf has proposed the distinction between “hot” nationalism (ethnicity, folkways, and so forth) and “cold” nationalism (citizenship, a formal, legal, rights-based identity). There are different ways that these allegiances can be expressed in different societies. The author knew a person of Ukrainian descent born in Canada who was calling himself “an unhyphenated Ukrainian”—of Canadian citizenship.
It could be suggested (based on a rough analogy from current physics theory) that identity, especially today, consists of overlapping, multiple “fields of force” or “fields of influence” or “zones of influence”, rather than hard, impermeable, indivisible shells. One might identify at least three main possible configurations of culture/multiculturalism: a) almost completely ethnically homogenous society (ethnic separatism); b) multi-ethnic society united by a common culture—liberalism is or claims to be the most efficacious unifying ingredient (ethnic equality); c) coexistence of dominant and subordinate groups in one society (ethnic hierarchy).
Over time, once-dominant groups often become subordinate groups, and once-subordinate groups become dominant.
A possible critique of the attempted, left-liberal “rainbow coalition” is that it does not even consist primarily today of the ethnic groups it professes to champion, as opposed to other types of group (e.g., lifestyle groups such as décadentiste artists and students, rock and rap musicians and the consumer tribes they inspire). “The sisterhood of women” is represented in the “rainbow coalition” in terms often defined by the most radical feminist theory. What is rather troubling to some critics is that the “rainbow coalition” is almost inherently and ferociously adversarial towards the so-called “mainstream” or “majority” culture.
Ironically, the “rainbow coalition” in some ways appears just as tightly “ascriptive” as the orderings of the Middle Ages. Consider the way in which black conservatives and conservative women are treated by left-liberals! It should also be noted that the use of the term “persons of colour” as a coalition constituency—as opposed to “ethnic groups”—excludes so-called “white ethnics” at the outset.
In the final analysis, the liberal ideal is probably a “unicultural, multiracial, secular society”. The Left is indeed afraid of the challenges of religion and ethnic identity. The “white ethnic” cultural enclaves of Eastern and Southern European groups are particularly ignored, if not despised. Is there really not an attempt to create one North American liberal culture? Is this not what one is expected to assimilate to?
The issue of traditional cultures being assimilated to a North American liberal culture extends across so-called white ethnics and so-called visible minorities. Is it necessarily positive that, for example, a traditionalist Sikh would assimilate to this North American liberal culture? Even more interestingly, longstanding, local traditional cultures in Canada and the United States are also under pressure to assimilate to the North American liberal culture—which mostly emanates from the “bicoastal” elites in the U.S. and mostly from arts-and-media circles in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal in Canada. What appears to be happening is that the values of a few trendy and/or “grungy” neighbourhoods in Toronto are projected onto Canada as a whole. When somebody complains today that there is “too much cultural diversity”, one might well respond that there is not enough cultural diversity. For example, colourful “white ethnic” communities such as the various Slavic-Canadian groups are all brainwashed into one insipid North American way of life by the managerial-therapeutic regime and its cultural auxiliaries.
Some traditionalists might argue that there is occurring today a triple distortion of reality by the “politically correct” cutting-edge: there are very pronounced trends to valourize visible minorities and devalourize persons of European descent throughout much of current-day Western societies. At the same time, cutting-edge types persist in seeing conservative straight white males as “the cruel and harsh masters” of current-day society, while also asserting the explicit moral right of “the persecuted” to rise up in a cruel, violent, and pitiless revolution. Thus, the cutting-edge types enjoy increasing amounts of social power, a sense of self-righteousness and moral superiority, and an unchecked ability to act (why should one set any limits on “the just struggle against oppression”?), all at the same time. A framework has possibly been created for the establishment of “the tyranny of ‘the just’”.
Some may say that the only national groups or ethnicities which appear wholly legitimate to many left-liberals within the contemporary Western world are “ethnic groups” who are minorities in given territorial national communities, or else national communities that are perceived as having been ferociously persecuted by right-wing forces throughout their history (e.g., the Irish, and the Québécois). Recall that in the 1990s in Canada, there was a savage turning against the Québécois in the Canadian liberal establishment because they seemed on the verge of achieving their own fully sovereign nation-state; i.e., they were poised to move from being a minority in Canada to becoming a robust territorial national community in Quebec. The ethnic national identifications of nearly all of the Western nation-states are seriously questioned and placed “under interrogation” by typical left-liberals.
Perhaps the most positive approach to all these community/identity issues is to not become overly committed to any one grouping or community. A degree of eclecticism might be a way to break out of identification with one community. The term “community” should be considered fairly broadly, in tune with its current sociological reality.
A second concept to be considered is “maintenance of ‘standing’”. Although the ways one achieves “standing” in different communities vary enormously, the concept of “standing” is remarkably similar. One can be considered a recognized “authority” in many different communities of interest. The issue of “movement between the communities” is quite important. (“Communities” refers here to all the various types of identity in late modern society.) Even though Western societies are ostensibly individualistic, people continue to seek involvement in various types of group identity. Most people end up in one or a few communities or interest groups –they usually network within that one community, striving to become “king of the network”. It might be argued that the key to real insight and success is not to become swallowed up entirely in any one community or interest-group, but to be a sort of “border-dweller”, participating in a great variety of communities. One can see here the beginning of a theoretical model, description, and strategy for maximizing a person’s impact on society, politics, and culture.
It is difficult to deny the sociological fact of the overlappings, ambiguities, and multiplicities of identity in late modern society. A “unimodal” notion of community is today highly problematic. Involvement in more than one community is something which is the norm today, and which can be recommended. This, it might be argued, offers a slow but sure healing way out of the overwrought identity politics and struggles of both the Right and the Left.
1 One of the greatest ironies of our age is that what is today sometimes called federalism in Europe, is centered on the notion of [ul]reducing[ul] the independence and distinctiveness of the respective European countries. The shift in terminology from European Community (“a union of sovereign states”) to European Union is quite telling. The original premise of federalism was to allow maximum distinctiveness within a somewhat loose framework. In the United States, federalism has come to mean two almost opposite notions – one, the idea of a “Union of American States” (as some argue was the intent of the Founding Fathers) – with only comparatively limited powers allotted to the federal government – and, secondly, a vast federal government and system that has virtually swallowed up the individual States. return
2 It’s interesting that the frequently seen liberal condemnations of “the rich” almost never extend to entertainment celebrities, sport-stars, or high-ranking bureaucrats. One must suppose that the “bien pensant” opinions of most celebrities, sport-stars, and high-ranking government bureaucrats make them exempt from any such criticism. To be sure, even high-ranking government bureaucrats do not necessarily make outrageous salaries. Yet it could easily be argued that the income of many celebrities is far more grotesquely inflated, and usually received for far more morally dubious activities, than that of many CEOs. return
3 Orwell had suggested the current-day regime would dwell on such abuses in past history as the droit de seigneur to demonize the past, continually reinforcing the lesson that the past was horrible. Yet, has not current-day society created a difficult-to-avoid climate of sleaze for virtually every young woman alive today? Looking at what could be called “evils of the old type”, one often finds that current-day society has considerable “evils of the new type” that also pose great challenges to society and the sense of the ethical. return
4 One of the ideas behind the guaranteed annual income is the hoped-for reduction of government bureaucracy. Is it at all possible to do studies examining the ratio between what is spent on administration, and the amount of support actually delivered to the needy person? Another issue to be considered is that benefits such as food stamps (in the US), low-cost housing, and free medical care could be at least informally considered as part of one’s income. And some persons on welfare can have “gray-market” as well as clearly illicit sources of income that obviously do not appear officially. On the other hand, the typical working person in the US has to pay “full price” for food, housing, and medical care (usually through private medical insurance) out of his or her annual income—as well as paying at least some income tax. Indeed, the plight of the “working poor” has drawn greater attention in recent years. return
5 The well-known British political theorist John Gray, formerly at Jesus College, Oxford, now teaches at the London School of Economics. return
Mark Wegierski is an independent Canadian journalist based in Toronto and a frequent contributor to this journal.