imomus (imomus) wrote,

Tutti frutti requires fruit, but "folk soul" doesn't require Hitler

Thursday's edition of BBC Radio 3 review programme Night Waves started with a conversation between Matthew Sweet (the man who called Baudrillard "the greatest fool of his age") and Gary Valentine Lachman, who once played bass with Blondie and Iggy Pop, but has now written a book about Rudolf Steiner.

Sweet and Lachman chatted awhile about the anthroposophist guru, then Sweet -- disguising provocation as sensitivity -- played the race card:

Matthew Sweet: But he also wrote about ideas like the one he called "the rejuvenating power of the German folk soul", didn't he? This is a problematic area for us now, isn't it? Do you think his reputation has suffered because of his association with these kinds of ideas?

Gary Lachman: Well, I think this is the sort of thing that gets cherry-picked out... We live in a very sensitive, politically correct time and it's difficult to talk about these sorts of things without alarm bells going off. I don't think that's a central theme in Steiner. I talked earlier about my initial interest in Steiner coming from seeing pictures of the Goetheanum, this fantastic building which unfortunately was burned down -- there has been suspicion that it was arson that burned it down, possibly by proto-Nazi groups who saw Steiner as a rival to Hitler at that time. But in any case, when the Goetheanum was being built, this was a multi-national -- in our jargon, "multicultural" -- multi-racial effort, at the time when World War I was going on. People from all the warring countries, and other countries involved, were there in Switzerland building this fantastic building. So I think you can cherry-pick and say yes, Steiner was a racist in some sort of way, but at the same time, if you actually look at his career I think his actual actions overrode these sorts of things."

Lachman's defense of Steiner is pretty wobbly; it uses a lot of little arguments when it should use a big one. He concedes to Sweet's highly dubious parallel between talking about a national "folk soul" and racism. He just thinks emphasis on that side of things is out of proportion. Others -- like Carl Jung -- spoke in similar terms, he says. We have a different take on these things today, the Nazis didn't like Steiner, and Steiner's philosophy led to a multi-cultural building effort in Switzerland, so we should look at his deeds rather than his words. This defense is feeble, scattershot and piecemeal.

The big argument Lachman should have used is this. The idea of cultural particularity ("the German folk soul", for instance) is not opposed to the idea of multiculturalism at all -- they're two sides of the same coin. Saying there could be multiculturalism without individual cultures is like saying there could be tutti frutti ice cream without individual fruits. It makes no sense. Multiculturalism is not a call to people to abandon individual cultures, but to harmonize them more effectively.

So it's completely pointless to make a binary opposition between multiculturalism, on the one hand, and a national or racial "soul" on the other. These ideas create each other, and need each other. Tolerance which depended on the eradication of difference would not be tolerance at all, multiculturalism which depended on the eradication of specific cultures would not be multiculturalism, and tutti frutti ice cream which contained no fruit could not claim to be tutti frutti.

But wait, couldn't there be tutti frutti ice cream without actual distinct fruits in it? Maybe there could. We'd have to imagine some big multinational food company which makes a gloopy substance it calls "tutti frutti ice cream", but doesn't use any real fruit or mix any actual flavours together to make it. Instead, it has simply made an indeterminate flavour it calls "tutti frutti" by chemical synthesis in the lab. It's got the idea of "mixed flavours" and "fruits" without mixing any actual flavours or using any fruits. Both the company and the people eating the product have lost touch with what fruit actually is. We're talking 1960s-style bland, processed food here. Later, as we know, there'll be a return to real ingredients and specific flavours.

This food company would resemble the US today -- an atypically synthetic state in which successive waves of immigrants have lost much of their original "national folk soul", their flavour. What they've particularly lost is the connection between blood and nationality. But only Hitler cares about that stuff anyway, right?

This loss is seen as a big advantage, and it's one many Americans want the rest of the world to discover for themselves. For these people -- who think of themselves as liberals, believe in progress and pluralism, but also believe they're just a little further down the road to these things than other cultures -- the very idea of a specific, individual type of fruit with its own distinct flavour sets off alarm bells, especially when the ethnicity in question is not seen as a marginal or powerless one. The US is a state which demands something impossible: multiculturalism without cultural difference. It's also prepared to steamroller existing cultural differences to achieve this impossible form of "pluralism" (monocultural multiculturalism, we could call it). The current administration has shown itself quite prepared to use military force -- and impose human suffering -- to do it.

Where does this tragic and paradoxical behaviour come from? I think it lies in the difference between "normal" and "normative". The US is highly atypical in its racial and cultural diversity, but it sees itself as normal. Not normal in the sense of being an average nation, but normal in the sense of setting norms worldwide. This is, of course, a sort of ethnocentricity; your nation may be weird, an outlier, but you think it's normal, first past the line, with everyone else behind. What you probably mean is that you think of your nation as normative. You think it's okay for your nation to prescribe its norms for others. If you think your norms are "the best in the world", you obviously think you're doing people a favour, giving them an opportunity.

This paradox -- that a nation which wants to set norms can be an outlier in terms of actual statistical norms, and that a nation with so many ethnicities can become tremendously ethnocentric as a result, seeing its own way of doing things as both atypical and correct -- can be illustrated by some points that came up in a recent debate on Neomarxisme.

Marxy was intent on proving that Hitler was cool in Japan. He did this by showing various incompletely or incorrectly contextualized photos -- a copy of "Mein Kampf" in bookstore Village Vanguard and a picture of a manga robot with "Mein Kampf" written under it. This being the internet, these two Hitler threads ran and ran. The blog's one regular Japanese poster got furious.

One commenter called Neogeisha stated that Japan was "notorious in its provincialism... notorious to people who have visited countries that have birth, rather than blood, requirement for citizenship". Another called M-Bone deftly indentified this as a Debito Fallacy, and referred Neogeisha to this essay on Japan Review.

Born David Aldwinckle in California, Debito Arudou's basic enterprise is as flawed as Marxy's. He wants to steamroller Japan into accepting him as Japanese by means of that most un-Japanese measure, litigation. In other words, he wants to be wholly Japanese without ceasing to be wholly American. He will become Japanese by changing Japan's definitions of Japaneseness to something more like America's definitions of Americanness, using American techniques relying on American framings of the problem.

He thinks, though, that American framings are universal ones. Debito has stated that "because Japan’s citizenship laws are jus sanguinis only those with blood ties to Japan may be Japanese -- as opposed to just about every other developed country, where if you are born there, you are automatically a citizen". (That's known as jus solis, citizenship by birth.)

Japan Review's Paul J. Scalise and Yuki Allyson Honjo set out to check Debito's claim that Japan's policy on naturalization was outside international norms. They found that Japan is not an outlier at all -- most states worldwide do not offer automatic citizenship by birth. In fact, jus solis-conferring states are only prevalent among the Organization of American States. What's more, the trend in developed countries is currently (for better or worse) away from American-style jus solis and towards Japanese-style jus sanguinis.

Marxy's attacks on Japan's ethnocentrism might be more convincing if they weren't fatally undermined by their own ethnocentrism -- an ethnocentrism much more dangerous than Japan's because it's American. The US is manifestly willing and able to impose its own norms militarily... not decades ago, but today and tomorrow, anywhere in the world, on multiple fronts in a "long war". America is currently normative -- seeing its own norms as universal ones -- Japan is not. This makes American ethnocentrism much more toxic than Japan's.

In this context, the eternal, mindlessly reflexive association of terms like "folk soul" with Nazism, and therefore with a form of evil everyone agrees upon, becomes banal indeed. The idea of "folk soul", like the idea of citizenship defined by blood rather than place of birth, may indeed be alien to English-speakers. This doesn't make it inherently Nazi.

The idea of a "folk soul", shocking and evil though it may appear to those who can only see it through the eyes of the dead Hitler -- a man not exactly known for squeezing anything good out of difference -- is, in fact, a necessary part of the whole enterprise of multiculturalism which, like tolerance, means nothing if the idea of difference is removed. Are you only tolerant of people like you? Is multiculturalism only welcome in a monoculture? Does tutti frutti ice cream really require us to forget individual fruit flavours? How does that work?

It's time to stop stamping on difference. It's time to stop being normative. It's time to stop associating phrases like "folk soul" -- or correlations between blood, culture and citizenship -- solely with the mistakes of the past. Ideas like these have as much to do with a utopian future as a discredited past. Hitler did not invent "folk soul". What he did invent was a particularly nightmarish way different types of volks could fail to get along. That does not tarnish the idea of racial difference, though. Racial and cultural difference -- and the permanence of racial and cultural difference, and the correlation between racial and cultural difference -- is a beautiful idea. Please never forget that it's the idea at the basis of multiculturalism. It's much bigger than that wanker Hitler, and will persist long after he's forgotten.

To equate all talk of "folk soul" with Nazism is not only lazy thinking, it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of semantics, multiculturalism, the future... and fruit-based ice cream.

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