For Trump, a lesson on culture

This is my column in the Herald published on 17 July 2018. I usually wait a while before placing it online, and often provide only a link. I wanted to add a video clip. See below.

18 July 2018. A historicity, or selective amnesia, is an affliction that is probably worse than ignorance. I am trying desperately hard not to use the word “stupid” so as to appear polite. I am, of course, talking about US President Donald Trump.

Trump has thrown a band of safety and of eternal innocence around himself that reduces any and all criticism to “fake news” or some conspiracy theory or witch hunt, and thereby absolves himself from any scrutiny or criticism. There aren’t very many people, on the right side of history, who would defend Trump, not even by stealth, the way that, say, British television journalist Piers Morgan would. That, however, is another story.

Such is the absurdity of Trump that it is hard to work a gig in this place and keep a straight face. But let me try. During his visit to the UK last week, Trump caused several small diplomatic storms. He also spread some pretty convenient lies. He is ether a liar or he is ignorant. The one untruth that stood out was his screed against immigrants. Let us recall what he said about the wave of immigrants into Europe over the past few years.

“Look at countries of Europe that never had difficulty, never had problems. It’s a very sad situation …“It’s very unfortunate, I do not think it’s good for Europe and I don’t think it’s good for our country… “We’re far superior to anything that’s happened before, but we have very bad immigration laws…”

Here, as a wise Twitter user observed, was a man whose mother was an immigrant, he is married to an immigrant and he lives in a country of immigrants. That’s the duplicity and closeted racism of Trump.

He said, “I just think it [immigration] is changing the culture, I think it is a very negative thing for Europe… I know it is politically not necessarily correct to say that, but I will say it and I will say it loud.”

Trump’s screed is, essentially, part of the identitarianism of white nationalism in the US. Part of this identitarianism is to treat “race” and “culture” as interchangeable – but only when convenient. This way we get to the meme that the arrival in Europe of “non-whites” or “brown” people marks the decline of “European culture”.

Forget for a moment that cultures are necessarily dynamic, that they change over time and place, and that they can be transferred, acquired or they may be abandoned.

Consider, for instance, that I am “coloured” and my ancestors were Malay slaves, yet my favourite piece of music is Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky; my favourite writers are Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy; my favourite film director is Andrei Tarkovsky (all Russians); my favourite painters are Edgar Degas and Toulouse Lautrec; and my favourite 20th century thinker is Jean Paul Sartre (all French).

So much, then, for cultural determination.

The big issue I have with Trump’s statement, at least on this occasion, has to do with his reference to Europe as a place “that never had difficulty, never had problems”.

A useful reminder is necessary: there are very many people who persist with the rather spurious belief that everything European is good and great, and that Europeans brought peace and “civilisation” to the rest of the world.

In the opening passages of his study, War in European History, British military historian Michael Howard remarked that the history of Europe was forged on an anvil of war.

For the past 2,000 years there have been more wars in Europe than anywhere else in the world. By the middle of the last century, as many as 80 million people had been killed in two world wars. Such were the horrors of the World War 1 and 2, that the Europeans created the European Union specifically so they may not go back to the wars of the past. War did not end.

In the post-war period, Europeans, and their offshoots in North America exported war across the war, from East and South-East Asia to Latin America and Africa. By the early 1990s, the world was (re)introduced to “ethnic cleansing” when Europeans again butchered each other across the south-east of the European continent. (See video clip)

Among the main causes of conflict were ideological differences, race and identity, fear that Jews or “others” would take over pristine cultural communities from the Balkans to the Baltic. One of the earliest lessons I learnt about war in European history were stories about Visigoths and Ostrogoths – stories which, to be fair, remain contested – who migrated across the continent and effectively established what we have come to know as the “modern world”.

Now then, Trump, and any of the ethno-nationalist, racial purists or others who fear that their “culture” is under threat from contact with non-Europeans, may want to pause, and consider how their own cultures and traditions were forged on an anvil of war, and how cultures come and go across time and place.

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