“To regard people as ‘temporarily backward’ rather than ‘permanently different’ is to accept that while people are potentially equal, cultures definitely are not; it is to accept the idea of social and moral progress; that it would be far better if everybody had the chance to live in the type of society or culture that best promoted human advancement.
But it’s just these ideas – and the very act of making judgements about beliefs, values, lifestyles, and cultures – that are now viewed as politically uncouth. In place of the progressive universalism of James and Fanon, contemporary Western societies have embraced a form of nihilistic multiculturalism. We’ve come to see the world as divided into cultures and groups defined largely by their difference with each other. And every group has come to see itself as composed not of active agents attempting to overcome disadvantages by striving for equality and progress, but of passive victims with irresolvable grievances. For if differences are permanent, how can grievances ever be resolved?
The corollary of turning the whole world into a network of victims is to transform the West, and in particular the USA, into an all-powerful malign force – the Great Satan – against which all must rage. In Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, one of the central characters, Saladin, finds himself incarcerated in a detention centre for illegal immigrants. Saladin discovers that his fellow inmates have been transformed into beasts – water buffaloes, snakes, manticores. He himself has become a hairy goat.
How do they do it, Saladin asks a fellow prisoner? ‘They describe us’, comes the reply, ‘that’s all. They have the power of description and we succumb to the pictures they construct’. There is a similar sense of fatalism in the way that many contemporary radicals view the USA. The Great Satan describes the world, and the world succumbs to those descriptions.
In this fatalism lies a common thread that binds contemporary Western radicalism and fundamentalist Islam. On the surface the two seem poles apart: fundamentalists loathe Western decadence, Western radicals fear Islamic presumptions of certainty. But what unites the two is that both are rooted in contemporary nihilistic multiculturalism; both express, at best, ambivalence about, at worst outright rejection of, the ideas of modernity, universality, and progress. And both see no real alternative to Western power.
Most importantly, both conflate the gains of modernism and the iniquities of capitalism. In this way the positive aspects of capitalist society – its invocation of reason, its technological advancements, its ideological commitment to equality and universalism – are denigrated, while its negative aspects – the inability to overcome social divisions, the contrast between technological advance and moral turpitude, the tendencies towards barbarism – are seen as inevitable or natural.”
Kenan Malik: “All cultures are not equal“