Raging against reality

A supporter for the Ku Klux Klan and the Confederate flag yells at opposing demonstrators during a rally at the statehouse in Columbia

Many of the proponents of Trump, the Brexit, and the far-right political parties in Europe reject multiculturalism, deride diversity, and consider immigrants a threat to the nation (Cosmopolis column, The Hindu BLINK, December 2016)

In February 2014, many conservatives in the US got upset about a Coca-Cola ad. Aired during America’s gargantuan and turbo-charged Super Bowl, the one-minute TV spot featured Americans of various backgrounds singing ‘America the Beautiful’ (an alternative national anthem, much like ‘Saare Jahan se Acchha’ ). Not only did the video highlight homosexual couples and people from ethnic and racial minorities, but it included lines sung in Spanish and Arabic. That was too much for some right-wing Americans. A Republican politician fumed that Americans were “on the road to perdition”. The hashtag #BoycottCoke proliferated on Twitter. The right-wing website Breitbart (whose editor Steve Bannon is likely to be Donald Trump’s chief strategist) accused Coca-Cola of pushing “multiculturalism down our throats” and of wanting to transform the US from “a nation governed in the Anglo-American tradition of liberty” to “a nation governed by some all inclusive multicultural synthesis of the various forms of government in the world.”

I found this reaction quite perplexing at the time. How did the mere act of speaking another language form a threat to the “tradition of liberty”? Are a few syllables of Spanish the harbingers of tyranny? Corporations like Coca-Cola are not edgy revolutionaries or anarchists. They calibrate their marketing to appeal to the mainstream. The sportswear giant Umbro made a very similar ad in 2010 ahead of the World Cup, with English people of every stripe singing a stirring rendition of ‘God Save the Queen’ (the most conservative anthem imaginable). In India, it has long been a tactic of both multinationals and local companies to harness the incredible diversity of the country in their marketing. Even the most hard-bitten Hindu majoritarian might find it hard to muster outrage at the depiction of the many types of people who call India home. By including Spanish and Arabic in the ‘America the Beautiful’ advertisement, Coca-Cola wasn’t inventing some self-righteous polyglot cosmopolitanism. It was trying to appeal to a wider range of American consumers.

Nearly three years later, the curious outrage that met the Coke ad has morphed into a political tidal wave. In the US and in Europe, right-wing nationalist forces are in the ascendant.

One of the many links between the astonishing victory of Trump, the Brexit vote in the UK, and the rise of far-right political parties across continental Europe is how many of their proponents reject multiculturalism, deride the virtue of diversity, and even describe the presence of immigrants and foreigners as a threat to the nation.

Political analysts have dwelt considerably on how this trend constitutes “the revenge of the nation-state” against the ravages of globalisation. They suggest that with inequality on the rise and industrial jobs disappearing abroad, the working and middle classes of the West are clamouring for a return to the old comforts of borders and strong national institutions. But I don’t think this sentiment can just be ascribed to economic concerns or anger at “Davos Men” and other jet-setting liberal technocrats. Anti-immigrant and anti-refugee campaigners are gaining strength in Germany, one of the few European countries that have maintained and even thrived thanks to an industrial base in the era of globalisation. Online bhakts of Narendra Modi now identify publicly as “anti-Globalists” (borrowing from the terminology of right-wing nationalists in the UK and US) even though the Prime Minister hopes to harness, not resist, economic globalisation.

The truth is that rejecting the “global” is often coded language for the rejection of people in your midst. This is not the “revenge of the nation-state”, but rather the spread of a conspicuously majoritarian politics charged by the belief that a nation does not belong equally to all its inhabitants.

Xenophobia and antipathy to minorities are not modern phenomena. History is replete with examples of ancient prejudice. Medieval English city-dwellers would periodically riot and slaughter all Flemish traders and migrants in their towns; communities of Sogdians from Central Asia suffered during ancient periods of upheaval in western China; pogroms against Jews happened in innumerable cities from Spain to Persia. But those episodes of hate were also further proof of an undeniable truth about the world: People have always been mixed up and mingled.

As a student of history, it always strikes me as odd how the energies of contemporary globalisation distort our understanding of the past. With very few exceptions, no place has ever been homogeneous. We live in a world where one of the first great scholars in the Malay language, Nuruddin ar-Raniri, was born in Surat in the 17th century.

The world is helplessly an argument for multiculturalism. You can sing ‘America the Beautiful’ in Arabic and Spanish without disrespecting it, because Arabic- and Spanish-speaking Americans exist. Their existence doesn’t compromise the nation, only a particularly narrow, exclusive idea of what makes a nation. The lived experience of so many places large and small demonstrates that multiculturalism isn’t an ideology, it is the way things are and — in many cases — the way things have always been. In a recent interview, the British novelist Zadie Smith laughed at the idea of multiculturalism as a “policy”. “I’ve never understood the argument about reversing or pulling back from something which is a geographical, social, and historical fact,” she said. When right-wing nationalists attack diversity, demonise immigrants, and target members of minority groups, they are not waging a war against a globalist order but raging against reality itself.

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